A synopsis for a contribution to a panel discussion to be delivered at the British Society for Eighteenth-century Studies Conference at Oxford in January '09.
The rancid smell of decay; the constant putrefaction of a world of wood, of oil, of fabric, burned sharp in the minds of eighteenth-century people. To create a pre-industrial society that worked, every bit and piece of the man-made world required attention on an almost daily basis. It was this fundamental material reality that underlay most working class notions of the world. In popular biblical and medical conceptions of the body, in the hard and bigoted landscape of ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarity’, in the fear of the wild, and in the innate attractions of the urban, and the farmed, is found a headlong retreat from chaos – a retreat enacted with every laborious brush stroke of a housewife at her step, or a carpenter with his chisel. Sharp and vertiginous divisions of class and gender and place, divided eighteenth-century people one from the other; but underpinning this was a shared material experience that tied the brick maker, the philosophe, the beggar, the farmer and the hopeful mother into a single unending struggle to wrest order from an all-consuming nature.