Class is not the most fashionable of topics nowadays, even though it remains the most important determinant of life opportunities. What matters to most people matters rather less to intellectuals. On the postmodern left, the notion has rapidly ceded ground to gender and ethnicity - a curious opposition, since the latter are by no means innocent of class connotations. Women figure largely in the new global proletariat; ethnically oppressed groups are for the most part impoverished ones; and the resistance to so-called neo-colonialism is a resistance to the power of transnational capital.
Gary Day's compact survey of the role of class in literary history wisely skirts the quagmire of definitions, but thereby leaves some key questions tantalisingly unanswered. What are the exact distinctions between class, group, caste and status? Does the notion of social class date only from the era of industrial capitalism? Is it a purely objective category, or do subjective perceptions enter into it? Are you petit bourgeois if you think you are? Why is it usually those perched on top of the class ladder who tend to deny its existence? Shelving these knotty questions, however, allows Day enough elbow room for a breathtakingly ambitious little volume, which packs into its mere 200 pages nothing less than a brief history of social class in Britain from Piers Plowman to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists .
This takes some corners rather wide. The main thread of Day's argument is the remarkably fruitful concept of exchange - fruitful not least because it operates at so many levels, from material production to the structure of thought or the logic of a text, and so can serve as a mediation between them. There are those, for example, who have seen abstract thought itself as a kind of currency of the mind, which like commodity exchange divests items of their particularity so they can be usefully compared and connected. Even so, it seems fanciful for Day to perceive such market logic at work in the medieval poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" simply because two knights trade blows. He is on surer ground with Shakespeare, an author veritably obsessed with the exchange of identities, but the Bard takes something of a back seat. Nor is the relationship between class and exchange fully spelt out. But Day is sensitive to the complexities of English class history and the perils of economic reductionism, not least in the civil war epoch. This, for a study that nonetheless reminds us of the persistent importance of the economic in cultural affairs, is a signal achievement.
Six hundred years of civilisation in one-third as many pages would seem to invite scholarly derision. Yet Day's account, while often disputable, is almost always shaded and judicious, distilling an impressive mound of materials. It is a versatile narrative, too, shifting from money to aesthetics, labour history to popular culture, Alexander Pope to John Prescott. Some might prefer a more modest perspective and constricted focus; but though there is a good deal of skimming, there are enough genuine insights to offset it.
Literary works are, for the most part, somewhat manhandled, reduced to their abstractable content and plundered for social attitudes; there can be scant attention in so brief a compass to the intricacies of literary form. Yet this book is illuminating on the rise of the novel, working-class culture and the current cultural politics, concluding with a sober reminder that though class is harder to locate sociologically in a transnational world, the growing army of the dispossessed recalls us to its enduring centrality.
Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory, University of Manchester.
Author - Gary Day
ISBN - 0 415 18222 0 and 18223 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £9.99
Pages - 239