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Andrew Hadfield, Literature and Class: From the Peasants’ Revolt to the French Revolution
by Jordan Blake

Andrew Hadfield. Literature and Class: From the Peasants’ Revolt to the French Revolution. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021. 352 pp. ISBN: 9781526125835. £80 hardback.

Andrew Hadfield’s Literature and Class: From the Peasants Revolt to the French Revolution is an ambitious and wide-ranging book. More than thirty-five major authors are studied to varying degrees in order to chart and investigate ‘the relationship between conceptions and literary representations of social class in Great Britain from the late Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century’ (14). The book is separated into an introduction and six chapters, and, barring the first chapter, is ordered chronologically. It offers a thorough immersion into the social dynamics of the period under discussion and provides readers with the contextual information and critical approaches to think about class consciousness, evolving class-systems, and class relations in all their forms. The purpose of the book is not to study labouring-class writing from The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the close of the eighteenth century per se, but rather to take a much broader view of class throughout this period. In so doing, Hadfield brings various writers into dialogue with one another in an ongoing conversation, including canonical writers taught at undergraduate level and labouring-class authors who have received less study to date. Organising the book in such a way has resulted in a very readable book, and what becomes increasingly clear throughout Hadfield’s analysis is how literature demonstrates (and indeed shapes) class consciousness and reveals how central class consciousness is in shaping individuals’ perceptions of themselves and others. Any scholar of literature and its relationship to class will find this book of interest, since it offers a valuable reminder that class relations are neither stable nor fixed and have developed over time as the result of circumstances both immediate and long-since passed.

The introductory chapter begins by refuting a truism of older criticism (as demonstrated by the writings of Peter Laslett and T.S Eliot) that prior to the industrial revolution, English society was a homogenous entity with shared common experiences which were accepted by all. Hadfield instead argues that the emergence of class consciousness was not simply the result of industrialisation and the resultant shift that occurred in the relations between production and consumption, but was evident over two hundred years prior to this. Drawing on the works of numerous poets, playwrights and novelists with varying social prospects, Hadfield builds upon the scholarship of E.P. Thompson and demonstrates that, while the language of class was not established prior to the industrial revolution, many writers prior to this period recognised class consciousness, class relations and social change as lived realities in England.

The first chapter provides an overview of the historical, political, and socio-economic circumstances that altered British citizens’ views of certain groups of individuals such as ‘peasants’ and the ‘commons’. Hadfield positions such groups as distinct classes with common experiences, and the chapter begins by examining the effects of several revolts which occurred between the late fourteenth and the sixteenth century and how they helped to shape the identities of these groups. He then outlines the political developments which occurred in fifteenth-century Britain to elucidate how class consciousness develops most rapidly in times of economic and political unease. As the chapter progresses, he turns to Britain’s move towards commercialism and its implications for class-consciousness, arguing that the latter was accelerated by the sale of monastic lands after the Reformation, and revisits the transition from feudalism to capitalism and its transformation of the relations of production. Finally, he points to the technological developments that occurred from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and which both enabled the development of capitalism and contributed to the significant growth in urban Society: factors which occasioned further class conflict. Throughout the chapter, Hadfield points to various texts (including Thomas Malory’s prose retelling of the Arthurian legends, William Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Part Two (c.1591), and Thomas Churchyard’s Davy Dyker’s Dream (1551) to name a few) and indicates the ways each reflect Britain’s altering class-relations.

Chapter two surveys the literature of the late fourteenth century and its engagement with class consciousness and class hierarchy, focusing its arguments through the study of three poems. The first two poems studied are Piers Plowman by William Langland (c.1370-c.1390) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387-1400). Hadfield examines the poems’ respective depictions of social aspiration, arguing that Langland envisions a self-sufficient society where all work together to produce food that is distributed fairly, while Chaucer depicts social mobility as a utopian ideal which is in reality unattainable. Hadfield then explores how some writers aligned themselves with the upper classes and condemned the actions of the peasants in The Peasants’ Revolt, through the study of John Gower’s Vox Clamantis (1380s). While the analysis of this final work offers an interesting contrast owing to its portrayal of peasants, the chapter may have benefited from an even more sustained reading of Vox Clamantis and its wider implications when thinking about the ways in which writers promoted the existing class structure rather than condemning it.

Chapter three takes the reader on a dextrous whirlwind tour of several early modern writers and examines the ways in which they express anxieties about class relations. Hadfield first compares Sir Thomas Smith’s De Republica Anglorum (1583) with George Puttenham’s Art of English Poesie (1589) and explores how both writers understood society in terms of an agrarian economy and attempted to categorise contemporary classes. The next section is concerned with the Renaissance stage. Hadfield examines the concerns displayed regarding upward and downward social mobility in Arden of Faversham (1592), Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599) and Philip Massigner’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1621/2-5), demonstrating that such apprehensions were not limited to lower class writers. The final genre studied is sixteenth-century poetry and begins with an analysis of Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (1594). Hadfield compares Spenser’s depiction of his wife to Astrophil’s description of Stella in Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, determining that Spenser’s portrayal of his wife differs from that of Sidney’s portrayal of his beloved owing to the manner in which Spenser’s sonnets are framed by an interest in English colonial expansion. Following this, Richard Barnfield’s personification of wealth in The Prayse of Lady Pecunia (1598) and his response to an increasingly monetarised economy is briefly analysed, and the chapter concludes with a more sustained reading of John Taylor’s career. Hadfield describes how Taylor desired to align himself with those of higher social status, while simultaneously fashioning himself as an isolated, undervalued (and resultingly poverty stricken) poet who, precisely because he is rejected by the upper class, has the right to decry an extravagant society plagued by overconsumption. The chapter covers a lot of material and provides a brilliant overview of the many different socio-economic changes that occurred in early modern England and affected writers’ understanding of class relations. Given more space, it would have been exciting to have had an even more thorough reading of the distinction Spenser makes between traders and courtiers in this book, with the aim of further enriching readers’ understanding of how class relations and distinctions were altered by colonialism and empire.

Chapter four surveys writing produced from immediately after the Civil War to the Restoration and explores the Civil War’s impact on class conflict. After opening with an analysis of the pamphlets disseminated by The Levellers, Hadfield examines Gerrard Winstanley’s scathing critique of wealthy landlords and the enclosure of communal lands in A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England (1649). A study of Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler (1653, 1667) and Robert Herrick’s Hesperides (1648) is then offered. Hadfield examines their belief that a common culture based on agrarian values was needed, while pointing to the ways in which Herrick’s writing challenged Puritans and critiqued the Civil War’s impact on individuals. Next, he argues that both John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) and Paradise Regained (1671) serve to demonstrate Milton’s gradually lessened faith in the ability of the common people to introduce radical societal change. We are then provided with a more sustained analysis of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and the ways in which Bunyan connects class and vanity and aligns true Christianity with working class experience. The chapter closes with an examination of gender and class relations in The Imperfect Enjoyment (circulated in manuscript in the late 1660s and 1670s) by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and in Aphra Behn’s The Disappointment (1680) and Oroonoko (1688). As in the previous chapter’s analysis of the connections formed between class, colonialism and empire, Hadfield reveals the intersectionality of class throughout his study of Rochester and Behn. Firstly, he examines Rochester’s figure of the libertine and his depiction of impotency, demonstrating how the poem explores the libertine’s contempt for women. While he recognises that Rochester’s poetic speaker is able to sleep with many women below his station without difficulty because he has no anxiety about his social superiority, yet is unable to sexually fulfil a women who is his social equal, Hadfield nevertheless concludes by deeming Rochester ‘myopic about class’ (188). However, one could read the poetic speaker’s impotence as a physical response to a power struggle that is as intertwined with class anxieties as it is with gender relations. Hadfield then analyses The Disappointment (1680) in a similar vein and finally examines how Behn, as author of Oroonoko, depicts a social order that seeks to justify the right of those who are born to rule (and thus accepts the fate of those enslaved), defending James II’s right to the throne. 

Chapter five covers the period 1700-1750 and begins with a study of Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1721), Colonel Jack (1722), and, in more detail, Moll Flanders (1721). Hadfield firstly examines the hopeful outlook for England’s future presented in A Tour, arguing that Defoe believed the commercial revolution and the Act of Union (1707) between England and Scotland would transform areas of Britain, expand its trade, and enrich the country’s economy. Next, Hadfield details how Moll Flanders stands in stark contrast to A Tour in its portrayal of Britain, owing to its full engagement with class consciousness through its negative portrayal of servants. He then discusses how Defoe’s portrayal of criminal activity in both Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack speaks more widely to England’s contemporary penal system, such as the Transformation Act of 1718, following this with a demonstration of how a number of early eighteenth-century writers did not see class distinctions as being fixed and insurmountable, but in fact believed upward mobility to be possible. Moving from Moll’s eventual rise to respectability through marriage, Hadfield examines Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and how its protagonist serves to question the accepted ideals and behaviours associated with upper-class conduct. Next, we are provided with an outline of the life of a poet whose rise to literary fame would have, for many writers, exemplified the extent to which English society was a meritocratic one: Stephen Duck (1705?–1756). However, Hadfield demonstrates that Duck’s social elevation was not as linear as one may initially think, and studies Duck’s critique of lower-class exploitation in The Thresher’s Labour (1730). The most illuminating part of the chapter is the examination of Mary Collier’s response to Duck and her exploration of the ways in which women labourers existed within women’s communities. The chapter concludes with a comparison of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750). Hadfield suggests the ways in which both writers idealise the past and depict a ‘lost world’, contrasting the poets’ differing opinions; while Fielding laments the disappearance of a society which he felt was inclusive of all classes, Gray views this society as one which over-worked rural labourers and prevented them from bettering their social status (232).

The final chapter studies the literature produced in the second half of the eighteenth century and covers a range of popular genres from the ballad tradition to sensibility literature. Hadfield begins with an analysis of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) to evidence that some writers looked favourably on onset of the division of labour. He moves on to study Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1756) and James Macpherson’s (1736-96) Ossian poems and how these writers contrastingly presented a future in which English society would lose its unity and were nostalgic for the freedoms they felt existed in the past. Hadfield then examines the cult of sensibility and middle-class responses to exploitation through an analysis of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) and Frances Burney’s Cecilia (1782) and Evelina (1778), before studying George Crabbe and William Cowper’s representation of the strenuous work that agricultural labourers faced. The final section of the chapter studies the influence of the French Revolution on writers’ understanding of class inequality. Hadfield touches upon several poems by Robert Burns, including ‘A Man’s A Man For A’That’ (1795) and ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’ (1795), then examines Thomas Paine’s call for universal right in Common Sense (1776) and The Rights of Man (1791). Next, Hadfield reads Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) in relation to class instead of its gender politics, arguing that Wollstonecraft understood class in terms of property ownership. William Blake’s portrayal of the French Revolution and exploitation in England is then studied. The work on Blake’s distinctive mode of book production and the new techniques ‘of creating books so that he had control over his labour and its relationship to his writing and art’ (270) is particularly rewarding and allows for further study to be completed regarding the relationship between production, literature, and class. Finally, we reach the end of the eighteenth century with a study of William Wordsworth’s use of labouring-class language in Lyrical Ballads and ‘We are Seven’ (1798).

The ambitious breadth and variety of textual reference in this book prevents this reviewer from supplying a complete summary. The array of works offered for study alongside Hadfield’s approach to different literary forms and genres certainly illuminate the long heritage of class-based writing in English. While some authors are only discussed briefly, owing to the constraints of space, this book will be exceedingly useful for scholars looking to for a broader understanding of class relations. By making it plain that class-based writing has a much richer and lengthier genealogy than is recognised by most modern scholars, Literature and Class is a significant and fascinating addition to the discipline and I look forward to the second volume covering literature from the beginning of the nineteenth century, which should be published in time.


Jordan Blake

University of Bristol




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Cite as:

Jordan Blake, "Andrew Hadfield, Literature and Class: From the Peasants’ Revolt to the French Revolution," Spenser Review (Fall 2022). Accessed April 13th, 2024.
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