Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Goldsmith’

The Image of the 19th Century Rural Poor

May 7, 2014

Country Poor pic

This is another photograph of the poor, this time from the countryside. It’s of a farm labourer and his family from Jacob Bronowski’s book accompanying and with the same title as his blockbuster science series, The Ascent of Man (London: BBC 1973) pp. 260-1. In that part of the book, dealing with the Industrial Revolution, Bronowski shows what the reality of life was like for most of the people in the British countryside during the 18th and 19th centuries. The caption for the photo reads:

‘The Labourer lived in poverty and darkness. The first photographs of rural life come as a shock. They belie any idyll of rusticity.’

In the main body of the text, he writes

‘We dream that the country was idyllic in the eighteenth century, a lost paradise like The Deserted Village that Oliver Goldsmith described in 1770:

Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain.

How blest is he who crowns in shades like these,
A youth of labour with an age of ease.

That is a fable, and George Crabbe, who was a country parson and knew the villager’s life at first hand, was so enraged by it that he wrote an acid, realistic poem in reply.

Yes, thus the Muses sing of happy Swains,
Because the Muses never knew their pains.

O’ercome by labour and bow’d down by time,
Feel you the barren flattery of a rhyme?

The country was a place where men worked from dawn to dark, and the labourer lived not in in the sun, but in poverty and darkness.’ (p. 260).

In addition to being a brilliant scientist and science populariser, Bronowski was also a member of the Fabian Society. He wrote one of their pamphlets on ‘Socialism and Science’. Conservatism relies very much on an highly selective, idealised past. This is particularly true now as the Tories attempt to remove or minimise the institutions of the welfare state. One of the Times’ blue-blooded reviewers talked about a new ‘social restoration’ of the aristocracy under Thatcher, harking back to the ancient aristocratic order of lords and peasants. This was what it was really like for most people in the countryside in the 19th century, in stark contrast to the fantasies of the upper classes. And it’s what Osborne and co. are trying to bring back.

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