The English Provinces, 1760–1960. Donald Read. Arnold, 42s.

In 1855 Mrs Gaskell drew a comparison between the dynamic and thriving society of the North and the stagnant, feudal South. One hundred years later the Economist was to draw the opposite contrast: ‘What has the south of Britain got that the North really wants? Short answer: the economic and social stimulus of a London.’ Read attempts to explain the extraordinary flowering of provincial life in the 19th century and the long process of decay that has beset the ‘provinces’ ever since. The simplest answer to Read’s question lies in the changing location of industry resulting from the industrial revolution. But the author treats this problem rather obliquely. He gives a competent summary of the religious and extra-Parliamentary movements of the 19th century and stresses that these were provincial. But it still remains unclear whether these movements were provincial per se, or whether they were provincial in so far as the social and economic interests that they represented merely happened to be located in the provinces. This confusion accounts for the uneven nature of the early part of the book. Although the book is meant to be about the provinces as a whole, East Anglia and the South West scarcely get a mention: and nor for that matter does the agricultural north. The society of Bright, Attwood and Chamberlain is described, but the provincial world of Trollope, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Hardy finds no place. Read should have more explicitly confined himself to the English provinces that were directly transformed by the industrial revolution.

But many of the faults of the early part of the book are compensated by his examination of the decline of provincial vitality in the last sixty years. He is particularly interesting on the effect of the exodus of the upper middle class elites from the centre of industrial cities and the consequences of their withdrawal from local politics; and he has some telling criticism of the contemporary treatment of the ‘provinces’ by the national press and the bbc. Read’s book is in no sense a definitive historical study on provincial life, so badly needed, but it is an interesting interim report and deserves attention.

Gareth Steadman-Jones