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68 Victorian Review Rohan McWiUiam. Popular Politics in Nineteenth Century England. London: Routledge, 1998. ? + 129. £11.99 (paper). In increasing numbers over the last half a dozen years, their appetites whetted by conference and seminar presentations, and one aU-too-brief published essay, those in the know have been waiting impatiently for Rohan McWiUiam to write a book. Unfortunately, this is not that book, and we must wait a little longer to read the fuU story of the Tichbome Claimant in aU its richness and complexity. This is a different and altogether more modest volume, although its preparation must have presented obstacles considerable enough. One of the Routledge 'Historical Connections' series, its aim is to provide an undergraduate-level survey which combines a clear picture of the historiographical debates and a comprehensive account of the central historical developments. In the jungle of competing ideologies, epistemologies, and teleologies which is the history of nineteenth century popular pontics at present this is no simple task. So, the extent to which McWUUam has produced a readable and accessible account which is fair to aU sides while not eschewing authorial interventions of his own is a measure of the success of the book. The study commences with a re-examination of the Queen Carotine affair, which admirably Uluminates both the complexities of popular poUtics in the post-Waterloo era, and the dramatic transformations which have taken place over the last twenty years in the ways in which it is conceptualized, and which provides an entrée into a substantial foundational chapter which traces the transition from what McWUUam terms the 'old analysis' (Marxist-derived, materialist class-centered, focused on perceived political discontinuities), to the 'new' (postmodem , idealist concerned with competing social identities and the relative autonomy ofthe poUtical, emphasizing continuities). McWiUiam charts a judicious course between these two poles, but the focus of his next chapter — the state, voting system and party — shows that his sympathies incline towards the latter, notwithstanding his stress tiiat this polity-centered approach is responsible for 'reinvigorating' rather than eclipsing social history. Similarly, the substance of the two subsequent chapters on "The culture of popular radicalism' which skillfully explore the recent marginalization of principles and psephology in favor of practices and identities, and seek to draw out the new insights made available by the decline of class, and the examination of familiar material from new perspectives. This then allows the final two chapters to consider patriotism and working-class conservatism, elements of the story of popular politics which have Reviews69 always straggled to find a place in an account dominated by Marxist teleologies. On this analysis McWiUiam bases a series of propositions, concisely articulated in an all-too-brief conclusion: that political history needs to be reclaimed 'as integral to social history'; that class cannot be simply abandoned, but that social and political identities are 'complex and fractured'; that poUtics is a gendered process; that historians must learn to treat the social and the linguistic as complementary and not mutuaUy exclusive; that finaUy, 'a post-revisionist agenda should endeavour to keep the people and ordinary experience in the historical record'. The book, inevitably given the format is not without its weaknesses. (Although they are unnecessarily compounded by the book's profligate use of space: of the one hundred and one pages of text (not including notes, bibliography, and index), the equivalent of ten are empty.) At times the prose is very dense, with several different arguments squeezed into a single paragraph, and the balance between history and historiography is not always smoothly sustained. More centrally, the central organizing theme, the division between the 'old analysis' and the 'new', which McWiUiam himself accepts at one point is a 'purely conventional' dichotomy, only partiaUy holds together. It works most effectively in pointing up the shift in narratives from discontinuity to continuity, and the consequent rephrasing of once key questions such as the reasons for the absence of revolution in England. It is less convincing in its discussion of the shift from class, a term which the author seems prepared at times to tie too closely to Marxist orthodoxy, under-playing in consequence the greater flexibiUty of the culturalist approaches pioneered by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 68-69
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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