Thursday, September 15, 2016

British Enthusiasm

The jubilations of the last few weeks over Garibaldi and Shakespeare can hardly fail to suggest somewhat singular reflections as to our national character.  We have always been considered to be a grave, reserved, phlegmatic people, little addicted to passionate displays of feeling, and deeply impressed with the importance of exercising self-control on all occasions.  A distinguished foreigner – put his merits as high as you please for the sake of argument—comes amongst us; the natural efflux of time brings round the three-hundredth anniversary of the birth of a great poet; and all our old habits appear to be blown to the wind. The British public, especially that pure and reformed part of it to which a large number of persons, are apt to appropriate the title of the “working” classes, as if they were the only bees in the hive, scale the heights of Primrose Hill with all manner of apparatus—a bottle of Avon water, an oak sapling, a lady of the name of Linnaeus Banks, and a set of rhymes by Miss Eliza Cook– to glorify the poet; or they descend into the streets to call the General “brother,” and nearly, shake his hand off, to say nothing of the risk of permanently disabling his leg, and otherwise ruining his health. In these avocations they make as great a display of every form of emotion as could be expected from Frenchmen or Italians. The average Briton, whose well-established landmarks are so rudely shaken, may well join in the pathetic question carved on the walls of the Tower—unde inde?  Whence and whither? What has produced these new features in our social state, and what consequences will they produce in their turn?

One point can hardly be disputed. If we really are changing our national skin, it is a great pity. There can be little doubt that the coolness and gravity which were supposed to be characteristic of our manners were great advantages, and were closely connected with some of the highest virtues of our national character. The proof of this is so obvious and familiar that it is hardly necessary to refer to it. If the best form of character is that which best fits its possessor for the right discharge of all the various tasks which in their turn come to be laid upon human nature, it is self-evident that the quiet, easy-going, unimpassioned temper is far better than the noisy demonstrative one. People who enjoy it are more sober, more self-possessed, less under the influence of transient passion than their neighbours, and have for the most part a much larger share of self-respect. It is nearly universally true that the feelings of the higher classes in all times and countries are more completely and habitually under their own control than those of their social inferiors, notwithstanding the undoubted fact that it is the natural result of elaborate education to increase the sensibility of its recipients. A man, for instance, whose eyes and mind have been trained to appreciate the various forms of beauty which may be traced in literature, in art, and in nature, has, and must have, stronger feelings on those points than an ignorant person, but the very same training which increases the force of his feelings almost invariably increases his disinclination to express them outwardly. The reason no doubt is that, as he comes to apprehend their nature and form a just estimate of their importance, he also comes to see the propriety of keeping them to himself as much as possible upon all common occasions.

It may then be assumed that, if the public at large are laying aside the reserve which used to distinguish their manners, this is a misfortune. Are they doing so? The demonstrations of various kinds which are becoming so common might lead us to think that they are, but there are other facts which may tend to comfort, and even to some extent reassure, the patriotic observer. In the first place, he will observe with true pleasure the extreme clumsiness of these performances. Whatever else may be said upon the subject, it must always be matter of high congratulation that Mrs. Linnaeus Banks, Miss Eliza Cook, and the orators who call Garibaldi a brother, write and act in the worst possible taste. No one could wish for more awkward or tawdry performances than those which we have been witnessing for the last fortnight. This is a very hopeful sign. If the thing had been done well, it would have been more likely to be done again. People always like success, even in a foolish enterprise; and of course, when any proceeding goes off successfully, meets with general applause, and gives real satisfaction to all the parties concerned, it is likely to form a precedent. A good after-dinner speaker likes to go to public dinners. There is little hope that a man whose first novel has been successful will not write others, and if these “ovations” had been so managed as to show a natural gift for getting up processions, making speeches, and performing graceful acts of emotion, there might have been considerable reason to fear that the practice would become habitual. Fortunately for us all, the opposite was the case; and, still more fortunately, a large part of the British public have a considerable sense of humour, and were well qualified to see the absurdity of what was passing. It is perhaps not too much to hope that some, at all events, of those who actually took part in the demonstrations in question may be led to see that they acted absurdly, and may thus be inclined for the future to keep their feelings rather more to themselves.

It ought also to be observed that the bulk of those who joined in these proceedings belong to an uneasy class of society, which, with many admirable qualities, must be considered to combine some at least of the characteristics of immaturity. They seem to have been, for the most part, working men in what may be called the ideal sense of the word—a sense which has been popular in a way for a good many years past. Besides the ordinary run of mechanics and day-labourers, there are a considerable number of persons who affect to consider the working man as a sort of hero, placed by circumstances in a position intrinsically superior to that of persons who are generally deemed his social superiors, and in itself more favourable to the formation of a just estimate of things. A good many men, in their own ways more or less conspicuous, are constantly preaching this doctrine under various forms; and whatever other results they may have obtained, they have no doubt succeeded in getting together a class of disciples who have a high notion of their own dignity and importance, and a great desire to obtain for themselves, and the class to which they belong, higher social consideration and greater political power than they have hitherto enjoyed. No reasonable person can quarrel with such pretensions. In a country like this, it would be not merely ungracious, but in a high degree cowardly and inconsistent, to view them with alarm or jealousy. The essence of English freedom is that every man shall be, not only protected, but encouraged in doing all he can to improve his own position, and that of his class or his friends, by every means in his power; and every one, even those who are most interested in the matter, must admit that the more fortunate and better-educated classes have done what they could to help mechanics and labourers to improve their condition. The fact that this, duty has been and is being discharged gives every one a right to offer a few suggestions, by way of friendly advice, to those who pride themselves on being working men. They were the chief authors of the enthusiastic demonstrations which have lately enlivened us, and it is difficult not to feel that these displays were meant as a protest against the main current of English feeling and behaviour. The same temper appeared to animate all of them. It was as if the various speakers and performers had said, “You haughty and sophisticated aristocrats keep yourselves to yourselves, and feel ride in throwing a veil over your feelings, if you have any; but we, the working men of  England dare to express our sentiments in the natural language of the heart. Garibaldi is our brother in the great cause of humanity. Shakspeare is something between a Heathen God and a Popish Saint, and we will give all the world to know that we think so in the strongest language that we can find.” If this fairly represents the sentiment meant to be expressed, it is surely not only justifiable but right to warn those who feel it that the manners which seem to them cold and haughty—and which, by the way, are the manners, not of the aristocracy in particular, but of everybody who is well-established in life and moderately well educated—are the result of an immense deal of experience. We English people are of one breed, and, whatever our position in life may be, we have endless points of resemblance. The best-bred man in the island is but a polished specimen of the mass of pebbles which are constantly being washed to and fro in the great ocean of English society. His gifts and habits show the kind of polish which the English nature is capable of taking. It is like marble—hard, smooth, and impenetrable; not like an opal or an amethyst—semi-transparent, and full of many coloured tints. If working men want to polish themselves, they must take the benefit of this example. They may be perfectly certain that when they have worked themselves up to the greatest degree of grace and elegance which they can hope to attain, they will not be very unlike the present race of gentlemen. That is to say, they will be shrewd, calm, straightforward people, very simple in habits and manners, and specially averse to humbug in all its forms. ... If they try for anything else, they will be sure to fail. Neither they nor their present superiors are capable of being made into silk purses, though they may be made up into good solid leather portmanteaus. If they try to be lyrical, they may be sure they will always be absurd. The English nature is as stiff as London clay, and as unsuitable for any kind of fancy work. Those who inherit it may fill many positions admirably well, and may discharge almost any kind of duty to perfection; but they should avoid like poison all temptations to make a display of their feelings, and to give the mayors of Italian towns an opportunity of administering to them a set of telegraphic hugs, coupled with flights of eloquence about the generous British people. To burst for once into that vocative case which has been worked so hard for some time past— “Oh, working men of England Oh, brothers! Become gentlemen as soon as you can; govern the country as much as you like; but for heaven's sake remember that the first and great commandment of the law of manners is, Hold your tongue about yourselves and your feelings, and do not call a man your brother unless he really is one. Be what you please so long as you are neither eloquent nor pathetic. Thankfully accept the destiny which made you dull, and do not try to galvanize that stolidity from which you cannot escape, and which you ought to revere.”

Saturday Review, April 30, 1864.

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