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Response to Review no. 403

We would like to thank Helen Rogers for her careful detailing of the contents of our book. We could query some points in some of her accounts of individual chapters, but think it more important to focus on the question of what the book is doing as a whole. She confessedly finds it hard to deal with as a whole, instead finding some bits to her taste and others not, some fitting in with her view of where the field is at, others more ‘traditional’.

In fact, one of our main objects in putting the book together in the way we did was to resist this way of parcelling up history! We think it is vitally important that historians should range across the whole field of study, not picking and choosing topics merely because they fit in more or less well with current fashions. In our view, cultural and gender historians, political and institutional historians need to work at finding ways of engaging with each other’s methods and concerns. We thought the topic of ‘reform’ ideal for a collection conceived with this end in view because ‘reform’ was invoked in many different contexts, for a range of purposes. Existing histories of reform have not brought these different appropriations together into a single frame. We agree that it remains evident that our contributors are writing out of different traditions (although we think that many of them are writing more innovatively within these traditions than the review recognises). We hope, however, that the book might have the effect of encouraging new kinds of eclecticism and synthesis. It can only do that if readers are prepared to engage with all its parts.

Though the book is intentionally heterogeneous, we would like to stress too that it was not intended simply to survey a period of time, ‘the age of reform’. Rather, all the essays place the concept of ‘reform’ in central focus. The balance of the collection was partly determined by accidents: by the extent to which papers delivered to the original conference engaged with our intended theme; and by people’s availability. But it also reflects in part our interim conclusions about which historical actors did more and less with the concept. If the middle classes figure more prominently than the working classes, this is partly because we found them more engaged with the sorts of institutional and moral project to which the concept of ‘reform’ was crucial. ‘Parliamentary reform’ became a working-class demand especially from the 1810s. But it seems to us that in political rhetoric directed to working-class audiences, ‘reform’ thus conceived was a means to a variety of ends not themselves conceived as ‘reforms’. This may be wrong: in our introduction we encourage other historians to test, complicate and, if they can, overthrow this hypothesis. But it is a hypothesis, not just a blind spot.

Finally, we agree that ‘power’ deserves more ambitious attention than it receives in our volume. This is why we are currently planning a successor conference, on the subject of ‘Power and accountability in the age of reform’, again focusing on Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, although not excluding contributions with more than just British reference. Here we hope to explore ways in which people sought to check and control ‘power’ in a variety of contexts: including the state, the voluntary sector, the economy, and interpersonal relationships – perhaps also in relations between nations. We hope especially to encourage attention, both in papers and in discussion, to the migration of ideas between these various fields, and their reworking in different contexts. The conference will take place in either 2006 or 2007. Anyone interested in contributing is encouraged to contact the organisers, [email protected] and/or [email protected], ideally before 30 September 2004. We will enter into discussions with would-be contributors, and do our best to put together a wide-ranging, constructive and creative programme.