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Biography 25.2 (2002) 401-404

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Jean Robin. The Way We Lived Then. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. 168 pp. ISBN 0-754-60066-1, $69.00.

Curiously, as this review is being written, British audiences are being treated to a lavish TV adaptation of Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, a depiction of the social and financial mores of the upper ten thousand of later Victorian England. Jean Robin's monograph affords an interesting contrast. In place of a cast of shady foreigner financiers, ruggedly virtuous Tory squires, earnest young civil engineers, and questionable lady writers, it offers a gallery of lace-makers, country surgeons, Tractarian vicars, farm-laborers, and workhouse matrons prone to drink. The landscape against which these humbler players perform is not Trollope's corrupt capital, but the village of Colyton in Devon, the heartland of the agricultural southwest of England. Instead of the Houses of Parliament, the Inns of Court, and Belgravia, it is St Andrew's Church, the Feofees Grammar School, the Wesleyan and Independent chapels, Hamlyn's Tannery, and the George Inn which provide the backdrop to the life of this Victorian community.

Like Trollope, though, Robin is a prosopographer of Victorian society. Her group portrait of the inhabitants of Colyton from 1851 to 1891 is based on extensive cross-referencing of a large body of primary sources, ranging from parish registers and census returns to the Honiton and Ottery St Mary Weekly News and Samuel Seaward's nonagenarian memoirs of his childhood home, recorded in the 1930s. While much of Robin's analysis is in the tradition of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, she has gone beyond a purely statistical approach to recreate the life histories of particular families in greater detail, and to deal with such aspects of community life as religious disputes and the rather shaky start of systematic crime prevention in Colyton (one of the first watchmen appointed in the 1850s, James Tucker, appears to have had a propensity for minor criminal activity at least equal to that of the village's habitual offenders).

From the point of view of the readers of Biography, this represents an interesting experiment in the recovery of those lost lives of the Victorian period, an attempt to record the "short and simple annals of the Poor." Robin does not pretend that these life histories are in any way complete: short and simple they remain, sometimes little more than a record of birth, marriage, and death. But—combined—they create the texture of lives lived in this community, through this period, from birth to death. While a detailed account of the ordinary life of a particular individual may not be viable, a composite account of a typical life is clearly possible—as, too, is a biography of a community. In fact, other members of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure have already researched [End Page 401] the earlier years of this particular settlement extensively. Robin uses a cohort of 633 children "aged under ten in 1851" as the focus of the study, and their life experience is explored through chapters on educational opportunity, child employment, pre-marital sex and marriage, migration, and old age. These chapters reflect on the changing patterns of rural life in the village: the shift for girls, for instance, from employment as lace-makers to domestic service, and the development of elementary education, which eventually became compulsory in the 1880s.

In the course of these chapters, Robin makes many interesting suggestions about the nature, opportunities, and choices of rural communities. The chapter on pre-marital sex, for instance, undermines many of our more cherished popular preconceptions about the consequences of such unchaste conduct in the allegedly moralistic Victorian climate: just over half the children christened between 1851 and 1881 were probably conceived out of wedlock. Robin suggests that—below the level of the professional and shopkeeping classes—"respectability" had little impact on the sexual mores of Colytonians. Nor does she think that this sexual freedom can be explained as the traditional practice of fertility...


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