BOOK REVIEW / More modern than we are: Private lives, public spirit A Social History of Britain 1870-1914

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OLD-STYLE social history used to be sneered at by hard-nosed political historians: 'sociable history', served up as agreeable anecdotage to undemanding palates, and generally tending to security-blanket reassurances about 'betterment'. Quantitative techniques did not necessarily change this; Whiggish progressivism could be bolstered by statistics. But things are different in an age where we are uneasily aware that (for instance) living standards indices can rise while economic output declines; and where the history of abstract concepts, and the analysis of language, have found their way into the most staid historical journals. Jose Harris's commanding performance not only indicates how far the subject has moved on from the days of Trevelyan, but also pinpoints the problems that sophistication has brought in its wake.

Her new survey analyses an era particularly dense, energetic and brimful of ideas and reassessments: she has had to confront the truth of Lytton Strachey's remark that the history of the Victorian age will never be written because we know too much about it. She dislikes flaccid generalisations, and - like Beatrice Webb - has learned to treasure her exceptions; given the admirably concise parameters of this study, she has therefore opted for a decisively revisionist line, presenting the finished equation instead of laboriously rehearsing the processes that lead her there. The reader who knows the background literature is constantly stimulated; those who have not done some homework may be occasionally jolted by an apparently perverse assertion. In neither case is there much risk of being bored.

At the same time, her intellectual honesty recognises when an indeterminate conclusion is inescapable; sections like those on the history of property work best, because there is a solid statistical substratum to underpin intelligent speculation about attitudes. And attitudes bulk large. The structure is resolutely thematic ('Family and Household', 'Property', 'Work', 'Religion') and the history of mentality provides a linking undercurrent. Beneath it all lies a challenging assertion: the great changes in British life, and in a sense modernity itself, owe more to the upheavals of the 1870s and (particularly) 1880s than to the apocalypse of 1914. By that date, British society had been 'homogenised' in many ways; ideas regarding the individual's relation to the state, and private areas like religion and sex, had been comprehensively redeveloped. Indeed, several key concepts had been minted anew, including 'society' itself as well as 'class', 'retirement' and 'mental deficiency'.

What emerges is an original and brilliant overview, decisively bringing to the foreground subjects of recent historiographical debate: the relative importance of financial and industrial activity, the profits of empire, the growth of feminism and the redefinition of sexual roles, the subterranean shifts in language and rhetoric, the idea of modernism (essentially a 'mental construct', in Harris's view). The themes explored are also those redefined by the new social history - fertility, housework, ideas of degeneration, popular culture. The scale is determinedly large, the style trenchant and occasionally summary: intriguing questions are thrown into brackets and footnotes, leaving the reader plaintively wondering why, for instance, agricultural labourers did not get syphilis. Further reading is indicated in a bibliography which is a model of breadth and conciseness.

What the book does best is the hardest task of all: charting shifts in consciousness, political as well as social, and explaining how modernised and suburbanised Conservatism took over traditionally Liberal catch-cries. Harris indicates more than once that she is deliberately not retracing the achievement of the classic Victorian survey by G M Young; but she shares his ability to read documents until she hears the people talking, and to isolate an intellectual moment and pin it down with a telling quotation.

Towards the end, an arresting image forms: of a modern world much closer to the pre-1870 period than to the late Victorian and Edwardian era. Today, as in the early 19th century, family structures are pluralist, ramshackle and amorphous; expectation of work is uncertain, personal safety under growing threat; evangelical nostrums find a ready audience. Restriction of the role of the state is a topic of furious debate; sinking or swimming seems the rule of the game.

Jose Harris carefully avoids jejune parallels with the postmodernist mess of Britain after Thatcher. Still, faced with an ideologically bankrupt but apparently unchallenged party of government, denying that there is any such thing as 'society' while it ineptly juggles statistics in order to destroy London's hospitals, it is hard not to see the era of Gladstone's crusades, Green's philosophical idealism, Fabian permeation, the rise of the LCC, even Tory democracy and factory paternalism, as further removed from us than the more chronologically distant early-Victorian anarchy denounced by Dickens and Carlyle.