Saturday, 16 December 2000

G.M. Trevelyan: English Social History (1942)

Edition: Longmans, 1946
Review number: 697
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Trevelyan's best known work is a pioneering classic, and in many respects remains a great achievement. It covers the period from the early fourteenth century to the end of the nineteenth, and is one of the very first attempts to describe everyday life in England between these dates. It is not entirely consistent in approach, but in the main it centres around certain individuals whose writing is important in understanding their times: Chaucer, Defoe and Cobbett, for example.

While much of the writing is coloured by an upper class patrician attitude, and the history concentrates a bit too much on the experiences of the middle and upper classes - I can't really see that the change in fashion from deer to fox hunting, or the development of the examination system at Oxbridge really had much effect on the average English person - it remains a useful outline guide. More space could be given to the later periods, which had the most formative influence on our own society; at least, I feel that, because to me much of the interest in social history is concerned with how the culture in which we live today came about. Some sections are less interesting and there are occasional patches of arch humour that have dated badly. These are matched with some fascinating pieves of historical writing, notably the essay about the transition from medieval to modern Britain, which is a tour de force.

A lot of the popular history which you still see in bookshops was written about fifty or sixty years ago, like this book. It is still there because it is well written, but perhaps it is about time to move on.

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