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How the working poor lived in rural England before 1900

Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900, by K.D.M. Snell. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 464 pp. $17.95, paperback. Nowadays, we hear much of a Britain increasingly divided into two societies: the impoverished north and the prosperous south. As readers of Mrs. Gaskell's fine Victorian novel ``North and South'' will recall, however, in the 19th century, the industrial north was the region of new riches, while in the rural south, agricultural laborers languished.

K.D.M. Snell's important study of poor countryfolk (farmers, artisans, and their families) in the south of England in the period from the Restoration to the end of Victoria's reign expertly combines quantitative data with the qualitative evidence of literary sources. First published in 1985, winner of the Royal Historical Society's Whitfield Prize for that year, the book is now being reissued as part of Cambridge University Press's paperback imprint designed to provide the general reader with the best of the publisher's extensive hard-cover list of scholarly books.

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Snell examines a period filled with changes. The status of women and the kinds of work available to them had been declining. The institution of apprenticeship had grown less viable. And access to land was increasingly limited by the practice of enclosure, which solidified the property rights of the rich at the expense of the poor. The worse off they became, the more the poor were regarded as alien and impenetrable by their ``betters,'' who frequently professed not to understand them at all.

What then (to paraphrase Freud) did poor people want? In his effort to look beyond modern measures of the standard of living, such as wages, Snell considers everything from seasonal employment statistics to the novels of Thomas Hardy and the diaries and letters of the laboring poor themselves for evidence of the kinds of things that mattered to them. The evidence he marshals against the 19th-century stereotype of the dull, inarticulate bumpkin ``Hodge'' is remarkably poignant.

Letters home from farm laborers who had emigrated to America, for instance, express their joy at being able to buy and farm their own land, shoot turkeys, quail, pigeons, and other birds without fear of the gamekeeper, to find better-paying jobs for women family members, and to be treated with greater respect by their employers. ``... [It] is,'' writes one, ``the custom of the country to be boarded and lodged, let you work at what you will ... and Master and Mistress and all the family sit at 1 table ... they would as soon shake hands with a workman as they would with a gentleman.''

It is in his final chapter, ``Thomas Hardy, rural Dorset, and the family,'' that Snell's scrupulousness is most striking - to the eye of a literary-minded reader at least. While scores of literary critics, all hoping to jump on the sociological bandwagon, have praised Hardy for his powerful ``realism'' in depicting rural life, Snell proves himself a more careful reader - and more sensitive to Hardy's aesthetic intentions - by pointing out that the rural world portrayed in these novels is archaic, idealized, and far more significant as myth than as record.

Hardy's true concern, Snell proposes, is not the life of the agricultural laborer, but the relationship of men and women in a society that had marginalized women to the point where their chief value was sexual. Hardy's hope for a ``true marriage'' between men and women who shared the responsibilities of productive labor and the ``camaraderie'' of working together links up with a major theme in Snell's book: that any judgment of the quality of life at a given time and place must take account of the immeasurables as well as the externals.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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