Idylls for Idlers

Even Thomas Carlyle could find little good to say about the aristocracy in the 1830s. “What do the idle rich do?” he asked, and gave a blunt answer to his own question: “Shoot partridges.” He still thought there was a faint chivalric whiff of “heroic Daring” in their heraldry and banners, but he could no longer find anything of “intrinsic, necessary divineness” in a class that had become a spent and empty symbol, a form without the spiritual and military leadership that had once animated it.

The Utilitarians were even more threatening to the aristocracy than Carlyle. The followers of Bentham could scarcely have cared less about a lack of spirituality in their social and financial betters; what bothered them was simply a matter of usefulness, the knowledge that the vast majority of the upper classes no longer had any discernible function except that of holding onto their property and increasing it if that could be done without an unseemly public display of money-making.

Implicit in Utilitarianism, of course, was the threat of democracy and the consequent decline or even extinction of the aristocracy. In 1839 the young Earl of Eglinton threw down a carefully reproduced gauntlet to the enemies of his class by holding a full-fledged tournament at his family’s neo-Gothic castle. In Mark Girouard’s new book about the revival of chivalric sentiment in the nineteenth century, the tournament becomes one of the central symbols of the whole attempt to prove that Victoria’s subjects, however changed their country under the Reform Bill, were still animated by the honor and valor that had fired the knights of another age. From the tournament and all it stood for, Girouard suggests, descended a code of gentlemanly behavior that lasted until the Second World War.

Probably neither the Earl of Eglinton nor the twelve headlong young Tory knights who fought beside him were quite aware that so much depended on their efforts. It is unlikely that they had ever read the Utilitarians or even heard of the earl’s fellow Scot Carlyle, but they were uneasily aware of the cold wind blowing from London and Manchester. To prove themselves worthy descendants of the original holders of the titles that many of them bore, they could at least dress up in armor and demonstrate physical courage and gallantry. They were victims of the particular form of historical fallacy that assumed that the restoration of ancient externals meant the renewal of the spirit that had originally given them meaning. Had they read Carlyle, they might have known better.

The Laird of Abbotsford himself was probably responsible for much of their enthusiasm, since theirs was a generation that had been brought up on Scott’s poetry and romances and that was badly infected with what Mark Twain called “the Sir Walter disease.” Nearly as potent as Scott’s writings in spreading the contagious medieval fever was a work by Kenelm Digby, who had been driven engagingly demented by his love of chivalry, which was derived in large part…

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