THE ENGLISH MIDDLE CLASS.* Ma. Gam-roses thoughtful essay on the
English middle class is a courageous attempt to rewrite English history from a novel point of view. He defines the middle class as " that portion of the community to which money is the primary condition and the primary instrument of life " ; assigns its appearance as a class to the thirteenth century ; and traces its development from that time to the present day, when " the phrase ' middle class ' has almost ceased to be a true distinction of rank and has become virtually a description of character." He is not at all sympathetic ; setting aside the orthodox theories of Constitutional and economic progress, he makes our history turn on the selfish manceuvres of a wily class of money-grubbers. Like Disraeli and Matthew Arnold, he holds the middle class in contempt ; indeed, in dispassionately working out his theory, he comes near to accepting the Bolshevik doctrine
that the bourgeois is the root of all evil, though Mr. Gretton is not
concerned with modern politics. Such a book is not to be taken literally, but it is amusing and stimulating in a high degree. The middle-class reader, from whose standpoint most histories are written, need not take offence at this indictment. Indeed, he may comfort himself with the reflection that recent events in Eastern Europe have justified anew the English and French middle class. Russia has collapsed, as Poland collapsed, largely for want of that substantial middle class which forms the core of every prosperous modem State.
Mr. Gretton would connect the rise of capitalism in the tat thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries with the sudden increase in the currency which was occasioned by the expulsion of the Jews and the disbandment of the Knights Templars, whose hoards of money were put into circulation. Landlords and peasants, shopkeepers and artisans, the King's officials and the Church, had hitherto constituted English society ; a new element, first visible
in London, now makes itself felt in the shape of merchants, especia ally in the wool trade, who controlled large sums of money and
could trade for profit outside the narrow confines of their local Gilds. Trading for profit was the new conception, as opposed to the primitive exchange of services characteristic of a feudal com- munity ; the men who had discovered that money breeds were the founders of our middle class. Mr. Gretton proceeds to show how they used their power to evade their due share of taxation by compounding with a needy Court for lump sums in place of submit- ting to an inquisitorial assessment, and how by their local influence they reduced municipal government to a formality. He will not even admit that their motives in founding many grammar schools at this time were genuinely patriotic ; " it is not too much to con- clude that the middle-class instinct for keeping to its own circle was at work in this direction also." The fifteenth century saw the capitalist clothier fully established, with spinners and weavers dependent on his orders. The craft Gilds, Mr. Gretton thinks, were encouraged by the masters so that they might keep a hold on the
journeymen, whose rise was carefully obstructed by the onerous conditions attached to the freedom of the Gilds. This is the reverse
of the idyllic theory of Gilds propagated by William Morris and others, but it contains some truth. That the nascent middle class had such a definite class consciousness as the author assumes, we take leave to doubt. Its abstention from State affairs is described by Mr. Gretton as a " subtle evil," yet no reader of the Pastors Letters, for example, can fail to understand why plain merchants held aloof from the baronial feuds which kept the whole country in a state of wild disorder. Sir John Poston, whose long struggle to obtain the Fastoif inheritance of Caister Castle is the chief episode in the Poston correspondence, might or might not be reckoned by Mr. Gretton as a middle-class man, for his money came from the practice of the law, but there was every reason why men of business should eschew politics until the quarrel of York and Lancaster was decided for good.
With the advent of the Tudors—the New Monarchy with a firm grip—the middle class developed rapidly. The large capitalists who subscribed to the trading companies bought estates, both before and after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and became a new nobility, and they were supported by the. class of smaller traders who controlled the Gilds, and by the body of wealthy lawyers and officials, of whom Thomas Cromwell, the first secular middle-class Minister, was the type. Mr. Gretton is severe on these people for escaping the burden of taxation under an obsolete assessment—in 1592 Cecil complained that no London citizen was assessed as owning more than £200 in goods, though every one knew that there were many rich men in the City. The author admits for once that the glory of the Elizabethan age " rested in the main upon the develop- ment of the middle oleos " as a link between Crown and people, but
• The Bnglish Middle Class : as Historical Study. By B. N. Gretton. London: G. BeU and Sons. Las. Gd. net]
he proceeds to qualify the admission until it means little or nothing :-
" To prooeed from such recognition of the influence of the Middle Class upon the age of Elizabeth to remarking that in the expression of the glory of that age, in the representation of it to the world at large, they had very little share, may seem to be passing from the vitally important to the comparatively superficial. Does it really matter, it may be asked, that Algernon Sidney and Raleigh and Drake, Shakespeare and Surrey and Pembroke, were not men of the Middle Class—that Knole, Penshurst, Hatfield and their like were not built for men of the Middle Class—so long as the material foundations of national well-being which alone provides the freedom of spirit necessary for the highest artistic expression were laid by the Middle Class ? The answer is that it does matter ; because in the fact of this difference, between the source of the material, and the source of the expression of the magnificence, of the Eliza- bethan age, we have the light in which the subsequent development of the Middle Class must be constantly regarded. In a word, the incursion of that class into national affairs produced a separation between true national consciousness and the instinct of a stake in the country '—a separation of which far too little account has yet been taken. Broadly speaking, the merit of the Norman and Plantagenet system was that it welded together the two instincts. This was the spiritual secret of the holding of possessions by service. It created a unity of consciousness which was able to survive the translation of services into rent and taxation. Now, as we have seen, it was a deeply ingrained instinct of the Middle Class to hold itself aloof from any such conception. . . . National consciousness is from this time onwards in national history a quality to which individual members of the Middle Class might attain, after several generations of assimilation to the survivals of an old tradition, and for the rest a quality inherent in the remnants of an old landed class and in the mass of the people, among whom it was in time to be regarded by the cultured as insular prejudice. But the bulk of the Middle Class has never come nearer to it than a sense of the corre- lation and interdependence of their individual stakes in the country. And that is a totally different thing."
Mr. Gretton's dogmatic view is novel but unconvincing. How can one safely condemn a whole class in such sweeping terms ? The old
nobility under the Tudors provided many more traitors—or, in the modern phrase, internationalists—than the merchants who are thus set down as lacking in patriotism.
We need not follow the author through the rest of his attractive but curiously biassed sketch. The triumph of the middle class in the eighteenth century and the new complications introduced by the rise of the manufacturers are more familiar topics, though he handles them freshly. But we must draw attention to his suggestive treatment of the currency problem, and of the development of joint-stock enterprise, which helped to differentiate the merchants from the manufacturers, and caused difficulties for the men of the Industrial Revolution which were not solved until the days of Huskisson, Cobden, and Peel. it is curious, as he points out, that the middle class should have put into full effect the plan for a standing Army which the Crown had never succeeded in carrying out. He suggests unkindly that they would " see their own profit in it," and, more accurately we think, that the old idea of an Army as a force raised for a specific purpose, and therefore for a limited time, was extravagant and wasteful. That Army, however, surely proved that the middle class had as much national consciousness as any other class of the people.