The British Working Class, 1832-1940.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Beers, Laura
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: The British Working Class, 1832-1940 (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: August, Andrew
Accession Number: 209577972
Full Text: The British Working Class, 1832-1940. By Andrew August (Harlow, Eng.: Pearson Education Ltd, 2007. viii plus 286 pp.).

The British Working Class is the latest addition to the British educational publisher Pearson Longman's "Studies in History", a series intended primarily for university undergraduates, other contributions to which include Chris Bayly's Imperial Meridian and David Reynolds' Britannia Overruled. As an introduction to the social history of the British working classes, August's study is perfectly adequate. The hook is divided into three parts: 1832-1870, 1870-1914, and 1914-1940, and each section examines, in turn, community and family life, work, leisure, and politics and identity. The periodization of parts I and II is justified on the grounds that, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, working-class communities stabilized as urban immigration waned and economic depression dampened the boom of the early Victorian era, while at the same time changes to mass communication and leisure allowed for the development of a richer working-class culture. The 1867 Reform Act is also cited here, however the book is not overly focused on politics and the effects of the second and third reform acts are not discussed in much detail. The division between parts II and III is determined by the First World War, and the inclusion of the War in part III appears to have been largely arbitrary. Despite the book's tripartite organization, August repeatedly emphasizes the continuities in working-class experience between 1832 and 1940. In particular, he stresses the culture of mutuality within working-class families and communities, the separate and inward-looking nature of working-class culture, the central role of the pub in working-class life, and the gendered division of labour within working-class households--all of which are familiar tropes to historians of modern Britain.

August has published a monograph on Poor Women's Lives: Gender, Work and Poverty in late-Victorian London, and it thus is not surprising that this book pays particular attention to the experience of working-class women. Issues such as the distribution of family income within the home, women's recreation and leisure pursuits, and the difficulties of family planning before the ready availability of birth control are given refreshing attention. Women's work, however, is given shorter shrift. The experience of women's work during the First World War is hardly discussed, and there is no reference to Selina Todd's recent important research on the impact of such women's experiences on mother-daughter relationships in interwar Britain. Even more disappointingly, almost no mention is made of domestic service, the largest employer of women throughout this period.

While women are given prominence in the text, there are few other concessions to the cultural turn which has dominated social history over the past two decades and which has received critical attention in Geoff Eley's recent book The Crooked Line (Michigan, 2005). The four-page introduction offers a quick overview of developments in social history from the 1960s onwards. Yet these methodological and epistemological issues are nowhere evident in the text of the book, except in the discussion of politics which is pointedly not solely focused on a narrative of emergent class consciousness and the forward march of Labor. The working class is assumed to include all soft-collared workers involved in manual labor and their families, and the self-identification of these men and women as members of the working classes is taken for granted. The "middle classes" are also presupposed as a homogeneous group who enter the narrative solely as do-gooders who variously seek to reform and castigate their social inferiors. While studies such as Ross McKibbin's Classes and Cultures (Oxford, 1998) have reiterated the central role of class in identity formation in this period, class was not the sole, and sometimes not the dominant, identity for many Britons. Yet, while regional variations in experience are acknowledged, the uniformity of working-class life is emphasized, and minorities and other sub-cultures are almost entirely absent, even in the forward-looking conclusion.

As a textbook, The British Working Class is narrative as opposed to historiographical, and no mention is made of scholarly debates. That the author has positions on these debates is clear--as when he refutes the existence of a labor aristocracy, or when he claims that Chartism was bolstered by class-consciousness and not by the persuasive power of political language. The decision not to introduce historiography in an introductory text is understandable, but the knowledgeable reader is occasionally irritated by the dogmatism with which August asserts that, say, Welsh, Scottish and English workers felt a national British identity which was more important than their local or regional identity, or that empire played a significant role in working-class life. Given the contentious nature of some of the subjects which he broaches, it might have been useful to provide a list of "suggested further reading" at the end of each chapter.

Yet, one should not over-emphasize the book's faults. It is a synoptic narrative of the period which incorporates much--though notably not all--of the most prominent scholarship produced over the last 15 years. It makes effective use of a combination of statistics and personal stories to bring the reality of working-class experience in the nineteenth century home to the twenty-first century reader. As a textbook, it provides a suitable, if not exceptional, summary of the period.

Laura Beers

Newnham College, University of Cambridge
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.