Imágenes de páginas
[blocks in formation]

There is an old cynicism which divides mankind into beasts of burden and beasts of prey. It used to be popular with agitators so different as the intellectual English Fabians on the one hand and the quite unintellectual but very zealous Industrial Workers of the World in the United States on the other. And even the man who is as far removed from the spirit of agitation as the Mr. Britling of Mr. Wells's charming novel has been shaken up by the war until he recognizes that the contrast is real, and that the opposition must somehow be healed. Sentiment on the matter has necessarily a longer and more sharply marked history in the Old World than in the New World, and the last hundred years of English thought, both explicit and implicit, have seen striking changes within this field. Let us note a few of them.


In the first quarter of the nineteenth century Englishmen were wont to discuss the luxurious and leisured life in a style which makes the reader of the present day, especially in America, stare with astonishment. Such writers as De Quincey and Coleridge, and even Sydney Smith, exhausted themselves in extolling the social value of that part of the community which we should call idle. The idea is put forward that these persons are socially valuable, not for what they do, but rather for what they are. Those whom Sydney Smith quaintly described as “the lower and middling classes” are bidden to give thanks daily for that pattern of cultured refinement which those above them are fitted both by nature and by circumstance to display, a pattern which it is, of course, impossible for the common man to imitate, but by the mere sight of which the poor day laborer will be redeemed from his native animalism and the sordid merchant will be transfigured. The members of the landed gentry are spoken of as a sort of ideal figures, like the statues upon the Athenian Acropolis, which the working folk may look at, especially in church and at the coming-of-age celebrations of the feudal heir, so that they may be kept relatively civilized.

Nothing is more significant of this point of view than the debates in England a hundred years ago on the subject of the game laws. Each disputant begins by recognizing as the cardinal principle in that matter that every effort must be put forth to keep the squire and his family, with their benign influence, resident upon the land. The awful example of French absenteeism is quoted, and the suggestion is made that but for this want of habitual contact between the orders the horror at Paris in 1793 might never have taken place. How then shall the Great House be kept occupied by its owner ? Plainly through making country life attractive to him, and the feature that attracts him most is known to be sport. But what landlord can endure a poacher? At all costs the poacher must be suppressed, or the allurements of foreign dissipation will take the squire abroad, and the exquisite balance of English society, so superior to anything on the anarchic Continent, will be disturbed. If the only effective war against poachers is by setting man traps

* It was not only held that the Manor House must be occupied, so that, as Mrs. Cadwallader says in Middlemarch, the country may be saved from "farmers without landlords-monsters like buffaloes or bisons”—but the occupant must be no mere rich parvenu; he must be one of the ancient stock. Hence even so sturdy a Radical as Cobbett speaks with disgust (Rural Rides) of the people being ruled by butchers, bakers, bottle-corkers, and old-clothes men, and of capital as "nothing more than money taken from the labouring classes which being given to army tailors and such like enables them to keep fox-hounds, and trace their descent from the Normans.” Cf. the significant provision in the game laws that no one might shoot on preserves unless he had a minimum income derived from land.


and spring guns, which will protect the life of a partridge or a hare at the expense of the lives of men, women, and children, it was argued that even so regrettable a measure was worth while. It was of social advantage, for the old family must not be invaded by rural ennui to such an extent that it will leave the Manor House shut up and the peasantry, in consequence, uninspired. Sydney Smith pleaded that a milder measure than placing automatic machines which might shoot the farmer's truant children would serve the purpose. In his merry mood he suggested in preference the stationing of a gamekeeper with a rifle, who should be authorized to shoot trespassers at sight. For, he said, a piece of mechanism cannot distinguish one from another, and might even take the life of a friend of the administration! In his more serious temper he said plainly that a squire who wanted, or would use, such means of bloodthirsty suppression was the sort of man who had much better be an absentee.

But Sydney Smith himself had no doubt of the ennobling influence upon the public which might be expected from a resident landlord, however his best nature might revolt against the existing dominance of squire and parsons which he humorously entitled “squarson " rule.' Dickens came closer to realities in his picture of the "fine old country gentleman" in Barnaby Rudge, about whom everyone said that the disappearance of such a type was sending England to rack and ruin. He could write his name almost legibly, was very severe with poachers, could drink more strong wine, go to bed every night more drunk and get up more sober than any man in the county. “In knowledge of horseflesh he was almost equal to a farrier, in stable learning he surpassed his own head groom, and in gluttony not a pig on his estate was a match for him. He had no seat in Parliament himself, but he was extremely patriotic, and usually drove his voters up to the poll with his own hands. He was warmly attached to the Church, and never appointed to the living in his gift any but a three-bottle man and

*Cf. his article on the game laws in the Edinburgh Review (1819). He writes: "A great man returning from London to spend his summer in the country diffuses intelligence, improves manners, restrains the extreme violence of subordinate politicians, and makes the middling and lower classes better acquainted with, and more attached to, their natural leaders."

[ocr errors]

a first-rate fox hunter.". In the first quarter of the century, however, the time for such satire had not come. Shelley, indeed, used to break forth about

Those gilded flies
That, basking in the sunshine of a court,
Fatten on its corruption. ..
The drones of the community.”

Godwin used to declare that until the institution of property was abolished the moral nature of man could never get a chance.3 But Shelley and Godwin were looked upon as outcasts. A Lake poet was the true champion of social orthodoxy. If one of the leisured class turned out to be even more than an unconscious model of high culture, to exhibit in addition some of the common human sympathies, such littérateurs would hail the thing as a portent. For it was not only the virtue proper to that special rank. It was supererogative virtue. Coleridge, for example, went into ecstasies over the Duchess of Devonshire. Her Grace was a poetess in spare time, and on a tour over Mount Gothard had written some lines in admiration of William Tell. Here was a moral indeed, which must by no means be left unpointed for the lower and middling classes. To think of an exalted lady who could write so! The genius of the duchess had broken all bonds of environment. By birth, by education, by caste prejudice, she might surely have been expected to sympathize with the elegant diversions of Gessler and to look upon Tell's resentment at having to shoot an apple off his child's head as the sullen contumacy of a peasant.

But no

Light as a dream your days their circlets ran
From all that teaches brotherhood to Man
Far, far removed!

And yet, free Nature's uncorrupted child,
You hailed the chapel and the platform wild

Where once the Austrian fell

Beneath the shaft of Tell!
O Lady, nursed in pomp and pleasure!
Whence learned you that heroic measure ?4

* Barnaby Rudge, chap. xlvii.
* Queen Mab.

3 Political Justice.
4 "Ode to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire."

Those good old days passed away, and a new tone came into English literature. A demand began to be made upon the aristocracy that their conduct should be judged by the usual moral standards. The ancien régime was openly ridiculed. And the blundering attempt of the privileged order to placate the new democratic spirit by feigning an aristocratic interest in the commonalty was ridiculed most viciously of all. Lady Bowley in The Chimes is depicted as having introduced the evening amusement of pinking and eyelet-holing for the villagers, and as having set to music these edifying lines which the men and boys might sing as they carried it on:

O let us love our occupations,
Bless the squire and his relations,
Live upon our daily rations,
And always keep our proper stations."


Anthony Trollope in Framley Parsonage makes Mr. Harold Smith, when on the stump for votes, begin a speech by explaining that the special British characteristic of that period was the willingness of the highly placed to put their time and knowledge without fee or reward at the disposal of the poor, and proceeds to illustrate this by a sort of university-extension lecture to the farm laborers upon the state of the South Sea Islands. But there was a real change, the sort of change that Thackeray speaks of when he sets in contrast the Lady Lorraine of the days of the Prince Regent and the Lady Lorraine of the middle nineteenth century. The former had been magnificent in diamonds and velvet, daring in rouge,

with the wits of the world at her feet. The latter was dressed like a governess, talked astronomy and laboring classes and emigration, and went to church at eight o'clock in the morning. The Great House, once a center of conviviality, had come to permit only two glasses of wine after dinner, and half the guests were country curates "whose talk is about Polly Higson's progress at school or widow Watkins's lumbago.” And Charles Kingsley,

' whose crusade might naturally have led him to the opposite sort of exaggeration, makes Alton Locke declare that visiting the sick and


i The Chimes.

Pendennis, chap. Ixvii.

« AnteriorContinuar »