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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent but with shortcomings, 18 Feb 2009
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This review is from: Aristocratic Century: The Peerage of Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge Paperback Library) (Paperback)
In this study of the English aristocracy in the 18th century, John Cannon provides us with a compact overview of the subtly changing position of the elite throughout the period. According to his narrative, the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution was characterised by a consolidation of aristocratic hegemony in Britain and a growth in their prestige, wealth and influence. Contrary to some interpretations, Cannon is also clear that the peerage remained a highly exclusive body, less willing to absorb outsiders than sometimes thought. This feeds into his overarching notion of a comparatively inaccessible and self-conscious elite growing in power and influence, which the author quantifies with a wide range of data relevant to the subjects of his study.

Throughout the book, Cannon focuses to some extent on peers in the House of Lords but his analysis also encompasses other titled gentry. For the purposes of arguing his point about the continuing exclusiveness of the elite, however, the author keeps to the relatively small group that was the peers and draws many of his conclusions from that grouping: this raises the possibility that the exclusiveness of the 18th century elite has been exaggerated through restriction of the subjects of analysis. He does, however, concede that there was a degree of absorption undertaken by the gentry (rather than the peerage), which filled the role of "blunting the cutting edge of envy" (p. 128) felt by upwardly mobile and ambitious outsiders. One is nevertheless led to wonder whether it is right to exclude the majority of the aristocracy when defining the broad patterns of the century, since there were only approximately 1,003 peers (p. 11).

An additional consequence of Cannon's restriction of the investigation to the peerage is that it inflates our sense of aristocratic unity overall, since we would expect to find less discord within a smaller group than if the study had placed more focus on the broader aristocracy. Little sense of partisan division within the aristocracy is conveyed, which leads to a impression of greater class unity than might have been apparent to contemporaries. Although undoubtedly a distinct body distinguished by titles and tangible power, Cannon does not devote much time to investigating how the growing aristocratic power in the century could have been tempered by competitiveness within it: or that indeed the growth in the metrics by which we measure the success of that class might have been in some ways driven by divisions and competition between them, rather than their unity. This fits into a broader point that the evidence used by Cannon is to some extent taken at face value: we are, for instance, privy to the information that matriculation registers for Oxford and Cambridge indicate a fall in total numbers of students in the first half of the 18th century (p. 45). This is taken as an indication of increased aristocratic exclusiveness. This could be considered rather blunt, however, as such statistics are highly dependent on reader's interpretation and may entirely gloss over what contemporary perceptions may have been of the significance of such 'trends'.

In terms of structure, the discussion initially takes the shape of an exploration of the structural basis for the aristocracy's dominance in this period, primarily within the realms of education, religion and marriage. Cannon thus lays a firm basis on which to progress to an investigation of the "sinews" of the gentry's power. By dividing his analysis between the 'foundations' and the actual definable 'nature' of aristocratic authority in the century, Cannon creates a fairly powerful model for understanding how that power may have grown over the course of the period in question since we can link aristocratic preeminence in society (control over education and religion) to the actual practical workings of power, spread between categories labelled 'political', 'economic' and 'ideological'. Cannon is particularly adept at explaining how that power could be expressed outside of the House of Lords, since on the face of it the Lords seemed to be trending increasingly towards subservience to the Commons. Cannon points out that the peerage was learning to exert influence in subtler ways than the plainly confrontational, overtly symbolic and easily assailed use of the Upper House's constitutional powers.

The overall impression left by Cannon's work is that it is an effective and readable survey of the aristocracy's position throughout the century, making a strong case that the period was not only their most productive (in fields ranging from the cultivation of fine arts to empire building) but also the time at which they were most entrenched and influential within British society. Yet one cannot help but to also feel that there may have been further opportunities to comment on the shortcomings of the statistical evidence and to accommodate into his thesis the existence of partisan disunity which accompanied this remarkably influential century for aristocracy.
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