Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution: Books

Article excerpt

Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution. By Emma Griffin. Yale University Press, 336pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 9780300151800. Published 21 March 2013

This is a brave book that challenges accepted wisdom by offering a decidedly optimistic view of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the opportunities, freedoms and choices available to the working class. Although Emma Griffin is at pains to point out that she is not trying to replace a pessimistic interpretation with its opposite, she nevertheless insists that if we listen to the voices of working people, expressed in memoirs, it becomes necessary to challenge the view, dominant since the early work of Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson in the 1960s, that for the vast majority of workers, the period from about 1760 to the 1840s saw considerable immiserisation and, along with this, a restriction of political, social and personal freedoms.

Griffin's new view is entirely dependent on a close reading of about 350 surviving manuscripts and printed autobiographies of working people. Such memoirs have long been recognised as an important source, giving uniquely direct access to the lives of individuals whose experiences have otherwise generally escaped the historical record. Since they were first used by historians several decades ago, many more memoirs, varying in length from a few pages to considerable published works, have been discovered, dating especially from the later 18th century, and from the 19th century when there was a vogue for publishing such material, thus increasing the chance of survival.

Autobiographies can tell us much about the living standards of individuals during the life course, the age of starting work, the nature of labour, the threat of unemployment, relationships with employers, geographical and social mobility, political, religious, social and personal life. Some contain information about courtship, marriage, procreation, familial relationships and friendships. They can thus yield the sort of rare qualitative evidence that can be well used, as it is here, to question blanket assertions and generalities based on aggregated employment, demographic, poor relief, anthropometric (height and weight) or wage data, all of which present a more pessimistic picture of average experiences of living standards, employment prospects, the scourge of poverty, class- specific mortality and disease rates, and the disamenities of urbanisation. …

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