Literature and class

From the Peasants' Revolt to the French Revolution

By Andrew Hadfield

Literature and class


  • eBook

Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-5261-2583-5
  • Pages: 352
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £80.00
  • Published Date: August 2021
  • BIC Category: LITERARY CRITICISM / Modern / 16th Century, LITERARY CRITICISM / European / General, LITERARY CRITICISM / General, Sociology: Customs & Traditions, Literature & literary studies / General, Literature & literary studies / Literary studies: general, Literature & literary studies / Literature: history & criticism, Literature, Literature: history & criticism


This book explores the intimate relationship between literature and class in England (and later Britain) from the Peasants' Revolt at the end of the fourteenth century to the impact of the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth. The book argues throughout that class cannot be seen as a modern phenomenon that occurred after the Industrial revolution but that class divisions and relations have always structured societies and that it makes sense to assume a historical continuity. The book explores a number of themes relating to class: class consciousness; class conflict; commercialisation; servitude; rebellion; gender relations; and colonisation. After outlining the history of class relations, five chapters explore the ways in which social class consciously and unconsciously influenced a series of writers: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Behn, Rochester, Defoe, Duck, Richardson, Burney, Blake and Wordsworth.


'Andrew Hadfield's timely and important study addresses a crucial category that is less debated and arguably far less understood than race or gender. Yet while class is 'hidden in plain sight', often omitted even from considerations of equality and diversity, it remains a major driver not only of political change or representation, but of literary creation and innovation. Through scrupulous readings of a vast range of material, from medieval through early modern to the beginnings of modernity, Hadfield demonstrates the centrality of class as a shaping force in culture and society, one that has inspired a series of dramatic developments in literary form and content from Piers Plowman to Lyrical Ballads, and one that affords insights into the workings of a rapidly changing literary landscape from Reformation to Enlightenment. This is a formidable study - bold, ambitious, and original - and one that promises to augment significantly our knowledge of a key category of human existence. Raising the issue of class - in the public sphere, on social media, even in the classroom - can prove a struggle. This major new monograph, weighty and witty and wonderfully well-informed, is in the vanguard of the movement to reclaim class as a term worth struggling with.'
Professor Willy Maley, University of Glasgow

'Archivally rich and theoretically sophisticated, this is the exploration of English literature and social class we desperately need. Like William Blake's innovatively anachronistic methods of book production, this study arrests our attention and sheds new light on what we thought we knew. Conceiving of class in terms derived from Akala as well as Marx, Mary Collier as well as E. P. Thompson and Gareth Stedman Jones, Hadfield shows irrefutably how intimations of class differences and class struggle evolved long before the Industrial Revolution. All too often matters of class have been 'hidden in plain sight'. Between the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the American and French Revolutions, there is scarcely any English or Scottish literature that is not preoccupied by questions of class. Vivid close readings continue to surprise -- of Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales; the Levellers, the Diggers, Isaac Walton; poetry by 'the Thresher' Stephen Duck, 'the Washerwoman' Mary Collier, Thomas Gray, MacPherson's Ossian, William Cowper, Robert Burns, and George Crabbe; Lyrical Ballads and Songs of Innocence and Experience; Defoe's Moll Flanders, Mackenzie's Man of Feeling, and Frances Burney's Evelina and Cecilia; the pamphleteering of Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, and Mary Wollstonecraft, culminating in Percy Shelley's Address to the Irish People (1812). On the one hand, class is not only a matter of concern to the labouring poor or the working class. On the other hand, as Shelley declaimed after Peterloo, seeking justice through a sea change in class relations is a matter of much greater concern for some than others: "Rise like Lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number, . . ./ Ye are many - they are few." Everybody who reads British literature should read this book.'
Professor Donna Landry, FRAS, Rutherford College, University of Kent


Introduction: Hidden in Plain Sight
1 Class in England From the Late Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century
2 Perceptions of Class in the Late Middle Ages
3 Class Struggle in Renaissance Literature
4 The Civil War and Its Aftermath
5 An Increasingly Commercial Society, 1700-1750
6 Gathering Pace: Towards the Revolutions, 1750-1798
Epilogue: Shelley in Ireland


Andrew Hadfield is Professor of English at the University of Sussex

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