A Pelican History

England in the Eighteenth Century is a lovely, succinct and succulent volume from the Pelican History of England, written in 1950, at a time of fierce self-improvement. To quote the contemporary review in the Listener: As a portent in the broadening of popular culture the influence of this wonderful series has yet to receive full recognition and precise assessment. No venture could be more enterprising or show more confidence in the public’s willingness to purchase thoughtful books”. So there it was in the Oxfam bookshop, alongside more modern works less eloquent of the public’s desire for thoughtful books.

I had forgotten how terrible were the lives of the urban poor — that until the very end of the period, the population of the cities were maintained only by immigration from the countryside because the infant mortality rate was so high; things grew better in London until the adoption of plumbing, and water closets, which meant that all the shit was flushed into the Thames, instead of being collected for night-soil and carried out of the city, so that typhoid became a scourge. Men and horses drowned in the potholes of the Great North Road. But then I suppose it was very little larger than the bridleway that presently runs on a chalk ridge north of Saffron Walden, which at one point crosses clay, and there turns to a quagmire every time it rains.

The naked greed for empire, too, was something we easily forget. There is nothing in the American attitudes to Mesopotamia today which is not to be found in British attitudes to North America in the eighteenth century, right down to the preference for trade over empire. Here are Pitt’s reasons for capturing Canada from the French …

set out in a memorandum, sent by the Duke of Bedford, with Pitt’s approval, to Newcastle. It contained five points, and their order is interesting and significant. They were:
1. The conquest would secure the entire trade in fur and fish.
2. The French would be prevented from supplying their West Indian islands with lumber, which would drive up the price of French sugar, to the advantage of our sugar merchants.
3. France would lose a market for manufactures.
4. France would no longer be able to build ships in America or acquire masts and timber. Their naval armament would be limited.
5. The expulsion of the French would give security to British North American colonies.
The last point carried the most weight with Newcastle, but not enough. He was haunted by the increasing cost of the war, which had led to a sharp increase in taxation, with consequent grumbling from the landed interest in Parliament. To embark on a costly expedition which would gratify neither the King nor Parliament, but only a handful of merchants in America and London, seemed folly and waste to Newcastle. The project was dismissed, but carefully preserved by Pitt.

Should we perhaps regard him as a neo-Whig?

But there are also moments of pure delight to be had from the contemplation of eighteenth century science: Louis XV was so impressed by the discovery of electricity that he had a line of monks a mile long hold hands, and then ran a shock through all of them, and was himself convulsed with laughter when they leaped into the air.

To see brandy ignited by a spark shooting from a man’s finger became one of the wonders of the age. Wesley became a firm believer in electricity’s curative powers because he regarded it as a kind of elan vital, and he warmly recommended intense and prolonged electric shocks for a wide range of diseases from malaria to hysteria.

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