Was there ever such a popular preoccupation with British history as there is at present, such a lusting interest in the past? If, as Tennyson maintained, “all things are taken from us, and become portions and parcels of the dreadful past,” then we are now all hell-bent on retrieving them. It is as if we have no idea of what constitutes the present unless we dig up all that lies beneath it. Six miles from where I write, in Colchester, our market town, a place mentioned by Tacitus in his Annals, they are digging up the houses where the officers who commanded a Roman legion lived in the first century AD. Carrying our supermarket shopping, and in the pouring rain, we trail past the tesselated floors five feet down below the car park, listening enrapt to the muddy archaeologists. We see a lot of charring from the ferocious day in 61 AD when Queen Boudicca burned the place down, also the skeleton of a baby correctly arranged on a copy of the Daily Mail. A little girl touches the tiny bones without horror—already the cool historian. There is half a ton of broken pots. Everything is plentiful and unambiguous.
Back home in the village a neighbor, searching the church registers for information about her family, which has lived here since the eighteenth century, is depressed to find “laborer” given as the occupation for the males of each generation. Laborer, laborer, laborer. I tell her, and it is the truth, that this is all part of the rough handling of the people not so long ago and that what she is really seeing is thatcher, horseman (East Anglia’s name for ploughman), hedger; and many another skilled countryman, though few of the parsons who filled in the registers would have bothered with such things, so “hand”; “servant,” and “laborer” stand for most of our ancestors.
In the evenings a vast audience watches the current TV costume dramas, Sons and Lovers and the life of David Lloyd George, staring into the amazingly accurate Edwardian houses and factories, third-class railway carriages and farms, and riveted by the clothes. At the local university researchers attached to the oral-history department are as persuasive as medieval mendicants in their tireless request for more and more giving to the tape recorder, and, in a non-academic, though no less urgent, collecting spirit which is activated by objects, not words, there is a huge cult of what are called “By-gones.” Indeed a new magazine has just been launched to deal with it. It is called Everything Has a Value.
A healthy case for all this therapeutic toil, amateur and professional alike, in the lumber room could be made out. Or even a profitable case, for if it isn’t exactly big business, the turnover is now quite handsome. But most people put it all down to what is dubbed the nostalgia boom, though they would not do this if they knew what nostalgia really means, the pain of returning home, as well as the pain we feel when we cannot get home. It is true that, by way of the reminiscences of the old and a new respect for recent artifacts, we are acknowledging values and habits and skills which twentieth-century change has stripped away—in only two or three lifetimes—but it is equally true that our intellectual and imaginative attempts to discover them, to rescue the latest discards to be thrown on Birrell’s “great dust heap called history,” are inspired by the pleasure principle. Home, or grandfather’s dwelling place, whether it was rich or poor, is now too far off to engage our intense feelings.
Such thoughts occurred to me when, almost at the same hour, I read the titles of the six books under review and the inscription on a Roman coin lying on the table beside them. The coin was fat and golden and beautiful, and was issued during the reign of the emperor Gordianus Pius, who was assassinated in 244 AD. Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, bought when I was fourteen, immediately brought Gordianus to life—he and his wife, the contradictorily named Furia Tranquilina, and the burned Mediterranean shores. And there, briefly and brightly, their world shone in a room which was made during Shakespeare’s day and in which I would have to come to some kind of conclusion about the latest batch of the unceasing recollections of my own, for the real meaning of the popularity of such recent gleanings lies in their propinquity.
Though past in almost every social and economic sense, their nearness makes them both uncomfortable and exciting. They nudge us; we can smell their breath. Are we still within their reach or are they still within our reach? Moreover, there are the mountains of nineteenth- and twentieth-century documentation by which practically every statement can be amplified and verified, and all so accessible, and all running on into our own particulars. It is not the same with the first-century baby at Colchester, or Furia Tranquilina, or the Tudor farmers who sat by my hearth. They are at a decent distance.
The boys and girls are very close in Edwardian Childhoods, a model of how to present oral autobiography and social history. I knew the brother of one of these children and the neighbors of another, though the closeness is mainly owing to startlingly similar boyhood experiences that took place decades past. Children have tended to be strangely ignored by modern historians, and Thea Thompson has the advantage of working in a neglected field. Her excellent book is based on two surveys, “Family Life and Work Experience before 1918” and “Middle and Upper Class Families 1890-1920,” and from hundreds of interviews conducted by herself and colleagues she has extracted nine contrasting little lives.
The period shows the British class system in its most severely pyramidal state, and the backgrounds of the children range from the gutter to the heights of privilege, although they all have one thing in common—a short shrift from the adults surrounding them. Not so much cruelty to children as an indifference to their happiness was one of the more notorious aspects of households before 1914. Having to come to terms with this fact in their recollections makes these old men and women somewhat defensive and accusing. Manners and attitudes and shibboleths were drummed into them, and even among the very poor there was encumbering inheritance of social behavior to be shouldered above everything else.
Take Joan, born in 1897, the daughter of a baronet, wife of a peer, and always very rich. She lived in great houses in Wiltshire, in London, and in New Zealand; where her father was a governor. The footmen wore livery with crested buttons—“They crested everything in those days…even children’s prams…”—and there were two French governesses—“I was never taught by anybody English,” and there was a Sunday School organized by the Duchess of Bedford “for the little neglected children of the rich.” Could such a girl miss out? There is more than a hint in Joan’s cool narrative that she could, and did. She didn’t dine with her parents until she was nearly grown-up. The nursery, the servants, the guests, their hosts, the governesses, all spun around ritualistically in their conventional spheres. There was one governess to whom nobody spoke.
They had a very lonely life, governesses. And they were therefore rather difficult to their pupil. It wasn’t at all the ideal way of being educated. I called my mother Mummy. She was very amusing. I don’t know that she was a sort of ideal mother for a child but she was quite easy to talk to. In a way you see you didn’t have quite the intimacy that people have with their mothers now…you didn’t know them quite so well as people know their mothers now…. I was awfully lonely…. I discussed worries with nobody really.
When still almost a baby she said to her mother, “I don’t tell people my thinks.” Already she knew the uselessness of it.
The other children in this oral history are an East Anglian farm boy, two girls from the Midland terraces, a millowner’s son, a boy from the East End of London who is straight out of Dickens, a girl from the well-to-do, philanthropic upper middle class, and two boys from the gentry. If they are vague about much else, their emergent sexuality, for instance, or their spiritual awakenings, they are absolutely certain where they stood in the class system. How it hurt, how it nipped and prodded them, this class thing, and at every level. Of course, the structure of the questioning by Thea Thompson and her team is what keeps them in the class halters to a great extent, but how their first experiences of it wound their memories!
Edwardian Childhoods is an exceptional book; it is careful and revealing, and has much tenderness and objectivity. Thea Thompson has brought together the nine statements and old photographs relating to them brilliantly. But the researchers could have made more of an attempt to get at the inner lives of these children. One of the benefits of being eighty is that one’s emotional and imaginative development at twelve or so often becomes clearer than ever before. The child who leads the reader furthest into the heart of things is Annie Wilson, whose parents married when they were seventeen and eighteen and couldn’t read or write (there is an unforgettable description of how Annie and her sister, who went to school, taught them how). Her tale is as much about the secrecy of a marriage as it is about growing up in such insecurity that one false move was thought more than enough to bring the precarious family entity to ruin. It is a study in vulnerability. Millions lived like this, on a city ledge, toiling every hour when they weren’t sleeping and knowing—what?
The sentimentally titled Roses in December is quite another matter, chiefly because it is a written, not spoken, memoir. Amy Stewart Fraser wrote an admirable account of her life when she was eighty-seven and if it had done nothing else than bring a sense of proportion to what so many specialists are saying about her era, it would be worth reading. But her book does much more than this. It evokes the unaffected style and culture of the Scottish masses and, without in any way lecturing us, she shows what we have lost along with the old bourgeois Christian disciplines.
Not that Mrs. Fraser herself would have said such a thing. Her book is neither apology nor explanation. It describes at first hand nearly a century of professional life in and around Deeside, the spartan and beautiful part of the Scottish highlands which Queen Victoria immortalized in her Journal. Like the Queen, Mrs. Fraser is lyrical, obstinate, meditative, and anecdotal in turn, and is a mixture of recorder, remembrancer, and tale-teller; and like the Queen, she is extremely confident without seeming to be aware of it. She has a loving eye for small possessions, certain plants, and modest handed-on things. As happens sometimes, great age has brought a tremendous appreciation of the world and its sociability.
Mrs. Fraser seems to be saying to the grim new analysts of her ethos, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, that we did not revel in our glens, and in our day?” She has her sadness too, the abandonment of so many of the mountain farms and settlements since she was young, the different kinds of silence. The Scots for all their veneration of the native scene are drastic movers. But the best thing about this book is the writing itself: its sharp amiability is like biting into a wild strawberry.
The latest addition to the remarkable History Workshop Series which Raphael Samuel has been editing at Ruskin College, Oxford, is East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding. It is an amazing document, an inventory of the powerful human degradation which attracted earlier novelists such as Dickens and Arthur Morrison (“A Child of the Jago”), and all of it wound around the life of an old man, Arthur Harding, probably one of the few people now living to have been brought up in the criminal slums of Victorian London.
In effect, Harding’s criminality links Fagin’s kitchen to the Kray brothers, who terrorized gangland London a decade or two ago. Often as one reads on, it seems utterly incredible that anyone could be found to relate such a far-reaching tale, for as well as chaperoning the reader through the ghastly, geography which in many ways actually defeated the Victorian literary and sociological explorers, Harding has had his own part in the dragging drama of British penal reform. Thus in a single existence we have the history of a type, the rural fox come to town and, trapped in its warrens and rookeries, thieving for all he is worth.
There are frequent references to village runaways in the books mentioned here. Throughout the nineteenth century men fled from the land, first to the factories and mines of the Industrial Revolution, then to the colonies and army, and then simply to the towns, great and small. The problem of what was then called “the flight from the land” filled the newspapers and pulpits. In mid-century, Harding’s parents ran off to London—his mother from starvation wages in Norfolk, his father from similar poverty in Cornwall—to end up with some 6,000 other wretches in a maze of alleys and streets known as the Nichol. There in a twelve-room building that contained twelve families Arthur Harding was born in 1886.
“The whole district bore an evil reputation,” Harding says, “and was regarded by the working-class people of Bethnal Green as so disreputable that they avoided contact with the people who lived in the Nichol. Some people would have liked to build a wall right round it, so that we wouldn’t have to come out.” Surrounded by a lurid mixture of murderers, whores, robbers, drunks, kindly shopkeepers, missionaryclergymen, bent policemen, donkeys, and beggars, the boy began a career which was to range from being one of the first inmates of Borstal to long spells in Dartmoor. It should be mentioned here that Harding is not some criminal moron gagging on the language but a fluent, well-read, highly intelligent man who had little or no formal education. His descriptive powers are remarkable, and when he says that “the children of the Nichol were far superior to a normal child coming of a respectable family. The poverty had sharpened their wits,” one has to believe him. “Oliver Twist could never have existed,” he says, “because he wasn’t able to help himself.”
Harding’s story is a bewildering, fascinating, ultimately wearying account of his efforts to help himself. It is pointless to moralize and to see him as a victim of circumstance. There were those, even in the Nichol, who worked hard in little shops, who never stole or were violent, and there were professional people nobly toiling in this jungle of whom he speaks with respect and affection. It is just that he was utterly and completely, from near-babyhood to the end of his long life, a thief, a petty trickster who couldn’t even make and sell a piece of cabinetwork without cheating. Getting away with it was closely connected to wit, liveliness, and compulsive achievement. On the other hand, one is struck by Harding’s sexual primness and by the entirely credible account he gives of the virtue of those Nichol women who were not prostitutes.
There was much killing of prostitutes, or “brides,” and slayings too of the young seamen they dragged back to their dens from the pubs. The Nichol was Jack the Ripper country, and Harding and his friends lied and robbed their way to manhood in a lurid melodrama which, in his description of it, lacks its one essential element, eroticism. He is best at character-sketching, indeed almost masterly at times. The whore named “Faithful Wedding,” the gang bosses, the boxers, publicans, cops, moneylenders, Jews, saints such as “Mother Wolf” who fed the homeless, his wife Milly, and especially the judges and magistrates, all leap into life.
Later in Harding’s account we hear of Oswald Mosley and his fascists and the Romany Kray brothers. Trailing through these confessions is a great mass of social information, all of it of the highest importance to the modern historian, about London itself, and about the relationship between its crooks and its police. No attempt has been made to put all this talk into a colorful East End dialect and, apart from the underworld slang, Harding speaks to us in clear, eloquent English, which somehow makes what he has to say even more appalling. It is sobering to think the Nicholses of today’s metropolis are likely to be some 1950s “ideal housing” complex.
Apart from the brilliant evocation of his slum training ground, its architecture and its villainy (a word he likes), perhaps the most memorable aspect of Harding’s history covers what they used to call “the due process of the law.” So many courts and prisons, and even chain gangs, so much integrated corruption, so much courage of a sort. The reality of it is unimaginably distant from what is dished up nightly on the small screen, or daily in the yellow press. Crime and punishment as a vocation entail a mindlessness on both sides of heroic proportions, and are numbing, not entertaining.
Alan Ereira belongs to the “new generation of historians who have set out to explore the conscious participation of the poor in their own history.” Their masters are E.P. Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class, 1964), Eric Hobsbawm, and George Rudé. Ereira says, rightly, that “the old image of an undifferentiated mass has given way to a picture of many sorts and conditions of people, with different kinds of experiences and aspirations.” There has been a widening of the study of the past, and the new historians “have tempered” the statistical disciplines by means of a “growing understanding of the value of oral history and personal recollection.” He also makes the truthful point that there are varieties of experience which cannot be reached by objectivity alone. In order to know what happened it is sometimes necessary to join in the happening. Academic investigation alone is not enough. The historian’s humanity—not to mention what he has learned about his recent forebears, who were likely to have been laborers, servants, and private soldiers—makes it impossible to behave as though one were writing about the Great Ordinance passed by the estates-general in 1357.
Ereira’s book, The People’s England, is a collection of essays and pictures about men and women who, until quite recently, were left out of history. These are the people, comprising 99 percent of the population, who actually grew the food, built the roads and houses, made the goods, killed the enemy, and sold the articles in the shops. No volume could offer a definitive account of the actions and hopes of a multitude, and Ereira has had to choose representatives from some eight categories—immigrants, miners, factory hands, shopkeepers, seamen, laborers, servants, and soldiers, and let them be spokesmen for the rest.
Anyone familiar with the literature of the period, including its journalism and advertising, documentaries and main sources, will find little that isn’t known in Ereira’s examples, but he has arranged his material in such a clear and striking manner that his book makes a fine introduction for anyone looking into the “new” history. He is good, too, on the shortsightedness of politicians who, as is currently happening in Britain, set up industrial communities one generation and dismantle them the next. Though often residents are no longer poor in their grandparents’ sense or in the way in which most of the world is poor, whether it is 1881 or 1981, Ereira’s book shows that most people in this or any other country are not even bit players when it comes to the big scene that is usually described by historians. Thomas Gray said it all long ago.
The Victorian Countryside is the most impressive and comprehensive anthology of nineteenth-century rural history I know of. The essays, by some forty-six authorities under the editorship of Gordon Mingay of Kent University, are generally admirable, and each has a bibliography and notes. In view of the size of the project, its overall unity and literary quality are remarkable. Most of these academics write well, and some very well indeed. But because the area has been intensively cultivated—compulsively might be a better adverb—by every kind of writer, from poet to economist, during and since the conditions covered here prevailed, there are few surprises.
What we have is probably the best concise account of virtually all facets of British village life during these years, a way of life, it must be added, which did not vanish with the queen in 1901, but which continued, as I can well recall, into the 1950s, when the second agricultural revolution and postwar social development finally finished it off. Or most of it, for small threads of practically everything mentioned by this crowd of rural experts remain visible in my village today, either in the attitudes and talk of the not-very-old people, or in the pub, churches, and schools, or (most decidedly) in the politics of the farmers. And so here again, in touching the past we touch ourselves, including some still quite painful nerves.
The chapters on the English regions and their problems, and on Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, are especially clarifying, but what makes the book so unexpectedly rich, in view of the broad familiarity of its material, are essays such as Louis James’s “Landscape in Nineteenth Century Literature,” Stuart Macdonald’s “Model Farms,” Nicholas Goddard’s “Agricultural Societies,” the group of essays on “The Labouring Life,” Charles Phythian-Adams’s “Rural Culture,” and W.A. Armstrong’s “The Flight from the Land,” a subject which has always intrigued novelists and sociologists, and which gets authoritative treatment. Professor Mingay’s book is really a rural encyclopedia but the style of its contributors is not changed and each of the contributors is allowed to be expansive, allusive, and distinctive.
It is interesting to see how well the country clergy come out of this many-sided analysis, how they had to strive against the farmers, more than anyone else, to get schools going and to see that the poor did not go completely under. Britain’s fields may be the spiritual territory of the nation but the geography of Anglicanism itself is marked out across thousands of English villages, and this book acknowledges the complex influence of the ancient countrystyle Christianity on the toiling parishes. They were leisure-less communities for most of their inhabitants, full of cruelty and injustice, greed and pride—and full of imagination and satisfactions and goodness.
I sometimes think that if the word “peasant” could be used, and if it could include most of the farmers, something darker and deeper might be said. What is there about land that so brings out the grasping in a man? The long years covered by this multiple study see the transition of the bulk of the population from the villages to the towns, the socalled golden decades of the mid-century, and the beginning of the terrible agricultural depression which wasn’t to end until Hitler’s threatened siege forced us all to cultivate the neglected acres, making them what they are today—among the most spectacularly well-farmed scenes in the world. Professor Mingay’s task has been to unearth all the roots and runners, and to reveal what our ploughing fathers were leading up to. There are many pictures and a huge bibliography.
Finally to that ultimate domestic extravaganza, the country seat. The Gentleman’s Country House and Its Plan 1835-1914 reveals a more extended view of that astonishing state of affairs to which Mark Girouard so memorably introduced us in his The Victorian Country House a decade ago. Jill Franklin’s book covers both more time and ground than that superb work, which she acknowledges, but it spreads a similarly lavish and still scarcely believable scene before our eyes. Maybe, as the owners of these piles intended, we are still too awed by the audacity of their pretensions to do little more than catch our breath at such outrageous grandiosity. Some of these houses are glorious, many are ghastly, all are enormous. And their hour, comparatively speaking, was brief. Erected to shelter a dynasty till the end of time, most of them sheltered three or four generations before the altered social climate inaugurated by the First World War made them fit only for schools, hospitals, prisons, and bureaucratic centers.
This sharp book traces their rise and fall. They depended not on gadgetry but on staff—scores and scores of staff—a perfectly maneuvered little army of upper and lower servants, and when these mutinied and got themselves jobs in the wartime factories, the immense houses came to a domestic standstill, and not even modern central heating and scientific appliances are able to make them work as they were intended to.
Jill Franklin’s style is well suited for sorting out the reasons why these romantic palaces were created. Laconic and realistic, she guides us through the ponderous architecture from start to finish, giving the good and bad houses their due—many were hideous. For something like eighty years there was a vogue for immense residences among the rich. Blatant ostentation was de rigueur and along with it went an open invitation to display one’s dreams. Thus the confidence with which these houses, of which there were between one and two thousand, went up in the astonished countryside.
The materials were superb. Pretty stucco and paint were out, masonry fit to stand a medieval siege or worthy of a Gothic cathedral was in. Inside, the cold was prodigious and the difficulties of leading anything approaching a private life with so many servants about were insuperable. The entertaining, cooking, transport, maintenance of the grounds, etc., were all on the scale of a large hotel. Each house was seen as a background to the success of its owner and was, in fact, a proclamation of his standing in society. If he belonged to the old aristocracy or gentry, his lineage was sculpted all over it; if he belonged to the new Industrial Revolution millionaires, a “raked-up” lineage, as it was then called, would adorn the gates quite shamelessly. It was all part of the fantasy. Even at the time there were those who couldn’t take such “lavish wealth thrust up your nose” and who were nonplussed by the cavernous rooms, miles of passages, and sumptuous furnishings.
Franklin takes us through the whole process, from the picking of sites to the dazzling pastiche elevations, Gothic being the favorite, but with Loire château and Macbeth’s castle not far behind. In order to get such huge buildings completed quickly, more than four hundred craftsmen and laborers would be at work at one time. These forces were often hard to manage and there were strikes during the creation of the queen’s own dream-house at Balmoral. There were problems about the servants’ quarters where the windows had to be arranged so that maids and footmen could look neither into the mansion itself nor into the formal gardens.
Gargantuan meals produced Rabelaisian smells, and there was the problem of how to place the kitchen far enough away from the dining room to prevent its being full of boiling and baking stench, and not so far as to ensure that everything arrived at the table cold. And there was the problem of the processional route into dinner from the drawingroom, which had to be lengthy enough for grandeur, rank, trains, etc., but not so long as to freeze the guests as they moved between two warm spots. Dining rooms, anyway, were notoriously chilly. Queen Victoria rarely permitted fires in any of the rooms at Balmoral and would drive about the grounds in an open carriage in all weathers. In the ordinary way, coal fires were lit throughout a country house, sometimes as many as forty-four at once, and these roaring open grates produced gale-like draughts.
The architectural passion was for asymmetry and darkness. Roofs, which in the Georgian house were low and modest, now reared up like the towers of Chartres and the skyline assumed a new drama and importance. Under them life took on a strict formality. In order to exist alongside so many servants, a social barrier evolved which, in many British homes until the 1930s, made it absolutely impossible for either side to “meet” the other on any but superior-versus-inferior terms. Nothing was private. It was not only what the butler saw, but what the butler thought. Servants in such establishments were virtually slaves. They were also imitators of their betters and reproduced an elaborate hierarchic order in their own quarters like that of society itself.
All this is familiar enough, as is the country house as a “national heritage.” What is so fresh and beguiling is the book’s lively integration of scholarship and opinion. Jill Franklin is at her very best when it comes to the decline of the country house, when these vast structures which had, for so brief a time, been geared to privilege in its most openly declared form, “were left to moulder in the landscape, obsolete and unworkable.”
I have seen them all my life. The most memorable was the least apparent, Lady Warwick’s Easton, which was just a platform within a tremendous terrace and surrounded by armorial gates. There she received her lover the Prince of Wales and his sporting retinue. For miles around, every avenue, every carefully sited oak, each subservient lodge, pointed to the “big house,” which, if not built to last forever, was certainly not built to be pulled down the minute its creator died. But so it was. Dr. Johnson said, “Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses, whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings.” That is what it is all about.
June 25, 1981