Town and country

From rural to urban

Up till 1800 Britain was largely a rural economy. However, the nineteenth century saw a dramatic shift of population from country to urban areas, so that by the middle of the century, as many people were urban dwellers as country dwellers. By the end of the century, the great majority of the British were living in towns and cities (see Urbanisation and the suburbs).

Realities of country life

Changes to the rural economy

Although country life is often thought of as stable, even unchanging, the eighteenth century had brought a number of challenges:

  • Firstly, a more scientific approach to farming was developed, involving crop rotation and new machinery and storage systems
  • Secondly, much land was enclosed (see Enclosure and the Agrarian Revolution).

This gradually led to agricultural unemployment as poor farmers were forced from their land. Other rural workers, such as self-employed hand-loom weavers, were put out of business by the rise of industrial spinning and weaving which centred on urban areas.

Rural poverty

Initially, the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth century slowed this process, as did the protection of the Corn Laws. However, the wars ended and the Corn Laws were later repealed. Although this meant cheaper food for the town dwellers, much of it was imported so this did not benefit the rural economy. In fact, there were a series of poor harvests in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.

The result was that much of the first part of the nineteenth century was marked by rural poverty, especially in the south of England, where there were no industries to keep wages competitive. Instead, a system of Poor Law relief known as the Speenhamland System meant farmers could pay their workers less than a living wage, and the parish would make up the rest.


Working-class efforts to form a Trades Union were brutally suppressed. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of Dorset labourers who tried to form a farm-workers union in 1836. They were arrested, tried and transported to Australia. Starving labourers turned to poaching, which again meant transportation if they were caught.

Instead of secure employment, many labourers had to become migrants in their quest for work. The tied cottage system developed to house labourers on short annual contracts, so that there was no longer permanence in either employment or housing for the rural worker. There was still plenty of evidence of acute rural poverty at the end of the century.

By contrast, landowners, especially the aristocracy, had profited from new machinery and methods, and growing urban markets for their produce. The development of the railway network helped transport their food quickly and cheaply. However, the lot of the farm labourers improved only slowly.

Perceptions of the country

An unremarkable environment

Up till the nineteenth century, the countryside was regarded simply as the normal working environment. Most educated people saw it as fairly barbaric, much preferring the civilisation of urban life. Shakespeare's pastoral comedies represented idealised realms rather than a realistic perspective. 

The influence of Romanticism

In the eighteenth century there developed an appreciation of the countryside more in terms of ‘Nature'. This was emphasised by the Romantics, particularly the poets William Blake and William Wordsworth, supported to a lesser extent by S.T.Coleridge and John Keats.

In Romanticism, Nature, as experienced in the countryside, is a life-giving source of power, both moral and imaginative. It is also beautiful in itself. By contrast, the town is corrupting. Wordsworth's poem Michael demonstrates this clearly, as do Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience.

A distinction came to be made:

  • Untamed Nature, seen in mountains, waterfalls, storms and so on, was valued because of its demonstration of power and the sublime
  • Tamed or cultivated Nature, seen in the ordered countryside typical of much of England, was appreciated as representing the pastoral ideal of an ordered and harmonious society.

As we can see, this latter perception was often not in keeping with the reality. Even Thomas Hardy, who experienced rural poverty at first hand, often plays it down in order to stress the harmonies of the country. However, in a novel like Tess of the d'Urbervilles, there is a balance kept between the idealised pastoral and the realities of the often harsh life of the country worker.

Literary portrayals of town and country


Poetry in the nineteenth century remained firmly grounded in the Romantic tradition and engaged mostly with the countryside as Nature:

  • Wordsworth's poetry on the whole deals with the wilder and grander aspects of Nature, as is befitting a native of the Lake District
  • By contrast, Keats, George Crabbe, John Clare and Thomas Hardy deal with the farming aspect of the rural life, depicting sympathetically the life of farm labourers
  • (On the whole, English landscape painting followed this tradition too.)


Novelists were generally more ambivalent when contrasting town and country. We can see this in the work of four novelists of the century, each typical of their era.

Jane Austen

Jane AustenJane Austen's novels are set at the end of the eighteenth century in large country estates, and depict the lives of the wealthy and not so wealthy landowners. Rural life is seen as an unchanging, normative society. Excursions to towns or to London tend to be disruptive and show the artificiality of the wealthy. Her heroines prefer to live in the country. The lives of ordinary labourers are not shown, however.

Mrs Gaskell

By mid-century, we get quite a different depiction. Mrs Gaskell was brought up in the countryside of Cheshire but then married a minister and went to live in the middle of Manchester. In her novel North and South she appears to be idealising her heroine's little village, and contrasting it to the ugliness of an industrial city and the artificiality of London. But gradually, our perceptions change. We see the northern city-dwellers have energy and a grasp on reality which is lacking in both Londoners and the country-dwellers.

George Eliot

George EliotGeorge Eliot is probably the best example of a novelist who balances town against country. In The Mill on the Floss Maggie's father, a miller, prospers till he tries to raise himself socially. Maggie, though brought up in the country, has a desire for learning and beauty which takes her into the nearby town. However, its society is narrow and stifling. Maggie ends up unable to fit in anywhere. (George Eliot herself ended by living in London, enjoying its culture and opportunities for a writer.)

Thomas Hardy

Thomas HardyThomas Hardy was born in Dorset but sought out London life until deciding to return to the country. However, he regularly visited the city and his ‘country' house was built right at the edge of a town. He literally kept a foot in both camps. Both town and country feature in his novels, though mainly the country. His rural characters, like Tess and Jude, do not do well in towns. His novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, sees a countryman doing well for a time in the town, but then being cast out of it by a more modern generation. Hardy felt the tension of town and country, as well as that between the Romantic and realistic views of the countryside, and it is this tension that produces some of the irony in his novels. 

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.