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Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class: Language

Much of the effectiveness of the passage comes from Thompson’s restrained language. There is no outrage or indignation here: instead we are part of an intellectual puzzle thrown up by the curious nature of the Home Office papers. The passage begins like a professor carrying his class with him: ‘And here we are close to the heart of the problem’, a sense which is picked up at the beginning of the second paragraph where he talks about the ‘perplexing reading’ presented by the files. The sense that Thompson is speaking to us directly, teaching us indeed, is underlined by his use of italics to drive his points home.

However, although Thompson’s language is restrained, it is not neutral. There is obvious admiration in the description of how new communities established themselves and developed a new sense of solidarity which quickly and correctly identified its enemy. By contrast, the language Thompson uses in referring to the employers has more than a hint of scorn. He stresses that these hostile working communities were only a few hundred yards from the magistrates’ seats (i.e. their mansions in the country). Pizzarro’s men, to whom the magistrates are compared, are not conquerors or explorers but free-booters, i.e charlatans interested only in making a quick profit. Thompson underlines the reversal of position between magistrate and workers: it is the former who are helpless, unable to gain information directly and therefore ‘at the mercy’ of informers, however unreliable; the use of the word ‘hawked’ suggests a sense of desperation on the part of the JPs. Thompson invites us to take a lofty position from which we can ridicule the nervous middle classes: ‘Here we find … There we find’. The fact that one informant ‘solemnly’ passed gossip on to the Lord Lieutenant suggests that both parties were acting in a ridiculous manner. In the final examples in the extract Thompson does not need to choose his words carefully: the original wording is quite ridiculous enough on its own.


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