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01 August 2009 @ 08:01 pm
The Lunar Men  
When I read Dr Johnson's London by Lisa Picard I lamented in passing my history teacher's prejudice against the 18th century and my resulting lack of knowledge on the subject, especially since it was such a key period in the history of science. lonemagpie recommend The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow (among other books) and his recommendation was backed by parrot_knight so it duly went onto my "to read" pile.

Shortly after reading Dr Johnson's London I also read The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson and it was fascinating to read the same general period covered from, basically, the opposite end of the social scale but nevertheless discussing people who were also adversely affected (when they weren't making money out of it, that is) by the repressive regime of the early 19th century. However the bulk of The Lunar Men concentrates on the earlier 18th century which it presents as a more liberal and free-wheeling society. Incidentally Thompson also looked back with regret at the pre-industrial age but I have a vaguely itchy "rose-tinted spectacles" feeling about the whole era. Thompson was explicitly comparing the implicit social contract he believed existed between landowner and agricultural labourer with the lack of any social contract between factory owner and worker which made me suspicious that a kind of pastoral idyll was in play. In this case, of course, its simply the fact that the book focuses on the upper, or at least upper-middle, strata of society that makes me wonder about the suffering that may have been occurring lower down the social scale.

The Lunar Men is a much better book than Dr Johnson's London and a far more accessible one than The Making of the English Working Class. It's a fairly straightforward piece of narrative history, relating the lives and works of a group of men who were briefly joined together in a society of "Lunar Men" which studied science and philosophy together. I found it was a fascinating and engaging look at the era of the gentleman scientists and the dawn of mass industrialisation. If I had one criticism it would be that some of the characters, such as Darwin (grandfather of the more famous Charles), Wedgewood (yes, of the china) and Boulton (who worked with Watt on the Steam Engine as well as numerous other things) rather eclipse the others and sometimes I found a Lunar Man being mentioned whose background and name I could not recall, leaving me a little unclear how they fitted into the whole. That quibble aside though I'd say the book accomplishes its task (to give a flavour of the life and times of these men) admirably.

Highly Recommended.
reggietatereggietate on August 1st, 2009 09:08 pm (UTC)
I've been meaning to read EP Tompson's book for years, and never got around to it. I'm pretty sure things weren't all rosy for those pre-industrial workers, but at the same time, many of them did enjoy quality of life that the factory workers that followed them didn't. Millhands in particular often suffered from very bad working conditions, long hours, and regimentation.

Have you read: The Real Oliver Twist: Robert Blincoe - A Life That Illuminates an Age? A fascinating account of the life of a real workhouse orphan who ended up as a millhand at the age of 8, and saw a lot of the abuses (as we'd see them now) at first hand. Ironically, he'd been reasonably well-treated in the workhouse where he first grew up - the conditions were bad, but the inmates were decently fed and looked after.
louisedennislouisedennis on August 1st, 2009 09:17 pm (UTC)
I've not read that no.

Thompson made the case that industrialisation caused a break down in the accepted and implicit checks and balances that made it a lot harder than you might think for a land owner to abuse his workers, checks and balances that the new factory owners neither understood nor recognised. The early 19th century sounds like it was a simply horrible time to be poor and Thompson's book is quite chilling in places. The Lunar Men gets no more chilling than a note that the laws against meetings prevented the Lunar gatherings unless they could guarantee that politics would not be discussed. The scientists lived in an altogether cosier world.
reggietatereggietate on August 1st, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
I've not read that no.

Well worth a look. Blincoe was basically conned into volunteering to become a millhand at the age of eight or so, and found himself in a harsh world where 14 hour days were normal, and the 'food'frequently consisted of water porridge - that is, oatmeal and cold water, eaten at the loom. He survived, and eventually had a family and became a respectable tradesman, but the treatment he received in the mills left its mark on him. He was stunted and bowlegged, as many of the hands were because of malnutrition, and some were deformed by the work they do, too. Years of crawling under machines to piece threads together, one-handed, caused some hands to develop lopsidedly, and the work was often dangerous, with injuries common. A fellow orphan of Blincoe's was dragged into a machine and smashed to bits, surviving for a year or so after.