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English Society 1688–1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice during the Ancien Regime Paperback – 21 Nov 1985

3.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 449 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (21 Nov. 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 052131383X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521313834
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3.1 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 665,046 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In this seminal work Clark rethinks the history of the 'long 18th century' from the Glorious Revolution ( a.k.a the Dutch invasion ) to the Great Reform Act which at last recast the hide-bound nature of the British Parliament. He argues that throughout this time the Established Church was a much under-estimated Tory force, that little changed with the Whig Revolution for the nation as a whole, that the crucial, hard-fought issues were always the religious ones, and that political reform only became possible after a popular sea-change of Dissent. His argument is dense, requiring careful reading, but wide-ranging and extremely thorough in its coverage of the many issues and protagonists of those years.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book was ill-organized, quite repetitive, and felt the work of a tired and somewhat confused man, as if the author was frankly past his prime.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program) 3.0 out of 5 stars 1 review
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars No prisoners 3 Nov. 2007
By Ian Gordon - Published on
Format: Paperback
The central tenet of J.C.D. Clark's English Society 1688 - 1832 is that the ancien regime persisted in England until opposition Whigs pulled down "around their ears the late-eighteenth-century constitution" in 1832. (.p. 36)

Clark argues that the history of the period has been dominated by economic reductionism to the detriment of "such issues as, the social, intellectual and political roles of the monarchy; of the aristocracy and gentry; of the armed forces; the law; the universities; and, above all, of religion." He sets out to right this wrong. He locates the source of economic reductionism in "historians' fixations about organizing their accounts of social change in the eighteenth-century around a fictitious entity named the Industrial Revolution." This fixation, in association with the desire of historians at work in the 1960s and 1970s to produce a "usable" history, resulted in the production of both Whig and Marxist histories that were characterized by teleology and determinism. Against this historiography Professor Clark wishes to establish the "ancien regime as a thing-in-itself, not an anticipation of industrial society." (p. 9 and p. 4)

Clark rejects an interpretation of the period that sees an emerging bourgeoisie employing Lockeian concepts to define its political outlook, and justify the Glorious Revolution, and which through its economic activity dislocated the traditional basis of power resulting in the reform acts of 1832. According to him the "ancien regime" in England between 1688 and 1832 was an aristocratic society at the center of which stood the confessional state. The confessional state appealed to both Tories and Whigs because it embodied the essence of their world view, loyalty to the monarch, the inseparable nature of Church and State, and a hierarchial social order. To be sure there were disputes over the nature of the relationship between the monarch and her or his subjects in general, and over the position of the Hanoverian rulers in particular, but these were shaped by and within the hegemony of the confessional state. What destroyed the "ancien regime," Clark says, was not "the widespread adoption of a democratic world view," but the erosion of the numerical position of the Church of England through the advance of Dissent, Roman Catholicism and religious indifference. (p. 89)

The polemical tone in which Clark presents his argument is more than mere surface noise. It is an indication of the conservative politics that shape his approach to history. English Society 1688 - 1832 leaves the reader with the impression that Clark deeply regrets the passing of an aristocratic deferential society. For instance he suggests that the period covered by the book "was defined by two instances of betrayal: Englishmen's breach of their oath of allegiance to James II in 1688-9, and George IV's breach of his coronation oath in agreeing to Repeal and Emancipation in 1828-9." These two occurrences are then described as "inglorious revolutions." Similarly he describes those seeking to change society as "subversives" or as plagued by insanity. Clark's conservative bias reaches a crescendo when he describes the Tolpuddle martyrs as "conspirators" and writes the Irish potato famine off as a "demographic disaster." He even goes so far as to take a swipe at Penguin books for giving "wide currency" to the "materialist histories" of Christopher Hill, J.H. Plumb, E.P. Thompson and others. After all, unlike Clark's publishers, Cambridge University Press, the blighters at Penguin were not granted the right to print and sell all manner of books by Henry VIII in 1534. (p. 419, p. 277, p. 308, p. 379, p. 412, & p. 6.)

At times Clark's approach seemingly leads to contradictions. For instance he argues that Wilkes established no tradition of mass action and that the movement behind him did not long outlast his election as Lord Mayor of London in 1774. But later in the book he admits: "Discontent there had been in the past, and public disorder had been a familiar phenomenon for decades, sometimes acute, often residual, seldom wholly absent." Clark's argument achieves consistency because, he says, the crowd lacked, and Wilkes failed to give it, a stated ideology. Because of this lack Professor Clark dismisses the crowd and its discontents as unimportant in shaping English society. To do this he has to pass over any incident, such as the Peterloo massacre, where the crowd displayed an oppositional ideology. Not only does Clark ignore the crowd, but he also manages to overlook the impact on the nation of England's constant global military engagement, due to imperial expansion, and the effect of the concomitant taxation to support such endeavors. The society of his title is what the English understand as high society, one which only admits gentlemen of refinement. Finally Clark's polemical tone causes him to overplay his hand and depict E.P. Thompson as one of the "economic determinists" who writes teleological history. Those familiar with Thompson's work are aware that both his histories of England and his debates with French structuralists assert the importance of human agency in history. (p. 311 & p. 402.)

If Clark's tone is overly polemical how do some of his specific arguments hold up? In an adventurous gambit the Clark seeks to dismiss the industrial revolution as a spurious fiction of historians, at least as it applies to eighteenth-century England. To engage him on this point involves a debate over the process of revolution. He argues that the English economy before 1832 was dominated by traditional sectors and technologies. He cites estimates that put the number of steam engines in use in Britain in 1800 at 1,200. This figure he notes was dwarfed by an alternative power source as the horse population was over one million in the same year. Clark suggests therefore that the "'Industrial Revolution' meant, as yet, minor changes of degree for the great majority of men, not massive changes of kind." But even Clark has to admit that in the areas where steam technology was employed spectacular growth took place. It was the search for spectacular growth, measured in production and profits, that began to drive the economy. Further the introduction of 1,200 machines between 1769, when James Watt's improvements made steam power commercially feasible, and 1800 represented a dramatic change. Moreover, Joanna Innes offers a wealth of citations to recent works of economic and social historians who contend that England was undergoing an economic transformation in this period and that contemporaries saw themselves as living in an ever more commercialized society. (Joanna Innes, "Jonathan Clark, Social History and England's 'Ancien Regime'," Past and Present, (May, 1987), pp.178-79.)

These criticisms of the book are not meant to imply that it is without value as an historical work. Clark's account of the close relationship between Church and State and the different ways Tories and Whigs accommodated themselves to it add to an understanding of eighteenth-century English history. Nevertheless this useful account is marred by the "no prisoners" tone of its author. Professor Clark accuses his opponents of seeing the Glorious Revolution as sweeping away the old society. He concludes his argument by stating that the reforms of 1832 swept away the "ancien regime." Apart from the decline of the Church of England there is little account of the social base for such a sweeping change. Professor Clark succeeds in an unintended parody of what he writes against:

"Historians have, as a profession, carried their own class-perspectives back into the ancien regime with a near-unanimity which has hindered them from recapturing the world views of peer and peasant alike." (p. 95)
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