Kevin Saving on

A Victorian Class Conflict? by Dr. John T. Smith 

(Sussex Academic Press, 2009)

ISBN: 978-1-84519-295-2

[email protected] (RRP: £49.50)



One of the 'attractions' of reviewing is that, occasionally, you get given books you wouldn't ordinarily elect to read. Here we have a case in point. The subtitle to Dr John T. Smith's volume is 'Schoolteaching and the Parson, Priest and Minister, 1837-1902', which, it is fair to say, provides a totally accurate summary of its content. This work is scholarly, exceedingly scrupulous and, perhaps, a little worthy - its reviewer, none of those things. A formative influence in my life was being 'schooled' in English at the hand, quite literally, of the local (Anglican) vicar. Watching him deal with the, admittedly vexatious, distractions of some of my fellow pupils proved an education in itself. Dear Dr Barnes (now long dead), you taught better than you knew.

    It is informative to view these various inter- denominational power - struggles through the smoked-glass of retrospect. Education was - for the Victorians - one of the major battlefields. Nor have we yet (in mostly-secular Britain) resolved the muddle which the Victorians bequeathed us - it is even arguable that we have made it worse. 'Muddle' lies at the heart of this narrative. Do we lack clarity in our thinking through educational deficits, or is the muddle-headed nature of our teaching system(s) a product of unclear thought? The author, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Hull, even manages to confuse himself with his dense prose-style. Towards the end of chapter four (page 100) we're granted the following insights:


The incumbent's status in society, as well as his income, had fallen considerably, while those of his teachers were in the ascendant. The experiences of the Roman Catholic Priest and the Wesleyan minister were however very different, as their backgrounds and positions were not those of the Anglican clergyman. Both suffered from poor stipends, which were exceeded by their own teachers' salaries. Deference however came more naturally to the Priest, by nature of his office and the Eucharistic teachings of his church.


Let's try to recapitulate. Are we to understand that the incumbent's teachers (those who had taught him[?]) were earning more than him or (more probably) that the salaries of the teachers working under his auspices, exceeded his own? From those of just whom were the priest's and the Wesleyan minister's experiences so different? From the incumbent's or from each other's. Is the incumbent the same person as the Anglican clergyman? Both suffered from poor stipends, but should we assume that they (the Wesleyan and the Priest[?]) were 'moon-lighting' as teachers? And was the Priest more deferential by nature of his office (and the Eucharistic teachings, obviously, of his church)? Or did he expect more deference from his flock? Answers (on a postcard, please) to Dr John T. Smith, care of the university of Hull.

    The pity of it is that a wealth of original, highly specialised, research on the 'interplay' between Anglican, Roman Catholic and their dissenting rivals, co-educators and co-religionists, the Wesleyans, should become obfuscated. I'm caused to lament, yet again, the belief seemingly prevalent in academe that the harder a text is to decipher, the more profound its contents are likely to be. More often, it's just ill-written.

    To Dr Smith I would like to prescribe a dose of sir Ernest Gower's The Complete Plain Words, or failing that, a good boxing of his ears from my own nemesis, the Rev Barnes. Clearly (or unclearly) produced for a coterie of like-minded academics this book (176 pages plus 39 of notes) will not find an enthusiastic readership among the laity.


Lastly (as my own little footnote) Dr Smith really should be aware that the schools inspector, Matthew Arnold, (though he wrote widely on religious matters) was never a 'clergyman' - as he, Dr Smith, wrongly states on page 174.




Kevin Saving © 2009