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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 from an indiscriminate course of reading in Scott. During the 1820s and 1830s Digby’s manual for the behavior of modern gentlemen, The Broad Stone of Honour, was almost required reading for the aristocracy. One of the subtitles of the book, “The True Sense and Practice of Chivalry,” indicates its drift.

In fact, as Mark Girouard tells us, the Eglinton Tournament was washed out by two days of incessant Scottish rain; even the moderate success of the jousting on the third and last day failed to erase the memory of the opening procession led by Lord Londonderry on horseback, ignominiously protecting his plumes under a green umbrella, followed by the Queen of Beauty in a closed carriage. The stands were filled with spectators who had hoisted so many umbrellas of their own that they were said to resemble the backsides of thousands of elephants. The temporary banqueting hall and the ballroom leaked so badly as to be unusable; it was discovered that the lances and spears had been made to shatter easily without injuring the combatants. Even the rippling muscles of the knights turned out, when they removed their splendid armor, to have come from London in the luggage of a costumier. It was a good party, but it didn’t prove a lot about the inherent noblesse of the knights who hacked industriously at each other with their broadswords.

For all its foolishness the tournament was to maintain a hold over the imagination of England for decades. Even young Queen Victoria, who had written disapprovingly of the Tory goings-on at Eglinton from her Whig stronghold in London, was finally moved in 1841 to hold a bal costumé at which she and her consort appeared as Queen Philippa and Edward III; she was nearly tripped up by the heels and long toes of the medieval slippers in which she danced an anachronistic quadrille.

Not the least of the attractions of ancient customs and antiquated costumes was that they helped to disguise the origins of the newly rich. As readers of Girouard’s earlier books on country houses know, pinnacles, battlements, keeps, and oriel windows added to recently acquired houses made them look like inherited family seats. Names discreetly changed to sound Norman suggested a longer line than most of their holders could trace. The title of Viscount Frankfurt de Montmorency gave no hint that a few years earlier he had been plain Mr. Morris. Walter Wilkins understandably changed his name to de Winton and built himself a castle in Wales with his new fortune made in India.

Charles Tennyson, uncle of the poet, made sure that the name to which he had been born would be embellished by persuading his father to provide in his will for a change to the more romantic Tennyson d’Eyncourt, to which he quickly convinced himself he was entitled by descent. It is said that nearly all titles and family names now in Debrett’s or Burke’s that contain “de” were innocent of the foreign adornment before the last century.

The embarrassing truth was that few of the knights at Eglinton would have been entitled by their quarterings to take part in a medieval tournament. Most of them derived from what the Middle Ages called “noblesse de la robe,” to distinguish their titles, given for service to Crown or faction, from the nobility of the sword.

If not essential, money was at least helpful in establishing gentility in the nineteenth century, but it had to be inherited to count, preferably for two or more generations. The medieval prohibition against a knight’s engaging in commercial activity was grounded in a perfectly understandable effort to keep him on the job, to make sure that he should “have no cause to leave the practice of arms for the desire of acquiring worldly riches.” In neochivalry, however, the actual attempt to earn money in trade or the professions was considered degrading by nature; it is hard not to feel that the attitude in part owed its acceptance to its justification of idleness.

Another danger in the speedy acquisition of money was that it encouraged social mobility, particularly in the middle class. Kenelm Digby believed that there was an instinctive mutual respect and recognition of position between the aristocracy and the humbler orders, with only the mercantile middle classes beyond the pale; after all, workingmen were not apt to usurp the position of those at the top. As Girouard writes, Digby “despised money and money-making with all the happy innocence of a man who had inherited a comfortable income and married a wife with money of her own.”

A country squire from an old family wrote when he visited the magnificent castle that Tennyson d’Eyncourt spent a fortune on building in the Lincolnshire wolds: “Whoever would think that for all the pomp and circumstance and pretended ancestry of Bayons Manor that its owner was the son of my grandfather’s attorney at Market Rasen? Beautifully done in every respect as is Bayons its [sic] the ridicule of the County.” Tennyson d’Eyncourt died sad and disappointed because he had never achieved the title and social position he sought. One of the most engaging family stories about him is that at the end of his life he looked out of his carriage window at the vast pile of stone he had erected, shook his head, and said, “I must have been mad.”

What had originally been an interest only in things medieval and Renaissance quickly spread to embrace other suitable chivalric periods. Tennyson d’Eyncourt’s nephew Alfred had read Malory in the library of Somersby Rectory when he was a boy, at a time when he was playing at knighthood and tournaments with his swarm of brothers and sisters. Parts of “The Lady of Shalott” show that as early as 1832 he was already beginning to assimilate apparently medieval descriptions into a poem that was Arthurian in inspiration. The glorification of country and the ideal of noble fellowship that the two periods seemed to share made it easy to merge them into a single concept of chivalry. No doubt many of the simpler readers of the Idylls of the King would have been surprised to be told how many centuries separated Arthur and Richard I. It was a confusion that Tennyson’s illustrators shared, for contemporary editions of the Idylls usually show the Knights of the Round Table wearing a curious mixture of medieval armor, belted Druid nightgowns, and helmets that recall Ludwig of Bavaria.

The immense popularity of Tennyson’s poetry soon caused Camelot and the quests of the Round Table to eclipse the lances and chargers of medieval lists as symbols of chivalry, so that today it is natural for both Girouard’s title and his jacket illustration to reflect Arthurian themes. Chaucer had already domesticated the Greek heroes in the Middle Ages, and it was not long before the nineteenth century welcomed them as honorary Victorians. Digby had pointed out the chivalric elements of Greek life, and by the end of the century it was unremarkable that in school magazines “poems on Theseus or Thermopylae rub shoulders with those on Agincourt or Camelot.” The only difficulty with the Greeks, as Girouard indicates, was that everyone knew to what embarrassing extremes their ideals of fellowship might lead, particularly among public schoolboys. This may help to explain the surprising outburst of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, when he called chivalry a spirit of evil that “predominantly deserved the name of Antichrist.”

The more remote the reality of chivalry became, the more rigid grew the code of behavior thought to derive from it. Girouard tells us, sometimes on slim evidence, that its flowering in the nineteenth century ultimately led to such familiar but by no means despicable concepts as Muscular Christianity, the public school tradition, stalwart officers saluting as they stand democratically among their men while the ship sinks, the golden young heroes of the Great War, clubland, the Boy Scout movement, amateur gentleman sportsmen Playing the Game, and the White Man’s Burden. Even that “very gallant gentleman, Capt. L.E.G. Oates, of the Inniskilling Fusiliers,” who staggered on gangrenous feet to his death in the snowy Antarctic wastes to relieve his companions on Scott’s expedition of the necessity of caring for him, is seen to be of the same stripe as the King’s Champion riding into Westminster Hall to throw down the gauntlet in defense of the royal right to the throne.

Although many of their distant origins seem faintly risible, there is still a great deal to admire in the bravery and unselfishness implicit in such a set of values. Unfortunately a good bit of rank snobbery was also provided with a moral imperative by the same impulses, and perhaps modern feminism was a necessary reaction to the idea of womanhood imposed by a Victorian version of Courtly Love. A connection between gentlemanly contempt for trade and the present economic plight of Great Britain seems hardly more tenuous than some of the other influences that Girouard traces. Oddly enough, in all the aspects of English literature and life he touches on, Girouard does not mention Keats, and there is only a passing reference to Newman. It was, after all, Newman’s definition of a gentleman, in a passage that generations of English and American schoolboys had to memorize, which became the most well-worn attempt in English to nail down that slippery subject.

More seriously, Girouard wholly neglects the immediate result of the Victorian medieval renaissance that has lasted longest, the Oxford Movement, with its ardent return to pre-Reformation belief, often linked with passionate commitment to celibacy, and devotion to a heavenly Lady with love not far from Courtly. The priestly vestments that became popular under the movement’s influence were the equivalent in the sanctuary of armor in the lists. “Only Early English,” said one divine somewhat inaccurately of them, “nothing Roman.” More recently they have been described as liturgical drag, a term that not unfairly catches the enjoyment some of the clergy felt at being entravestie. Baron Corvo and Father Ignatius of Llanthony deserve a place in the story, too.

In his earlier books Girouard was at his most illuminating when he explained the function and spirit that lay behind the form of the country houses about which he wrote. Readers of those volumes may feel that here he skips underlying causes in order to concentrate on the surface manifestations of the new chivalry. He provides an amusing collection of anecdotes and charmingly portrays dotty Victorians, but it would be pleasant to know more about the political, aesthetic, and philosophical background of the chivalric revival.

Girouard usually writes elegantly, often wittily, but occasionally unidiomatically and with a cavalier disregard of such foot-soldier pursuits as proofreading that seems peculiarly appropriate for the subject of the book if not for its price. There are more than two hundred beautiful and informative illustrations in black-and-white that will handsomely furnish a gentleman’s equivalent of a coffee table (an inherited Pembroke or Canterbury, perhaps?). This entertaining book makes one feel nostalgic for a world of such mixed gallantry and nuttiness, one that seems long dead.

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