P.N. Furbank

  • The English World: History, Character and People edited by Robert Blake
    Thames and Hudson, 268 pp, £14.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 500 25083 9
  • The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal by Philip Mason
    Deutsch, 240 pp, £9.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 233 97489 X

Can it be doubted that to write about ‘the English Spirit’ (or L’Ame Française or ‘the Spanish Soul’) is intellectually disreputable? Plainly, there are no such entities, nor does anyone at heart believe there are. The motives for invoking them are various: vote-getting is one; also the need to find something to say at a school speech-day. Then again, flirtatiousness. Intense are the flirtations that have sprung up between English writers (like Gerald Brenan) and Spain, between old-fashioned American scholars and the French poets, and between flattering Frenchmen (like André Maurois) and the bluff English. I revere Nikolaus Pevsner, but he will have to forgive me if I detect a touch of flirtatiousness in The Englishness of Art. One could labour the point, and offer reasons why no such concept could be valid, but I hardly think it is necessary. It is recognised when such talk begins that one is meant to relax, as at a kind of tea-break in the intellectual working day.

An objection suggests itself, which is that George Orwell wrote about the ‘English national character’, and Orwell was not a man to write to no purpose. But consider what he wrote – viz. that ‘a profound, almost unconscious patriotism and an inability to think logically are the abiding features of the English character, traceable in English literature from Shakespeare downwards.’ The profound patriotism of Shelley and Byron, the inability to think logically of John Stuart Mill and Cardinal Newman and Lewis Carroll? No, it won’t do, and Orwell, for once, was talking through his hat – perhaps relaxing in what he considered an ‘English’ manner.

It really seems, then, not quite proper that distinguished experts should have contributed to a volume entitled The English World, for all its slap-up production, its William Morris end-papers and no end of gorgeous illustrations. For a start, could you have a more catchpenny title? The word ‘world’ here means everything and nothing, and it is left entirely to the reader to give it definition. I am being unfair, for many of the essays in the volume – on the development of Parliament (Robert Blake), ‘War and Peace with Wales, Scotland and Ireland’ (Hugh Trevor-Roper), art and popular taste (Quentin Bell), the evolution of the English landscape (Richard Muir) – are excellent and briskly-written popularising surveys. But the whole enterprise, I do think, is compromised by those gestures towards ‘the English Spirit’, ‘the making of a tradition’ etc. (They come thickest, it is true, in the unsigned prolegomena to sections and the captions to illustrations.)

I am less averse to reading about ‘the English Gentleman’, since this is a concept which has meant much to many people. That it has not always meant the same thing, that, indeed, no two people would apply it in quite the same way, is hardly to the point. People do not always mean the same thing by the terms ‘madness’ or ‘Conservatism’ or ‘pure English’, but we do not accuse them of talking about nothing. Discussion of ‘the English Gentleman’ has its dangers too, however, and one of them it shares with discussion of ‘the English Spirit’, which is to treat the concept of ‘the English Gentleman’ as if it were somehow eternal and ahistorical – a Platonic Idea, adopting different disguises over the centuries but essentially unchanging. ‘It is all there in Chaucer,’ is the common cry. We meet with it, though phrased a little ambiguously, in George Holmes’s ‘The Medieval Centuries’ in The English World. ‘Chaucer’s characters are types but they are presented with such a complex indication of the ironies of their social position that the nuances of English life spring suddenly into view. The Franklin, a rich farmer, sure of his material security but unsure when it comes to handling the courtly ethos which is natural to the knight and the squire, appears to us with scarcely less realism than the people of Henry Fielding and Jane Austen.’ Ostensibly Holmes is only comparing the art, the ‘realism’, of Chaucer with that of novelists four centuries later. But the implication is that ‘realism’ means writing about what Jane Austen would have written about – social embarrassments and the like. (According to this theory, Chaucer’s Knight, being presumably without social embarrassments, does not call for ‘realism’. He certainly doesn’t get it, at least not of the Jane Austen kind.) And somewhere there seems to whisper a further implication: that the ‘nuances of English life’ are, at bottom, always the same.

Philip Mason, in his The English Gentleman, jumps in more boldly: ‘There, in the second half of the 14th century, are Chaucer’s men and women, far more like people in Britain in the second half of the 20th century than one has any right to expect ... the prioress clearly wants to be thought more of a lady than she is, and the franklin – a rich farmer in whose house it “snowed with meat and drink” – is eager that everyone should know what trouble he is taking to educate his son as a gentleman. These social pretensions, these subtly differentiated grades, are the familiar background of the Victorian and Edwardian novel.’ Now it is true, if you come to Chaucer looking for the things that historians tend to write about, you find yourself scratching your head. ‘Feudalism’ – oaths of fealty and villeins and vassals and all that – seems remarkably inconspicuous. I know the Franklin is a ‘vavasour’, which sounds feudal, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference to him. Again, some hold that the Reeve, because of his haircut, must be a ‘villein’: but it doesn’t stop him being rich and owning a very desirable tree-shaded residence. And ought the Wife of Bath, given the ‘position of women in the Middle Ages’, to be living quite the life she does? Admittedly, things grow a lot more feudal, or at least medieval, when we come to the tales that the Pilgrims tell – but then fiction has its own laws. Perhaps the 1380s are too late for feudalism. Somehow, it seems it always is too late for feudalism.

Now given these facts, an intense and fatal temptation solicits us: i.e. to tell ourselves that life in Chaucer’s day must have been much the same as it is today. Of course, it could be true, but it seems deeply unlikely. And if you once adopt it as a hypothesis, however tentatively, your vision blurs: you start taking resemblances for identities and put down any oddity in the evidence to some freak of transmission. The fruits of succumbing to this temptation are dreadfully plain in Philip Mason’s book.

The Wife of Bath was not exactly a lady ... She was the sort of person who today would live in a comfortable house on the outskirts of a large town. She would dress to catch the eye and go to the hairdresser twice a week; she would go on cruises ... In the 1920s, one can see the wife of Bath in expensive furs and a big car; today she would wear tight red trousers.

I won’t pursue why this is so awful; nor do I want to be unpleasant to Philip Mason, whose books on Anglo-India I greatly admire. Anyway, does not some blame lie with the historians? Mason is not a historian, nor am I, and we look to them to keep us on the right scientific track: but it seems they are not quite to be trusted. They go along beautifully most of the time, scrutinising the historical object without hindsight or teleology. Then something in what they are studying strikes a chord in their breast, reminding them of their youth or of their favourite novels, and suddenly they become quite ahistorical and begin to murmur dreamily about ‘the English gift for compromise’ and how Chaucer and Langland established ‘the English mind’. They forget, that is to say, that they are historians and begin to talk just like us. the people they are supposed to be studying.

The point comes out even more clearly in another context. Philip Mason writes that men in Chaucer’s England ‘were equal in the eyes of God, but in this world they knew very well that they were far from equal. They took it for granted that in England in 1387 things were arranged in an order of precedence. Each man had a degree or mystery, and although he might move up from one degree to another, the grades themselves did not change.’ It is a familiar enough assertion, and we come across another version of it in The English World. The anonymous scribe writes there: ‘In the Middle Ages England shared with the rest of Europe a rigidly stratified social system. Beneath the king and his nobles was a class of landowning squires living on estates worked by peasants. Slightly outside the system stood the towns (ruled by autonomous guilds), the universities and the Church.’ The trouble with this theory, surely, is that it is quite false. The implication seems to be that there was some single gradation or ladder of social position such as you could draw out on paper. But plainly this is a delusion. How could you hope to find a single ‘hierarchy’ or ladder on which Chaucer’s Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Monk, Merchant, Clerk, Sergeant, Haberdasher. Carpenter, Webber, Dyer, Tapycer, Cook, Shipman, Doctor of Physic, Wife of Bath, Parson, Plowman, Reeve, Summoner, Pardoner, Manciple, Miller and Host all have an allotted and agreed place? A shipman would probably never have given a thought to his social position vis-à-vis a monk or a merchant, and why should he? But even if he had, his position relative to these would depend on the context: it would be different, no doubt, on his ship from what it was in a monastery. This is not to say that there were no systems of status in the 14th century, merely that they existed in the plural and constituted a dense criss-crossing of systems.

Of course, then and later – and this is the important point – certain people, for various motives, and for rhetorical purposes, would have talked as if there were such a single scale. But it is not for us to take them literally, and indeed I think they might have been surprised to find themselves taken literally. It is a curious quirk of historians that, when it comes to ‘the social’, they take seriously, and deduce systematic meaning from, remarks uttered in quite another spirit. And I love that sentence in The English World: ‘Slightly outside the system stood the towns ... the universities and the Church.’ Quite a sizeable exception to the ‘system’, one would think!

Philip Mason’s starting-off point, in his theory of ‘the English Gentleman’, is a certain historical generalisation: ‘Until the French Revolution, English people took it for granted that social inequality was a fact of life, but in practice they often behaved as though all men were sons of Adam. After the French Revolution – when a nation founded on sharp social distinctions proclaimed equality as its motto – the reverse was the case; the English upper classes became more and more inclined to behave as though the lower classes were not.’ He first became aware of this paradox, he says, when reading an 18th-century popular song, about a young man who, while staying at an inn, overhears his mistress and her maid in the room next door, where they are sharing a bed and arguing who shall be first to use the chamber-pot. There is no doubt that what Mason is here grasping by a corner is a topic of great significance. It is the one expounded so memorably by Norbert Elias in The Civilising Process. According to Elias, in the 17th century, as a result of the strains attending the setting up of absolutist states, there rose up (or at any rate rose much higher) an ‘invisible wall of affects between one human body and another, repelling and separating’. This is only one aspect of a wider theory of his in which a rational connection is found between political history, manners and intimate psychology. I find the theory extremely satisfying, but obviously it supposes a more complex pattern of causation than a simple trend reversed at the French Revolution.

In general, the historical part of Mason’s book is pretty shaky – but then he doesn’t make very high claims for it. It is only when he reaches the Victorian age that he writes with conviction – and when he ceases to write as a historian. The book now becomes mainly a ramble round the Victorian novelists, guided by a fourfold classification: ‘the officer and gentleman’, ‘the scholar and gentleman’, the ‘Christian gentleman’ and the ‘gentleman sportsman’. He himself was born in the reign of Edward VII, and he writes about Thackeray, Meredith, Dickens and Trollope as if he were one of them, or at least as might have done a character in one of their novels. ‘Trollope wrote in his autobiography that he “lived with” his characters,’ writes Mason; ‘I too argue with his characters.’ He experiences no inhibition or reality-problem in referring to ‘the English Gentleman’, and the upshot of his discussion of Trollope is that Trollope was not quite right about him (though nearly). Plantagenet Palliser was a thorough gentleman but not, as Trollope thought, a perfect one (too starchy, not spontaneous enough).

It is not history, nor is there any reason why it should be, and there is some nice stuff (as well as some very entertaining illustrations) in this part of the book. (Trollope would have thought it perfectly reasonable to pick personal quarrels with his characters.) The trouble is, Mason’s literary views are pretty moss-grown, and we have to hear (as we thought we never should again) that Dickens wrote too fast, never thought anything out rationally, was unconscious of social nuances and was incomparably a less accurate social observer than Thackeray. Does it matter that Mason has not spent his evenings over Leavis and Dorothy van Ghent? Well, in a way I think it does. For it would have taught him to question that phrase ‘social observer’ and would have suggested to him what complicated enterprises, full of the most cunning traps and designs upon the reader, those Victorian novels really are; and all this is most relevant to his subject. For instance, he considers Thackeray’s Book of Snobs rather a muddled performance, whereas it strikes me as astonishingly clever and devious – in a slightly vicious way. Let us remember that it was Thackeray who invented our current concepts ‘snob’ and ‘snobbery’, ones which no other country possesses in quite that form. I mean the form of an infinite regress, by which the abusive term ‘snob’, in the sense of low, vulgar, cobbler-like, is not rejected but is transferred to, or reversed upon, those who would use it in that sense. Thus, the vulgarest thing (sense 2) you can do is to look down on somebody for being vulgar (sense 1) or to curry favour with somebody for being non-vulgar. Similarly, Mason is taken in when Thackeray is deprecating about Major Dobbin, not spotting how totally hand-in-glove Thackeray and Dobbin are throughout Vanity Fair and that the deprecation is meant to be Dobbin-like (we are meant to love and admire Thackeray for it).

Let me come back to history. What is at fault in Mason’s account of Chaucer is that Chaucer does not actually talk about ‘the gentleman’. What he, and his characters, talk about incessantly and with much subtlety is ‘gentillesse’; and I do not think that, in his portrait of the Franklin, Chaucer is making some acidulous Victorian joke about the socially ‘not quite’. My impression is that he wants us to think of the Franklin, with his modest disclaimers about ‘gentillesse’, as acting particularly gracefully. (The Franklin’s tale, in which a knight, a squire and a clerk compete in ‘gentillesse’, is certainly extremely attractive.)

The ‘English gentleman’, so far as I can see, came in in the 15th century. There was a good reason why it should have happened then and not earlier, for it was only at the very end of the 14th century that there came to be an English ‘peerage’, with its pretty gradation of ornamental ranks. ‘Baron’ was not a title before this (you did not call yourself ‘Baron So-and so’), ‘Marquis’ did not appear as a title till 1385, and ‘Viscount’ only a decade or two earlier. As for ‘Earl’, it had for long been the name of an office or post, but it was not for getting on for two centuries after the Conquest that earldoms became hereditary. We are at liberty to think of Chaucer’s Knight as being an earl. The point is, Chaucer is not thinking in Debrett terms, and it would be anachronistic to expect him to do so.

Given the establishment of a ‘peerage’, however, there began to be a use for the term ‘gentleman’ – to signify ‘a highly respectable person, not a lord’. (England here separated from France, where gentilhomme has always signified ‘nobleman’.) In its earliest years ‘gentleman’ was by no means a glamorous sobriquet. The implication tended to be that you were somebody’s ‘gentleman’, a dependant on a lord; and the term entered into a curious alliance with ‘yeoman’, which had a somewhat similar history – in its early days (vide Chaucer) it tended to mean somebody’s ‘yeoman’, an attendant or henchman. The two terms ‘gentleman’ and ‘yeoman’ hoisted each other up, and Tudor propagandists evolved the myth of a sturdy independent race of ‘yeomen’, reliable rural types who had a special relationship with the nobility-and-gentry – the two composing a team which was the envy and despair of less-favoured nations.

By the 17th century gentlemanly status had grown distinctly desirable, and the concept offered comfortable freedom of manoeuvre between purely external reference (the ‘port, charge and countenance’ of a gentleman) and inward and ethical claims. It was not till the 18th century, however, that ‘gentlemanliness’ was systematically internalised and really took off into ideology, erecting itself into a criterion by which the nobility itself could be judged. (‘You may be a lord, but I am afraid you will never be a gentleman.’) It was at the same moment that, as William Empson has described, a new direction was given to gentlemanliness by Fielding, both in the person of Squire Western and in his own life-history. The gentleman ceased to be ‘fine’ and camouflaged himself under roughness. ‘An impression continued that, if you were very rude and rough, that may mean you are particularly aristocratic, and good in emerggency.’

By the 19th century the glamour offered by the term ‘gentleman’ had become enormous, and so had the scope for manoeuvre that it offered. The fact is brought home to us all the more when we consider that, from the 1820s onwards, the English had at their disposal, not only the Gentleman/Non-Gentleman system, which is a binary one, but the Upper Class/Middle Class/Working Class system, which is a trifold one and flagrantly conflicts with it. Mid-Victorian writers like Thackeray and Matthew Arnold took this in their stride and learned to handle both systems: though plainly they believed much less in the ‘class’ system than they did in the ‘gentleman’ one, and accordingly played much more outrageous games with it. What impresses one is the amazing complexity and virtuosity (albeit ultimately sterile and perhaps a shade hateful) of the games they played with these concepts. These, and the whole history of the term ‘gentleman’, are a rich subject for a historian. But in order to study it he must think as a historian and not as one who has learned at his parents’ knee what Englishness and Gentlemanliness are.