Comet Book Report: English Society in the 18th Century, by Roy Porter

This book makes a good pairing with Picard, since Porter takes a broader view, showing societal trends rather than details of the moment. The flip side is that he’s not quite as readable; it’s harder to make generalized statements about the effects of enclosure on rural tenants as entertaining as anecdotes about Fleet weddings. But it’s far from the worst piece of analytical writing I’ve ever had to tackle — far, far from it — even though Porter’s writing from something of a Marxist perspective, which all too often would bore me to tears. He doesn’t come across as having an ideological axe to grind, and that probably makes a big difference. But he does look at societal trends through the lens of changing economic conditions, and I can take that in moderated doses.

The one place he really does shine, in terms of readability, is in the opening chapter “Contrasts,” when he does a swift-moving overview of English behavior and national character during the century. To quote a good passage:

Englishmen excused their vices as virtues and indulged them with brio. They liked being thought bloody-minded roughnecks. ‘Anything that looks like a fight,’ observed the Frenchman Henri Misson, ‘is delicious to an Englishman’ — something even a lord could confirm. ‘I love a mob,’ explained the Duke of Newcastle; ‘I headed one once myself.’ Duelling remained common among top people. […] In 1798 none other than Prime Minister William Pitt and George Tierney, a leading Whig, exchanged shots. Violence was endemic. In 1770, following a pupil rebellion, the Riot Act had to be read at Winchester School. At Rugby, the young gentlemen mined the head’s study with gunpowder. [!]

[…] The English — so foreigners saw them — ate to excess, drank like lords, and swore like troopers (among ‘cunning women’ cursing was still a fine art). Henry Herbert, ninth Earl of Pembroke, was ‘so blasphemous at tennis that the [bishop] of Ireland was forced to leave off playing with him.’ Dr Johnson ‘could not bear anything like swearing’, yet he was in a minority, since in his day even fashionable ladies habitually made the air blue. A traveller arriving in London, quipped the German pastor Karl Moritz, might jump to the conclusion that everyone was called ‘Damme’.

It isn’t all quite so engaging, but that gave me enough of a good start that I was willing to stick with it even when things took a drier (but still informative) turn.

0 Responses to “Comet Book Report: English Society in the 18th Century, by Roy Porter”

  1. la_marquise_de_

    Thank you for reminding me of the Porter book. It’s a long time since I rad it, but I remember it with affection.

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