Shirley Letwin has written the best book on Trollope that I read during the past centenary year of his death. But her book is not only about Trollope. It is a subversive book about England—subversive, that is to say, of those who until very recently brought about a consensus between the center and the left of the Conservative Party and the center and right of the Labour Party. Her book explores Trollope’s treatment of the characters in his novels but it also has undertones about the assumptions that Englishmen once made about the way people ought to behave at home, in love, in business, and in the House of Commons. Shirley Letwin is an American living in London who has a fondness for some British institutions and manners. But she gets exasperated when good old class-ridden England takes to the egalitarian bottle and has tipsy affairs with such foreign whores as socialism, sociology, scientism, and others who when you go to bed with them pick your pocket.
Englishmen used once to be admired—even if they were also mocked by foreigners—for claiming to be gentlemen. Today in England no one in the press or television would dream of calling anyone by such an offensive name: it would be to suggest that he was trying to behave like Bulldog Drummond or Bertie Wooster. And yet less than two hundred years ago Madame de Staël and Tocqueville both praised Britain for being the one European country with open entry to its aristocracy and for having invented the useful word “gentleman,” which was regarded abroad as untranslatable.
It was untranslatable because it did not designate some rank or status in society. In Victorian times there were innumerable books of etiquette which purported to describe the criteria for being a gentleman. Some maintained that it depended on birth, others thought the right education was sufficient. No one got acknowledged as a gentleman simply because he married an earl’s daughter. But if a girl married an earl’s son she was in. The tutor of an earl’s son would be treated as a gentleman, but the governess of his daughters would not be treated as a lady. Some argued that a profession only became respectable when one of its leading members was knighted—the first surgeon was knighted in 1778, the first engineer in 1841, and the first dentist in 1886. All these talismans were fraudulent.
Conduct—how you behaved—was the real criterion for being considered a gentleman. How can one describe good conduct? Clearly it means more than manners—though I think Trollope concealed from himself how such manners mattered. Clearly such devices as casuistry cannot explain morality any more than grammar and idioms express the nuances of a living language. A crib, such as Castiglione’s description of the courtier, is just as unable to describe how we should behave. The triumph of the novel was that it could do so. It could explain why judgments ordinary people make about the behavior of others are often so trite. It could show that there are rules but that the rules sometimes do not apply; and that judgments that appear to be inconsistent with the rules are really instances of moral sensitivity. The thesis of this book is that no one made such judgments more sensitively than Trollope. All his novels, Shirley Letwin contends, answer the question: how should a gentleman behave?
It is characteristic of her liveliness that she declares that “the most perfect gentleman in Trollope’s novels is Madame Max Goesler.” Madame Max, readers of Trollope’s political novels will remember, is the rich, charming, attractive young widow, daughter of a German Jewish attorney, whose husband left her a fortune and who so beguiles the old duke of Omnium that he offers to make her his duchess. But she turns him down. Not because she wants to marry solely for love. Not because his family opposes it—she demands an apology from her friend Lady Glencora, the duke’s daughter-in-law, who tells Madame Max that such a marriage would disgrace the duke. Not because she feels that she could not play the part; she knows she could to perfection. She refuses because, although the duke makes the offer genuinely, in his old age he is not of perfect judgment. He would not have chosen her at the beginning of his life: so she would be taking advantage of an old man’s weakness. She refuses the duke not because self-sacrifice is the hallmark of a gentleman. The real hallmark is self-respect. That is what a gentleman must preserve.
Madame Max has not only a gentleman’s self-respect but gentlemanly integrity. Integrity is a quality that Shirley Letwin maintains a gentleman needs to cope with the fact that the world is changing. He must change with it but he must not give in to change because some changes will be for the worse. You have to recognize that your own self has to relate to others and speak their language, but no gentleman should accommodate himself to please everyone. A gentleman has to be diffident but also resolute, rather than wise and altruistic. He should leave altruism to foolish intellectuals.
Madame Max, who loved Phineas Finn, had the courage to propose marriage to him because she knew he could not face the imputation that he was marrying her for her money. In a changing world you cannot be sure what is for the best and that is why diffidence is a virtue. It is diffidence that makes a gentleman skeptical of all panaceas for the future of mankind and of altruism, which tells him that he should put others above himself. Diffidence does not mean lack of courage. A gentleman needs courage because he must realize that in life things will not always go his way. He needs courage to stand against mass opinion when he thinks it wrong. That Dean Lovelace did not hesitate to knock the marquess of Brotherton down when he called the dean’s daughter a whore and punish him with his fists so mercilessly that the marquess was badly hurt certainly proved the dean had the courage to behave as many people would think a clergyman should not behave. But the dean had even more courage. His daughter was married to Lord George, the marquess’s brother, and their small son was heir to the title and estates. Trollope makes it plain that everyone would have called Lord George a gentleman. But Lord George did not live up to the standard of one. He prided himself on not being sordidly ambitious and refused to suspect his brother, the marquess, of perpetrating a fraud and depriving his son of his legal inheritance. But this tolerance, if you like this excessive diffidence, was not selfless. It sprang from weakness and cowardice.
Of course a gentleman should be honest. Honesty, says Mrs. Letwin, “bears no relation to what is now called ‘authenticity.”‘ Honesty means being clear about what you know and what you don’t know and what kind of knowledge is appropriate to answering the questions in hand. It means that what a man says today should bear some relation to what he has said in the past and will say in the future. But honesty is not the same as consistency because a man must judge how far like is like; and even if it is like, he may judge that circumstances demand a different response. Deceit should be repugnant to an honest gentleman because it involves manipulating people. But it is not dishonest to lie, for instance, to save a friend, so long as you acknowledge that you did lie. Nor is it dishonest to address a stranger in a different manner from a friend.
Anyone can make generalizations like these—and that is not how the argument runs in this book. Mrs. Letwin shows how, even if you have not read some of the novels, the characters do or do not exemplify these virtues. Trollope imagined how his characters would respond to the moral dilemmas he created for them and tells us how hard it is to be really honest or brave or self-respecting and how subtle are the evasions men concoct when they want to appear to be so, but cannot face the consequences.
Well, how should a gentleman make love? Bound by Victorian conventions Trollope does not say. But he makes it clear that his women love their men because they find them sexually attractive. He disliked coy lovers. Each of his ideal pair in Framley Parsonage “longed for the other and they were not ashamed to say so.” Some of his women are repelled by good men and yearn for cads because they find them sexually attractive. What is more, his women have minds of their own and are not toys. They do not dwindle into dolls after marriage. Nor do they fail to let their beaux or their kinsmen know what they think. Phineas Finn, that Irish charmer, begs Violet Effingham “to try to love him.” She says she sees no reason why she should since it would displease everyone. But when her family warns her that he is after her money she says that if she liked him well enough she would marry him “even if he had been dug right out of a bog.”
Shirley Letwin says that whether Phineas is a gentleman is a nice question. He was certainly not a true lover; he was thoughtless, sometimes coarse, and anything nasty he dodged. As Trollope says, he lacked “something in individuality and was accordingly too much a friend to everybody.” What saves him is his honesty, his refusal to break a promise. He stands by what he said in the heat of a political argument about Irish tenants’ rights even though he knows he will lose office if he does so. Again, he stands by his promise to his first love even though to marry her will end his parliamentary career. (In other words, self-respect keeps him straight, not fear of the consequences of his actions.) Trollope thought that one might love and one might lose but nothing ever justified turning married life into a tragedy. But it will turn into a tragedy if a husband or a wife determines to dominate the other and neglect the other’s individuality. Mrs. Proudie is a monster because she is determined to usurp her husband’s place and be the bishop herself.
Gentlemen make marriages of convenience and some of these work (Lord Fawn and Lady Eustace of the diamonds). Others don’t because love has been sacrificed to worldly desires (the Kennedys and the Ongars). Flirting is one of the gentlemanly joys of life so long as neither gets infatuated. Cohabitation—well, in out of the way places such as Australia—can be condoned. Promiscuity not. Men and women should stand up for themselves in love and marriage, but the jealousy of a Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right is a madness. Unlike Proust, Trollope did not regard jealousy as inevitable. It was a malady, not the natural condition of love. Believing something to be true does not make it so. No gentleman should allow himself to be obsessed simply because life is full of unwelcome surprises.
Trollope is most unusual among novelists in thinking that ambition, getting on in life and making money, was a respectable and desirable pursuit. Ridiculous to think a gentleman should not soil his hands by earning money—his gentry and clergy talk money all the time. Sermons against love of money are to him examples of unintelligent piety. Nor was he ashamed to own that he himself wanted to be a somebody and to hear the name of Trollope on people’s lips. Of course, some of his heroes are quietists who live in country parsonages and care nothing for wealth or fame. Of course, The Way We Live Now indicts the corruption that millionaire swindlers create. But that novel is not an indictment of the capitalist system. The crooked financier in it was not guilty because he strove for wealth, but because he believed that he could override the law and morality. He thought so because they were meaningless to him: just as in another novel the advocates of euthanasia cannot understand why it is immoral.
Trollope himself stood for Parliament and failed to get in because the borough was one of the most corrupt in England and his opponents had more money. His novels contain splendid descriptions of such electioneering, but when one of his characters, Sir Thomas Underwood, refuses to play the game and discover who has to be bribed and by how much, Trollope has no sympathy for him. Such rectitude bewilders everyone, supporters and foes alike. Some men do in fact kick over the traces and by sheer force of character manage to get elected with clean hands. Not Sir Thomas. He fails because he is weak and for all his industry lazy. He will not do the things he needs to do to win an election without corruption. It is not ungentlemanly to be ambitious: but to go about things in the wrong way is.
Trollope is today, perhaps, more admired for his political rather than for his Barchester novels. He thought the same principles held good for both. Religion is a matter of living and let live—he hated the evangelical clergy who immediately divided their parishes into supporters and opponents of light. He was far from being a Christian Socialist. He thought a gentleman should be slow to condemn others for the fact that evils in society continue to flourish. Why should a man crusade against every evil he perceived? Similarly, if things went ill with him, to indulge in self-pity was most ungentlemanly. For Trollope politics simply meant making adjustments. No gentleman in his senses could believe in programs of reform, still less would he wish to be a great popular leader. If your opponents keep themselves in power by some skillful maneuver or shady intrigue, let cads like radical journalists revile them. Naturally you as a gentleman will make a ritual denunciation of their knavery in Parliament, but you will accept that maneuvers of this kind are part of politics and that in a few years’ time it may be your turn to turn the tables.
Nor is it dishonorable for politicians to denounce today what they praised ten years ago: after all, circumstances change. Politics is a game—and yet it is more than a game. It is a set of procedures to see that changes of opinion in the country are reflected in the activities of members of Parliament. How this happens is obscure. But it depends on loyalty to party and in not being too scrupulous in awarding honors. The old duke of St. Bungay regretted Plantagenet Palliser’s high-mindedness and propensity to feel himself inadequate or his cause unjust. The duke did not want him to be ruthless or callous but to accept like a gentleman that compromise and dissimulation are part of politics. Similarly, Barrington Erle tells Phineas that he ought to trust those in his party who have studied a matter and not always flaunt his own judgment. You stand by your leader even if you don’t like him because personal likes or dislikes should be beneath a gentleman in politics.
It was all very well to preach through stories that gentlemanly behavior made a gentleman but Trollope knew perfectly well that no one was recognized as such who had not a certain status in society. No doubt rank never made a gentleman, and there are plenty of silly, vain, pompous, and corrupt aristocrats in Trollope’s pages. No doubt absurd pride in ancestors was laughable. But deference to a formal difference in society Trollope thought neither degrading nor disenobling—the equivalent today being the respect which a scientist might show to a Nobel prize winner, or a diplomat to the head of his desk, or a businessman to his boss—or even a journalist to his editor—provided he was not sucking up but admiring his elder’s sagacity and know-how. Social distinctions and grades are not barriers but signposts which can be disregarded for good cause. But in a country in which there were no signposts it would be hard to find one’s way.
In the middle classes gentlemen were scarce, for brewers were apt to be vulgar fellows, but Luke Rowan in Rachel Ray was entitled to call himself a gentleman when he forced his brewery to lower its profits and sell better beer, particularly since Rowan, Trollope tells us, could have been a lawyer and would then have appeared unassailably genteel. But lawyers are not necessarily gentlemen. The great advocate, Mr. Chaffanbras, whose triumphs at the Old Bailey were legendary, a great bullier of witnesses and up to every trick in pleading, was too fond of power and not enough aware of himself to be one. Still, Trollope thought that it was much easier to be a gentleman if you had a private income and easier still if you were educated, for education made it easier to draw distinctions.
What matters is how you respond to experience because you yourself create that experience. So Shirley Letwin adds for good measure that no gentleman should whine about his father complex or the harshness of his upbringing or the miserably hard choices that face him. Everyone is the captain of his soul, and it is ignoble to excuse your behavior by claiming that you are a fly caught in the inexorable process of history or of one or other type of social injustice which could be whisked away if the ruling class cared to do so. It is equally feeble to excuse yourself by identifying with some stereotype in clinical psycho-analysis or literature. Certainly one of the byproducts of the rise in prestige of the arts and of literary criticism and its exploration of the novel has been the readiness of people to confuse life with art, to justify their behavior by relating it to literature. In a well-known sonnet Keats had some hard things to say about such people “Yawning and doting a whole summer long / Till Miss’s comb is made a pearl tiara / And common Wellingtons turn Romeo boots.” People speak of the tragedy of someone’s life as if life were a drama on the stage, whereas what they mean is that someone has been overtaken by a calamity.
No summary can convey the wealth of allusion to the characters and situations in Trollope’s novels with which Mrs. Letwin builds up her case, and it is done so skillfully that one could recommend her book to someone who had never read a word of Trollope. She rescues Trollope from the often quoted remark of Henry James that he was stupid by showing that James used that adjective only about a single novel and that in Partial Portraits (1888) he was remarkably appreciative of Trollope’s “great apprehension of the real” and his “knowledge of the stuff we are made of,” concluding that Trollope could be called “a man of genius.” We care about people, wrote James, to the extent that we know what they are; and we know what they are only by observing how they conduct themselves; and this Trollope did excellently.
But this book is concerned with matters other than Trollope. It has indeed bewildered some industrious scholars who are used to confining themselves to their own strictly fenced-in cabbage patch of academic literary criticism. One of them complained that by writing about Trollope’s characters as if they were historical figures, Shirley Letwin was trying to smuggle some fake through the customs: Leavis and others had long ago imposed a regulation that defined a novel according to its moral content—the so-called characters had no life of their own. Novels which were too full of “superfluous life” were contraband and should be confiscated by the customs even if Leavis let in duty-free L.H. Myers’s novels, in which the characters remain as inanimate as stuffed owls.
In fact, Mrs. Letwin is not all that concerned about Trollope’s place in fiction. For her Trollope is an inspired trouvaille who challenges many of the assumptions current in British life today. This summary of her argument will have made some readers rightly suspect that she is devoted to Michael Oakeshott, the most original British conservative philosopher to emerge in this century. Oakeshott, who, ironically, succeeded Harold Laski at the London School of Economics, is now over eighty, and from his first to his last work, On Human Conduct, has run counter to philosophical and political fashion in his lifetime. Anyone who uses his exceedingly idiosyncratic philosophical apparatus (or indeed who exploits any of the philosophical traditions current in Europe) will find it hard to get an appointment in British departments of philosophy, which are strictly policed by the guardians of linguistic philosophy and logical positivism.
One of the reasons why this should be so may be the curious way in which Oakeshott defined rationalism when in 1947 he published his first reflections on its place in politics. He set up a scarecrow, dressed it in garish rags, called it rationalism, and then stripped it naked. The declaration of the rights of man, a planned society, federalism, the reunion of the Christian churches, votes for women, the revival of Gaelic as the official language of Eire, and indeed Nazism itself were all said to be manifestations of rationalism. Marxism or any political theory which could be translated into an ideology were again examples of rationalist politics. Rationalists were men who respected only useful knowledge, the kind which could be put into books and learned. They did not accept as knowledge what men learn through experience. This scarecrow was so grotesque that Oakeshott’s wise criticisms of the political assumptions of rationalism were ignored.
Shirley Letwin too has her scarecrow. She tells us that from ancient Greece until today mankind has labored under a delusion concerning its own nature. The delusion is that man is a self-divided animal. “What meaneth nature by these diverse laws, Passion and Reason self-division’s cause?” Plato was the first to give the notion credibility with his image of the soul as two horses. Manichean dualism, St. Augustine’s two cities, Thomism, and modern thinkers such as Kant, Rousseau, Mill, Nietzsche, Freud, and Sartre all start from the premise that man is a divided being. His passions should be subdued by reason or will. Certainly Montaigne questioned the dichotomy and so did Hobbes and Hume. But so ingrained has this fundamental idea about human nature become that our vocabulary continually echoes it. Passion is said not only to disrupt sexual and family relations but to be responsible for the avarice, egoism, and the greed for material possessions that produce the excesses of capitalism and the tyranny of socialism. This leads to another delusion. The material world of politics and commerce and industry is regarded as tainted, and people praise those vocations and professions that put man furthest from such a life. Once it was the monk, today it is the scientist and scholar who are deemed to be superior to businessmen. The producers of wealth—who finance the general welfare and the graces of life—are despised.
But today, Shirley Letwin continues, the doctrine has been stood on its head. So far from reason being Plato’s noble horse, reason is regarded as the lubberly jailer of those liberating emotions which enable men to express their own true selves. So far from passion enslaving man, he realizes himself most fully only when he allows his passions full rein. Conformists who live by reason are poor, dead creatures; the rebel who overthrows the restraints of society, its laws, customs, and conventions is uniquely alive. Men and women have only two attitudes between which to choose: submission or rebellion. What is government today but a technocratic machine which predicts and programs changes and allots roles to people in the name of the planned state or of business efficiency? That is why so many want to rebel against the forces of order.
How, asks Shirley Letwin, has this come about? Why did Englishmen abandon their great tradition of pragmatism and skepticism which inspired Hobbes and Hume? German idealism was for her one villain. Englishmen in the 1830s and 1840s suddenly became enraptured by the visions of a higher reality and ashamed of their own tradition which seemed so superficial beside the profundity of Hegel or Jean Paul. Or they became intoxicated by variants of scientism, such as social Darwinism, which was an ersatz religion. In order that people should feel their lives had meaning, they had to see themselves as part of some higher unity such as the universal self or the state. They wanted to forget that man is mortal and cannot make himself immortal by proclaiming himself part of humanity.
It seems clear from a number of asides which the author makes when developing her theme that she sees the same melancholy delusion clouding Britain today. The English have abandoned those virtues that made them famous through pre-1914 Europe and imagine that they are not intellectually and morally respectable unless they too proclaim as gospel the ideas of the American, French, or Russian revolutions. They destroy their grammar schools in the name of equality although these schools were the one sure road to advancement for the working class and the only hope of maintaining intellectual standards in public education; they conduct industrial relations as a war of unconditional surrender; and the dogmatism of the left in economics has now been paralleled by the dogmatism of the right. The calm, unexcited, unexcitable politics of Trollope’s day has gone and with it any lasting notion of how men should behave.
Some disagreements at once come to mind. I think that Shirley Letwin exaggerates the strength of German thought in the nineteenth century. It is true that the utilitarian Mill talks of self-realization. It is true that the Hegelian F.H. Bradley was the finest British philosopher of the century. But if ever there was a country that rejected German idealism in practically all its forms, it was England. Bradley and T.H. Green popularized it at Oxford, but even there it was soon displaced by Cook Wilson’s realism: at Cambridge, despite McTaggart, it never took root at all; at London, Hobhouse wrote a diatribe against Hegel’s metaphysical state. Coleridge and Carlyle were imperfect mediators of German thought; and those who studied Hegel either rejected him or came away like Jowett or Stirling with such diffuse notions as to be irrelevant. Nor did some baleful German influence unhinge Austin and Mill. The jurisprudence of the former was unaffected and the utilitarianism of the latter was not crucially modified.
Except in the single field of political economy dogmatic rationalism fared no better. Bentham, it is true, believed that his legal system was the product of pure reason. But no one in England, dominated by the common law, ever acted upon the supposition that law was solely a rational set of rules. Far more of Comte can be found embedded in French institutions than of Bentham in English practice. As for the social Darwinists, what feeble, cautious fellows they were compared to the racists Gobineau or Gumplowicz, or those American captains of industry who practiced what they preached. A convincing case could be argued that in recent years, so far from British politics being transformed by philosophical heresies, the politics of Butskellism was a return to the days of Whigs and Tories and a revulsion against the bitterness of class warfare in the first half of this century. Only now is political life seen as riven between irreconcilable forces.
However much one mistrusts Historismus and German idealism, who can deny that the movement which began in the mid-eighteenth century and which challenged all the assumptions of the scientific Cartesian world was one of the most marvelous explosions of the genius of man, comparable in fecundity and importance to that of the Italian Renaissance? It contained insights about man’s relation to society that still hold good today. Indeed, one could argue that Kant, in drawing the distinction between pure and practical reason and arguing that both methods of reasoning were necessary to understand life, was abolishing the division in man between reason and passion which Shirley Letwin regards as fallacious. It was the Germans who declared that custom, language, tradition, culture not only do, but ought to, guide men’s actions. It was they who denounced the rationalist claim that society should be organized according to an abstract system of thought which treated all human beings as if they were the same. Some German thinkers foresaw how deep in human nature was the desire for roots, for self-expression, and for identification in a world which came to be threatened by the domination of planners, utilitarians, and impersonal bureaucracies.
It can of course be argued that out of this Pandora’s box leapt many mischiefs, not least the totalitarian systems of communism and fascism, and the most powerful of all the forces, nationalism and tribalism, which have destroyed far more than they have unified. (And nearly as convincing a case can be made—as it was by the Israeli thinker J.L. Talmon—that totalitarianism has its origins in the rationalism of the enlightenment and that communism is the child of the determination to discover a single, rational system of thought according to which human beings could be ruled, and industry organized.) But it is no less true that out of German historicism came unanswerable arguments for pluralism—the notion that there are many cultures, not one, and that they will always remain at odds with each other. As a result good ends tend to conflict with other good ends. This makes any philosophical attempt to reconcile them within an all-embracing system futile. Is it not therefore equally futile to attempt to measure conduct by the standards of gentlemanly behavior?
But Shirley Letwin considers pluralism too sloppy, too ill-defined, too destructive of those firm guidelines for sensible conduct that ought to be accepted as the standard by which human beings are to be measured and judged. To her the morality of the gentleman is more satisfying because it can accommodate the political, psychological, and religious difficulties in which men and women find themselves. The trouble is that the gentlemanly ideal, attractive as it is, in its subtlety and flexibility, cannot comprehend aspects of life which have usually been regarded as exceptionally valuable, or at least most characteristic, of what is most vital in human existence. It excludes the saints and idealists. It excludes those who dedicate themselves to some good cause—who are often the most fearful bores but are the salt of the earth. It is hostile to spontaneity—that quality which can make some actions attractive precisely because they are not calculated actions. Prudence is undoubtedly a cardinal virtue; but one can’t help thinking that a world governed by her and her sisters, temperance, fortitude, and justice, would be dispiriting.
To declare, moreover, that the conflict between reason and passion can be subsumed under some wider interpretation (as indeed the utilitarians did) seems to me to be dubious. Trollope’s characters often get angry, lose their temper, behave unreasonably, but only one is convincingly portrayed as being in the grip of an overpowering obsession—the wretched Trevelyan in He Knew He Was Right. Shirley Letwin suggests that Trollope could have explored Vronsky’s and Anna’s states of mind more convincingly than Tolstoy did. Tolstoy should have shown why they were bound to destroy themselves because they failed to understand the moral principles of true gentlemanly behavior. Instead he attributed their destruction to God’s vengeance. She probably had in mind that Tolstoy in his diary admitted that Trollope “overwhelms me with his mastery.” But Tolstoy went on to say, “I console myself that he has his skill and I have mine. To know what is mine—and what isn’t mine—that is the main thing about art.” He also thought Trollope “diffuse” (he uses the word in English) and too conventional.
For the truth is not merely that Trollope has not Tolstoy’s supreme gifts. He was incapable of understanding imaginatively, let alone portraying, that strange, consuming obsession which one person can feel for another, such as Anna felt for Vronsky. The best critic of the novel in Trollope’s day, Leslie Stephen, felt this when he questioned whether Trollope’s novels were quite so accurate a portrait of upper-class life as they appeared to be. Were all arch-deacons so worldly, or girls so single-mindedly interested in good housekeeping and marriage, were there no Maggie Tullivers or Jane Eyres, were all moral failings quite so commonplace as those he depicted?
Stephen may also have been irritated by Trollope’s evident satisfaction with the politics of Palmerston and Whig rule. There was much to be said for the tranquillity of that rule and its respect for political liberty which made England a haven for refugees from European autocracies. There was also a lot to be said against it. The gentlemanly habit of never moving to reform institutions until it was impossible to deny the need for reform any longer left England by the end of the century with the least adequate system of public education in Western Europe, with universities far behind those of Germany and France, with minimal public support for the arts and scholarship, with an antiquated legal system, and with wretched provision for the poor.
So long as the poor are individuals with whom they speak face to face, gentlemen are at their ease with them—far more so than intellectuals, because gentlemen are unembarrassed by their difference in status. But they become deeply embarrassed by the undifferentiated poor with their grinding problems caused by bad housing, bad upbringing, bad health, bad schooling. Truancy, crime, over-crowding, violence, squalor disturb their ease. They have no compass to navigate these seas because the Oakeshottian doctrine of abandoning sextants, theodolites, and other aids to navigation such as charts or tide tables makes them feel that nothing much can be done. We must sail a point or two nearer the wind; but we should never hoist a spinnaker.
Nor do they much like those measures intended to give other classes or groups in society possibilities in life. The ladies Trollope admired denounced degrees for women, jobs for women, votes for women. The gentlemen he admired were very ready to put down the cheeky, irrepressible working-class boy such as Wells or the outspoken son of a manager who dared to criticize the traditional way of doing things. They thought of them as bounders disturbing the social arrangements which would continue to serve the nation well, regardless of the fact that the terms of trade for England were changing.
The gentlemanly code rests on a sense of superiority, unostentatious and delightful in expression, but unshakable. The complacency of men of moderate abilities was matched by a propensity to judge others by their superficial manners of speech, accent, or dress. There is something insufferable in maintaining that whate’er is best administered is best when those who maintain it have little talent for administration. Their right to govern was unearned because hardly one of them had acquired the arts through the rough and tumble of managerial or entrepreneurial life. They distrusted the expert who was too ready with figures and ideas. The Victorian contempt for those the Victorian upper classes called “metaphysicians” (among whom Peel numbered the prince consort), that disbelief in coherent principles as a guide to the reform of abuses, was characteristic of Palmerstonian Whig rule. It is not so much that gentlemen govern, as every group must, in their own interest and convince themselves that it is identical with the interests of the country. It is that with such a deep skepticism for “ideas” they either have no criterion for action or abide by time-hallowed adages that were out of date in their father’s time.
Shirley Letwin’s prose combines ease with authority and her book should have been an unalloyed pleasure to read. That it is not an unalloyed pleasure is the fault not of the author but of the publisher. This book is a disgrace to British publishing. There are over seventy misprints, and on one page a whole section of type has dropped out so that the afflicted passage is gibberish. An erratum slip itself contains a misprint. A few of these errors may be attributable to the author, but most are ludicrous literals and mistypings, mistakes of a kind which no author, however idle, could have failed to correct in page proof. Harvard University Press, which presumably bought sheets from Macmillan, have been ill-served. The book apparently was set up from the typescript in India and printed in Hong Kong. Surely a publishing house such as Macmillan, with long experience of printing learned works, should have been alive to the possibility that such an eccentric way of producing a book entailed exceptional risks, and should have insisted on supervising the final passing of proofs in London before the edition was printed.
Is scholarly publishing in Britain another victim of the restrictive practices and inflated costs imposed by the print unions on Fleet Street? The secretary of the printers’ union recently told his members that times are changing and they must adjust to them—some twenty-five years after they have changed. Fine gentlemanly behavior.
February 3, 1983