Bracebridge Hall, vol 2

English Gravity

Washington Irving

“Merrie England!”
Ancient Phrase.
THERE IS nothing so rare as for a man to ride his hobby without molestation. I find the Squire has not so undisturbed an indulgence in his humours as I had imagined; but has been repeatedly thwarted of late, and has suffered a kind of well-meaning persecution from a Mr. Faddy, an old gentleman of some weight, at least of purse, who has recently moved into the neighbourhood. He is a worthy and substantial manufacturer, who, having accumulated a large fortune by dint of steam-engines and spinning-jennies, has retired from business, and set up for a country gentleman. He has taken an old country-seat, and refitted it; and painted and plastered it, until it looks not unlike his own manufactory. He has been particularly careful in mending the walls and hedges, and putting up notices of spring-guns and man-traps in every part of his premises. Indeed, he shows great jealousy about his territorial rights, having stopped up a footpath that led across his fields, and given warning, in staring letters, that whoever was found trespassing on those grounds would be prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the law. He has brought into the country with him all the practical maxims of town, and the bustling habits of business; and is one of those sensible, useful, prosing, troublesome, intolerable old gentlemen, that go about wearying and worrying society with excellent plans for public utility.

He is very much disposed to be on intimate terms with the Squire, and calls on him every now and then, with some project for the good of the neighbourhood, which happens to run diametrically opposite to some one or other of the Squire’s peculiar notions; but which is “too sensible a measure” to be openly opposed. He has annoyed him excessively, by enforcing the vagrant laws; persecuting the gipsies, and endeavouring to suppress country wakes and holiday games; which he considers great nuisances, and reprobates as causes of the deadly sin of idleness.

There is evidently in all this a little of the ostentation of newly-acquired consequence; the tradesman is gradually swelling into the aristocrat; and he begins to grow excessively intolerant of every thing that is not genteel. He has a great deal to say about “the common people;” talks much of his park, his preserves, and the necessity of enforcing the game-laws more strictly; and makes frequent use of the phrase, “the gentry of the neighbourhood.”

He came to the Hall lately, with a face full of business, that he and the Squire, to use his own words, “might lay their heads together,” to hit upon some mode of putting a stop to the frolicking at the village on the approaching May-day. It drew, he said, idle people together from all parts of the neighbourhood, who spent the day fiddling, dancing, and carousing, instead of staying at home to work for their families.

Now, as the Squire, unluckily, is at the bottom of these May-day revels, it may be supposed that the suggestions of the sagacious Mr. Faddy were not received with the best grace in the world. It is true, the old gentleman is too courteous to show any temper to a guest in his own house; but no sooner was he gone, than the indignation of the Squire found vent, at having his poetical cobwebs invaded by this buzzing, bluebottle fly of traffic. In his warmth, he inveighed against the whole race of manufacturers, who, I found, were sore disturbers of his comfort. “Sir,” said he, with emotion, “it makes my heart bleed, to see all our fine streams dammed up, and bestrode by cotton-mills; our valleys smoking with steam-engines, and the din of the hammer and the loom scaring away all our rural delight. What’s to become of merry old England, when its manor-houses are all turned into manufactories, and its sturdy peasantry into pin-makers and stocking-weavers? I have looked in vain for merry Sherwood, and all the greenwood haunts of Robin Hood; the whole country is covered with manufacturing towns. I have stood on the ruins of Dudley Castle, and looked round, with an aching heart, on what were once its feudal domains of verdant and beautiful country. Sir, I beheld a mere campus phlegrae; a region of fire; reeking with coal-pits, and furnaces, and smelting-houses, vomiting forth flames and smoke. The pale and ghastly people, toiling among vile exhalations, looked more like demons than human beings; the clanking wheels and engines, seen through the murky atmosphere, looked like instruments of torture in this pandemonium. What is to become of the country, with these evils rankling in its very core? Sir, these manufacturers will be the ruin of our rural manners; they will destroy the national character; they will not leave materials for a single line of poetry!”

The Squire is apt to wax eloquent on such themes; and I could hardly help smiling at this whimsical lamentation over national industry and public improvement. I am told, however, that he really grieves at the growing spirit of trade, as destroying the charm of life. He considers every new shorthand mode of doing things, as an inroad of snug sordid method; and thinks that this will soon become a mere matter-of-fact world, where life will be reduced to a mathematical calculation of conveniences, and every thing will be done by steam.

He maintains, also, that the nation has declined in its free and joyous spirit, in proportion as it has turned its attention to commerce and manufactures; and that, in old times, when England was an idler, it was also a merrier little island. In support of this opinion, he adduces the frequency and splendour of ancient festivals and merry-makings, and the hearty spirit with which they were kept up by all classes of people. His memory is stored with the accounts given by Stow, in his Survey of London, of the holiday revels at the inns of court, the Christmas mummeries, and the masquings and bonfires about the streets. London, he says, in those days, resembled the continental cities in its picturesque manners and amusements. The court used to dance after dinner, on public occasions. After the coronation dinner of Richard II, for example, the king, the prelates, the nobles, the knights, and the rest of the company, danced in Westminster Hall to the music of the minstrels. The example of the court was followed by the middling classes, and so down to the lowest, and the whole nation was a dancing, jovial nation. He quotes a lively city picture of the times, given by Stow, which resembles the lively scenes one may often see in the gay city of Paris; for he tells us that on holidays, after evening prayers, the maidens in London used to assemble before the door, in sight of their masters and dames, and while one played on a timbrel, the others danced for garlands, hanged athwart the street.

“Where will we meet with such merry groups now-a-days?” the Squire will exclaim, shaking his head mournfully;—“and then as to the gayety that prevailed in dress throughout all ranks of society, and made the very streets so fine and picturesque: ‘I have myself,’ says Gervaise Markham, ‘met an ordinary tapster in his silk stockings, garters deep fringed with gold lace, the rest of his apparel suitable, with cloak lined with velvet!’ Nashe, too, who wrote in 1593, exclaims at the finery of the nation: ‘England, the player’s stage of gorgeous attire, the ape of all nations’ superfluities, the continual masquer in outlandish habiliments.’”

Such are a few of the authorities quoted by the Squire, by way of contrasting what he supposes to have been the former vivacity of the nation with its present monotonous character. “John Bull,” he will say, “was then a gay cavalier, with his sword by his side and a feather in his cap; but he is now a plodding citizen, in snuff-coloured coat and gaiters.”

By the by, there really appears to have been some change in the national character, since the days of which the Squire is so fond of talking; those days when this little island acquired its favourite old title of “merry England.” This may be attributed in part to the growing hardships of the times, and the necessity of turning the whole attention to the means of subsistence; but England’s gayest customs prevailed at times when her common people enjoyed comparatively few of the comforts and conveniences that they do at present. It may be still more attributed to the universal spirit of gain, and the calculating habits that commerce has introduced; but I am inclined to attribute it chiefly to the gradual increase of the liberty of the subject, and the growing freedom and activity of opinion.

A free people are apt to be grave and thoughtful. They have high and important matters to occupy their minds. They feel that it is their right, their interest, and their duty, to mingle in public concerns, and to watch over the general welfare. The continual exercise of the mind on political topics gives intenser habits of thinking, and a more serious and earnest demeanour. A nation becomes less gay, but more intellectually active and vigorous. It evinces less play of the fancy, but more power of the imagination; less taste and elegance, but more grandeur of mind; less animated vivacity, but deeper enthusiasm.

It is when men are shut out of the regions of manly thought, by a despotic government; when every grave and lofty theme is rendered perilous to discussion and almost to reflection; it is then that they turn to the safer occupations of taste and amusement; trifles rise to importance, and occupy the craving activity of intellect. No being is more void of care and reflection than the slave; none dances more gayly, in his intervals of labour; but make him free, give him rights and interests to guard, and he becomes thoughtful and laborious.

The French are a gayer people than the English. Why? Partly from temperament, perhaps; but greatly because they have been accustomed to governments which surrounded the free exercise of thought with danger, and where he only was safe who shut his eyes and ears to public events, and enjoyed the passing pleasure of the day. Within late years, they have had more opportunity of exercising their minds; and within late years, the national character has essentially changed. Never did the French enjoy such a degree of freedom as they do at this moment; and at this moment the French are comparatively a grave people.

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