Typos p. 265, n.: Spottiswood [= Spottiswoode]; p. 266: interpersed [= interspersed]
English Saga * 18401940
Anthony M. Ludovici
The New English Weekly 18, 194041, pp. 265266
- p. 265 -
Thus does Mr. Bryant conclude his painstaking and in many respects brilliant survey of the last hundred years of our history.
Not much earlier in the book, referring to the fatal policy of profit-making without considering the means whereby and the ultimate consequences to the exploited, he says: "A business that only operated in one generation might profit from over-working and underpaying human beings. A nation could not. Yet there was no nation of any importance that did not follow Britain's example."
The canvas Mr. Bryant covers is a large one and the panorama he unfolds before our eyes necessarily depicts, in view of the years covered, many dark and distressing scenes. We behold the worst consequences of the Manchester School of individualism, the vast changes which, well advanced though they already were at the time when the narrative opens, were gradually converting England from a preponderatingly agricultural into a preponderatingly industrial nation.
We see decisions taken not once but again and again, which the author admits were dictated more by the expediency of the moment than by any long-sighted and wise understanding of ultimate consequences, and even if we have opened the book with no views whatsoever about the relative desirability of short-term remedies for pressing evils and more presbyopic measures maturing much less rapidly but with deeper and more lasting results, surely we are left in no doubt on this question when we reach the last page.
This is all to the good. It might perhaps have been better to have supplied and carefully described a working mechanism by which governments in democratic countries can, in face of an electorate never possessed of presbyopic vision, never in possession of all the facts, and yet pressing for immediate remedies, be made to accept far-sighted and slowly maturing measures which, while not quickly redressing grievances, ensure solid and lasting well-being at a remote date. But it is something to be convinced that expediency or opportunism is not as Lord Hugh Cecil maintained it is, the peculiar merit of practical politics. And Mr. Bryant's book should convince everybody at least of that.
As he progresses through this stirring story, with fresh social injustices or horrors or fresh incompetencies unveiled on almost every page, the reader obtains a curious impression from the author's reiterated insistence on the kindliness, gentleness and wisdom of the people whose history he is depicting. We all know the rhetorical value of statements of this kind for helping down unsavoury facts; we know, too, the cumulative effect of repetition in ultimately forcing doors and carrying conviction; but when so much evidence of unkindliness and unwisdom is gathered together, we should have liked to see a more generous supply of facts bearing out the reiterated claims of native kindness and gentleness and wisdom.
To mention but one instance. Take the case of the cruelties inflicted on women and children by the early pioneers of intensive industrialism, both in our factories and mines. History gives the names of two men prominently associated with the long and arduous campaign to put an end to these evils. But the campaign cannot by any means be regarded as one initiated or carried out by the nation as a whole, or by the conscience of the nation as a whole. The evil as regards the children first became known to everybody in 1784 and yet it was not until 49 years later that the first important Factory Act was passed. The sad plight of the little chimney-sweeps was in much the same category. The whole nation knew of it. Only one or two men acted. And then it took an unconscionable time.
And what about the Church? The Church was, as Disraeli had pointed out "the trainer of the nation," her "bulwark against the moral decay that threatens earthly kingdoms." It ought, therefore, to have been not merely in the forefront of any body moving for the abolition of all these evils, but it ought also to have initiated the movement. There is no mention of this grave omission on the part of the Church of England in Mr. Bryant's book. Nor is there any mention of a parallel crime on the part of the Church of Scotland. For when the unfortunate crofters were turned out to starve by the Highland Clearances, and often saw the homes of their fathers and grandfathers burned under their eyes, the Church of Scotland not only stayed its hand and supported vested interests, but there were also among its members some sufficiently base to persuade the wretched dispossessed peasants that their plight was a punishment from God for their sins!
Incidentally there is no mention of the Highland Clearances in Mr. Bryant's book. I would point out only, that where evidence is sparse in support of the reiterated claim of national kindliness, it might have seemed incumbent upon a historian to explain why the institution par excellence which should have given the lead in this virtue failed to do so.
True, the successful middle-classes, who throve on all the exploitation which Mr. Bryant points out, were buttresses of religion during the nineteenth century, as they probably are now. But, as Montesquieu observed two hundred and twenty years ago, "Le nouveau riche admire la sagesse de la Providence." It was for the Church to make le pauvre also admire its wisdom.
But it is in Mr. Bryant's final chapter that he ceases to be merely a narrator and becomes the constructive reformer. And here let me point out that although every sensible man who has given any thought to politics at all will assuredly agree with him in all he says in this most important section of his book, a student of economic history may cavil at his way of saying it and at what he leaves out.
It must surely be obvious to all at the present conjuncture both in world and in national affairs, that exhortations to the virtuous and "unselfish" conduct of the social life within a nation, based upon the reiterated use of such words as "justice" or "unselfishness," "kindliness," "gentleness" or "charity" are not only out of date, but have also been proved futile. For after two thousand years of such exhortations, what have they accomplished?
What is needed is a much less emotional approach. It is not more charity, or more kindliness, or even more justice and so-called "unselfishness" that we need. It is a recognition of the plain and cold fact
* By ARTHUR BRYANT (Collins and Eyre and Spottiswood, Demy 8vo. 334 pp. Price 10/6 net).
The less, therefore, that is said about kindliness, "unselfishness" or charity, and good humour, the better; for the sooner we shall then roll up our sleeves to apply ourselves to the practical realisation of the only principle which gives enduring results the principle of mutuality. This principle was largely realised in this country during the Middle Ages, and because it was thus largely realised right up to the time of Charles I, England was able to draw not only on the capital of her people's strength, but also upon the capital of her people's character, in the centuries during which both of these treasures were squandered.
In addition to the omission about the Highland Clearances, I failed to see in Mr. Bryant's book any serious mention of the most important Feminist movement and its consequences, as also a sufficiently detailed discussion of the excessive and deleterious humanitarianism which characterised the pendulum swing of the English! conscience from the opposite extreme of individualistic callousness. I also failed to find any enlightening discussion of the reason for the deplorable state of the Crown colonies as revealed in the recent Blue Books on Nutrition and Poverty in these areas, and I could discover no detailed reference to the question of population and education as they affect the future and the rise in juvenile delinquency, which was becoming so alarming up to the very outbreak of the present war.
One cannot say everything in a book of 334 pages. Perfectly true! But to have cut down the many picturesque cameos interpersed throughout the book for the sake of all this more important material would have been to reduce very much its charm as a narrative, and it is by this charm that Mr. Bryant will secure his less thoughtful readers.
One word more! I must acknowledge my own seduction by this charm I speak of, and also by the language of the book, which is throughout fluent, persuasive and tasteful. In this respect I deprecate only one thing that Mr. Bryant should have fallen into the common error of using the word "democracy" for masses or commoners, or common people, as he does twice on page 9 and again on page 33. It is not that I wish to assume the absurd pose of an infallible user of English, but merely that this solecism, thrice repeated, lends a colourable warrant to the suspicion that the full implications of other words like "unselfish," "good-natured," "kindly" or "charitable," which appear in profusion in Mr. Bryant's pages, are also not appreciated as much as their dynamic power. And this suspicion is to some extent unfortunately confirmed when we come to read his final chapter.