England Atomized

The Making of Modern English Society Vol. I Reformation to Industrial Revolution 1530-1780

by Christopher Hill
Pantheon, 256 pp., $6.95

The Making of Modern English Society Vol. II Industry and Empire 1750 to the Present Day

by G.J. Hobsbawm
Pantheon, 336 pp., $6.95

Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm have been commissioned to produce a new economic and social history of England in a little more than 600 pages. This is a meager allotment of space in which to explain why a small, poor country outside the mainstream of European development—Hill accurately describes her medieval status as “colonial”—rose to be one of the richest nations in the world in a matter of two centuries, why the same nation also took the lead in the process of technological expansion and development known as the Industrial Revolution, and why in the twentieth century she has subsided into a chronic state of economic valetudinarianism.

Of course, most of this crowded canvas must be covered with broad strokes, and much of it is the distillation of the opinion of modern historians; whatever else both authors had in mind, they have each produced a textbook, which will no doubt be used as such. But since neither Hill nor Hobsbawm is capable of thought or writing that is entirely unoriginal, these are textbooks of a high order, which will influence the teacher rather than the taught. Indeed, Reformation to Industrial Revolution, like Christopher Hill’s previous textbook, Century of Revolution, will probably be above the heads of most students. Brief, allusive, intensely civilized, it is really an extended essay in social history; and in its implied assumption of basic knowledge, its casual introduction of the unexpected, its interior rhythms, and its flawless timing, it is reminiscent of G. M. Young’s classic essay, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age. This is a portrait of 250 years rather than a standard history.

Hobsbawm has fewer literary graces, and his is a more angular, less gracious story anyway. Much of nineteenth-century economic history is immediately controversial in a way in which sixteenth-century history is not—outside faculty common rooms and the pages of learned journals, that is. But his analysis of the Industrial Revolution would be difficult to improve upon, and though his passions are often engaged, his conclusions are tactful and well controlled. His examination of the railway boom is particularly enlightening, and his conclusion that most nineteenth-century railway building was uneconomic from the beginning explains the difficulties of British nationalized railways today. If there is a criticism to be made it is of his failure to do justice to the cosmopolitan engineers, the new technocrats immortalized by Samuel Smiles, who took the Industrial Revolution out to Europe and the World. This cosmopolitanism was matched by Victorian manufacturers, too; on old-fashioned British urinals the wondering tourist still reads the legend “Oldham and Paris,” until recently Mappin & Webb, the cutlers, described themselves as being of “Sheffield, Paris and Buenos Aires,” and the Russian word for “railway station” is still “vauxhall.” He gives credit for the invention of the beer handle, but not the water closet or the Bramah lock.

To read these two books is to be reminded how exploded is the Trevelyan Olde Merrie England social history, “the history of a people…

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