Resentment

John Sutherland

  • Francesca by Roger Scruton
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 236 pp, £13.95, February 1991, ISBN 1 85619 048 X
  • Slave of the Passions by Deirdre Wilson
    Picador, 251 pp, £14.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 330 31788 1
  • The Invisible Worm by Jennifer Johnston
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 182 pp, £12.95, February 1991, ISBN 1 85619 041 2
  • The Secret Pilgrim by John le Carré
    Hodder, 335 pp, £14.95, January 1991, ISBN 0 340 54381 7

There are many Roger Scrutons and it is not easy to reconcile them: barrister, aesthetician, champion of Senator Joseph McCarthy, teacher at Birkbeck College (an institution with a tradition of proletarian outreach), editor of the ultra-Tory Salisbury Review foxhunter. And novelist. Fortnight’s Anger (1981) was hard-going – a murky tale of adolescent sexuality full of sentences like: ‘Her hands trembled on his face and neck. Slowly the agony of appeasement wormed through him, and his grief, unlocked at last, crawled out and shook itself on the surface of his face.’ That is, he wept. Scruton’s second novel, Francesca, is less overdone in its writing – although it too deals with the toils of adolescence. The ten-year interval has usefully congealed some of the Scruton parts. His prejudices seem now to have permeated all the fibres of his mind and sensibility, like smoke into well-cured bacon. Everything he writes now seems thoroughly Scrutonised. One feels a sense of gratified expectation at the snide allusions to the New Statesman, the Guardian and ‘Dr Leavis’ on page one of Francesca. This is the Roger Scruton we know and love to hate – Britain’s favourite ‘token reactionary’, as he sometimes calls himself.

Francesca recalls Great Expectations. The grammar-school boy hero, Colin Ferguson, is the son of a self-improved, atheist, socialist, environmentalist schoolmaster father. The characterisations are as easy to take apart as lego, each piece a pet Scruton peeve. A sensitive youth, given to swooning when his problems press, Colin falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the lord who lives on the hill (soon to be developed – to the lord’s profit – into a housing estate). One track of the story is the comedy of Colin’s adventures with a sharply-observed set of upper-class twits and the upper-class bitch he hopelessly pines for. Another track – more interesting to Scruton watchers – is the drama of Colin’s ideological conversion. Love and the irresistible magnetism of English aristocracy induce him to disown his father’s values – based as they are on ‘resentment’ (a key word in the author’s vocabulary of social analysis). The moment of conversion occurs as Colin stands in the dock accused of drunken misconduct on Primrose Hill. If ever he should resent the class system it is now, but instead – like a sinner in the hand of an angry God – Colin submits:

The fact was that he could not share the schoolmaster’s [i.e. his father’s) vast resentment. In his heart he believed in the legitimacy of institutions: he believed in law, in ceremony, in the colourful nonsense of condign punishment. He believed in the ruling class, in privilege, in heredity and customary power. He believed in the rights of Lord Shepton, of Nigel de Litham, of the spoiled and impossible Francesca. He believed in it, as Tertullian believed in the incarnation, because it was absurd. Through Francesca he came face to face with the madness that lies at the heart of all legitimate order – the boiling core of contradictions, upon which the volcanic crust of stability incongruously rests.

It’s not an exalted credo. Scruton’s aristocrats don’t have beautiful houses, magnificent works of art, fine manners or high culture. They do not hold the true England in trust. This is not Brideshead. Scruton’s aristocrats get beastly drunk, honk, bray, bully, drive offensively expensive Rolls-Royces, and flaunt their other nice things in the faces of those who cannot afford them. Their very nicest things are beautiful women like Francesca. – much preferable to the Guardian-reading drabs and West Indian whores who would normally cater to Colin’s needs did he not nurture ideas above his station. The only social justification for the English aristocracy is the thin ‘crust of stability’ they provide. Take them away and you unplug the British volcano. The ‘morons’ (as Scruton at one point calls the British working class) will erupt in all their natural ugliness. Scruton’s glum sociology gives us a choice of louts and he prudently chooses the louts in dinner jackets.

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