The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain

By David Cannadine | Go to book overview

PREFACE

It is widely believed, both in Britain and abroad, that the British are obsessed with class in the way that other nations are obsessed with food or race or sex or drugs or alcohol. According to John Betjeman, it is “that topic all-absorbing, as it was, is now and ever shall be, to us—CLASS”1 It is impossible to tell whether the British are more preoccupied with class than other European nations, and it is difficult to imagine how to devise, or to carry through, a research project that would subject this well-known cliché to the sort of rigorous comparative examination that it certainly deserves. This book makes no claims to attempt such an undertaking but concerns itself with the second matter to which Betjeman's remark directs us: what, exactly, is this thing “class“ with which the British are undeniably so obsessed? Stein Ringen has recently sketched this preliminary, provocative answer: “What is peculiar to Britain,“ he suggests, “is not the reality of the class system and its continuing existence, but class psychology: the preoccupation with class, the belief in class, and the symbols of class in manners, dress and language.“ “This thing they have with class,“ he continues, “is a sign of closed minds, and it is among what is difficult for a stranger to grasp in the British mentality.“ “Britain,“ he concludes, “is a thoroughly modern society, with thoroughly archaic institutions, conventions and beliefs.“2

Class, Ringen seems to be implying, is rather like sex: it is to some extent in the eyes of the beholder and in the British case takes place at least as much inside the head as outside.3 As someone who has lived for ten years in the United States, with the lengthening vista on Britain that this perspective lends, I find it difficult not to be impressed by these remarks. This undoubted British preoccupation may be varyingly regarded as admirable, appropriate, essential, inevitable, regrettable, unhealthy, ignorant, snobbish, petty, small-minded, or mean-spirited.

-xi-

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The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Preface xi
  • Chapter One: Introduction 1
  • Chapter Two: The Eighteenth Century 25
  • Chapter Three: The Nineteenth Century 59
  • Chapter Four: The Twentieth Century 109
  • Chapter Five: Conclusion 167
  • List of Abbreviations 195
  • Notes 197
  • Index 275
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