"In His Time and in Ours": Reading Cobbett (and Jane Austen) with Raymond Williams
In writing a doctoral thesis in English in the late 1980s on the radical journalism of William Cobbett, William Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt, I was assisted by remarkably supportive dissertation committee, and by the way the New Historicism directed attention to literary expression as material practice and to texts that were once regarded as nonliterary. At the same time, I was persistently reminded of resistance within Romantic studies, particularly in North America, to the literary study of nonfiction prose that had little to do with poetry and fiction, and that first appeared in ephemeral newspapers and magazines. In retrospect, a proposed but never written chapter on Percy Shelley became a placeholder for a more direct engagement with the Romantic canon, in a dissertation that wound up instead arguing for the richness and complexity of radical expression on its own terms. While Hazlitt and Hunt had acquired ancillary status through their critical and personal relationships with the major Romantic poets, Cobbett was the real outlier and a source of difficulty as the dissertation project developed. To be sure, there were developments within Romantic studies that encouraged attention to Cobbett and the radical press, notably Marilyn Butler’s Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (1982) and Jon Klancher’s The Making of English Reading Audiences (1987). But through the earliest conceptions of the project, my interest in regarding Cobbett as a matter of literary history was shaped by the work of Raymond Williams. Where Romantic studies typically restricted Cobbett to footnotes, as a source of inert historical fact or distorted polemic, Culture and Society offers a very different critical account of Cobbett, in the company of other major literary figures. In a revealing opening contrast with Edmund Burke, followed by a related pairing of Robert Southey with Robert Owen, Williams situates Cobbett at the head of a strand of cultural discourse that emerges in response to the economic, social, and political changes that shaped modern Britain. Given the limited attention Romanticists then paid to nonfiction prose, the treatment of Burke, Cobbett, Southey, and Owen within a tradition that ran forward through Carlyle, Newman, Arnold, Ruskin, and Morris was remarkable in itself.
In a casual remark on Orwell in the Politics and Letters interview collection, Williams identifies Cobbett as "a case I often return to" (387). And return he did, across a range of topics—politics, economics, agriculture, education, communication—in nearly all his major historical studies and essay collections, beginning with Culture in Society (1958), and continuing through The Long Revolution (1961), The Country and the City (1973), Keywords (1976), Problems in Materialism and Culture (1980), Writing in Society (1983), and Resources of Hope (1989). Yet the occasional note struck by the sense of a case to which one returns does not capture the way in which Cobbett came increasingly to serve as a key figure—arguably the key figure—connecting Williams and his readers back to the vexed early phase of a long revolution in politics, economics, and communication that shaped British cultural modernity. Williams’s abiding concern for rural life and agricultural experience heightened the affinity, as did a sense of late twentieth-century postwar crisis that echoed back through the experience of the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Over the course of his life, the account of Cobbett developed in ways that register a growing appreciation for a body of writing that is at once personal and communal, descriptive and imaginative. This line of response culminated in the 1983 Past Masters volume, Cobbett, where what could have been a brief primer on the career of an early nineteenth-century journalist becomes instead a more expansive meditation on essential problems of historical method and contemporary argument, evident in Williams’s searching reflections on what it means to attend closely to a voice from the past and to witness change across two centuries.
My aim in tracking this critical engagement with Cobbett is in part to provide a sense of development, but also to demonstrate just how fully Cobbett figured in some of Williams’s most significant contributions to literary and cultural studies. Notable here is his rethinking of the literary and the aesthetic in ways that reconfigure the canon of course, but also open up new ways of thinking about transmission and continuity in literary history, in part by considering writing as a material practice that shapes even as it is shaped by social and economic change. As an agrarian countryman who advocated subsistence farming even as he wrote to support himself, Cobbett was distinctively positioned to reveal some of the contradictions at work in early industrial society. At issue here are ways of thinking historically about class, and these will be particularly evident in Williams’s paired treatment of Cobbett and Austen in The Country and the City. But while that discussion has often been noticed because it seems to diminish Austen and restrict her social vision, for Williams it is part of a larger attempt to come to terms with elements of early nineteenth-century society that can challenge some of his own Marxist and socialist conceptions of historical change. And it is finally the willingness to rethink his own historical position and expectations with Cobbett, through the pivotal transitions of early nineteenth-century industrial society, that shapes the Past Masters volume, whose final phases are as provocative and experimental as anything in Williams’s critical prose, particularly as the writer searches for new ways of thinking historically about the literature of the past with respect to the present.
Literary Tradition and Industrial Transformation
We can begin as so often for Williams with language. In assessing the difficulty of "history" as a critical and interpretive term, David Simpson has suggested that Keywords offers less a definition than a "compromise," in which "the urgency of history" lies not in wholeness or totality but rather in "its immediate applicability to a range of options for reading the past and projecting the future" (9). He cites a sentence from the close of the Keywords entry on "history," after Williams explores the way that "organized knowledge of the past" came from the eighteenth century to acquire a more general association with "human self-development" through "continuous and connected process," so that "history" potentially lost its "exclusive association with the past" and became "connected not only to the present but also to the future." Noting that "it is . . . not easy to say which sense of history is currently dominant," Williams closes by contrasting the specificity of such variants as "historian" and "historical" with the wider scope of the root term: "History itself retains its whole range, and still, in different hands, teaches or shows us most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future" (146–48). One aim of this essay is to demonstrate that this sense of instruction and demonstration is increasingly evident in Williams’s writing about Cobbett as he comes to wrestle with problems of perception and voice across time, so as to bring a knowable past to bear upon an uncertain but imaginable future. An astute and materially engaged observer, an engaging communicator, and a forceful critic of economic dispossession through the critical early phase of industrial capitalism, the figure of Cobbett as fully developed in the Past Masters volume is also a profoundly important historical figure in Williams’s fullest sense, a guide to the past whose expectations about a future that is now past can also shape our own future expectations and projections.
Given Cobbett’s presence in Culture and Society as part of a preliminary set of contrasts, it is not surprising that the discussion there is schematic, unfolding through a sequence of extracts with minimal commentary. In a retrospective introduction, Williams observes that the writers treated in Culture and Society had not "been seen as connected in this way" before, and in some sense the case for Cobbett develops over the course of the book as he becomes a "touchstone," and his perspective returns in discussions of Coleridge, Mill, Carlyle, Dickens, Disraeli, Eliot, Morris, Lawrence, and Leavis (x, 105).
That said, the initial discussion does involve some strikingly dismissive observations, notably that Cobbett "had nothing of Burke’s depth of mind" and that his "relative indifference to ideas" meant that he was "often simply a Philistine" (12–13, 18). While this was not revoked in Williams’s later work, the tone shifts considerably, to the point where Simpson convincingly charges Williams with having "failed to hear the uglier voices in Cobbett" (12)—the sensationalism, the personal invective, the racism, the misogyny, the anti-Semitism.
In exploring Williams’s writing on Cobbett, it is worth acknowledging Simpson’s point at the outset: there is a consistent filtering out of what W. D. Rubinstein has termed "the dark side" of British radical populism (339). In Culture and Society, the sense of Cobbett as a writer impervious to ideas aligns what is valuable about his prose with impression and feeling rather than thought, with a "sureness of instinct" evident above all in his rural and agricultural writing. The perspective of the "countryman" enabled a critical response to industrialization, as Cobbett witnessed the development of a "new class system" that sharply divided laborer and landowner, rich and poor (14). In revising earlier individualist conceptions of property through an insistence that the working poor possessed a property in their labor, Cobbett extended property rights to "a whole new class" (17) and provided a radically new framework for class conflict and collective action that fundamentally disrupted the existing order.
Beyond these and other convictions that Williams tracks primarily through the Political Register, it is worth identifying two features of the treatment of Cobbett in Culture and Society that he develops more fully in his later work. First is a matter of historical method that at this point runs primarily from present to past in the form of a potential misrecognition that tests our retrospective assumptions: "The terms of Cobbett’s social criticism so much resemble later and more organized critiques that it is easy to forget the basis of experience from which he worked, and the values by which he judged" (14). While a claim for the distinctiveness of Cobbett’s experience is clear enough, Williams does not attempt to account for the remarkable resemblance to later social criticism, nor does he say much about the value (or the limitations) of a relatively unformed and disorganized early nineteenth-century perspective. Again, much rests here on assigning Cobbett’s own critical responses to instinct and experience rather than intellect or coherent analysis, and this indicates a second strand of Culture and Society that extends through Williams’s later writing, the tendency to value Cobbett’s instinct and experience rather than his intellect. While Williams does insist that "the sureness of instinct was no accident—it was rather, vital and impregnable, a genuine embodiment of value," the contrast with Burke is in this respect clearly diminishing (13). Where this gets mitigated is through a countervailing insistence that Burke’s value also lies in feeling and experience. What we learn from the author of the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), notably through his insistence on social complexity and historical community, has less to do "with his position than his manner of thinking," a manner that Williams suggests is not even "thinking" in the usual sense but rather "a special immediacy of experience, which works itself out, in depth, to a particularly embodiment of ideas" (Culture and Society 4–5). In this way the contrast between instinct and intellect softens, and Burke meets Cobbett on the common ground of personal experience and expression: "Burke’s writing is an articulated experience, and as such it has a validity which can survive even the demolition of its general conclusions. . . . It is, finally, a personal experience become landmark" (5).
With Crabbe, Hardy, Lawrence, and Wordsworth, Cobbett is among the most frequently cited writers in The Country and the City, and his role in the unfolding argument of the book is more fluid and less narrowly defined than in Culture and Society. The value of Cobbett’s experience as a "countryman" and a farmer is amplified as Williams infuses the book with the perspective of his own Welsh village upbringing. While there are continuities of principle and method from Culture and Society to The Country and the City, it is clear that Williams’s thinking has shifted in ways that shape the treatment of Cobbett. Among other things, what came between the two books were developments in the British New Left, notably Williams’s role in the 1967 May Day Manifesto, which expressed disenchantment with the rightward movement of the British Labour Party.
A line of argument that Williams developed in “The British Left,” a 1965 New Left Review article reprinted in the volume Resources of Hope (1989), is particularly instructive. Here, an assessment of "the state of the Left in Britain" begins with an assessment of the Labour Party. The integrity of the party as "a mass party and a permanently potential government, based primarily on the most organized sections of the working class," can help account for its strengths and weaknesses, notably its limited effectiveness as an "instrument of socialist change." But Williams insists on looking beyond the framework of a parliamentary party (as he did in the May Day Manifesto), and beyond the 1960s, to "the complicated intellectual and structural traditions of other kinds of social criticism and opposition," in particular, "the origins of the British working-class movement, in the years 1790–1835" (Resources 133). While he and E. P. Thompson disagreed within the May Day Manifesto on the role of the Labour Party in bringing about social change through parliamentary politics, with Williams no longer expecting Labour to advance socialism (Chun 86), in the 1965 New Left Review article on the British left Williams invokes in his own support of The Making of the English Working Class, which appeared just two years earlier and manifestly shapes the ensuing discussion.
Taken in conjunction with subsequent developments, the early decades of British working-class radicalism (where Cobbett is an anticipatory figure) help account for tensions in the relationship between trade union organization and radical political initiative, and for strengths and weaknesses in "the inherited system of ideas" that shape the British left (Resources 135). While an enduring commitment to trade union solidarity may blunt social and political ambition, according to Williams it also sustains a characteristic "inward-turning loyalty" that fosters working-class resilience through periods of economic adversity and political defeat.
In the New Left Review article Williams proceeds to trace this resilience to union organization but also to "certain pre-political values" (we might consider Cobbett’s instincts) and a "self-generating tradition" that has found expression in "the moral critique of industrial capitalism," and that "has been paralleled throughout by a literary tradition of comparable importance" (Resources 136). The figures in this tradition are familiar from Culture and Society, yet here Williams more fully asserts a distinctively working-class commitment to the life of the imagination and human fulfillment despite the corrosive effects of industrial capitalism. The alignment of "moral critique" with "literary tradition" tells us much about how Williams worked to introduce Cobbett to the literary canon and even, as we will see, to Romanticism’s visionary company. Cobbett’s profile rises further as Williams looks past the Labour Party and past his own present crisis to identify forces that have shaped radical social change. While he acknowledges the contribution of religious nonconformity to working-class values, Williams turns to literary tradition for an ethos that is more emancipatory and less restrictive than puritan tradition: ‘There has been an important tradition of ideas and feelings which is not puritan, and which in my view lies just as deeply in the moral consciousness. The claims of Cobbett, Ruskin, William Morris—to name three of the most influential writers—were no more puritan than the novels of Dickens. What is asserted in this tradition is the claim to life, against the distortion of humanity by the priorities and disciplines of industrial capitalism. . . . If we actually look at British working-class life, rather than at the stereotypes provided for political analysis and export, we find this, again pre-political, emphasis breaking out again and again. It is often anarchic, in its immediate forms, but in its insistence on satisfaction and excitement it is a moral challenge of no less weight than that of puritanism. (Resources 136–37)’ Along with the decisive identification of Cobbett with literary tradition,
there is a shift here from the "instinct" of Culture and Society to the richer possibilities of a "moral consciousness," where the "moral critique" meets "literary tradition." As a result, the author of Rural Rides (1830) takes on some of the visionary proportions that Romantic studies has typically associated with Blake and Shelley, though at this point Williams still looks ahead—itself a tribute to Cobbett, who becomes the sole forebear of a distinguished nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tradition. Assessing this tradition, he writes: "Cobbett, Dickens, Ruskin, Morris, Lawrence: all these in their lifetimes fought utilitarianism, and all except Ruskin fought the kind of moral paternalism which was the other main line of reform. What they claimed, positively, was man’s absolute priority as a creative and independent being. From this creativity and independence came cooperation and a good society" (Resources 137). To be sure, there may be a return by way of a more structural Williams to the early sense of "instinct" in the claim that the "important tradition of ideas and feelings which is not puritan" and which ran through literature and through "British working-class life" was "pre-political." What does it mean to identify "values" (136) or a "level" (137) as "pre-political," within an essay that involves a concerted and intensively situated argument about political action and organization? And yet the account here of a resilient and persistently anarchic working-class tradition, allowing for its imprecision, does register the emergence in Williams’s work of a more positive way of thinking about the relatively disorganized critique of capitalism associated with Cobbett and others in the decades before a fully developed socialism. If the early Williams challenged Cobbett’s reliance on instinct, the later Williams was challenged by the insight Cobbett offered into a pre-socialist challenge to industrial capitalism that was no more fully developed than the economic system it confronted.
This is reinforced in a New Left Review interview on Culture and Society, conducted in 1977 and published in the Politics and Letters collection, where Williams compares the English tradition surveyed in the book with continental sociology and asserts that "the very rapid and brutal experience of industrialization" in England triggered a particularly critical response, again in the years from 1790 through the 1830s. "The thinking about the process of industrial transformation that was done in the period between Blake and Wordsworth and Southey and the young Carlyle, although it is very early and confused, still seems to me absolutely crucial. Some of the questions then asked, more persistently by Cobbett than by anyone else, about the whole nature of the industrial project and the consequences for social relations, still have to be answered today" (115).
The positive emphasis on Cobbett as against his more canonical contemporaries is a striking shift from the tone of Culture and Society, and the insistence that the questions posed in the early years of industrialization—however "confused" they may now seem—have "still have to be answered today" registers a challenge from the past to the present that Williams continued to explore through his later career. In a sense the imperfect formation of Cobbett’s social and economic critique accounts for its compelling present relevance, as any radical movement must acknowledge an imperfect understanding of the future it wants to shape.
In historicizing misapprehensions within the New Left, Williams finds himself looking back with more respect to an earlier era of writers who were similarly coming to terms with a crisis of uncertain outcome, in ways that belie the more assured critical and historical perspective of Culture and Society. As evidence of the way history can challenge socialist theory, he observes that "the characteristic rhetoric" of Marxism in the 1930s would have anticipated the failure of capitalism and the triumph of Soviet productivity, whereas the postwar period instead ushered in "the new kind of productive explosion that capitalism had in store." Unanticipated historical experience motivates the sympathetic return to an early and essentially presocialist struggle to contest industrial capitalism. Williams writes, "It was then that the questions posed by Blake or Cobbett acquired their force for me" (Politics and Letters 115). The acutely disorienting postwar experience, and the attendant return for critical understanding to an earlier era, frames the transition from Culture and Society to The Country and the City. Williams leaves no doubt that the questions posed by Romantic period writers, and "more persistently by Cobbett than by anyone else," were at the front of his mind in the early 1970s: "The Country and the City was written very much in response to them" (Politics and Letters 115). In this sense, the fragmented and unsystematic critique associated with an early phase of industrialization becomes less a liability to be overcome through corrective historical analysis than an opportunity for salutary self-recognition across two centuries of profound social and economic change. No wonder then that Cobbett’s instinct, far from being insufficiently thought through, becomes an imaginatively vital and anarchic insistence on the whole range of individual and collective human experience.
Seeing Class and Classes around Farnham
The fullest treatment of Cobbett in The Country and the City comes in the set-piece chapter, “Three around Farnham,” which takes the proximity of Farnham, Chawton, and Selborne as the occasion for linked discussions of Cobbett, Jane Austen, and Gilbert White.
White becomes a two-page coda at the end of the chapter, and while he does importantly register the emergence of "a natural order" that "could now be separated from man," for my purposes the central contrast is between Cobbett and Austen (119). Following on a historical treatment of enclosure and property rights, Williams develops the chapter in terms of the response to historical change. With "the economic system of landlord, tenant and labourer" now "in explicit and assertive control," rural communities were forced to adapt in order to survive (107). What Simpson has termed Williams’s "appetite for immediacy" is fully evident (22), as Cobbett appears in the familiar guise of close observer and careful recorder—though now without Burke casting the invidious shadow of intellectual deprivation, and with Austen and White as fellow observers. The questioning presence of Cobbett in the New Left Review interview is also pertinent, as interrogation supplements observation and description: "What Cobbett gives us is detailed social observation, from the point of view of the condition of the majority of men. He combined Arthur Young’s attention to the detailed practice of a working agriculture with a more persistent social questioning and observation" (Politics and Letters 109).
While Cobbett’s willingness to identify with the condition of the laborer offers a fundamental shift in perspective, it is his capacity for observation—to have "looked very carefully" (110) and registered a "visible disturbance" (111)—that occasions Williams’s most developed account yet of the role of the rural rider in a literary tradition that typically involves imaginative writing. Where the eighteenth-century poetry of Goldsmith and Crabbe provided moral caution of a kind that Williams explores in previous chapters of The Country and the City, the more fully developed capitalism of the early nineteenth century demanded organized action and resistance, of a kind that prior literary conventions could not provide. Under these conditions, Cobbett becomes "the outrider" of "a new kind of country writing" that sustains description and reflection while accounting for "action," in both its own communicative effects and what it witnessed among the working poor. Cobbett "described and campaigned", and in doing so set the terms for developments in prose fiction that made social realism a prevailing form of the mid-nineteenth century novel (Country 112). The line of development from Goldsmith to Cobbett to Dickens can seem counterintuitive, running as it does from country to city, and from poetry through nonfiction prose to the novel, but Williams insists upon tracing this line in order to register in literary history what he often noted in economic history: that capitalism transformed the English countryside through the reorganization of agricultural production well in advance of urban industrialization.
No surprise then that Cobbett the radical journalist would be in a position to pick up on observations about rural social change indicated earlier in poetry as a matter of meditation, and then transmit his own activist disposition ahead to a socially committed fiction. It is through the paired treatment of Austen and Cobbett that we can appreciate Williams’s own effort to think historically about class as he worked back through the early phases of industrial society.
Williams’s ironic recasting of the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice as part of the initial development of his account of Austen is among the chapter’s more frequently noticed gestures: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen chose to ignore the decisive historical events of her time. Where, it is still asked, are the Napoleonic wars: the real current of history? But history has many currents, and the social history of the landed families, at that time in England, was among the most important. As we sense its real processes, we find that they are quite central and structural in Austen’s novels. (Country 113)’ Readers of Austen can be protective of their author, so it is not surprising that the discussion in The Country and the City has raised objections and spirited critical response. Yet given that the whole point of this passage is to show that Austen was in fact engaged in the "the real current of history," once we acknowledge social as well as political and military history, it is surprising that Williams has been taken to task here for "a classic statement of the view that Jane Austen the novelist repudiates any serious concern with larger social and political events" (Crary 145). Fortunately, Devoney Looser’s observation that Williams is writing "facetiously" and that he goes on to argue "to the contrary" is more characteristic of the way historicist critics have responded (216). And yet the recognition that Williams considers Austen to be a historically engaged novelist may miss a more subtle point about the argument of The Country and the City, one that gets obscured by the way the chapter vividly reopens, as it were, through this allusion to the opening of Pride and Prejudice. For this is not the transition from Cobbett to Austen. That comes in the previous paragraph, as part of a stark contrast between the perspective of the two writers that follows directly from the argument about the author of the Rural Rides as an "outrider" for literary developments that are more fully realized in Victorian fiction: ‘But this change in the novel did not happen in Cobbett’s time. Through his middle years, while the social changes were happening, Jane Austen was writing from a very different point of view, from inside the houses that Cobbett was passing on the road. When he was writing about the disappearance of the small gentry he was riding through Hampshire, not far from Chawton. It was also in Hampshire that he made his list of the new owners of country-houses and estates, from nabobs to stock-jobbers. (Country 112)’ This claim about a difference in perspective despite a shared affinity for close observation becomes a key strand in the ensuing discussion of Austen, even as the movement forward and back again in time (a method that is characteristic, yet somehow intensified when Williams writes about Cobbett) highlights the sense of "action" with respect to a campaigning journalist who recognized and endorsed working-class organization against capitalist transformations of the countryside. For Williams, Cobbett’s "newly typical action" is another dimension of the contrast with Austen, and it is accentuated by the preliminary glance ahead to "a new kind of novel, which was to become, from the 1830s, the dominant literary form" (112). Put in Williams’s own terms, Cobbett provides what the later Gaskell or Dickens cannot, a strand of literary history that indicated how even Austen’s celebrated powers of observation would become residual.
The sharp distinction that places the domestic novelist "on the other side of the park wall" from the rural rider has also occasioned spirited response in Austen criticism (113), particularly as it gets reworked towards the end of the chapter, where Williams once again switches temporal registers, speculating that if Austen had ventured "outside the park walls, into a very different social experience," her writing would have "become not a moral but a social criticism" of the kind found later in George Eliot: ‘We must emphasize here again the importance of Cobbett. What he names, riding past on the road, are classes. Jane Austen, from inside the houses, can never see that, for all the intricacy of her social description. All her discrimination is, understandably, internal and exclusive. She is concerned with the conduct of people who, in the complications of improvement, are repeatedly trying to make themselves into a class. But where only one class is seen, no classes are seen. (117)’ It is important to acknowledge that subsequent work on Austen, sensitive to gender, commerce, domesticity, sociability, and public and private spheres, demonstrates that the catalog of what Williams himself fails to see, on both sides of the park wall, is as lengthy as it is troubling. A vivid case in point would be Adela Pinch’s wonderful reading of the scene in Emma where the heroine breaks away from her friend Harriet’s distracted shopping to look out the door of Ford’s shop, observing and envisioning a range of characters from within and beyond the plot of the novel. Expecting perhaps the apothecary Mr. Perry, the lawyer William Cox "letting himself in at the office door," and the carriage horses of the newly genteel tradesman Mr. Cole, along with "a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule," she is not disappointed "when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bowwindow eyeing the gingerbread" (Austen 183). The liminal perspective, at the door of a shop looking out over a village high street, is itself suggestive with respect to Williams’s impermeable park wall, and so too is Pinch’s insistence that for all the "gritty everydayness" (xxiv) of the scene there is evidence of an important shift in literary history: ‘Austen is doing something quite revolutionary in presenting to us a woman standing in a shop door. It is hard for us to find this ordinary image revolutionary, but in fact what is revolutionary is that a woman loitering in a shop door in England in 1815 seems ordinary. It is an image we cannot imagine finding in a novel before this moment. Emma’s activity is new, and so is the kind of contemplation Austen represents Emma as practicing. (xxiii)’ Pinch is alert to the role of commerce and "the consumption of fashionable goods" in the novel, and to patterns of circulation between London and Highbury, and she insists that "this scene must be seen in its entirety as a shopping scene." But she also draws a comparison with Burney’s Camilla to refine our sense of what is at stake when Emma takes a moment to pause and reflect. Highbury suddenly appears to be a "considerably less orderly" village, and we are made aware that even a realistically rendered social world recedes beyond apprehension and suggests "glimpses of the inexhaustibly unknown" (xxii–xxiv).
There is much about this close attention to a historically situated female experience—transpiring outside the home, in a world of circulating goods and traveling persons—that belies Williams’s narrow and reductive schema of outside and inside, of traveling on the public road as against settlement behind the park wall. Williams acknowledges little of what Austen and Pinch render so vividly, and his vision was no doubt restricted by his interest in sharing Cobbett’s perspective and listening closely to Cobbett’s voice. While Pinch does not reference The Country and the City, others have. Helena Kelly acknowledges in Williams a "necessary corrective to Jane’s genteel comedy of manners," but reminds us that many "pivotal scenes in [her] novels take place outdoors," and that even when indoors "we’re not invariably ‘inside the houses.’ Sometimes we’re in inns, assembly buildings, hotels, cramped rented rooms" (225–26). In bringing Austen and her characters out from behind the park wall and onto the road, Kelly invokes another episode in Emma, where Harriet Smith walks out with a friend on "the Richmond road," an excursion that is "apparently public enough for safety" but ends nevertheless in a terrified encounter with "a party of gipsies" and rescue at the hands of Frank Churchill (Austen 261).
The conventional device of male rescue only heightens the extent to which Austen knew and rendered what Williams overlooks in his easy contrast between Cobbett "riding past on the road" and Austen writing "from inside the houses": the male privilege at work in the relative freedom from geographical restriction and threat of assault enjoyed by Cobbett throughout the Rural Rides.
As a narrative of mistaking and then finding one’s social place, the Harriet Smith subplot in Emma indicates the range of Austen’s social vision. A village boarding schoolgirl of uncertain parentage, Harriet is raised to genteel company at Highbury by a misguided Emma and eventually aspires to marry Mr. Knightly, only to return through the process by which the novel disciplines the heroine’s imagination to a more suitable marriage with Knightley’s tenant farmer, Mr. Martin, which terminates any special intimacy with Emma. The social distinctions at issue here and throughout her fiction have led Austen scholars to challenge Williams on the question of class. According to Roger Sales, "the wide social distance between the aristocratic Mr. Yates and the lower-middle-class Price family" in Mansfield Park undermines the "basic thesis that Austen only represents one class" (253n10). A consensus about social range in recent Austen scholarship is suggested in Juliet McMaster’s compelling chapter on “Class” for The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, which sets out from a proposition that "class difference was . . . a fact of life for Austen, and an acute observation of the fine distinctions between one social level and another was a necessary part of her business as a writer of realistic fiction" (111). McMaster goes on to provide a complex and dynamic map of status in Austen’s fiction, beginning with such titled characters as Lord Osborne (in the fragment “The Watsons” ) and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, extending down through the landed gentry, gentlemen with incomes, professional men, and those who make or made their money in trade (some of whom acquire gentility), and closing with servants and brief glimpses of laboring people and the poor.
Yet before concluding that Williams has been effectively superseded, it is worth returning to what he actually says about Austen in The Country and the City. Against the perception that Austen is primarily interested in individuals and their "personal relationships," he insists that her preoccupation is with "social conduct: a testing and discovery of the standards which govern human behaviour in real situations." And such situations are crucially dynamic and uncertain, a matter of "changing fortunes" rather than any "settled ‘traditional’ world" (113). This leads directly to a recognition of the social range and complexity that Austen scholars are inclined to invoke against him, as Williams surveys a range of characters with respect to property, income, and manners, including Sir Thomas Bertram, the Crawfords, Darcy, Mr. Knightley, Mr. Martin, the Coles, and Catherine Moreland. Change and motion are again keynotes: "It must be clear that it is no single, settled society, it is an active, complicated, sharply speculative process. It is indeed that most difficult world to describe, in English social history: an acquisitive, high bourgeois society at the point of its most evident interlocking with an agrarian capitalism that is itself mediated by inherited titles and the making of family names." Given the difficulty of even describing this world, Williams marvels at Austen’s ability to maintain "a unity of tone, of a settled and remarkably confident way of seeing and judging, in the chronicle of confusion and change" (Country 115). The point is important, and gets at the complexity and indeed the necessity of irony as a way for Austen to write about class: if Emma misleads Harriet into misunderstanding her own social status and destiny, their mutual confusion is in many respects more interesting and revealing than the denouement that divides them and returns them to their proper places. In this sense, Emma’s apparently misguided plotting reveals what the resolution of the novel conceals.
Yet Williams returns, with a bracing consistency, to a sense of Austen’s limitations. His assessment of her paradoxical achievement follows directly from the observation that "she is more exact about income, which is disposable, than about acres, which have to be worked" (Country 115), and involves an interlocking set of distinctions, familiar to readers of Keywords, within contemporary senses of the terms "improvement" and "cultivation" (Keywords 92–93, 160–61).
There was improvement in working agriculture, and improvement in parks and artificial landscapes; there was cultivation of the soil, and cultivation in polite society. In both cases, the revenue from the first could be applied to the second. In writing about "an active, complicated, sharply speculative process," Austen achieved her remarkable consistency of tone in part by overlooking "working" improvement and cultivation while seeing "social" improvement and cultivation "very clearly indeed" (Country 116).
For those troubled by the crudeness of the distinction between Cobbett "riding past on the road" and Austen writing "from inside the houses," I would offer this more subtle distinction as a redeeming corrective. To be sure, there are grounds for contesting Williams’s assessment, notably in Emma, in the scene where Mr. Knightley meets his brother John at Highbury and speaks "as a farmer," as the two men share an interest in plans around draining and fencing, the removal of a tree, "and the destination of every acre for wheat, turnips, or spring corn" (Austen 81). And yet Williams’s larger point stands, and has been reinforced in a recent chapter on agriculture in the volume Jane Austen in Context. Here Robert Clark and Gerry Dutton propose the striking absence "to the historian’s eye" of farmers and farm workers in film and television versions of Austen, and then trace that conspicuous absence to the fiction itself: "Only the relatively minor character of Robert Martin in Emma [serves] to represent the most numerous social orders in a period when even the King was affectionately known as ‘Farmer George’" (185).
In any case, just as the allusive quip about a prevailing view of Austen does not mean that Williams considered her fiction out of touch with history, so too his positioning of the domestic novelist and the rural rider on opposite sides of a park wall does not involve a reductive, still less static, account of her fiction.
In assessing what he meant by restricting her vision to "one class," we can begin with what he did not mean, and with another Austen scholar who has taken exception to The Country and the City. In the introduction to Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time, Mary Waldron promises to avoid the distorting effects of "a sort of historical criticism" that threatens "to damage the coherence of a novel" by prioritizing "what we think was important over the perceptions of the author working within the cultural parameters of his/her time." Waldron associates Williams with this kind of historicism: ‘Cultural historians like Raymond Williams may be right in their terms to see Austen’s fictional world as essentially class-based, but "class" in the Marxist sense that they use did not exist in Austen’s lifetime; her society was only just emerging from a semi-feudal situation. It is interesting to identify foreshadowings in the novels of what were to become elements in the adversarial world of Marx—bourgeois versus proletarian—but they tell us nothing about the world within which Austen’s characters interact, the world which she and they assume. (11–12)
’ It is hard to know where to begin in contesting these two sentences. While "semi-feudal" elements of English society certainly persisted in Austen’s lifetime and beyond, and Williams himself provided powerful interpretive language for thinking about this, to claim that England in the early decades of the nineteenth century "was only just emerging from a semi-feudal situation" is to ignore the massive changes in agriculture, commerce, industry, and empire that had shaped England for centuries, supplementing and replacing "feudal" authority with a complex interlocking urban and rural and imperial network of titled, landed, agricultural, commercial, professional, and political elites, and leaving the common people with a complex array of potential relationships with their superiors. It is difficult to say what an account of Austen as a novelist representing a world "only just emerging from a semi-feudal situation" would look like, but it would certainly be reductive and distorting. The claim about what Austen and her characters "assume" reduces to a claim about what Austen herself assumes, and it is certainly true that Williams does not want his readers to be confined to those assumptions and to that world. But his approach is not to impose elements of his own world on the past. Rather, he draws the contrast with Cobbett in part to show that others in the period saw the world differently, and did so in part by attending with all of Austen’s fine discrimination to other elements of the world. Far from telling "us nothing about the world within which Austen’s characters interact," Cobbett’s perception of a world antagonistically divided between rich and poor tells us something important about the world of Jane Austen, whether or not it is visible in her novels. And far from complacently affirming a Marxist vision of "bourgeois versus proletarian," the process by which Cobbett became increasingly important to Williams was a consequence of his recognition of the value of ways of thinking critically about economic and social change in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that do not easily align with later socialist terms.
To understand what Williams meant in asserting that Austen saw only one class, we need to appreciate the importance of Cobbett’s emerging sense that interlocking economic, political, and social systems were effectively creating two classes with antithetical interests and experiences—rich and poor, consumers and producers, masters and slaves. I have already mentioned Williams’s account of "the new class system" in Culture and Society, where he cites an April 1821 article in the Political Register that finds Cobbett accusing an opponent of wanting to reduce "the community to two classes: Masters and Slaves" (15). Cobbett figures again in the Keywords entry on class, as Williams distinguishes a sense of class as "precise descriptive grouping" from a newer usage in the early nineteenth century that involves "basic relationship," and particularly "basic economic relationships (as between employers and employed, propertied and propertyless)." Cobbett’s 1825 observation "that there is one class of society united to oppose another" is cited for the latter, along with an 1805 assertion by Charles Hall that, while there may be many different orders in "a civilized state," for the purposes of assessing well-being "they need only be divided into two classes, viz. the rich and the poor." Williams suggests that the ambiguity of the term has led to "persistent but confused arguments between those who, using class in the sense of basic relationship, propose two or three basic classes, and those who, trying to use it for descriptive groupings, find they have to break these divisions down into smaller and smaller categories" (Keywords 66–67).
Some of this ambiguity and confusion seems to be at work when Austen scholars object to Williams’s claim that Austen failed to see classes because she saw only one class: they are committed to the fine social and economic distinctions at work in her fiction. Williams recognizes these, but wants to disclose through Cobbett an emerging sense of essential economic division that she overlooked, working as she did overwhelmingly on one side of the question—in Cobbett’s terms, on the side of the rich and the consumers and the masters.
Of course none of this indicates that Cobbett was correct about a world being reduced to two classes with antithetical interests and experiences, any more than Emma demonstrates that differences between the likes of Emma and Mrs. Elton represent a particularly significant moral or social divide in early nineteenth-century England. And Williams certainly takes for granted that Cobbett witnessed the development of class divisions that became increasingly important features of English society over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But what Williams does show, through Cobbett, is that we cannot simply say that Austen failed to represent class, in the sense of basic economic relationship, because no one in the period had such a perception. Waldron notwithstanding, Williams knew well that "bourgeois versus proletarian" were not operative categories in Austen’s time, and he worked as hard as anyone to think historically about class. In doing so, he showed that some of Austen’s contemporaries were coming to think about a society fundamentally divided between adversarial classes. For all we may commend Austen’s extraordinary precision, her social range was meaningfully limited. By drawing a line from Goldsmith and Crabbe through Cobbett to Dickens and Eliot, Williams contends that by the early nineteenth century we have reached a point in English social history where failing to represent ordinary working men and women risks essential oversight.
With this in mind, there is something haunting about the way Emma seems to approach the shop door of Ford’s expecting that she will primarily see other characters named in the novel (Mr. Perry, Mr. William Cox, Mr. Cole) only to then observe nameless figures (a butcher, an old woman, a group of children) who have no part in the narrative, and in that sense function as setting rather than agent. It is as if the novel fleetingly defies its own expectations, as registered by the heroine. Emma is unperturbed—"she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough" (Austen 183)—but the reader can be forgiven for a sense of surprise at the abrupt appearance of the sort of nameless common people not typically encountered in an Austen novel. And that surprise could foster a recognition of the extent to which reading Jane Austen can be a matter of internalizing her oversights as well as her insights.
Senses of History and the Community in Radical Expectation
By contrast with the account of Austen in The Country and the City, Williams’s Past Masters monograph on Cobbett has received scant notice, even in major studies of Williams, where its appearance is typically limited to the bibliography of his publications.
In some sense this is unsurprising, given that Cobbett was published in an Oxford University Press series associated with elementary introductions to a life and works. And yet the book is interpretively ambitious and original. Certainly if Williams had produced a study with similar claims about Blake or Wordsworth, there would be wider notice in Romantic studies. My aim here will not be to offer a comprehensive reading of the volume, but instead pick up on a key strand of my discussion so far: how in writing about Cobbett as a key figure in the early response to industrial capitalism Williams developed particular ways of thinking historically about the literature of the past with respect to the present. The challenge is something Williams confronted as early as 1969, in an introduction to the second volume of The Pelican Book of English Prose that was revised and reprinted in Writing in Society as “Notes on English Prose, 1780–1950.” The first phase of the literary chronology presents particular challenges of familiarity and distance that entail the whole intervening history of social and economic modernity: ‘We shall see, on closer examination, how much has changed in English prose, but the stress on continuity is worth making at the beginning. The two centuries since 1780 are the making of modern Britain. But the connections and the gaps between some of the early and some of the later stages are significant. There are moments when we know Coleridge or Cobbett or Paine or Jane Austen as ancestors: as connected with us in a land and through a language, but across an evident gap of historical time. There are also moments when in a thing seen, a thing said, a thing written in a particular way, we feel not distance but closeness: a man or a woman; a writer; a known experience or idea; a known country. (Writing in Society 67)
’ It was through Cobbett more than any other writer from this "early" period, essentially the Romantic period, that Williams explored this problem of distance and familiarity, of reading across a historical "gap" that presented acute challenges of recognition and understanding. In this sense Cobbett was for Williams the most compelling writer of the Romantic period.
The book opens inauspiciously, with a requisite biographical chapter that recalls Culture and Society in the way it reduces to excerpts and condensed commentary, here, under the heading of years or ranges of years in Cobbett’s life. Williams does introduce "a problem of perspective" that returns throughout, as when he remarks that some of the best-known publications (A Year’s Residence in the United States of America, A Grammar of the English Language) were from a period of exile, 1817 through 1819, when Cobbett returned to America to evade prosecution at home. In their "vigorous plain style" and their sense of an "irrepressible personality," these texts engage modern readers, yet they are written at a distance from the political crisis that shaped Cobbett even as it was shaped by his prose. "Cobbett wrote the books," Williams observes, "but also these years of exposure and practice wrote Cobbett" (19). In the second part of the volume, "Themes," the challenges of moving back and forth in time become increasingly evident. Cobbett’s claims about property in labor and the right of combination were "cast in conventional terms" and yet pressed to "subversive" conclusions, so as to produce "shock (certainly then; and in some places still)" (32–33). His commitment to a reform of parliament and the poor laws was consistent with "the radicalism of the period," though it found Cobbett "at the edge of his thinking, moving beyond these kinds of change," notably in "his practical affiliation to the great majority of working and poor people" for whom these reforms would eventually prove inadequate (34). In practice Cobbett "was prefiguring the later movement" in working-class activism but he "did not in fact reach its characteristic shaping ideas," notably in his failure to engage "the new kinds of co-operative and collective social provision" that were evident in the work of Paine and Owen (34–35). His "hatred of the great proprietors and manufacturers" fostered his sympathy for emerging labor organization, yet he still adhered to "an old and idealized social model" that had "a limited understanding of the new forces and relations of industrial production" (37). The Cobbett of Past Masters can be as socially and historically blinkered as the Austen of The Country and the City, and this last insight about his animosities and sympathies yields the paradoxical assertion that what limited Cobbett in his own time somehow releases him in our own: "This is one of several instances where Cobbett’s older kind of radicalism . . . is at once limited and partial in his own day yet, in broader terms, still relevant and even prophetic" (37).
Where the intermediate “Themes” portion of the volume offers brief topical surveys of Cobbett’s writing on economics, politics, and education, the third and final part, “Issues,” is more interpretively and analytically comprehensive, bringing together matters that Williams himself returned to throughout his career: "the rural economy in its relation both to a developing industrialism and to the capitalist system and the state" (28). An opening paragraph recasts the problem of historical method as a matter of style and voice:
One sense of history requires that we see Cobbett in his time: "in his period." We then study his campaigns in relation to the immediate conditions and events that provoked them. We study his ideas within the thinking and prejudices of his day. We applaud and apologise within his time-bound perspective.
One sense of writing requires that we see Cobbett both in his time and in ours. His use of language belongs to his time: the condition of English in the early nineteenth century; the social relations within which he developed particular uses—those distinctive combinations of formality and colloquial polemic . . . It is in the grafting of colloquial phrases and oral emphases on to the still formal strengths of the consciously public address of his period that his most distinctive practice can be recognized and defined. Pointing forward, this combination is still extraordinarily readable. Much of his writing still directly engages us: never irrespective of his time but not bound by it either. There are different preferences: for the rural rider; for the democratic pamphleteer; for the practical countryman. Yet all these as a writer: the writing outlasting its occasions. (54–55)
Again and again in the final phase of the volume, Cobbett is released from the early nineteenth century, even as Williams the cultural critic is released, with kaleidoscopic effect, from writing about the early nineteenth century. Some of this has to do with what the critic regards as valuable about his author. The voice, to be sure, and the way his ideas "jump at us from his pages" so that "we can hear him speaking them, in his usual plain and simple and decided way" (44). Yet if this betrays something uncritical about Williams, what Simpson terms his "appetite for immediacy," much of what is best about the analysis of Cobbett from the opening pages of the volume undermines simple presence through an exploration of bewildering historical contradiction and inconsistency.
Thus Williams expresses a preference not for Cobbett the farmer and landholder at Botley, but rather for the work of the 1820s, after the loss of the Botley farm and the writer’s establishment of a more "commercial base" at Kensington. Here he set about promulgating subsistence in Cottage Economy, even as he undid such tenets in own commercial practice as a seed farmer and purveyor of nursery trees, and in his authorial practice as a publisher of books mediating any return to the land. As Williams writes of the volume, "It is at once a consciously examined renewal of the elements of a subsistence economy, and yet in the practice and in the writing an enterprise beyond subsistence" (24). Williams foregrounds these contradictions and embraces a similar paradox about the Rural Rides, which record Cobbett "riding out on business, whether in politics or in one of his commercial enterprises" even as he sought "to look, and listen" in ways that evince "the whole man, with whole interests" (Cobbett 24–25). In Blakean fashion, this "whole man" under early capitalism is a riven and contradictory figure, his radical agrarian principles extending out through metropolitan commercial and communicative circuits. The opening of the third and final part of the volume finds Williams acknowledging "different preferences" among different readers of Cobbett, while insisting that the man cannot simply be read "in his period" since "the writing outlasts it occasions."
Where the “Notes on English Prose” numbered Coleridge, Cobbett, Paine, and Austen among the Romantic period writers who "remain connected with us," Cobbett was for Williams the most sustained connection, one he was determined to make available again to his own readers. To achieve this there is a need to exceed the one sense of history" and the "one sense of writing" sketched above: ‘These are reasonable senses of both history and writing. But there are other senses, which ought now to be explored. There is a sense of history as connecting rather than separating his time and ours. Not then this period and that, but a common country, in an actual succession, inheritance, of lives. And not then writing as style: the critical or textual study; but writing as a practice, within this country and inheritance: the giving and taking of energy, in this durable form, to attempt or actually to make new kinds of relationship. William Cobbett as contributing, in this continuing life. (Cobbett 55)’ To be sure, the sense of "a common country" and "an actual succession" may give pause, in its geographical restriction, and this early twenty-first century American reader wonders whether Williams’s point may be exclusionary. At the same time, the very inclusion of Cobbett in a Past Masters series that favors the world historical figure, running as it does from Homer, Confucius, Plato, and Jesus through Mohammed, Shakespeare, Marx, and Tolstoy, indicates something provocative about the claim for the local and the immediate.
It is worth closing with a consideration of the meaning, in terms of Williams’s own critical and interpretive practice, of a "sense of history" that would understand Cobbett "in his time and in ours," and would connect rather than separate the times in a shared succession and inheritance. There are some extraordinary claims in a section on “Cobbett and the New England” that follows directly on “Cobbett and the Old England.” The rural rider experienced "a transforming history" that we tend to package and label as "‘Modern England’; ‘Industrial England’; ‘Industrial-Capitalist England’; ‘Imperial England’" (Cobbett 57). These are some of the terms that counterhistoricist advocates of aesthetic integrity charge Williams with injecting into the era of Cobbett and Austen. But he disavows them here, aligning all such labeling with a subsequent sense "of an achieved state," which can only regard Cobbett as a "good old chap" who was for all his virtues "not on our road" (57). Rather than fixing Cobbett historically, Williams proposes that we share with him an ongoing experience of a crisis extending from his time to our own: ‘So there can be no indulgent trailing after Cobbett’s ghost; no lifting of his bones. What we can actually learn from him is different, and less flattering: what it is like to be living through a time when an old social order is visibly breaking up but when we do not have the advantage of hindsight to show us the new social order that is succeeding it. This uncertain and restless condition is very characteristic of the most concerned and most passionate men of Cobbett’s own day. It is marked, paradoxically, by intense radical convictions: of the evils of the time, of the depths of its disturbances; of the new thing that must happen, the new life that is coming through. In Cobbett and Blake, in Shelley and Carlyle, for all their individual differences, there is this characteristic intensity and denunciation of what is happening in their world, and also this characteristic confidence that these evils cannot last, that something radically new must come. Yet what came as new, whatever else may be said of it, was not within their line of vision at all; indeed was in many of its elements only an intensification of what they had denounced. (58)
’ For literary readers, the company of Blake, Shelley, and Carlyle seems to raise Cobbett’s stature, so it is worth insisting again that Williams proceeds from quite different assumptions. Cobbett was in fact the leading figure among a group of Romantic-period visionaries who contested without fully comprehending the early impact of industrial capitalism.
Williams’s recognition, towards the end of his life, that his own understanding of the situation in the 1980s looking ahead might be no better than Cobbett’s in the 1820s is as poignant as it is bracing. And yet that is not his final point. Rather, he stresses shared historical experience and expectation across the centuries: ‘But if we have any sense of history we cannot . . . forget the picture we have been given: of those earlier people who were struggling, bravely enough, with forces they did not understand. We may suppose we can exempt ourselves from this likely deficiency. Indeed that vanity is often the condition of hope. But what we can not reasonably do is miss the community of situation: an old order breaking up; uncertainty and restlessness, but in these men radical convictions, that certain new things must happen. (59)’ The later pages of the Cobbett volume are remarkable for the way they draw on this acknowledgment in order to freely read, analyze, and engage "in his time and in ours," through a series of searching critical explorations that escape period restriction, with William Cobbett everywhere in evidence as a challenging yet affirming presence. Thus an account of the amplification of "the organizing and organized labour movement" in the later nineteenth century leads into a consideration of the uneven development of socialism, and of the "complacency" with which new movements often regard an earlier history, confident that social and economic relations are about to be improved and harmonized, somehow transforming the "Great Britain Ltd" of the twentieth century into "Great Britain, the Modern and Caring Society." Instead, persistent crisis yields a current situation where cynical voices "speak of the forced ‘de-industrialisation’ of Britain." Meanwhile disruptive economic change continues unabated and "Great Britain in either of its versions exports capital and imports weapons of mass destruction, while settling to an apparently unending period of widespread unemployment and redundancy" (71). The insistence, which becomes a kind of refrain, that it "cannot be Cobbett who shows us any way out of this deep failure" is less a critique of his limitations than a bleak reflection on our own. To my mind, the third part of Cobbett is as compelling as anything in Williams’s later prose. And the problem in overlooking Williams’s writing on Cobbett is less what we fail to learn about Cobbett than what we miss about Raymond Williams.