The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain

David Cannadine, Author Columbia University Press $90 (320p) ISBN 978-0-231-09666-9
Class has been a touchstone for historians of all ideological stripes over the last century, but no consensus has emerged. ""The rise of the middle class,"" for instance, has been located in every century of British history from the 14th to the 19th. Clearly, something is amiss. Here Cannadine pragmatically reframes the question, looking at the perception, rather than the reality, of class over the last 300 years of British history and attending to the ways that political commitments have shaped writers' and politicians' conceptions and rhetoric on the issue. What he finds is startling: consistently, throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, three models of class have prevailed in British thought--and within the work of individual thinkers. The first divides Britain into the rich and the poor (a model generally used to foment, or warn of, class war); the second divides society into three parts, the working, middle and upper classes (used to praise the virtue of the middle class); the third presents British society as thoroughly hierarchical, with every individual having a proper place, which is marked off from those above and below by minuscule increments (used to praise and reinforce the ""traditional"" nature of British society). Ultimately, Cannadine shows that all three models are valid to some degree but that none can claim to represent the rock-bottom truth. The same applies to other modern nations. In the U.S., for instance, the first two models are just as constantly and contradictorily invoked. However, the third is unique to Britain. Therefore, Cannadine finds, it is the third model, that of a steeply graded hierarchy, that is most illustrative of British society and the self-perception of its members. Cannadine succeeds at striking a balance between offering detailed evidence and making a comprehensive argument about a vast, contentious topic; his book is a joy to read. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 11/02/1998
Release date: 11/01/1998
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 314 pages - 978-0-231-09667-6
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