On M. K. Ashby's Joseph Ashby of Tysoe, 1859-1919.
I first encountered Joseph Ashby of Tysoe, 1859-1919 as a postgraduate student researching the 19th-century popular press. The history of a Warwickshire village and of one of its inhabitants, would, I thought, help me understand "my" newspaper's support for the agricultural labourers' cause in the 1870s.
The book did not figure much in the subsequent thesis, but it has remained important at both a personal level and in shaping my practice as an historian. There was much which seemed to relate to my own family's experience at a slightly later period, although that was in rural Suffolk rather than in Warwickshire. "Family stories" emanating from that time had always fascinated me and continue to do so.
For an historian, there was also much to consider. M. K. Ashby's approach to her material was totally unlike anything historical I had come across before. As the daughter of Joseph and herself a noted educationist, it would have been easy to write some celebratory family history, or to produce a dense text brimming with fact and dates. But the book is not like that at all. Its form is that of a historical story, an account based on sources which are by no means obvious and which include oral tradition and written testimony together with more traditional sources such as parish registers and the reports of inquiries. Weaving together and assessing diverse sources is what any historian might do. But her relationship to, and interrogation of, her material is quite unusual. The book is part biography part autobiography; she writes to convey Joseph's inmost thoughts while at the same time remaining the detached and analytical observer of changes in village life.
Those changes are imaginatively conveyed. But the compass of the book is a process of longer historical change than Joseph's own life. The author describes how (in a passage which gives a flavour of its style) Joseph develops "the sense, to describe it as best I can, that under the wide acreage of grass and corn and woods which he saw daily there was a ghostly, ancient tessellated pavement made of the events and thoughts and associations of other times. This historical sense he shared with many of the men he met about his work. Their strong memory for the past was unimpaired by much reading or novelty of experience, and yet their interest had been sharpened by the sense of rapid change." For the villagers of Tysoe, this rapid change was the enclosures of the 18th century, which had transformed the old democratic and open village society into a newer and more stratified one, with divisions of church and chapel, both Methodist and Primitive. A central theme is the struggle between different notions of community, represented in the battles to control the Town Lands. His daughter sees Joseph's later life as a Liberal agent and the political possibilities opened up by the reform of local government as a reformulation of the earlier pre-enclosure sense of equality.
The focus on community explains the book's appeal to a wider audience in the 1960s and 1970s, as Edward Thompson's eloquent introduction to my 1974 edition attests. It has much at that level to offer for a 1990s rereading. My own research interests are now far from the 19th century and from the agricultural labourers, their theoretical backdrop quite different. But Joseph Ashby's sense of historical process, its accessibility, the involvement yet detachment of the author, seem to me the essence of the craft. Joseph to his daughter was unique, but "he was, after all, representative". The historical sense of the particular and the universal; awareness of, and fascination wit the "tessellated pavement" of the past, are enthusiasms and skills for historians whatever the period.
Virginia Berridge is reader in history, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Her latest book is Aids in the UK: the making of policy 1981-84.