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Book Review: “Early Eighteenth Century Britain” by Lorna Coventry

Early Eighteenth-Century Britain: 1700-1739 (Shire Living Histories)The national debt is growing out of control, a vicious and divisive political climate inhibits the nation, the moneyed elite are running the government, economic collapse and financial meltdown put millions out of work, foreign military deployments are a constant drain, violent, gun-toting right-wing reactionaries are threatening rebellion, no public health care exists, private prisons and debtors prisons proliferate and calls of the end times by religious nut-jobs ring in the streets.

The United States of America in 2011?

Nope.  Great Britain from approximately 1700-1740. Yup. We’re talking the history of England.

In another installment  of the Shire Publications Living History Series (detailing the history of England and Britain as a whole), historian Lorna Coventry goes for a concise and accessible new study of life in Great Britain as the Eighteenth Century began.

This piece of the history of England is often overlooked even though it was at this time that modern Britain came into being.

“It was at this time that Britain was formed into a nation.  The Act of Union of 1707 unified Scotland, Wales and England into the single state of Great Britain….the Act of Settlement in 1701….established a political compromise between the…monarchy and the parliament … Britain emerge[d] as one of Europe’s major powers…”

Coventry’s research seems to me to have been no small task.  Records from the period are thin – especially among the impoverished majority of the population. History tends to focus on the wealthy, urban dwellers (they tend to be the easiest to research as they left written accounts) but it is the lives of the ordinary that can tell us much about the effect of the changes made at the higher economic rungs. It can also show us how the cultural process gave us modern society.  A tough job but Coventry handled it well.

The lives of the average Stephen and Mary, the community, the working conditions, food, styles and entertainment can all be found here. She covers wedding customs, old age (horrid) and living conditions and offers up a fairly good explanation of the establishment of workhouses for the poor, those places that became so feared in later Victorian times. Poor children were put to work from a frightenly young age while the well to do often coddled their children into the teen years.  Schools were crowded and education for the poor was far from a priority. If you were ever injured and couldn’t work, you and your family were screwed. Sickness? Everywhere.

The reality of laissez-faire capitalism and no social support except for the rich is not as attractive as some would like you to think.

Life in both urban and rural society was covered (even if the work is a little London-heavy)  – even when discussing the layout of houses.  I didn’t know that bread-making was such an important aspect of rural culture.

I have the same criticisms of this book as I do for the entire Shire series.  The writing tends toward the dry and there are a wide-range of generalizations. There are no references or list for further reading on some of the subjects covered. But I’ll stop there.  Have sympathy on the author however.  The book is heavily illustrated and only 77 pages long. It’s meant as an introduction for a wide audience. For the traveler the list of surviving buildings from the era and the list of places to visit is a wonderful resource.

Great Britain is a fascinating place with a great depth of history.  The history of England impacted the whole world. Thus, the entire series is worth picking up.


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