I Have Seen the Past — and It Works
Three portraits of an older order
There are two common mistakes people make about change. One, most commonly for changes now happening, is to treat change as presumptively bad. The obvious example at the moment is climate change.
Climate change will have both good and bad effects, hotter summers and milder winters, stronger cyclones but fewer of them, loss of usable land through sea level rise and gain of land as climate contours shift towards the pole. Average global temperature is probably higher than it has been in the last few thousand years but the temperature in the specific places people live is no higher than the temperature in other places where other people live — and will be, for most of the places people live, for the next century. There is nothing obviously bad about warming Minnesota to the temperature of Iowa, no obvious reason to expect the net effect to be bad, although it could be.1
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But almost everyone expects it to be bad; current arguments are almost entirely about how bad it will be and what should be done about it. The same pattern holds for a variety of other changes. Many people argue for changes that they believe would make things better. Most expect changes actually occurring to make things worse.
My subject in this post is the opposite mistake, the view of change in the past as presumptively good, generalized from the Whig Theory of History, the idea that political development, at least in England, is progress, less good institutions evolving into better ones.
Following out the analogy to biological evolution, one would expect societies to change in ways analogous to increasing reproductive success, become less vulnerable to being conquered, more able to conquer. It does not follow that they will become better places to live. S.M. Stirling’s Draka series is an alternate history portraying a society both ugly and successful, expanding from it’s original base in southern Africa to conquer Europe, Asia, eventually the world. The books are well written but I did not enjoy them — because they are (fictional) evidence for something I do not want to believe.
Going from fictional societies to real ones, I have come across three different pieces of literature offering plausible arguments that the past was better, in important ways, than their authors’ present. The first was a passage in the memoirs of Talleyrand, arguably the most impressive diplomat of recent centuries, president of the constituent assembly early in the French Revolution, minister of foreign affairs under the Directory, the Consulate, Napoleon’s Empire and the restored Bourbon monarchy, ambassador to England under the Orleanist monarchy that replaced it.2
Describing his early years Talleyrand contrasted his great grandmother, a noble of the old style, with his parents. She spent her time on her lands, took care of her people, weekly hosted a gathering at which she and the attending doctors provided free medical care to anyone in need of it.
Two sisters of mercy, having questioned each patient as to the nature of his disease or sore, mentioned the special ointment likely to heal or relieve him. My grandmother pointed out where the remedy was kept ; one of the gentlemen who had waited on her at church fetched it, whilst another brought the drawer containing the linen : of this I took a piece, from which my grandmother herself cut the quantity required for bandages. Each patient then received some plants for his potion, some wine, the medicine prescribed, and always some other substantial relief, but that which most touched his heart, were the kind and considerate words from the good lady who endeavoured to alleviate his sufferings.
His parents spent their lives at Versailles attending on the king’s court, with little time for either the people on the land whose income supported them or their own children. Talleyrand never quite says so, but the clear implication is that the shift from the old system where nobles were responsible for their lands to the new where they lived off the income from their lands and royal offices and spent their time dancing attendance on the king, from the remnants of feudalism to absolute monarchy, was a step down, breaking the bonds linking the aristocracy to the population.
My second example is a short story by Kipling, “An Habitation Enforced.” A very wealthy American businessman has suffered a serious breakdown and been instructed by his doctors to do no work for the next two years. He and his wife, after wandering around Europe, end up in England, where an acquaintance persuades them to stay on an English farm and experience the genuine England.
Rocketts they found after some hours, four miles from a station, and, so far as they could, judge in the bumpy darkness, twice as many from a road. Trees, kine, and the outlines of barns showed shadowy about them when they alighted, and Mr. and Mrs. Cloke, at the open door of a deep stone-floored kitchen, made them shyly welcome. They lay in an attic beneath a wavy whitewashed ceiling, and, because it rained, a wood fire was made in an iron basket on a brick hearth, and they fell asleep to the chirping of mice and the whimper of flames.
The farm and those around it are part of an estate whose owners died out, presently administered by lawyers in London. As the days pass the couple grow more and more in love with the world they are visiting, comfortable with its inhabitants:
Sophie threw open the door and called down into the kitchen, where the Clokes were covering the fire "Mrs. Cloke, isn't Burnt House under High Pardons?"
"Yes, my dear, of course," the soft voice. answered absently. A cough. "I beg your pardon, Madam. What was it you said?"
"Never mind. I prefer it the other way,"
For all that touched his past among his fellows, or their remembrance of him, he might have been in another planet; and Sophie, whose life had been very largely spent among husbandless wives of lofty ideals, had no wish to leave this present of God. The unhurried meals, the foreknowledge of deliciously empty hours to follow, the breadths of soft sky under which they walked together and reckoned time only by their hunger or thirst; the good grass beneath their feet that cheated the miles; their discoveries, always together, amid the farms—Griffons, Rocketts, Burnt House, Gale Anstey, and the Home Farm, where Iggulden of the blue smock-frock would waylay them, and they would ransack the old house once more; the long wet afternoons when, they tucked up their feet on the bedroom's deep window-sill over against the apple-trees, and talked together as never till then had they found time to talk—these things contented her soul, and her body throve.
"Have you realized," she asked one morning, "that we've been here absolutely alone for the last thirty-four days?"
"Have you counted them?" he asked.
"Did you like them?" she replied.
"I must have. I didn't think about them. Yes, I have. Six months ago I should have fretted myself sick. Remember at Cairo? I've only had two or three bad times. Am I getting better, or is it senile decay?"
"Climate, all climate." Sophie swung her new-bought English boots, as she sat on the stile overlooking Friars Pardon, behind the Clokes's barn.
The couple buy the estate, move into the abandoned mansion, learn that the wife is a descendant of the family that once owned it — a fact that the locals, one of whom had spent time in America in the same town she came from, had separately discovered3 — fit themselves into the role of country gentry.
It is a very good story, well worth reading, more convincing than my brief sketch can suggest. Its relevance here is the picture it presents of the relation between the social roles of squire and tenant — not superior to inferior but a division of labor, each party having authority in his sphere. It is the job of the squire, or his wife, to bully local peasants into taking a sick child to the doctor, as demonstrated by a friendly neighbor helping to ease the couple into their new role:
A group of families, the Clokes a little apart, opened to let them through. The men saluted with jerky nods, the women with remnants of a curtsey. Only Iggulden's son, his mother on his arm, lifted his hat as Sophie passed.
"Your people," said the clear voice of Lady Conant in her ear.
"I suppose so," said Sophie, blushing, for they were within two yards of her; but it was not a question.
"Then that child looks as if it were coming down with mumps. You ought to tell the mother she shouldn't have brought it to church."
"I can't leave 'er behind, my lady," the woman said. "She'd set the 'ouse afire in a minute, she's that forward with the matches. Ain't you, Maudie dear?"
"Has Dr. Dallas seen her?"
"Not yet, my lady."
"He must. You can't get away, of course. M-m! My idiotic maid is coming in for her teeth to-morrow at twelve. She shall pick her up--at Gale Anstey, isn't it?--at eleven."
"Yes. Thank you very much, my lady."
"I oughtn't to have done it," said Lady Conant apologetically, "but there has been no one at Pardons for so long that you'll forgive my poaching.
It is equally the job of the tenant to bully the squire into taking care of his land with a proper eye to the future:
"An' I've nothin' to say against larch--IF you want to make a temp'ry job of it. I ain't 'ere to tell you what isn't so, sir; an' you can't say I ever come creepin' up on you, or tryin' to lead you further in than you set out--"
A year ago George would have danced with impatience. Now he scraped a little mud off his old gaiters with his spud, and waited.
"All I say is that you can put up larch and make a temp'ry job of it; and by the time the young master's married4 it'll have to be done again. Now, I've brought down a couple of as sweet six-by-eight oak timbers as we've ever drawed. You put 'em in an' it's off your mind or good an' all. T'other way—I don't say it ain't right, I'm only just sayin' what I think--but t'other way, he'll no sooner be married than we'll have it all to do again. You've no call to regard my words, but you can't get out of that."
"No," said George after a pause; "I've been realising that for some time. Make it oak then; we can't get out of it."
It is very much the same point that Kipling made in another work, this one a poem:
“For whoever pays the taxes old Mus’ Hobden owns the land.”
I encountered a later depiction of the nature and virtues of class based roles rereading, not for the first time, Busman’s Honeymoon, the final novel in the series of detective stories by Dorothy Sayers featuring Lord Peter Whimsey as amateur sleuth. Peter has finally, after five frustrating years, persuaded Harriet Vane to marry him, only to discover a corpse in the house he bought for their honeymoon. At one point in the case the victim’s niece, Agnes Twitterton, a pleasant, unintelligent, sympathetic woman, falls under suspicion. Superintendent Kirk asks Peter about how she reacted to the discovery of her uncle’s corpse. He tries to evade the question, unwilling to give evidence against her.
“Now, my lord, you’re a gentleman and you’ve got your feelings. I know all that, and it does you credit. But I’m a police officer, and I can’t afford to indulge in feelings. They’re a privilege of the upper classes.”
“Upper cases be damned! Said Peter. This stung him, all the more that he knew he deserved it.
“Now, MacBride,” went on Kirk, cheerfully, “he’s no class at all. If I asked you, you’d tell the truth, but it might ‘urt you. Now I can get it out of MacBride, and it won’t ‘urt him in the least.”
Kirk respects his social superiors but has a realistic view of their weaknesses.
A little later in the plot, evidence appears against one of Kirk’s own subordinates.
“No, no! I’ll come clean. Oh, my God, sir!—Don’t go, my lord. Don’t you go!...I’ve made a damn bloody fool of myself.”
We all do that at times,” said Peter, softly.
“You’ll believe me, my lord …. Oh, God—this’ll break me.”
“I shouldn’t wonder,” said Kirk, grimly.
“Peter glanced at the Superintendent, saw that he, too, recognized the appeal to an authority older than his own, and sat down on the edge of the table.
“Pull yourself together, Sellon. Mr. Kirk’s not the man to be hard or unjust to anybody. Now, what was it all about?”
At which point he confesses to Peter that he was being blackmailed by the man who has been killed, and for what.
The setting is an English country village, like the setting of the Kipling story a place where elements of the older social structure survive, fewer elements since the setting is some fifty years later. Both present a convincing positive picture of the virtues of a world with class-based roles.
Possibly as a result of intrigues by Talleyrand.
"My uncle he married an American woman for his second, and she took it up like a like the coroner. She's a Lashmar out of the old Lashmar place, 'fore they sold to Conants. She ain't no Toot Hill Lashmar, nor any o' the Crayford lot. Her folk come out of the ground here, neither chalk nor forest, but wildishers. They sailed over to America--I've got it all writ down by my uncle's woman--in eighteen hundred an' nothing. My uncle says they're all slow begetters like."
The “young master” is a recently born infant.