Bracebridge Hall, vol 2

English Country Gentlemen

Washington Irving

His certain life, that never can deceive him,
    Is full of thousand sweets, and rich content;
The smooth-leaved beeches in the field receive him
    With coolest shade, till noontide’s heat be spent.
His life is neither tost in boisterous seas
Or the vexatious world; or lost in slothful ease.
Pleased and full blest he lives, when he his God can please.
—Phineas Fletcher.
I TAKE great pleasure in accompanying the Squire in his Perambulations about his estate, in which he is often attended by a kind of cabinet council. His prime minister, the steward, is a very worthy and honest old man, that assumes a right of way; that is to say, a right to have his own way, from having lived time out of mind on the place. He loves the estate even better than he does the Squire; and thwarts the latter sadly in many of his projects of improvement, being a little prone to disapprove of every plan that does not originate with himself.

In the course of one of these perambulations, I have known the Squire to point out some important alteration which he was contemplating, in the disposition or cultivation of the grounds; this, of course, would be opposed by the steward, and a long argument would ensue, over a stile, or on a rising piece of ground, until the Squire, who has a high opinion of the other’s ability and integrity, would be fain to give up the point. This concession, I observed, would immediately mollify the old man; and, after walking over a field or two in silence, with his hands behind his back, chewing the cud of reflection, he would suddenly turn to the Squire, and observe, that “he had been turning the matter over in his mind, and, upon the whole, he believed he would take his honour’s advice.”

Christy, the huntsman, is another of the Squire’s occasional attendants, to whom he continually refers in all matters of local history, as to a chronicle of the estate, having, in a manner, been acquainted with many of the trees, from the very time that they were acorns. Old Nimrod, as has been shown, is rather pragmatical in those points of knowledge on which he values himself; but the Squire rarely contradicts him, and is, in fact, one of the most indulgent potentates that ever was henpecked by his ministry.

He often laughs about it himself, and evidently yields to these old men more from the bent of his own humour than from any want of proper authority. He likes this honest independence of old age, and is well aware that these trusty followers love and honour him in their hearts. He is perfectly at ease about his own dignity, and the respect of those around him; nothing disgusts him sooner than any appearance of fawning or sycophancy.

I really have seen no display of royal state, that could compare with one of the Squire’s progresses about his paternal fields and through his hereditary woodlands, with several of these faithful adherents about him, and followed by a body-guard of dogs. He encourages a frankness and manliness of deportment among his dependants, and is the personal friend of his tenants; inquiring into their concerns, and assisting them in times of difficulty and hardship. This has rendered him one of the most popular, and of course one of the happiest, of landlords.

Indeed, I do not know a more enviable condition of life, than that of an English gentleman, of sound judgment and good feelings, who passes the greater part of his time on an hereditary estate in the country. From the excellence of the roads, and the rapidity and exactness of the public conveyances, he is enabled to command all the comforts and conveniences, all the intelligence and novelties of the capital, while he is removed from its hurry and distraction. He has ample means of occupation and amusement, within his own domains; he may diversify his time, by rural occupations, by rural sports, by study, and by the delights of friendly society collected within his own hospitable halls.

Or, if his views and feelings are of a more extensive and liberal nature, he has it greatly in his power to do good, and to have that good immediately reflected back upon himself. He can render essential services to his country, by assisting in the disinterested administration of the laws; by watching over the opinions and principles of the lower orders around him; by diffusing among them those lights which may be important to their welfare; by mingling frankly among them, gaining their confidence, becoming the immediate auditor of their complaints, informing himself of their wants, making himself a channel through which their grievances may be quietly communicated to the proper sources of mitigation and relief; or by becoming, if need be, the intrepid and incorruptible guardian of their liberties—the enlightened champion of their rights.

All this, it appears to me, can be done without any sacrifice of personal dignity, without any degrading arts of popularity, without any truckling to vulgar prejudices or concurrence in vulgar clamour; but by the steady influence of sincere and friendly counsel, of fair, upright, and generous deportment. Whatever may be said of English mobs and English demagogues, I have never met with a people more open to reason, more considerate in their tempers, more tractable by argument in the roughest times, than the English. They are remarkably quick at discerning and appreciating whatever is manly and honourable. They are, by nature and habit, methodical and orderly; and they feel the value of all that is regular and respectable. They may occasionally be deceived by sophistry, and excited into turbulence by public distresses and the misrepresentations of designing men; but open their eyes, and they will eventually rally round the landmarks of steady truth and deliberate good sense. They are fond of established customs; they are fond of long-established names; and that love of order and quiet which characterizes the nation, gives a vast influence to the descendants of the old families, whose forefathers have been lords of the soil from time immemorial.

It is when the rich and well-educated and highly-privileged classes neglect their duties, when they neglect to study the interests, and conciliate the affections, and instruct the opinions, and champion the rights of the people, that the latter become discontented and turbulent, and fall into the hands of demagogues: the demagogue always steps in, where the patriot is wanting. There is a common high-handed cant among the high-feeding, and, as they fancy themselves, high-minded men, about putting down the mob; but all true physicians know that it is better to sweeten the blood than attack the tumour, to apply the emollient rather than the cautery. It is absurd, in a country like England, where there is so much freedom, and such a jealousy of right, for any man to assume an aristocratical tone, and to talk superciliously of the common people. There is no rank that makes him independent of the opinions and affections of his fellow-men; there is no rank nor distinction that severs him from his fellow-subjects; and if, by any gradual neglect or assumption on the one side, and discontent and jealousy on the other, the orders of society should really separate, let those who stand on the eminence beware that the chasm is not mining at their feet. The orders of society, in all well-constituted governments, are mutually bound together, and important to each other; there can be no such thing in a free government as a vacuum; and whenever one is likely to take place, by the drawing off of the rich and intelligent from the poor, the bad passions of society will rush in to fill up the space, and rend the whole asunder.

Though born and brought up in a republic, and more and more confirmed in republican principles by every year’s observation and experience, yet I am not insensible to the excellence that may exist in other forms of government, nor to the fact that they may be more suitable to the situation and circumstances of the countries in which they exist: I have endeavoured rather to look at them as they are, and to observe how they are calculated to effect the end which they propose. Considering, therefore, the mixed nature of the government of this country, and its representative form, I have looked with admiration at the manner in which the wealth and influence and intelligence were spread over its whole surface; not as in some monarchies, drained from the country, and collected in towns and cities. I have considered the great rural establishments of the nobility, and the lesser establishments of the gentry, as so many reservoirs of wealth and intelligence distributed about the kingdom, apart from the towns, to irrigate, freshen, and fertilize the surrounding country. I have looked upon them, too, as the august retreat of patriots and statesmen, where, in the enjoyment of honourable independence and elegant leisure, they might train up their minds to appear in those legislative assemblies, whose debates and decisions form the study and precedents of other nations, and involve the interests of the world.

I have been both surprised and disappointed, therefore, at finding that on this subject I was often indulging in an Utopian dream, rather than a well-founded opinion. I have been concerned at finding that these fine estates were too often involved, and mortgaged, or placed in the hands of creditors, and the owners exiled from their paternal lands. There is an extravagance, I am told, that runs parallel with wealth; a lavish expenditure among the great; a senseless competition among the aspiring; a heedless, joyless dissipation among all the upper ranks, that often beggars even these splendid establishments, breaks down the pride and principles of their possessors, and makes too many of them mere place-hunters, or shifting absentees. It is thus that so many are thrown into the hands of government; and a court, which ought to be the most pure and honourable in Europe, is so often degraded by noble, but importunate time-servers. It is thus, too, that so many become exiles from their native land, crowding the hotels of foreign countries, and expending upon thankless strangers the wealth so hardly drained from their laborious peasantry. I have looked upon these latter with a mixture of censure and concern. Knowing the almost bigoted fondness of an Englishman for his native home, I can conceive what must be their compunction and regret, when, amidst the sunburnt plains of France, they call to mind the green fields of England; the hereditary groves which they have abandoned; and the hospitable roof of their fathers, which they have left desolate, or to be inhabited by strangers. But retrenchment is no plea for abandonment of country. They have risen with the prosperity of the land; let them abide its fluctuations, and conform to its fortunes. It is not for the rich to fly, because the country is suffering: let them share, in their relative proportion, the common lot; they owe it to the land that has elevated them to honour and affluence. When the poor have to diminish their scanty morsels of bread; when they have to compound with the cravings of nature, and study with how little they can do, and not be starved; it is not then for the rich to fly, and diminish still farther the resources of the poor, that they themselves may live in splendour in a cheaper country. Let them rather retire to their estates, and there practise retrenchment. Let them return to that noble simplicity, that practical good sense, that honest pride, which form the foundation of true English character, and from them they may again rear the edifice of fair and honourable prosperity.

On the rural habits of the English nobility and gentry, on the manner in which they discharge their duties of their patrimonial possessions, depend greatly the virtue and welfare of the nation. So long as they pass the greater part of their time in the quiet and purity of the country; surrounded by the monuments of their illustrious ancestors; surrounded by every thing that can inspire generous pride, noble emulation, and amiable and magnanimous sentiment; so long they are safe, and in them the nation may repose its interests and its honour. But the moment that they become the servile throngers of court avenues, and give themselves up to the political intrigues and heartless dissipations of the metropolis, that moment they lose the real nobility Of their natures, and become the mere leeches of the country.

That the great majority of nobility and gentry in England are endowed with high notions of honour and independence, I thoroughly believe. They have evidenced it lately on very important questions, and have given an example of adherence to principle, in preference to party and power, that must have astonished many of the venal and obsequious courts of Europe. Such are the glorious effects of freedom, when infused into a constitution. But it seems to me, that they are apt to forget the positive nature of their duties, and to fancy that their eminent privileges are only so many means of self-indulgence. They should recollect, that in a constitution like that of England, the titled orders are intended to be as useful as they are ornamental, and it is their virtues alone that can render them both. Their duties are divided between the sovereign and the subjects; surrounding and giving lustre and dignity to the throne, and at the same time tempering and mitigating its rays, until they are transmitted in mild and genial radiance to the people. Born to leisure and opulence, they owe the exercise of their talents, and the expenditure of their wealth, to their native country. They may be compared to the clouds; which, being drawn up by the sun, and elevated in the heavens, reflect and magnify his splendour; while they repay the earth, from which they derive their sustenance, by returning their treasures to its bosom in fertilizing showers.

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