Consumer durables

The Pleasures of the Imagination
October 17, 1997

This is a work about consumerism in a fascinating period in English culture. Consumerism has also structured John Brewer's book as a cultural and intellectual artefact. He wanted "a beautiful object"and HarperCollins has amply fulfilled this requirement. The publisher was also responsible for fighting what Brewer terms the "alien abstractions" of the original prose, and presumably for the decision to dispense with footnotes. The book as consumer product contributes to the sumptuous cover illustration, a painting of "Sir Rowland and Lady Winn in the library at Nostell Priory", to the photograph of the relaxed author on the dustjacket, and to the laudatory quotes from Simon Schama and Lisa Jardine.

The book as consumer product was important in 18th-century English culture, and HarperCollins must hope that Brewer's work will emulate this. It is attractively priced, clearly laid out, well organised and easy to read. The last is important, not only to the book as consumer product, but also, because its enviable range will ensure that much it covers is unfamiliar to readers.

Brewer is at home with connoisseurs and theatre-goers, aesthetes and dilettanti, the world of Hogarth and that of Reynolds, landscape and the great metropolis. The commendable accessibility of the work is taken further by the frequent use of apposite case studies. Thus the world of provincial music is approached through the energetic John Marsh and the poetry of provincial sensibility through Anna Seward, both good choices. Skilful use is made of a fascinating range of sources.

Accessibility is also important to Brewer's argument. It is difficult to summarise such a lengthy study, not least because the argument is frequently hidden. But, in essence this is an account of a conflation of consumerism and the public sphere through which taste is defined, imagination organised and encouraged, and culture developed. As Brewer says, even those with an elitist view of culture did not reject the view that the public should be its proper audience, and debate over culture was facilitated by "open government" and "a free press". Thus, for example, in considering Hogarth's 1724 print Masquerades and Operas, Brewer notes the work's sharp antiministerial edge and that it was praised in the press.

Such openness and fluidity is seen to characterise much of the culture of the period. For example, "the deliberate mixing of genres from high and low culture", such as The Beggar's Opera, as well as the creation of art works whose chief features were their topicality and variety of expression. Brewer offers an ambitious and imaginative account of cultural change and definition. He explains why many considered an interest in the arts and imaginative literature as a way to lead a better, more virtuous life, and thus how cultural pursuits fitted into a larger scheme of social and moral values.

It is necessary to enter some caveats. First, this is a work that is too accessible. Polite consumerism acts as universal solvent, banishing problems. In the introduction Brewer correctly notes that divisions affected every aspect of life, including church music and the patronage of painters. But he does not follow this through. He underplays social and regional divisions as much as those in politics and religion. In his pursuit of middle-class women, Brewer ignores the poor. This is not only a problem of omission. The social slant of the work contributes to its optimistic tone. The world of the poor, of expediency, did not extend to the purchase of luxuries, such as musical instruments, Wedgwood pottery, or, for most people, newspapers. Any description of the period in terms of a culture of print was and is fundamentally qualified by widespread illiteracy. Yet the poor were a far from undifferentiated section of the population. Status and security were attainable, although precarious. Far less work has been devoted to the cultural life of these people than to the middling orders, and it is all too easy to resort to a simple picture of exclusion and/or limited culture.

Much of the culture needs to be located in the far-from-uniform worlds of politics and religion. In his work on Bristol, Jonathan Barry has shown that cultural activity in the provincial town, far from being primarily an off-shoot of middle-class leisure, was as closely bound to local politics and religion as to consumerism. This was also the case with Scotland and Ireland, the exclusion of which is most unfortunate, not least because their inclusion would have forced a fuller discussion of diversity and division, including that between Gaeldom and the world of English in Ireland and Highland Scotland, between English and Scots in Lowland Scotland, between Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian in Ireland, and between Highland and Lowland and Presbyterian and Episcopalian in Scotland. In his last book, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State (1989), Brewer demilitarised his history and left out the operational side of war.

Shifts in style are not simply results of national, regional, religious or class changes or conflict. It is possible that in England the notion of a common culture, albeit one with different styles, is appropriate. Performers and the public sought to investigate and express common problems and emotions, to make sense of a common world in a number of different styles and formats. Thus, folk music was not distinct and antithetical to "polite" music; there is considerable evidence of interrelationship.

Such an emphasis on the culture of the period as diverse, complex, controverted and in part poorly investigated is not helpful in the eyes of some editors who want their history clear and neat. Brewer notes a few of the complexities, but ignores most. This is very much a middlebrow work. Fair enough; that is what the consumer probably wants and the publisher desires. Brewer sits happily and, he notes, profitably, at the interface. It is a pity. A scholar of Brewer's prominence could probably get away with persuading a big-name publisher to serve up a dish with a richer interplay of flavours. Furthermore, quite a few consumers like to be introduced to complexity.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century

Author - John Brewer
ISBN - 0 00 255537 9
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £30.00
Pages - 721

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