the pauper elite


On his first day in England, in 1726, Voltaire went to Greenwich Fair. He was struck by the elegant costume of the young girls in cotton gowns racing across the grass and the fashionable young men on horseback. That evening, he was presented to some ladies of the Court “who were stiff and cold and took tea and made a great noise with their fans”. To his astonishment, they told him that the beau monde would not dream of demeaning itself by attending such a fair, and that “all these good-looking persons, in their calico dresses, were maidservants or country girls; that all these resplendent young men, so well mounted and caracoling round the race-course, were mere students or apprentices on hired horses”. Other foreign visitors, both earlier and later, were taken by how well dressed the English poor were. At the end of the seventeenth century, Henri Misson expressed surprise that “the very peasants are generally dressed in cloth”, that is, wool. Half a century later, Madame du Bocage found that in Oxfordshire cottages “the poorest country girls drink tea, have bodices of chintz, straw hats on their heads and scarlet cloaks upon their shoulders”. By contrast, in Ireland in 1777 Arthur Young found the country people often wretchedly dressed and going barefoot.

more from the TLS here.