A Learned Disquisition on the Subject of the Revolting Nature of Commerce and Its Repulsive Handmaiden, Feminism
The permissive age has been an object lesson to many people. How does the particular emphasis of a culture develop? What were the factors fuelling its general direction? What elements produced ours?
When we look at our history and read favourite authors from the fairly recent past, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen, we are fascinated by the differences between them and us. How did they evolve a culture so unlike our own, coming from an earlier period, the 18th century, which had distinct similarities to our own. When one thinks of Addison's purpose in starting The Spectator in 1713, "to recover the Age from the desperate state of vice and folly into which the age has fallen," he could have been speaking about us; but not the Victorians, or the Edwardians of the first decade of this century.
How did we evolve from them, to be so different today? Did people really speak then in such measured and articulate tones to one another? Were the working classes really so respectable and well mannered; frowning on uncouth behaviour and absolutely forbidding strong language in the presence of women?
The answer is, yes they did and they were. I have the most tenuous grasp of the late Victorian period because my husband, having lost his parents during the war, was brought up by his elderly, great aunt. She was the second oldest of thirteen children and a Londoner, born and bred in the last quarter of Victoria's reign. She was unmarried, having lost her young man in the first world war, together with a couple of brothers, and she had worked all her life as a seamstress. She was, by tradition and education, working class and proud of the fact.
When she died, not long after I married the man she had done such a valiant job in rearing, she left him all her possessions and books. We thus inherited a piano and piles of Scarlatti, Chopin and Bach, with her neatly written notes about interpretation written in the margins. Likewise her copies of Tennyson, Longfellow and Browning. Everything was annotated in simple, literate English expressing her comments upon the sentiments expressed in the text. They were like the books of an unusually assiduous University student today and yet she had left the Penny School at 12 years old. Incidentally, these schools, which predated State education, were attended by 100 per cent of children in London, according to recent comment upon the subject. They were run by Trusts and charities mostly, and those who could not pay the penny a day received their education free.
Aunt Grace also left a most interesting collection of local newspapers recording significant historical events such as Queen Victoria's Jubilee; the relief of the siege of Maefeking during the Boer War in 1900, and the popular loathing of the Suffragettes! These were big-circulation, tabloid newspapers and yet the style and, even more, the content was that of, say, the Times and the Daily Telegraph today. Measured and judicious criticism; long and beautifully written descriptions of accidents, incidents and the personalities in the news; it was intelligent prose addressed to intelligent people.
The strange thing is that formal education simply didn't come into it. It was the culture itself that educated people. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was published in a London magazine and, when it came to the last chapter, it was reported that the streets were as deserted as they are today when a major sporting event is on TV. It is difficult to believe now, isn't it? Leo Tolstoy as the "Dallas" and the "Dynasty" of the day; Charles Dickens as the shared reading in millions of ordinary homes.
Our wonderful brass-band tradition started then with the musicians being the real workers in the coal mines and factories whose names the famous bands still have, even though the people playing in them now are very unlikely to be miners or factory workers. …