Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day by Eric Hobsbawm (1968)

Eric Hobsbawm (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading Marxist historians. Of Jewish parentage he spent his boyhood in Vienna and Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. With Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, the family moved to Britain in 1933, although his Wikipedia page is at pains to point out that, because his father was originally from London’s East End, he had always had British citizenship. Hobsbawm excelled at school and went to Cambridge where he joined the communist party in 1936.

Twenty-two when the Second World War broke out, Hobsbawm served in the Royal Engineers and the Army Educational Corps, though he was prevented from serving overseas due to his communist beliefs. In 1947 he got his first job as a lecturer in history at Birkbeck College, University of London, the start of a long and very successful career as a historian, which included stints teaching in America at Stanford and MIT.

As a Marxist Hobsbawm had a special interest in what he called the ‘dual revolutions’ i.e. the political revolution in France in 1789 and the parallel industrial revolution in Britain. His most famous books are the trilogy describing what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

A series he completed with a fourth volume, his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes (1994).

Industry and Empire was commissioned by the high-minded Pelican books back in the mid-1960s, as the third and concluding volume in a series about economic history (part 1 being The Medieval Economy and Society by M.M. Postan, part 2 Reformation to Industrial Revolution by Hobsbawm’s fellow Marxist historian, Christopher Hill).

I read it as a student and had a vague memory of finding it rather boring, but on rereading I found it riveting. Setting out to cover such a huge period of just over 200 years means that individual chapters are relatively brief at around 20 pages long and highly focused on their subjects.

State of England 1750

Arguably the most interesting section is the opening 50 pages where Hobsbawm sets the scene for the industrial revolution which is to come, describing the state of England (the book focuses overwhelmingly on England with only occasional remarks about the other three nations of the UK) around 1750, and making a number of interesting observations.

The most interesting is that, although England was ruled by an oligarchy of a relatively small number of mighty families – maybe as few as 200 – who owned most of the land, the key thing about them was that they were a post-revolutionary elite (p.32). Their equivalents in France or the German or Italian states were genuinely hidebound reactionaries obsessed with aping the accoutrements and etiquette of kings and princes. By sharp contrast England’s elite had survived not one but two revolutions (the execution of Charles I in 1649, then the Glorious Revolution of 1688). As a result they did not submit to their monarch but had reached a position of constitutional ascendancy over their king in the form of a dominating Parliament. They were powerful and independent.

Above all, England’s elite were devoted to commerce and profit. One of the motive forces of the civil war of the 1640s had been King Charles’s insistence on granting monopolies of trade to favoured courtiers and spurning genuine entrepreneurs who came to form a powerful bloc against him. But all that had been sorted out a century ago. Now this politically independent oligarchy was interested in trade and profit of all sorts.

But these were only one of the many differences which distinguished 1750s England from the continent. Foreign visitors also remarked on the well-tended, well-organised state of the land and the thoroughness of its agriculture. They commented on the flourishing of trade: England was noted as a very business-like nation, with well-developed markets for domestic goods of all kinds.

Multiple origins of the Industrial Revolution

Hobsbawm points out that the industrial revolution is one of the most over-determined and over-explained events in history. He amusingly rattles off a list of reasons which have been given by countless historians over the years for why the industrial revolution first occurred in Britain, for why Britain was for several generations the unique workshop of the world and pioneer of revolutionary new ways of working, new industrial machinery, new ways of producing and distributing goods. Historians have attributed it to:

  • Protestantism and the Protestant work ethic
  • the ‘scientific revolution’ of the 1660s
  • Britain’s political maturity compared with Europe (i.e. the Glorious Revolution)
  • the availability of large sources of coal
  • the presence of numerous fast-flowing streams to provide water power
  • a run of good harvests in mid-18th century
  • Britain’s better road and canal infrastructure

And many more. The list is on page 37.

Hobsbawm’s explanation – colonies and colonial trade

Hobsbawm lists all these putative causes in order to dismiss them and attribute Britain’s primariness to one reason. The first wave of the industrial revolution was based on the mass processing of raw cotton into textiles. 100% of Britain’s cotton was imported from the slave plantations of the American South and a huge percentage of it was then exported to foreign markets, in Africa and then to India where, in time, the authorities found it necessary to stifle the native cloth-making trade in order to preserve the profits of Lancashire factory owners. The facts are astonishing: Between 1750 and 1770 Britain’s cotton exports multiplied ten times over (p.57). In the post-Napoleonic decades something like one half of the value of all British exports consisted or cotton products, and at their peak (in the 1830s), raw cotton made up twenty per cent of total net imports (p.69). So the industrial revolution in Britain was driven by innovations in textile manufacturing and these utterly relied on the web of international trade, on importing raw materials from America and then exporting them in huge quantities to captive markets in British colonies.

Cotton manufacture, the first to be industrialised, was essentially tied to overseas trade. (p.48)

If Britain had had to rely on a) domestic sources of raw materials and b) its domestic market to sell the finished product to, although the native population was growing during the 1700s it wasn’t growing that fast. What provided the crucial incentive to the cloth manufacturers of Lancashire to invest and innovate was the certainty of a vast overseas market for manufactured cloth in the British Empire, which was finally made safe for British control after the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763).

Britain had established itself as master of the world’s seas as a result of the Seven Years War and already had a thriving trade infrastructure at ports like Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and London. What kick-started things, in Hobsbawm’s view, was the opening up of overseas markets. It was the ability to send ships full of cloth products to India and other colonial markets, to make large profits and then reinvest the profits in further innovations that led a generation of Lancashire entrepreneurs to experiment with new devices and machines and ways of working.

So, Hobsbawm’s thesis rests on a set of linked propositions, that:

  • Britain had a uniquely warlike series of governments through the 18th century (pp.49 to 50)
  • Britain was able to rely on a far more advanced and sizeable navy than its nearest rival, France, which was always distracted by wars on the continent and so preferred to spend resources on its army, thus, in effect, handing rule of the oceans over to Britain
  • in the mid-1700s a series of foreign wars conquered all of north America, most of the Caribbean and India for Britain
  • and it was the complex web of international trading thus established by its a) warlike government and b) its world-dominating navy which provided the economic framework which motivated the technological and business innovations which led to the Industrial Revolution (pages 48 to 51)

This vast and growing circulation of goods…provided a limitless horizon of sales and profit for merchant and manufacturer. And it was the British – who by their policy and force as much as by their enterprise and inventive skill – captured these markets. (p.54)

And again:

Behind our industrial revolution there lies this concentration on the colonial and underdeveloped markets overseas, the successful battle to deny them to anyone else…the exchange of overseas primary products for British manufactures was to be the foundation of our international economy. (p.54)

And:

The Industrial Revolution was generated in these decades – after the 1740s, when this massive but slow growth in the domestic economies combined with the rapid – after 1750 extremely rapid – expansion of the international economy; and it occurred in the country which seized its international opportunities to corner a major share of the overseas market. (p.54)

1. Manufacturers in a pre-industrial country, in agriculture and artisans in trade, have to wait fairly passively on market requirements. But an aggressive foreign policy which seizes territory overseas creates new markets, potentially huge markets with massive opportunities for rapid and massive expansion (p.42).

2. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that it wasn’t the inventions per se that accelerated and automated cotton manufacture. The level of engineering skill required to start the industrial revolution was very low. Most of the technology and ideas already existed or had been lying around for decades (pages 59 to 60). It was the guarantee of tasty profits by exporting finished goods to captive colonial markets which gave individual entrepreneurs the certainty of profit and so the incentive to experiment and innovate. One factory owner’s innovation was copied by all his rivals, and so an ever-accelerating cycle of innovation was created.

All the other conditions historians have suggested (listed above) were present and many were important contributors. But it was the spur of guaranteed profits abroad which, in Hobsbawm’s opinion, provided the vital spark.

Is British industrialisation a model for the developing world?

It is an odd feature of the book that Hobsbawm has barely articulated his thesis before he is worrying about the plight of the developing world. He keeps asking, particularly in the opening ‘Origins’ chapters, whether Britain’s experience of industrialisation could be a model for the newly industrialising and newly independent post-colonial nations of the 1960s to emulate?

The short answer is an emphatic No and in answering it, Hobsbawm makes clearer than ever the uniqueness of Britain’s history. Britain was unique in being able to fumble its way towards industrialisation slowly and piecemeal and on a very small scale, one factory owner here trying out a new machine, another, there, devising a more efficient way of organising his factory hands and so on.

There was no ‘barrier to entry’ into the industrialised state for Britain because it was the first nation ever to do so, and so had the luxury of making it up as it went along. It started from 0. A little bit of tinkering could produce surprising rewards. There were no leaps but a series of pragmatic steps. And there was no competition and no pressure from anyone else.

Obviously, 150 years later, any nation trying to industrialise in the 1960s (or now) is in a totally different situation in at least two obvious ways: the shift from non-industrial to modern industrial production now represents an enormous leap. The technology and scale and infrastructure required for industrialisation is huge and can only begin to be achieved by dint of enormous planning (to create a co-ordinated energy and transport and distribution infrastructure) and huge investment, money which by definition a non-industrialised country does not have, and so has to go cap-in-hand to international banks which themselves dictate all kinds of terms and conditions.

Above all, a newly industrialising nation will be entering a very crowded marketplace where over a hundred nations are already fighting tooth and claw to maintain competitive advantage in a multitude of areas and practices, not least trade and tariff and tax and financial arrangements which a country with few financial resources will find difficult to match.

At first I found Hobsbawm’s adversions to this question of whether Britain’s history and example could be useful to developing nations a modish digression (it occurs on pages 38, 39, 61 to 62 and many more). But in fact placing British history in this contemporary frame turns out to be very thought-provoking. It not only sheds light on the challenges developing nations face, still, today – but also highlights the huge advantage Britain enjoyed back in the later 18th century by virtue of being the pioneer.

Because it industrialised and developed a transport infrastructure and financial systems first, Britain could afford to do them pretty badly and still triumph. Nobody, nowadays, could industrialise as amateurishly as Britain did.

To contemporaries who didn’t understand economics (pretty much everyone) the transformation and inexorable rise of Britain seemed inexplicable, miraculous, and it was this that gave rise to the simplistic, non-economic, cultural explanations for Britain’s success – all those explanations which foreground the anti-authoritarian, Protestant spirit of free enquiry, the independence of thought and action guaranteed by the Glorious Revolution, the nonconformist values of thrift and discipline and hard work espoused by dissenting tradesmen and factory owners excluded from politics or the professions by the Test Acts and so forced to make their way in the world through business, innovation and investment. And so on.

All these are aspects of the truth but are, ultimately, non-economists’ ways of trying to explain economics. And Hobsbawm is first and foremost an economic historian and proposing a Marxist thesis – Britain’s industrial primacy was based on a) her aggressive control of the seas and b) the huge and complex web of transoceanic trading arrangements which linked foreign suppliers with endless marketing opportunities in her foreign colonies.

The second industrial revolution

The second industrial revolution is the term commonly applied to the second wave of industrialisation associated with the rise of the new capital goods industries of coal, iron and steel, generally credited with starting in the 1840s.

Hobsbawm pauses to consider the teasing counter-factual notion that the industrial revolution based on textiles alone might conceivably have fizzled out in the 1830s, for the 15 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars saw a catastrophic depression with much rural poverty. If nothing new had come along, it is conceivable that industrial development might have stalled or even stopped and the world remained at the level of having highly efficient machines to turn out cloth and no more.

But the railways came along. Hobsbawm explains that the great railway ‘mania’ of the 1840s was the result of the huge accumulation of capital derived from textiles looking for something to invest in (p.112). This explains the hysterical tone of wild investment and speculative mania which surrounded the early railways, and the irrationality of many of the lines which were opened with great fanfare only to go bust within years. To quote Wikipedia:

The mania reached its zenith in 1846, when 263 Acts of Parliament setting up new railway companies were passed, with the proposed routes totalling 9,500 miles (15,300 km). About a third of the railways authorised were never built — the companies either collapsed due to poor financial planning, were bought out by larger competitors before they could build their line, or turned out to be fraudulent enterprises to channel investors’ money into other businesses.

Between 1830 and 1850 6,000 miles of railways were opened in Britain (p.110) soaking up an investment of £240 million of capital (p.112), most of them during the intensest period of railway mania in between 1844 and 1846. By way of comparison, the total mileage of the modern UK railway network is around 11,000 miles.

Social historians dwell on the immense cultural changes the coming of the railways created. I remember being struck as a student when I learned that the standardisation of time and clocks across the UK required for railway timetables to work, was a huge innovation which dragged even the remotest locations into a modern, synchronised timeframe. If you visit any of the seaside towns of Britain you’ll discover their fortunes were transformed with the coming of the railways which allowed large numbers of visitors to travel cheaply to the coast, causing a building boom in hotels. And so on.

But as an economic historian, Hobsbawm makes the more obvious point that the building of all these railways required a vast expansion in the production of iron and then, quickly, of the more durable material, steel.

The railways acted as an immense spur to technical innovations in all aspects of metal manufacture, which in turn created a huge increase in demand for the coal to fuel all this industrial production, which in its turn created a need for quicker, more cost-effective bulk transportation, and so commercial motivation for yet more railways, and for trains which were more powerful, more cost effective, and so on. Innovation in one field spurred innovation all down the line.

British investors were able to invest because the act of investing in business speculations was itself a fast-growing area of business activity, creating cadres of stockbrokers and financial lawyers, jobs which didn’t exist 50 years earlier.

And this matrix of industries and professions spread abroad, with a huge growth of British investment in foreign companies, especially in the USA and South America. Profits from these foreign holdings gave rise to an entirely new class of rentiers, people able to afford a moneyed middle-class lifestyle without doing a day’s work, solely off the profit of shrewd investments.

By 1870 Britain had about 170,000 people of rank and property, living lives of luxury without any visible occupation. Hobsbawm emphasises that most of them were women (p.119). These were the ladies of independent means swanning off to spa resorts in Switzerland or villas in Italy who festoon the pages of late Victorian and Edwardian novels, like the Italophiles of E.M. Foster, like the continent-trotting Aunt Mary in Somerset Maugham’s novel Mrs Craddock. These comfortably-off parasites were still living a wonderful life between the wars, floating around Tuscany vapouring about Art and Life, as documented in the early novels of Aldous Huxley, living lives of luxury off the sweat and labour of working men in three continents.

Competitors and the long decline

The scale and speed of development, particularly of the second wave of the industrial revolution, with entire cities mushrooming into existence stuffed with factories, and a country swiftly criss-crossed by the loud, noisy new technology of the railways, awed contemporaries and again and again gave rise to essays and books and speeches extolling the miraculous qualities of the British nation.

It was only when competitor nations such as America and Germany began to harness the new technologies of the second industrial revolution, the ones which rotated around the production of coal, iron and the new material of steel, taking and improving techniques in the area of metal and machine production which rotated around the great boom in railways from the 1840s onwards, that the shortcomings of British production methods and efficiency began, very slowly, to be revealed.

The entire developed world entered a prolonged agricultural depression in the 1870s which lasted a decade or more (different historians give different start and end points but contemporaries thought it lasted from about 1873 into the 1890s) and when Britain emerged from this depression in the 1890s, she had been decisively overtaken in all measures of industrial production by Germany and America.

Between 1890 and 1895 both the USA and Germany passed Britain in the production of steel. During the ‘Great Depression’ Britain ceased to be ‘the workshop of the world’ and became merely one if its three greatest industrial powers; and, in some crucial respects, the weakest of them. (p.127)

The wealth pouring in from protected imperial trade with an empire was now vastly bigger than it had been in 1750 and so hid our industrial shortcomings from the unintelligent (which included most of the ruling class) and the Daily Mail-reading middle classes. But even the rousing jingoism of Kipling the imperialist poet and Joseph Chamberlain the imperialist politician during the 1890s couldn’t conceal Britain’s relative decline. The pomp and circumstance of the turn of the century was a fool’s paradise.

After the middle of the nineteenth century [the British cotton trade] found its staple outlet in India and the Far East. The British cotton industry was certainly in its time the best in the world, but it ended as it had begun by relying not on its competitive superiority but on a monopoly of the colonial, and underdeveloped markets which the British Empire, the British Navy and British commercial supremacy gave it. (p.58)

While the Germans and Americans developed new ways of organising industrial concerns, with huge cartels and monopolies, developed ever-better methods of mass production, invested heavily in technical education and pioneered new ways of selling high quality products to their domestic markets, Britain was still expending its time and energy expanding its already huge empire and trying to create a global imperial market with preferential treatment of what slowly came to be seen as inferior British goods. This remained the case into the period between the wars and even into the 1940s and 50s.

Imperialism, which reached its peak of rivalry and competition in the 1890s and 1900s, concealed the deep structural reasons for Britain’s long decline, which were already well established by 1900 (p.131).


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The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon (1974)

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 was written to be the eighth in the ‘Paladin History of England’ series. I read it at university back in the 1980s as background to the literature of the period.

A month ago I took it off my shelf to remind myself about the run-up to the Edwardian period (1901 to 1914) and insofar as it sheds light on the worldview of the noted Edwardian satirist, Saki, who I’ve been reading and whose stories often refer to social and political events of the 1900s.

This is a slightly odd, rather idiosyncratic book which I found strange but beguiling.

Shannon’s view of history – desperate men grappling with blind forces

Most histories describe the major events which took place during the period they cover, explain their origin and build-up, with pen portraits of the key figures involved in each issue, explaining in more or less detail who did what, what happened, what its after-effects were and why it matters. That’s the approach taken in, say, Crossroads of Freedom by James M. McPherson.

Shannon’s approach is strikingly different. If you know the board game Risk you’ll know it consists of a board representing the entire world, divided up into 40 or so territories. The aim of the game is for the 2, 3 or 4 players to seize all the territories and push the other player(s) off the board. Winner takes all.

Shannon applies a Risk approach to history. Key incidents from this crucial half century (for example, the rise of trade unions at home, the annexation of Egypt abroad, Britain’s response to Bismarck’s wars, the issue of educating the poor which became more pressing everywhere in the second half of the century) are mentioned only fleetingly, often only in passing, often barely explained, because they are not at all where Shannon’s interest lies. Shannon’s interest lies overwhelmingly in the Great Game played by the most senior political leaders throughout the period of winning power and staying in power.

Disraeli’s calculations logically centred on…immediate parliamentary advantage. (p.66)

Shannon doesn’t see politics as a set of logical and understandable events which can be clearly explained, which were clearly understood at the time, and to which rational solutions were offered. Instead he sees human history as the product of blind, inchoate forces – economic, industrial, financial, cultural and demographic – which propel societies forward, willy-nilly, whether planned or understood or not.

The aim of politics, in Shannon’s view, is to harness chaotic human events in order to stay in power.

From time to time Shannon does sound for a few pages like a ‘traditional’ historian. He gives a brisk summary of some of these social changes, with an appropriate blizzard of statistics, particularly in the short opening introduction which is a handy anthology of stats about population increase, migration abroad or into British cities, the rise in agricultural wages and productivity, the doubling of GNP per capita and much more, during his chosen period. It is, for example, striking to learn that during the 1860s, in the UK, agricultural workers and the labouring poor ceased to make up the majority of the population for the first time in any country, ever; for the first time in human history (p.30). All very interesting, but then he gets back to his real, underlying worldview:

These were the blind forces at work, unconscious and undirected. Conscious or directed aspects of the social system – broadly, ‘politics’ – did not relate to these blind forces in a neat one-to-one ratio. Very often indeed the relationship was at best tangential…

And:

The picture as a whole is not that of a society moving surely and confidently in self-possession of its destiny. Rather, it is the story of a society at odds with itself, the blind forces working very often at cross-purposes with the conscious wishes and efforts of those who felt it their task to define the ends, the purposes, to which the ‘movement’ would best be directed…

And:

During the fifty years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the forces of conscious purpose and design in Britain struggled to avert the threats of the blind, largely uncontrollable internal forces and of the dangerously uncontrolled external forces. (Pages 15 to 16)

And:

Domestic debate ceased comparatively to be free as the blind forces moving society imposed irresistible pressures. (p.36)

Why I mention Risk is because, for any one of the five decades his book covers, Shannon’s focus is almost entirely on the highest of high politics and on the handful of men who clawed their way to the top of the main political parties (being the Conservative and Unionist Party and the Liberal Party) only to find themselves caught up in the melée, in the maelstrom of these ‘blind’ forces and thrown into the high stakes game of risk management, opportunity and gamble, which is how Shannon conceptualises all high politics. He sees all of political history as a very complicated game of Risk. All tactics are permitted. Winner takes all.

Shannon’s fundamental idea is that people like Gladstone and Disraeli (the famous antagonists from the early part of his period) came to power with little or no idea what to do with it. They came to power by exploiting the forces at large:

  1. internationally
  2. within British society with its changing and emerging economic and political forces
  3. within British political society i.e. within the complex and often contradictory traditions and ideologies of the nation’s two ruling parties
  4. within the intensely power-hungry, jostling Machiavellian milieu of Parliament itself (made up of the very different institutions of the House of Commons and the House of Lords)

Gladstone, Disraeli and their successors were caught up in a game much more complicated than Risk, more byzantine than three-dimensional chess, a terrifyingly complex game in which the rules are continually changing and all the goalposts move overnight. Shannon makes a number of references to chess, talking about the pieces ‘on the political board’ and how those who had scrabbled into positions of power sought to move them to their best advantage.

For example, the book opens with the death of Lord Palmerston in 1865. Palmerston’s death ‘opened up the board’ after 10 years of his political dominance.

Palmerston acted as checkmate. His position on the political board was such that so long as he remained a force no other forces were either strong enough or sufficiently motivated to free the board for manoeuvres. (p.20)

And:

This situation on the political board is the key to all the complicated manoeuvrings of 1866 and 1867. (p.22)

So what makes this book unusual, distinctive and even a little odd are two things: one, Shannon’s casual disinterest in what actually happened (i.e. the events of the period) in preference for extended descriptions of the Great Game of Westminster politics.

And the second thing is Shannon’s extreme scepticism about the effectiveness of these Westminster politics, his belief that society is moved by blind, inchoate social forces which no-one understands, least of all the men who manipulate their way to the top of the greasy pole.

Shannon goes to great lengths to show that even when they get there, Britain’s politicians often had no idea what is really going on, generally act according to old fashioned ideas, out of date notions, either their own or their party’s, in the search for a correct alignment or balance of social forces which repeatedly turns out to be a chimera, a delusion.

Disraeli imagined that there was a ‘normal’ posture of things which could be got back to without too much trouble. The story of Disraeli’s great ministry is how both kinds of normality evaded him… (p.102)

Lowe’s misguided fears of 1866 were the consequences of applying middle-class intellectual calculations to working-class situations. (p.104)

They certainly take advantage of political opportunities to create new coalitions and alliances, to co-opt elements of broader society or of the seething Westminster cauldron to secure power and then try to pass laws or formulate foreign policy. Shannon describes at length the continual manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces, of conjunctions and alignments of different interest groups, he even talks at one point about ‘the Gladstonian matrix’ (p.53).

And then he tries to assess whether their ‘solutions’ are adequate to the challenges and problems thrown up by a society undergoing continual massive social and economic change. And concludes, on the whole, that no, the politicians were heirs to complex political traditions and alliances, moved in a world of sophisticated political theorists and commentators (John Bright, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot) and yet routinely failed to understand what was really going on or to solve the problems they faced. It is a chronicle of bungling and muddling through.

Like dinosaurs at the onset of a new and uncongenial epoch, the generation at its prime in the 1860s, still at the head of affairs in the 1870s and 1880s, groped about in the wreckage of their familiar landscape, already being transformed and imposing new conditions of adaptation and survival. (p.199)

Domestic versus foreign affairs

At several points Shannon distinguishes between the relative limitedness of the chaos in the domestic as opposed to the international sphere. Put simply, there was less scope for choice or disagreement about domestic policy: by 1870 something quite obviously needed to be done about educating the general population, extending the vote, regulating the power of trade unions, about providing sewerage and clean water to the unhygienic cities and so on. In the big picture, the squabbles between parties about these were often trivial.

It was in foreign affairs that there was real scope for differing opinions. As Shannon puts it, Britain was not ‘free’ to begin to lay the foundations of what later became known as the welfare state (all European nations were doing something similar; something similar obviously had to be done here) in the same way that it was ‘free’ to choose whether to go to war in  South Africa in 1899 or with Germany in 1914, in both of which we had the ability to say No right up till the last minute (p.36).

This greater scope in foreign affairs for a variety of choices and actions is one reason why the period from the 1880s to 1914 saw foreign affairs acquire a greater and greater importance and intrude its issues and decisions more and more into domestic political considerations.

A token of this was the rise of the word ‘imperialism’, which only took on its modern meaning during this period, specifically in the 1890s, and whose claims became a major dividing line between the parties, and between different factions within each of the parties (p.77).

Above all, Shannon presents the high politics of the period not as something carried out by powerful men in full command of the facts who had a well-worked-out series of policies to enact; but as the shambling attempts of men under tremendous pressure to keep their parties and supporters onside while responding to events whose significance they often didn’t understand at all.

They were almost always motivated by the quixotic attempt to restore some kind of equilibrium or political stability which they remembered from their youths, but in most instances were laughably out of date and irrelevant. Thus:

An analysis of British foreign policy between 1865 and 1885 reveals essentially the persistence of received traditions and attitudes, attempts to reassert policies based on assumptions inherited from the past… [There was] an inability to understand why policies which had hitherto appeared to answer requirements with complete satisfaction had suddenly ceased to carry conviction and credibility. (p.41)

Documenting the search by politicians of this period for this illusory balance or equilibrium is the key theme of Shannon’s account.

Avoiding teleology

The 1860s, 70s and 80s were not straining to become the 1890s and 1900s. They had no idea what the future held in store. With hindsight many things are obvious to us, now. Nobody knew them, then. Shannon’s attempt is to recreate the mindset of each decade, each year, in order to make clear the context in which the politicians fought for power.

One must above all be careful to avoid teleological assumptions about the nineteenth century… It is obvious, looking back from the twentieth century, that the blind forces at work in the nineteenth century inevitably caused profound changes in political behaviour… But this was not at all the context of consciousness in which the debate of 1866-7 took place… 1867 was not a promise to the future that happened; it was an attempt to settle questions left over from the past, and a promise in another sense to a future that aborted, that never happened. (p.59)

Their concerns are not our concerns. In fact we struggle to make sense of their concerns. The debates around the extension of the franchise in 1867 didn’t see it (as almost all of us today do) as a stepping stone to the nirvana of universal suffrage, but instead were around finding a new equilibrium which would generate the best outcomes for the ‘national interest’ and avoid pandering to narrow class interests. One recurring argument put by people on all sides was that the 1832 settlement had produced a nice balance between the interests of the landed aristocracy, the new business-based bourgeoisie, and the skilled working class. It wasn’t extending the franchise to the lower middle classes and rest of the working class they objected to, it was upsetting this delicate balance by giving too much prominence to one particular part of the population.

Shannon sheds a brilliant bolt of light on our present situation by saying that almost all mid-19th century thinkers would have been appalled at the late 20th and 21st century assumption that democratic politics is about governments bribing particular sections of the electorate with promises of tax cuts or benefit increases and so on. That would have been seen as the ultimate in political immorality.

Their debates were about how best to arrive at the best expression of the ‘national interest’, debates which, of course, clashed over the notion of what the national interest was and who was best qualified to identify it and to implement it. Disraeli knew what it was: the landed aristocracy who he had glamorised in his novels of the 1830s:

Like Palmerson, Disraeli wanted to be able to call on the support of many interests as a means of preserving the one great interest, ‘the national interest’, which he identified centrally with land. (p.68)

I was very interested to learn that the famous social philosopher John Stuart Mill (who himself became an MP) did not want universal suffrage; he wanted a limited suffrage arranged in such a way that the balance of power would shift from (what he regarded as) a limited, unintelligent and reactionary landed aristocracy to a well-educated, modern, business-minded intelligentsia.

Shannon’s warning not to think teleologically makes explicit the notion that we live amongst the countless ruins of the plans and ideas and schemes and manifestos to build a better country and a better political system which have been worked out and proposed with such passion and sincerity by so many of our ancestors, and which came to nothing. So many futures, which never took place.

Disraeli

We can illustrate Shannon’s approach in his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881; leader of the Conservative Party from 1868 till his death in 1881). Shannon paints Disraeli as a man who started his political career facing one central political challenge which was how to repair the catastrophic fragmentation of the Conservative Party caused by the highly divisive campaign to repeal the Corn Laws which reached its climax in 1846 (p.48).

Conditions…since 1847 had made a Conservative majority virtually impossible. (p.73)

The Corn Law campaign had split the Conservative Party down the middle and the chaotic political scene which ensued was exploited by Lord Palmerston who rose to become Prime Minster for the next 9 or so years. Palmerston had combined elements of different political traditions in order to create a very distinctive power base held together by the force of his personality. When he died this particular matrix of forces collapsed leaving a vacuum which presented a complex opportunity for his successors (most notably the two ‘coming men’ of the younger generation, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli) to reorganise and redefine the various political strands and traditions into new combinations.

Disraeli wanted to be a politician, he wanted to be a success, he wanted to be prime Minister, but following Palmerston’s death, he faced the huge challenge of trying to give the Conservative Party a new identity or direction whereby it could once again represent the entire ‘nation’ and represent what Shannon calls the ‘national’ policy.

Disraeli’s task was to manoeuvre the Conservative Party into the posture of natural and legitimate exponent of the ‘national’ policy. (p.52)

In the coming years, Disraeli would scavenge solutions to this challenge from anywhere; he would use any opportunity to try and repair the breaches among the ruling class opened the Corn Law debacle and create a workable majority in the House of Commons and consolidate the in-built Conservative majority in the House of Lords.

For Disraeli, and therefore for Shannon, it doesn’t matter what these issues are, whether it be the administration of India after the great rebellion of 1857, the correct line to take towards the American Civil War (1861 to 1865) or to Bismarck’s series of wars starting with Prussia’s war with Denmark in 1864.

Disraeli’s approach wasn’t about taking a consistent or principled line. It was about analysing each event or crisis and assessing what was the best outcome for the Conservative Party and for himself. What would play best among the (still very limited) electorate? How would a given policy play to the landed aristocrats in the House of Lords? Could it be reconciled with the need to win over support among the factory owners in the House of Commons?

The governing Liberals were traditionally the party of small government and non-intervention abroad. Classical Liberalism, as defined by the Manchester school of Richard Cobden and John Bright, thought that left to itself, universal free trade would connect all nations in fair and equal economic arrangements and thus war would not be required. That is why they had founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838, in order to abolish the restrictive tariffs which kept the price of corn artificially high (in order to benefit the landed aristocracy) thus making the price of food substantially cheaper in order to feed the populations of the new industrial cities.

By contrast with the Liberals’ boring ideas of universal free trade, as the 1860s turned into the 1870s Disraeli realised there was a big opportunity here to position the Conservatives as the party of imperial adventure and derring-do. Thus Disraeli is most remembered for two flashy, publicity-seeking gestures, buying up shares in the Suez Canal when the owner, the Khedive of Egypt went bankrupt in 1875, and awarding Queen Victoria the title Empress of India, much to her satisfaction, in 1876. Both hugely popular, both the swift seizure of opportunities.

But none of this implies that Disraeli had a fully-worked out foreign policy. Far from it. These were mere chance opportunities which he grabbed with the instinct of a true opportunist. Only later would succeeding leaders and theorists of the Conservative Party (Disraeli died in 1881) concoct the convenient idea that Disraeli had formulated some Grand Theory of Imperialism. Disraeli had no such thing. And his heirs only did this because this fiction helped them in their times (the 1880s through the 1900s) try to make sense of the ‘blind forces’ at work in the domestic and international spheres of their era. They were looking backwards for clues and ideas, just as Disraeli had been, in his day.

Similarly, when the Liberals brought forward plans to extend the franchise (the vote) from about 1.4 million men to 2.4 million men in 1866, Disraeli again spotted an opportunity, first of all to defeat the Liberals by assembling coalitions of reactionary forces against them. And then, quite hilariously, once the Liberal government resigned after losing a vote on the  reform bill, and the Queen was forced to appoint Disraeli her Prime Minister, he brought forward more or less the same bill, this time persuading reactionaries in the Commons and Lords that a carefully defined and carefully managed extension of the vote wouldn’t hand it to the illiterate mob but would do the opposite; would win over for the Conservatives the grateful lower-middle-class and skilled working class who would benefit from it. And that is, in fact what happened, once the new Reform Act was passed in 1867.

So Victorian politics wasn’t about ‘principle’, having grand theories and manifestos. It was all about shrewdness and adaptability, and adeptness at climbing to the top of what Disraeli very aptly described as ‘the greasy pole’ – and then using any event, and harnessing whatever social forces, and rethinking whatever traditions and schools of thought necessary, to stay in power.

A propos the 1867 Reform Act I was a little staggered to learn that in the election which followed, in 1868, only about half the seats were contested by both parties. We are talking about in which the interest of the Conservatives in country constituencies and of the Liberals in urban constituencies, was so definitive, that it wasn’t even worth contesting half the seats (p.73). Although it later came to be seen as highly symbolic that the high-minded, if eccentric, Liberal John Stuart Mill, lost his Westminster seat to W.H. Smith, the news agent, a harbinger of the rise of the new suburban middle and lower middle class vote which was to become a mainstay of Conservative elections and flavour much of national culture going into the 1880s and 1890s (p.73).

Power politics

Hopefully this example gives you a flavour of the way Shannon’s book takes you right into the heart of power, assessing how leaders like Gladstone and Disraeli (and later on, Lord Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman and the rest) struggled to:

  1. understand what was going on
  2. fit events into the framework of their own personal ‘beliefs’
  3. fit events into the framework of the ideologies and traditions of the parties they purported to lead (often at odds with their own personal beliefs)
  4. and then try to manage coalitions and constituencies of voters out there in the country, and their representatives in Parliament, in such a way as to a) take meaningful action b) all the time ensuring they remained in power – in a process of endless risk and gamble

That is what this book is about; it is less about the actual events of the period than how the successive leaders used these events to claw their way to power and then how they manipulated the traditions and ideologies, assembled and broke coalitions, recruited this or that member of the party into their cabinet, kept important players onside by offering them this or that reward, and so on.

Gladstone himself, in a note written at the end of his life, in 1896, tried to analyse what it was that distinguished him from the other politicians of his time. He wrote that what it boiled down to was the way Providence had endowed him with a special gift of being able to see, to analyse, right into the heart of situations.

It is an insight into the facts of particular eras, and their relations to one another, which generates in the mind a conviction that the materials exist for forming a public opinion, and for directing it to a particular end. (Quoted p.71)

This book focuses exclusively on the highest of high politics, which explains why there’s little or no social history, very little about people’s lived experiences, little or no gossip about kings and courtiers, very little about new technologies or food or sport or fashion, very little about the regions, or even Scotland or Wales (although Ireland bulks large for obvious reasons).

Instead, the focus is very narrowly on Westminster and the power politics played out between a tiny handful of men at the top, detailing their schemes and strategies to gain and hold on to power. So if you’re looking for any kind of social history or lots of colourful anecdotes this is emphatically not the book for you. To give a fashionable example, in the Edwardian section of the book, there is almost no mention of the suffragettes or any kind of portraits of their leaders or their cause; the emphasis is entirely on the how they were just one of 3 or 4 social and political issues which Edwardian leaders were trying to assess and juggle in order to pursue the endless quest to stay in power.

Preserving the balance

So little or no social or economic history, then. What the book is good on is political theory. At what you might call the academic end of the spectrum, Shannon gives accounts of the political thought of Liberal ideologues such as John Bright and John Stuart Mill, showing how the latter in particular derived from his Utilitarian mentors and then evolved to reflect the times (not least in Mills’s powerful defences of women’s rights).

Shannon refers to the at-the-time well-known collection Essays on Reform, published in 1867 as ‘part of the propaganda of the “advanced party” for a “more national Parliament”‘. In the Essays leading political commentators made suggestions about how to improve the franchise and the voting system. Shannon dwells on the contribution of John Morley (1838 to 1923), nowadays a forgotten figure, but who was not only an influential journalist and editor but went on to be a reforming politician in his own right from the 1890s through to the 1920s, and who in the 1880s consciously positioned himself as the heir to Mill (who had died in 1873) as chief ideologue of classical Liberalism (p.98).

Some of the writings in Essays on Reform turn out to be disconcertingly relevant today, 150 years later. Shannon quotes Lesley Stephen, in his essay on reform, proposing that England is an essentially conservative country with an instinctive liking for the established order of things which led all the upper classes, a lot of the middle classes and a surprising number of the working classes instinctively deferential and reluctant to change. This leapt right off the page and spoke to me now, in 2021 as I read endless articles about why Labour lost the 2019 election so badly and why so many people continue to support the Conservative Party despite it so obviously being led by corrupt fools and incompetents. Reading Stephen’s words suggest the short answer is because it’s always been like that; because that’s what England is like.

But theorising and essay writing wasn’t only done by intellectuals and the higher journalists. Politicians also made speeches or wrote articles, and thus Shannon liberally quotes from speeches or articles by the likes of Disraeli, Gladstone and their heirs, to indicate what they said they believed and what they thought they were trying to do.

The thing is, though, that Shannon rarely takes them at face value. In line with his basic credo about the ‘blind forces’ driving society, Shannon is not shy of pointing out when these figures got it completely wrong.

In practically every respect Gladstone’s assumptions about the shape of the future were belied by events, just as were Disraeli’s assumptions about the possibilities of perpetuating a traditional Palmerstonian past. (p.70)

It would take nearly twenty years for Gladstone to reconcile himself to the inadequacy of his assumptions of 1868. (p.79)

The politicians of the period were engaged in what Shannon calls:

A contest in misapprehension. (p.70)

Or, more likely, were writing articles and making speeches not to convey eternal political truths, but to play the game and position issues or ideas in such a way as to maximise the author’s appeal, not necessarily to the bulk of the population (who couldn’t vote), but to key stakeholders or constituencies or even to specific individuals whose support they need.

As well as 1. intellectual ideas and 2. the strategic ideas promoted by politicians for political gain, there is a third category, 3. underlying commonplaces and beliefs.

These are the ideas which aren’t necessarily articulated in their own day and yet exist as widely accepted commonplaces and traditional values in all political parties (or social organisations such as the Anglican Church). Shannon is very good at  bringing these underlying Victorian beliefs out into the open and so helping you understand not just what the Liberal and Conservative leaders said they stood for, but what the crusty old supporters of both parties actually believed they stood for, which was often very something completely different.

Put more simply, Shannon is a really interesting guide to the ideologies and values which underpinned not only high politics but also the political culture of the times, and which was often not very well expressed at the time.

For example, I found his summary of Matthew Arnold’s 1869 book, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism, very useful. Arnold, Shannon explains, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t want to leap forward into a radical future, he wanted to preserve the best elements of the past in troublesome times.

Arnold’s fear was that Britain was moving away from reliance on the disinterested morality of the landowning aristocracy and at the same time losing its religious faith, and that this collapse risked the triumph of the Philistines, the name he gave to the rising middle classes, the factory owners and entrepreneurs who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Arnold’s solution was that literature, art and culture should be promoted as the way to defeat the tide of philistinism and preserve the ‘sweetness and light’ of traditional culture, which he defined as ‘the best that has been thought and known’. In effect, ‘culture’ was to replace religion as the great binding glue and underpinning ideology of society (p.33).

This notion was to have a phenomenal impact and arguably to hold sway across the arts until well into the 1960s. I think it affected the way I was taught my literature degree in the 1980s. But reading it in the context of Shannon’s hard-headed exposition of power politics gives it a whole new meaning.

Arnold is just one of many Victorians who were looking backwards, who were trying to preserve what they idealised as a kind of balance or equilibrium between forces in society, which they hoped would solve all social issues and return life to the idyllic days of their youths.

Shannon shows in detail that Gladstone and Disraeli were, in this way, just the same, both men trying to return Britain to an imagined land of peace and plenty of their youths. Both men only promoted supposedly ‘radical’ policies (such as extending the franchise or extending state support for education in the 1870 Education Act) because they thought it would shut down dissent, end the debate, and restore this mythical equilibrium.

The essence of the question of reform [in 1867]…was a problem of striking a settlement that would satisfy the country and provide the point of rest and stability for a reconstituted Victorian equilibrium. (p.62)

The second stage of the Liberal effort to create a new Victorian equilibrium in the Liberal image fulfilled itself in the great programme of reforms between 1869 and 1873. (p.76)

The essence of the conduct of affairs in the decade 1874-85 was the effort of both Conservative and Liberal governments to operate on the basis of a desired and assumed Victorian equilibrium. Conservatives interpreted this equilibrium to mean a return to ‘normal’ procedures as defined in Palmerstonian pre-1867 terms… Liberals of most strains interpreted the equilibrium in terms of a revised dispensation required by the country to fulfil the potential of 1867… (p.101)

Some later Victorian schools of political thought

Maybe ‘theory’ is too grand and French a word to use for British political thinking, which has always been pragmatic, ad hoc and short term. As I read some of Shannon’s summaries of Victorian schools of thought, it crossed my mind that it might be useful to list and briefly summarise them:

Matthew Arnold

Arnold believed religion had been wounded by science, old aristocratic ideals damaged by democracy. He suggested replacing them with a new national ideology based on Culture which he defined as the best which has been thought and written, meaning, essentially, English literature.

John Stuart Mill

Mill helped define the ‘harm principle’ of freedom, namely that citizens should be free to do just about anything so long as it doesn’t harm, or cause harm to, others. He strongly defended complete freedom of speech on the basis that society could only progress if all ideas were freely expressed and openly discussed, confident that good opinions would defeat bad opinions. (p.32) Under the influence of his wife he became a fervent advocate of women’s rights, and spoke in favour of votes for women in the 1860s.

But Shannon takes us beneath the popular image of Mill as champion of modern human rights, to show how odd and of his time much of his thought was. For Liberals in the 1860s the issue wasn’t about steering the country towards universal suffrage: the pressing concern was to wrest power from the landed aristocracy, the estimated 10,000 or so families who essentially ran Britain, not in order to create a mass democracy, but to relocate power to the Most Intelligent people in the nation who Mill, not surprisingly, identified with himself and his friends.

In other words, Mill didn’t want to abolish the mindset of deference as so many Radicals did. He simply wanted to shift the focus of the population’s deference from the (in his opinion) worthless aristocracy, to the forces of liberal industry and economy and intelligence.

Leslie Stephen

Stephen believed that occult and unacknowledged forces kept England a predominantly aristocratic society, the majority of the population liking to keep things as they are and to defer to their betters. (p.28) (If you wanted to think big, you could say this attitude goes back to the Norman Conquest and the establishment of a two-tier society which, in many occult and unacknowledged ways, endures to this day. Being able to speak French or drop French tags into conversation, for example.)

Whig aristocrats

believed that only possession of land could guarantee independence and freedom. A tenant is forced to vote the way his landlord tells him. The owner of vast acres can, by contrast, stand up against almost any authority (including, back at the origin of the Whig Party, during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the king himself). English freedom therefore depends on the existence of a well-educated and independent aristocracy, and their existence depends on respect for property. From this perspective, any attempt to tax, confiscate or redistribute someone’s land represents not an attack on them or even the propertied class, but on the entire basis of English freedom and this explains the attitudes and speeches of most MPs and ministers from the landed aristocracy (p.26).

The Manchester School

The Manchester school of economic and political theorists, led by John Bright and William Cobden, believed that free trade between nations would maximise everyone’s wealth and guarantee peace, because eventually every nation would be so tied  together by international trade that war would wreck their own economies. After the death of Palmerston in 1865, the Manchester School thought that Britain’s foreign policy should be one of complete non-intervention, showing the rest of the world by the example of how free trade led to prosperity. The Manchester School passively supported the attempts by peoples across Europe to liberate themselves from foreign (generally reactionary) oppressors, such as the struggle for Italian Unification, completed by 1871, because this would lead them all, in time, to have a constitution and economy as glorious as Britain’s, but we must on no account intervene in those struggles (p.43)

Castlereagh’s foreign policy

The Conservative view looked back to the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars when Britain had a vested interest in never letting a continent-wide dictator arise again, and so was active in creating and supporting a supposed ‘balance of power’ in Europe, creating a ‘concert of powers’ between France, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia, without ever actually joining sides. (pages 43 and 47).

Unfortunately, the illusion of this concert was seriously damaged by the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) in which a lot of Britons were surprised to find themselves fighting with Muslim Turkey against Christian Russia. And then Bismarck definitively wrecked this model by defeating Denmark, Austria and France in order to create a unified Germany in 1871, from which point the old theories became increasingly irrelevant and British leaders, both Conservative and Liberal, had to cast around for a new model and a new role for Britain in Europe (p.45).

Beneath the surface of a general retraction of diplomatic initiative following the Denmark fiasco, the phase from 1865 to 1874 is characterised by a great deal of manoeuvring and regrouping of political forces… (p.53)

The Crimean System

The Crimean War was fought to contain Russian expansionism, to prevent Russia extending its control right through the Balkans to threaten Constantinople and the Straits i.e. the Bosphorus, where the Black Sea joins the Mediterranean.

If Russia attained control of the Straits it would allow her navy to enter the Mediterranean at will and hugely shift the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Therefore Britain found itself fighting alongside Turkey and propping up the Muslim Sultan against a Christian European power. Many people at the time thought it was a mistake in principle and the actual mismanagement of the war confirmed their worst expectations.

The war ended with the 1856 Treaty of Paris and this goal of propping up Turkey in order to contain Russia became known as the Crimean System, which British politicians then tried to maintain for decades, way after it had become irrelevant to the changing realities on the ground.

Shannon’s theory of drag – the way politicians look backward, trying to maintain or recreate the systems and equilibriums they fancy existed in their youths – explains why, 20 years after the war, Disraeli, when Turkey carried out a brutal suppression of Bulgarians seeking independence in 1876, could only conceive of maintaining the ‘Crimea System’ and so continued to prop up a Turkey which had become notably more feeble and maladministered in the interim. Which in turn gave Gladstone the opportunity to score a massive public hit with his speeches giving gruesome details of the Turkish massacres of Bulgarian villagers, the so-called ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’, and decrying Disraeli’s immorality in defending them.

Politics isn’t about principles. It is about attacking your opponent at their weakest point until they collapse. It is about seizing opportunities for political gain.

Liberalism

One of the fundamental ideas of Liberalism, of the classical kind advocated by Cobden and Bright, was that different social groups and forces can, ultimately, be reconciled, not least by the growing science of society – sociology – by the use of reason and good will. It is optimistic about society’s prospects for eventually finding balance and peace (p.31), and the same belief in extends into a foreign policy which believes that free trade between nations is the best way of ensuring peace.

Nonconformism

It is difficult for many moderns to grasp the importance of religion in British politics until relatively recently. Certainly it was of vast importance in the Victorian period. The religious scene still bore the marks of the civil wars and the 1688 revolution which followed it. Basically the Church of England was the settled theological and organisational basis of the Establishment, of most of the landed aristocracy, of Oxford and Cambridge and the elite professions it produced.

After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 an Act of Uniformity and a series of Test Acts were put in place to ensure that nobody could hold any formal office or take a degree unless they swore to uphold the theology of the Anglican church and enforcing episcopal appointment of all ministers of religion.

Now the civil wars of the 1640s and 50s had brought out into the open, and into public life, a large minority of devout Christians who could not swear to the theology of the Anglican Church. They either disagreed about the entire idea of an ‘established’ church, or disagreed with the fact that its leaders, the bishops, were appointed by the civil power i.e. the monarch, or disagreed on a wide range of theological points. Before and during the wars they were known as ‘Puritans’ but the wars’ freedom to debate and define their positions led to a proliferation of sects then and in the decades after 1660, including Presbyterians and Congregationalists, plus Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and (originating in the 18th century) Methodists.

Because they refused to ‘conform’ to the Act of Uniformity and the various Test Acts they became known as the Nonconformists and came to form a distinct element of British society, large in England, probably a majority in Wales. There’s a lot of ongoing debate about whether the Nonconformists caused the industrial revolution, but there’s no doubt that, because they were excluded by law from holding civil posts (in local or national government) or entering any of the professions, Nonconformists were forced into business and into the worlds of science and industry.

The Test Acts were repealed by 1830 in what amounted, in its day, to a social and political upheaval, alongside Catholic Emancipation i.e. the removal of similar restrictions from Roman Catholics.

The point of all this for our period is that the Nonconformists, despite being split into various sects and subsidiary groupings, by and large formed a large part of British society.

A census of religion in 1851 revealed Nonconformists made up about half the number of people who attended church services on Sundays. In the larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England. (Wikipedia)

And this large body of Nonconformists constituted a bedrock element of the Liberal Party which they hoped would continue to remove obstacles to their full legal rights, many of these hopes focusing on the (utopian) wish for the disestablishment of the Church of England, so that it would become merely one more religious grouping among many.

But their presence in large numbers meant that the Liberal leader who emerged after Palmerston’s death, Gladstone, had to always take the Nonconformist vote into account when devising his policies and strategies.

You might have thought the Nonconformist influence, like religious belief generally, was slowly declining during the nineteenth century, but it was the opposite. The 1868 general election led to an influx of Nonconformist MPs, the largest cohort ever, who from now onwards had to be taken into all political considerations, and added a substantial layer of complexity to a host of policies, especially regarding Ireland, the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland and then all the discussions about Irish Home Rule.

With the result that 40 years later the coming man in the Liberal Party, David Lloyd George, still had to cultivate and maintain Nonconformist support in the 1900s.

I was really surprised to learn about the tremendous complexity of passing the 1870 Education Act which was caused because of the conflict between the Church of England which ran the majority of state schools and the Nonconformists who wanted more state schools to be set up but not run by the Church and certainly not funded from local rates, a very English, very muddled situation which led to an unsatisfactory and patchy solution, the establishment of ‘Board schools’ which ‘became one of the great shaping factors of later nineteenth century society’ (pp.86 to 92).

In summary, it is impossible to understand a lot of political events between 1868 and the Great War unless you have a good feel for the importance of the Nonconformist interest in politics and in Britain’s broader cultural life.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 to 1895)

Although famous as a vigorous defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Huxley was solidly on the side of the angels and made speeches and wrote articles (notably Evolution and Ethics) pointing out that just because nature works through violent competition and extermination, doesn’t mean that humans have to. In fact humans have the capacity to do the exact opposite and use the reason evolution has handed us in order to devise rational and compassionate solutions to social problems which transcend the whole vulgar notion of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.

Gladstone

Shannon credits Gladstone with realising that politics had to move on from the old notion that it was about balancing categories of ‘interest’ (for example, trying to frame policies which reconciled the landed interest and the industrial interest, and so on) to categories of ‘morality’ (p.55).

In making this shift of the basis of politics the essential task of the Liberal party Gladstone made it into a vehicle of political moralism. (p.55)

Hence the intensely moralising tone Gladstone adopted as he came to political prominence from the 1860s onwards, the increasing emphasis on judging government policies and bills on the grounds of social morality and hence Gladstone’s long, high-minded lectures which many found inspiring, but many (including, famously, Queen Victoria herself) found patronising and infuriating. Maybe Gladstone was the first mansplainer.

Reasons for losing

The Liberal government, convinced of its own virtue and its mission to reform and rebalance society, was flabbergasted when it lost the 1874 general election badly. Lots of commentators and the Liberal leadership itself were deeply puzzled why this had happened. Gladstone took it very personally and resigned the Liberal leadership in 1875. Journalist and soon-to-become politician John Morley wrote a book, On Compromise, giving his explanations for the defeat:

  • the example of French demagogy i.e. populism; appealing to the vulgar mob
  • the intellectual trend of the ‘historical method’ which had undermined the moral authority of the Bible
  • the corruptions of the popular press
  • the influence of the reactionary Church of England

But the deepest cause, Morley thought, was the material prosperity which had mushroomed during these years and had impaired ‘the moral and intellectual nerve of our generation’ (p.98). A generation later, the Liberal commentator Charles Masterman would attribute Tory victory to flag-waving jingoism and imperialism which rallied the uneducated masses to the Conservative cause.

Sound strangely familiar don’t they, these excuses for losing an election, 150 years later. No reflection on your own policies: instead, blame the electorate for being uneducated, venal and easily corrupted.

The Victorian balance unravels

Between 1865 and 1915 a devil of a lot of things happened, but from Shannon’s narrow focus on power politics, he places almost everything within the context of one overriding thesis.

This is that the High Victorian period (1850 to 1870) had been characterised by balance, by a synthesis of opposing forces, by what you could call the Liberal conviction that conflicting beliefs, ideas, ideologies, policies and political movements would, in the end, be reconciled, and the less interference by government, the quicker these solutions would come about.

Thus in the realm of culture, even critics of traditional Christian theology thought that the shocks of the Higher Criticism originating in Germany academia and, in a later generation, the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the geologists, could be absorbed by society, maybe into a new science of society, maybe into the new ideas of positivism articulated by August Comte. Scientific optimism.

In society at large the rise of working class militancy (the Chartists) was largely contained, an extension of the franchise in 1867 drew the sting from anti-establishment protest, a new education act in 1870 looked set to address long-running concerns about the shameful illiteracy of the underclass.

In foreign affairs Britain’s navy had unparalleled control of the seas, underpinning British possession of a huge range of colonies, while affairs on the continent of Europe remained mostly peaceful (apart from the relatively small skirmishes surrounding Bismarck‘s campaign to unify Germany under Prussian control) and the blundering shambles of the Crimean War which didn’t take place in Europe.

The entire worldview was underpinned by the immense pomp and circumstance surrounding Queen Victoria who was made empress of India by a grovelling Disraeli in 1877.

But by the 1880s this optimism was under strain in every direction. Working class militancy increased. Journalism and charitable work exposed the appalling poverty in Britain’s cities.

Abroad, trouble in the Balkans as the power of the Ottoman Empire declined led to flashpoints at the meeting points of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Britain watched and then became involved in various attempts to set up alliances and pacts to ensure security, all of them unstable.

The colonies grew restive. There was a religious uprising against British rule in Egypt led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah in 1881. The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885.

The really big colonial issue was on Britain’s doorstep as the pressure for Irish Home rule grew relentlessly, and this brings us to a really big theme of the period, which is, the splitting up of the major parties by huge political issues.

Even more than the first half, the second half of the book views all the political developments through the lens of attempts to retain or restore this mythical social and political ‘balance’.

Shannon’s view is that social and political events presented a challenge and that the two main political parties, and their successive leaders, struggled to address these challenges. It explains the structure he gives to the last three parts of his book as he first of all enumerates the problems facing later Victorian society and then weighs the responses of, first the Unionist Party, then the Liberals, and finds them both, in the end, inadequate to the task.

Part III: The forming elements of a modern society

  • Social dynamics 1886 to 1895
  • The politics of Unionism and Home Rule 1886 to 1895
  • New directions in external problems 1886 to 1895
  • Victorianism and Modernism: cultural themes and variations in the 1880s and 1890s

Part IV: The search for adequate responses: the Unionist version 1895 to 1905

  • The Unionist domestic bid 1895 to 1902
  • Unionist efforts to save the external situation 1895 to 1905
  • The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905

Part V: The search for adequate responses: the Liberal version 1905 to 1915

  • The Liberal domestic bid 1905 to 1911
  • Liberal responses in foreign affairs 1905 to 1911
  • The Liberal impasse 1912 to 1915

As the Victorian equilibrium and Liberal confidence that social problems would, basically, sort themselves out, both unravelled in the 1880s, two really major themes come to dominate the book, namely the ruinous impact of trying to conceptualise and implement Irish Home Rule from the 1880s onwards, and the equally divisive attempt led by Joseph Chamberlain to create an Imperialist party and policy, which coalesced around the policy of tariff reform in the early 1900s.

The really striking thing about both issues is the extent to which:

  • they dominated political discussions and calculations from the 1880s through the 1900s
  • they ended up fatally dividing existing political parties, with the Liberals splitting over Home Rule and the Conservative party splitting over tariff reform
  • and that both issues ended in abject failure

The failure of Liberalism

The 1885 general election resulted in a parliament where Home Rule MPs from Ireland held the balance of power. This helped crystallised the great leader of Liberalism, William Gladstone’s, conviction that Ireland deserved home rule, in effect a revision of the terms under which Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom since the merger of the kingdoms in 1800. Gladstone made Irish Home Rule a central policy of the Liberal Party.

But a large number of traditionalist Liberals disagreed and, in 1886, broke away to form the Liberal Unionist Party which soon found a leader in the charismatic figure of Joseph Chamberlain. Eventually, the Liberal Unionists formed a political alliance with the Conservative Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule. The two parties formed the ten-year-long coalition Unionist Government 1895 to 1905 but were swept to defeat by a Liberal landslide in the 1906 general election.

But not only did the precise nature of Home Rule stymie Gladstone in the final years of his political career (he died in 1898) but it returned as a major political crisis at the end of the Edwardian era and it is always striking to be reminded that, as Europe rushed towards war in August 1914, the British cabinet was far more concerned about the possibility of real civil war breaking out in Ireland between the nationalist majority and the Protestant die-hards of Ulster.

In other words, long and very complicated and tortuous as the issue of Irish Home Rule was, the liberal Party failed to solve it.

The failure of Unionism

The Conservatives successfully positioned themselves as the party of the British Empire during Disraeli’s leadership (mostly, as we have suggested, out of sheer opportunism). Imperial ambition reached its peak with the attempt from the turn of the century by Joseph Chamberlain to promote a policy of Tariff Reform designed to bind together the major Anglo-Saxon colonies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) into a protectionist trading bloc.

The policy had a rhetorical or branding appeal to the imaginations of many, but it hit at least two very big rocks which were:

  1. It would almost certainly lead to higher prices for basic foodstuffs for most Britons; hence its opponents could set up lobbying groups with names like the Free Food organisation.
  2. Chamberlain organised a series of conferences attended by the Prime Ministers of the Anglo colonies, but they never got anywhere near agreeing trading terms – it was a nice idea, but never fleshed out in practice.

A third aspect was the disastrous showing of the British army in the Boer War, 1899 to 1902. This had the effect of discrediting the Unionist government which was in power at the time and, although Britain ultimately defeated the Boers on the battlefield, in the years that followed, the Boers won back all their political rights and more. It was a colossal moral defeat.

Obviously there’s a lot more detail, but overall it was widely felt, by 1906, that the Imperial project of the Unionists had failed. This is what is explained in detail in Shannon’s chapter, ‘The Unionist impasse 1903 to 1905’.

High numbers

The naive and simple minded think that democratic politics is about ideals and principles. This is why they are continually disappointed by actual political events, because what politics is really about is numbers.

From 1885 to 1915, Shannon’s history shows how a huge amount of political energy went into detailed political calculations about how to win and maintain power and that these boiled down again and again to the numbers: will you get enough votes in a general election? (GEs were held in 1885, 1886, 1892, 1895, 1900, 1906 and twice in 1910). Will a high enough percentage of voters turn out?

Is it necessary to do deals with other parties, as the young Labour Representation Committee did in the 1906 election when the LRC won 29 seats because of a secret pact between its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, and Liberal Chief Whip, Herbert Gladstone, to avoid splitting the anti-Conservative vote between Labour and Liberal candidates?

If you extend the franchise (as the UK did in 1867 and 1884 and 1918), how will it affect your vote? This was one of the elements in the government’s calculations about whether to bow to suffragette pressure and extend the vote to women. If so, which women and how many and what would be the impact on the balance of power? It wasn’t about principle. It was about calculating the numbers.

Would the growth of trade unions affect the working class vote? Would legalisation of trade unions garner support for the party (Liberal or Conservative) which did it, or would it lead to the creation of a new radical party?

And you may be able to form a government, but do you have a big enough majority to pass all the laws you want to? Will you have to make alliances with other parties (as the Liberals did with Irish Nationalists and the small Labour Party in 1910 to get is social policies and radical budget passed)?

If the House of Lords refuses to pass laws which have been approved by the House of Commons, will having a second general election (as there was in 1910) increase or decrease your majority? Will you be able to persuade then king to create so many new Liberal peers that they will swamp the House of Lords and guarantee the passage of your bill (as the Liberal government threatened to do in 1910 to get its contentious Finance Bill past an obstructive House of Lords)?

And within so-called parties, will you be able to win round some groups or elements in an opposition party to your way of thinking, without alienating too many members of your own party?

High finance

Another way in which politics is obviously all about numbers is the finances and the basic, entry-level question: how are you going to pay for your fancy policies?

This is why almost all policies are, in the final analysis, subject to the control of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and why there often end up being such fierce rivalries between the Prime Minister, who is in charge of policy and strategy and creating alliances and support for policies; and his Chancellor who has great power to wreck all these plans if the figures don’t add up.

If you plan mighty new policies who is going to pay? Take the famous naval rivalry between Britain and Germany which took a leap in intensity after Britain launched its first Dreadnought class warship in 1906. The initial dreadnoughts cost £1,783,000, compared to £1,540,000 for the previous largest ships, but eight years later the new Queen Elizabeth class was costing £2,300,000 each. Who was going to pay for them?

In 1909 David Lloyd George wanted to complete the Liberal agenda of tackling poverty in the shape of caring for the elderly and for the unemployed, so he introduced the so-called People’s Budget. Half the attention given to it by historians concerns the way its provisions began to lay the foundations for what, a generation later, would be called the Welfare State. But Shannon is more interested in the numbers, namely who was going to pay for this new state largesse? A central point of the budget was that it introduced unprecedented taxes on the lands and incomes of Britain’s wealthy (it introduced higher rates of income tax, higher death duties and a 20% tax on increases in value when land changed hands).

No wonder the members of the class very obviously targeted by these changes, who populated the House of Lords, rejected it, which led to a great constitutional crisis, which pitted the House of Commons and ‘the will of the people’ against the representatives of the landed elite.

Déjà vu all over again

One of the pleasures of reading history and, in particular, fairly recent history (i.e. not medieval or ancient history) is to read the past through the prism of the present, or read the past with the issues and pressures of the present in mind. In this respect, it never fails to amaze me how some things never change. Thus we read that:

1. Why did we lose?

The high-minded Liberals just couldn’t understand how they could lose the 1874 election to the elitist, land-owning and greedy and reactionary Conservative Party. The best reasons they could come up with was that the voting public had been corrupted by a new, more aggressively populist press and by a new and unprecedentedly high standard of living. They were wallowing in luxury and had forgotten their high-minded responsibility to build a better, fairer society, instead the sustained prosperity of the 1850s and 60s had caused:

‘a general riot of luxury in which nearly all classes had their share…[in which] money and beer flowed freely.’ (p.97).

Which sounds to me very like the excuses the Labour Party made about losing three successive elections to Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and, again, about their thumping defeat in the 2019 election.

2. The progressive coalition in disarray

As Shannon is at pains to demonstrate, the Liberal Party had only recently been founded – the conventional date for its establishment is 1859 – and was made up of a diverse coalition of forces: the traditional land-owning Whig aristocracy; urban Radicals; Irish nationalists; high-minded Anglicans like Gladstone but also a very large number of Nonconformists who Gladstone conscientiously courted. During its ministry from 1868 to 1874 the Liberal government had achieved much but also alienated many of these key constituents.

3. Cosmopolitans versus patriots

I was fascinated to read that in his landmark speech at Crystal Palace in 1872, Disraeli attempted some political positioning and branding, by accusing the Liberals of being elite and out of touch with the ordinary voter, but in particular of being ‘cosmopolitan‘, meaning too quick to truckle to foreigners, not willing to defend the ‘national’ interest, which, of course, Disraeli strongly identified himself and the Conservatives with (p.53). The Conservatives had lost touch with the people and ‘cosmopolitan’ doctrines had been imported from the continent and foisted on the innocent British public under the guise of ‘Liberalism’. The Liberals had tried to ‘substitute cosmopolitan for national principles’ (p.95).

During this period Disraeli tried to reposition the Conservatives as the party which would defend a) the constitution and the great historic institutions of England, b) our national interests, our place as a Great Power, and combine these with c) a comprehensive programme of social reform.

The combination of flag-waving patriotism with the promise of robust reform and prosperity for all sounds very reminiscent of the 2019 Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, another unprincipled but eerily successful chancer.

4. Working class conservatism

Shannon emphasises that British trade unions didn’t want to overthrow the system, they just wanted a greater say in the fruits of the system and a share in its profits for their members (p.29). The majority of the great unwashed just wanted to be left alone, without a nanny state sticking its nose in their business and insisting they were ‘improved’, whether they wanted to be or not (p.103).

Again, resentment at the tendency of high-minded Liberals to poke their noses into people’s private affairs and educate and inform them and force them to become more progressive sounds eerily similar to the resentment in at least some parts of the 2019 electorate towards the urban, college-educated cadres of the modern Labour Party who want to force everyone to be more aware of racial issues and feminist issues and transgender issues and LGBTQ+ issues and take the knee and defund the police and fight for justice for Palestine. Many people, then as now, just want to be left alone to get on with their lives and not be continually hectored and lectured, thank you very much.

5. The sorry state of English education

In the 1860s education in England lagged far behind standards on the continent, especially by comparison with Germany, especially in the area of technical education. Lots of committees wrote lots of reports. Lots of commentators agonised (including the wordy school inspector, Matthew Arnold) (pages 86 to 95). 160 years later, has much changed or does the UK still languish behind the best in Europe in its maths and literacy and technical education?

6. Ireland

Obviously Irish nationalism evolved throughout the 19th century, taking many forms, and characterised by different leading elements from Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association and Repeal Association of the 1840s to the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Brotherhood led by Michael Davitt.

It is a vast subject with a powerful mythology and huge literature of its own which I don’t have any space to go into. I’m just making the point that I’m reading about Gladstone’s attempts to solve the Irish Question in the 1870s and 1880s in July 2021 at the same time I am hearing on the radio about the issues caused by Brexit, the Northern Irish Protocol and its possible breaches of the Good Friday Agreement. In other words, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘Irish Question’ will be with us (and the Irish) forever.

Credit

The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 by Richard Shannon was published in 1974 by Hart-David, MacGibbon Books. All references are to the 1976 Paladin paperback edition.


Related links

Selected Poems by John Dryden edited by Donald Thomas (1993)

John Dryden was the most successful poet, playwright, critic, translator and man of letters of his time, that time being roughly the late-1660s through to his death in 1700.

Early life

Dryden was born into a Puritan family in Northamptonshire in 1631. He was sent to the prestigious Westminster private school in 1645, the year Charles I’s army was defeated at the Battle of Naseby. In 1649 Charles I was executed in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, just a few hundred yards from Dryden’s classroom. He went up to Cambridge in 1650 and four years later returned to London to work as clerk to his cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was Cromwell’s Lord Chamberlain. When Lord Protector Cromwell died in 1658, Dryden wrote a set of Heroic Stanzas about him, but when Charles II was restored to the throne eighteen months later, Dryden wrote a poem celebrating this event too – Astraea Redux.

To modern eyes this abrupt switching of allegiances might look like hypocrisy, but the editor of this selection of Dryden’s poetry makes two points:

  1. Dryden was merely following the mood of the entire nation which switched, with surprising speed and conviction, in favour of the restoration of Charles II.
  2. Stepping back from the politics, what these two early examples of his work show is Dryden’s natural predilection to be a poet of politics and political power.

Marriage and public poetry

In the mid-1660s Dryden made a fashionable marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard but he was not making money. He decided to make a conscious career decision to commit himself to ‘the poetry of public life and political argument’, to writing poems on public occasions and poems about political life. The first great example was Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders 1666, 1,200 lines of verse divided into 304 quatrains.

Three points.

1. The obvious one is that the poem deals with major public events – in the first half some of the sea battles which were part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667), in the second half the Great Fire of London. It isn’t love poetry or elegiacs or pastoral poetry.

2. Second, Dryden rewrote history to cast Charles as the hero of the age. The poem emphasises Charles’s wisdom and strategic prowess during the war, and his heroism during the fire, and how his prayer to God for help was answered. Dryden was a conservative: he believed in hierarchy and the monarch and law and order. All his poetry supports the existing order against the constant threat of factions and politicking which, he feared, would lead to anarchy and civil war. Annus Mirabilis earned Dryden his reward. In 1668 he was made Poet Laureate with an annual salary of £200 and a barrel of sack, and two years later was appointed Historiographer Royal (although he continued to be for many years, relatively hard up). Here’s Dryden sucking up to Charles:

This saw our King; and long within his breast
His pensive counsels ballanc’d too and fro;
He griev’d the Land he freed should be oppress’d,
And he less for it than Usurpers do.

His gen’rous mind the fair Ideas drew
Of Fame and Honor, which in dangers lay;
Where wealth, like Fruit on precipices, grew,
Not to be gather’d but by Birds of prey…

He, first, survey’d the Charge with careful eyes,
Which none but mighty Monarchs could maintain…

His pensive counsels, his grieving for his country (abused by the Dutch), his generous mind, ready to pluck fame and honour from their dangerous precipice, his ‘careful’ eyes (careful in the modern sense but also full of care and responsibility), trademark of a mighty monarch… and so on. Top brown-nosing, Dryden deserved his £200 a year.

3. Thirdly, Annus Mirabilis wasn’t an original work – it was a polemical riposte or reply to an earlier work by someone else. It was part of a literary dialogue. In 1661 a seditious pamphlet titled Mirabilis Annus: The Year of Prodigies had predicted God’s vengeance on a nation which tolerated a sinful king and a wicked government, and was followed by other pamphlets using the same title. Dryden’s poem is a deliberate and polemical response. It isn’t a Wordsworthian inspiration. It is arguing a case about the nature of Charles’s rule and society in the 1660s.

This is what becoming a ‘poet of political argument’ meant – that his works more often than not actively engaged in public debates and controversies, often as direct replies to previous publications by other writers with contrary views.

Drama

But public poetry wasn’t the only string to Dryden’s bow. In 1663 he published his first play, The Wild Gallant, and for the next 20 years produced a stream of comedies (Marriage-a-la-Mode) and heroic tragedies (All For Love, The Conquest of Granada). Some of these were original works but, rather as with the political poems, it’s notable how many weren’t. All For Love is based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and The State of Innocence is a dramatised version of Paradise Lost. These are pretty obvious large-scale copyings, but Dryden was also to be criticised throughout his career for plagiarising lines and entire passages from other poets.

This volume includes some of the many prologues and epilogues he wrote to his plays, as well as poems addressed to specific actors and fellow playwrights such as George Etherege and William Congreve.

Satire – Absalom and Achitophel

Writing plays under the Restoration required a thick skin since new works were savaged by scores of wits and self-appointed critics. The plays themselves often contained scabrous satire about the values of the times and sometimes lampooned specific individuals. To write and publish almost anything involved exposing yourself to extremes of ridicule and abuse.

So that by the time the Popish Plot (1678) had evolved into the Exclusion Crisis (in which leading Whig politicians three times tried to pass an Act of Parliament excluding Charles II’s Catholic brother, the future James II, from the succession) Dryden had developed a thick skin and a razor-sharp pen. And he used it, as the king’s Poet Laureate, to savage and ridicule the king’s Whig enemies. The result was his masterpiece, Absalom and Achitophel.

In the Bible (2 Samuel xiv-xviii) handsome young Absalom is encouraged by the sinister old politician Achitophel to rebel against his father, King David. In Dryden’s work scheming old Achitophel is a portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who emerged as leader of the radical Whigs and led the three attempts to exclude James II from the succession. Absalom stands for King Charles’s illegitimate son, James Duke of Monmouthshire, charming but gullible, who was egged on by the canny Shaftesbury to position himself as the rightful, Protestant heir to the throne. Various other key political figures appear under Biblical names and the and poem leads up to a grand speech by King David from the throne which echoes Charles’s final speech to his recalcitrant Parliament before he dissolved it for good in 1681.

Horace versus Juvenal

When it came to satire, Thomas makes the point that Dryden, like many others, drew a distinction between the satires of Horace – which were designed to laugh men out of their follies – and those of Juvenal, which expressed what he called his saeva indignatio, his fierce contempt for the vices of his time.

Horace is often amiable and funny; Juvenal is rarely funny, his satire is full of wit and attack. Absalom and Achitophel is a Juvenalian satire. It is grounded in the grim and bitter reality of the political struggles of the Exclusion Crisis and aims to give insightful, psychologically perceptive and devastating criticisms of its key characters. It is not intended to be funny. But Dryden was just as capable of a completely different style of satire, the laughable and ludicrous.

The mock heroic – Mac Flecknoe

As 17th century literary critics discovered and popularised classical ideas about poetry, so the notion spread that the highest achievement a poet could aspire to was to write a great Epic Poem, in the lineage of Homer and Virgil. Dryden was no exception:

A Heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest Work which the Soul of Man is capable to perform.

He nurtured ambitions to write some kind of national epic tracing the history of Britain and dedicated to his hero Charles II as Virgil had dedicated the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus. But it was not to be. His long-meditated epic was never written. Instead Dryden ended up helping to develop the anti-epic, written in the so-called mock heroic style. This consisted in applying all the trappings of the epic poem – lofty diction, elaborate similes, mythological trappings, men mighty as gods – to subjects which were low and pathetic, in order to create a comic disjuntion, to create burlesque and travesty.

Dryden’s early poem, Annus Mirabilis, had already used many of the exaggerated trappings of heroic poetry, notably the extended epic simile and the direct involvement of heavenly powers (or gods or angels).

Heavenly powers

To see this Fleet upon the Ocean move,
Angels drew wide the Curtains of the Skies:
And Heav’n, as if there wanted Lights above,
For Tapers made two glaring Comets rise.

Extended epic simile

So Lybian Huntsmen on some Sandy plain,
From shady coverts rouz’d, the Lion chace:
The Kingly beast roars out with loud disdain,
And slowly moves, unknowing to give place.

But if some one approach to dare his Force,
He swings his Tail, and swiftly turns him round:
With one Paw seizes on his trembling Horse,
And with the other tears him to the ground.

So far, so epic but, as Thomas explains, the mock epic, like the epic itself, needs to address one central theme – and Annus Mirabilis is more of a series of episodes or incidents strung together, impressively so, but it is a scattered work.

It’s this idea of uniting everything in one central theme which is what makes MacFlecknoe Dryden’s masterpiece of the mock-heroic. Basically, it is a hilarious 217-line demolition of one of Dryden’s rivals in the theatre, the poet Thomas Shadwell, renowned for being dull and unimaginative, who is transmuted via Dryden’s mock-heroic style into a monstrous burlesque figure.

The aim of the mock-heroic is to attribute to a trivial person or subject such ludicrously over-inflated actions and qualities as to make them ridiculous. Thus the poem describes the not-very-successful poet Thomas Shadwell in superhuman terms and attributes him a royal progress and coronation, garlanded with biblical and imperial comparisons. But his ‘throne’ is set up among the brothels of Barbican and instead of the royal orb he holds a Mighty Mug of Ale in his hand, and every other detail of the poem is carefully undermined and burlesqued.

The name Mac Flecknoe derives from the comic notion that Shadwell is the son (‘mac’ in Gaelic) of Richard Flecknoe, an even more obscure poet, who appears in the poem declaiming a grand abdication speech, before comically disappearing down through a trapdoor, leaving Shadwell the undisputed ruler of the land of Nonsense. It is all blown up to enormous proportions in order to be mocked and ridiculed.

Dryden was extremely proud of Mac Flecknoe because it was, at that point, the most complete and finished example of its kind in English. Relatively brief though it is, it was to form a template or inspiration for the mock epics of a later generation, most notably Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712) and then his enormous satire on the literary world, The Dunciad (1728).

Poetry of religion 1. Religio Laici

Dryden published two major poems about religion.

Religio Laici or a Layman’s Faith (1682) consists of 456 lines of rhymed couplets arguing against the fashionable Deism of the time and defending the Church of England against Roman Catholicism. It is characteristic of Dryden, as we’ve seen, that many of his works are responses to previous publications and Religio Laici is a good example. An English translation had recently appeared of a theological book by a Frenchman, Father Richard Simon, A Critical History of the Old Testament which laid out the many ways in which the text of the Old Testament is compromised and imperfect. In the Catholic Father’s view, Protestantism relied too heavily on the (highly imperfect) text of the Bible; it was wiser for Christians to base their faith on the unbroken traditions of the (Catholic) church as an institution.

Dryden’s poem directly addresses Father Simon’s ideas and points out that, if the Biblical text can err, so can tradition. Both need to be supplemented or informed by God’s revelation. In this, Dryden was defending the Anglican media via between the extreme reliance on the Bible of the Puritans and deference to a tradition cluttered with saints and absurd legends which characterised Catholicism.

Several things strike me about Religio Laici. For a start it is preceded by an enormous preface which is longer (4,317 words) then the poem itself (3,573 words). And this brings out just how disputatious a poet Dryden was. Even after he has cast his elaborate series of arguments into verse, he cannot stop, but has to repeat or anticipate them in a long prose preface.

Having just struggled through the poem twice, with the help of notes, I think I’ve understood most of its meaning. But when I studied English at university, it was a standard strategy to read any text on at least two levels – on one level for the overt sense or meaning; but at the same time, alert for key words, themes or ideas which recur, and work on the reader at a less logical level, by virtue of their repetition.

So the third or fourth time I read the word ‘safe’, I began to realise that although Religio Laici consists of a series of theological points, at a deeper level it works on a polarity between the twin extremes of safety and danger. To put it more clearly, Religio Laici doesn’t come from an era when a person could speculate about religion and God and the Bible in calm and comfort. On the contrary, Puritan views had, in living memory, contributed to a catastrophic civil war which had led to the execution of the king, the overthrow of traditional institutions and a military-religious dictatorship; and more recently, scare rumours about a Catholic plot to murder the king and seize control of the state had led to a mood of hysterical witch-hunting. Speculation about religious belief was fraught with danger.

Dryden’s use of the word ‘safe’ points to the fundamental message of the poem which is that all speculations on this subject should remain private, personal and moderate, in order to preserve the peace of the realm. He espouses moderation in belief and behaviour because his generation are acutely aware what lack of moderation leads to.

And after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is Mankind’s concern.

Poetry of religion 2. The Hind and The Panther

However, just five years later Dryden published The Hind and the Panther, A Poem in Three Parts (1687) a much longer and more complex poem. At 2,600 lines it is much the longest of Dryden’s original poems (i.e. excluding the long translations he made at the end of his life) and it comes as quite a surprise because he now rejects the theological position of the earlier poem and wholeheartedly embraces Roman Catholicism.

Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1687, a couple of years into the reign of the openly Roman Catholic king James II in 1685, much to the disgust and mockery of his many enemies. The Hind and the Panther is divided into three distinct parts and derives its title from part one, which presents an extended allegory or animal fable in which the different religious denominations in the England of the day appear as animals, namely Roman Catholic as ‘A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged’, the Church of England as a panther, the Independents as a bear, the Presbyterians as a wolf, the Quakers as a hare, the Socinians as a fox, the Freethinkers as an ape, and the Anabaptists as a boar.

Critics from Dryden’s day to our own praise the skilful use of verse, vocabulary and imagery, but lament the fact that the animal fable was a poor way to convey complex theological arguments and positions, which would have been much more effective if plainly stated. Dr Johnson commented that it was a good poem despite its subject matter.

Translator

Unfortunately for Dryden, his new patron, the Roman Catholic King James II, only lasted three years on the throne before being booted out by the so-called Glorious Revolution. He was replaced by William III who was not just a Protestant but a Calvinist, a humourless man ruthlessly focused on the essentials of international power politics, and completely indifferent to art, culture, plays or poems. All officials in William’s new court were required to take oaths of allegiance including clauses pledging allegiance to the Church of England. As a newly devout Catholic Dryden couldn’t do this and so he was sacked as Poet Laureate and, in one of the supreme ironies of literary history, replaced by the man he had expended such labour ridiculing in Mac Flecknoe, Thomas Shadwell.

Deprived of all public offices Dryden now had to live by his pen and – after the public poems of the 1660s and 70s, his many plays, the satires of the Exclusion Crisis and the poetry of religious debate, in his final decade Dryden turned to literary translation.

In 1693 he published translations of the satires of Juvenal and Persius which he prefaced with a Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire. In 1697 his translation of the works of Virgil, including a complete translation of the Aeneid was published by subscription and brought him the notable sum of £1,400. And in 1700 he published Fables Ancient and Modern which included translations into contemporary English of tales Chaucer, Ovid and Boccaccio.

Heroic couplets

In Thomas’s account, the 1610s and 20s produced poets who liked far-fetched comparisons and irregular verse forms, such as John Donne (d.1631) or George Herbert (d.1633). Later generations dubbed them the ‘metaphysical poets’ (the expression was first used by Dr Johnson in 1780 but in fact Dryden himself had already referred, in an essay, to Donne’s ‘metaphysicals’). The Caroline poets of Charles I’s court similarly wrote lyrics and other forms in sometimes complex metres and forms, although with markedly less convoluted similes and metaphors.

But the future lay with neither of these groups but with the much more open, smooth and regular form of the rhyming couplet. The medium of two rhyming iambic pentameters had long ago been used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Bifel that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
(Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lines 19 to 26)

and couplets were a familiar device in Elizabethan theatre to bring a speech in unrhymed verse up to a kind of boom-boom conclusion.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
(Claudius in Hamlet, Act 3, scene 3)

Many of Robert Herrick’s short poems from the 1630s are in rhyming couplets, and so on. But the use of nothing but rhyming couplets over extended distances was revived in the mid-17th century by poets like Edmund Waller (1606-87) and Sir John Denham (1615-69). Denham is remembered for his bucolic poem, Cooper’s Hill with its lulling melliflousness. These are its best-known lines, two out of a long series of smooth rhyming couplets:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’er-flowing, full.

Relaxing, isn’t it? Dryden’s achievement was to take the rhyming couplet, use it for extended poems, and hugely expand its potential, turning it into a versatile medium for panegyric, satire, political argument, theological debate or straightforward narrative. In the right hands these couplets have all sorts of potential. Individual lines can be used to make sharp distinctions or antitheses:

They got a Villain, and we lost a Fool.

Or in this description of the Duke of Buckingham, who would do anything for amusement.

Beggar’d by fools, whom still he found too late:
He had his jest, and they had his estate.

The couplet lends itself to express maxims or pearls of wisdom, the end-rhyme of the second line giving it a kind of proverbial or didactic power:

What cannot praise effect in mighty minds,
When flattery soothes, and when ambition blinds!

But the obvious risk with the rhyming couplet is that each set of paired lines becomes a unit in itself, the temptation being to provide a boom-boom payoff at the end of the every second line, so that each couplet ends up standing alone, and reading them becomes like having hiccups – every ten seconds another clever rhyme, so that an extended poem comes to feel like a sequence of same-shaped bricks, and that this becomes wearing and tedious over the long haul.

But Thomas demonstrates how Dryden expanded the form’s potential by breaking through this barrier, to create units of meaning across multiple lines, letting the logic of his thought overflow the potential boundaries of the couplet to create what are, in effect, fluid verse paragraphs. These are particularly suitable to argufying and putting a point of view:

What shall we think! Can people give away
Both for themselves and sons, their native sway?
Then they are left defenceless to the sword
Of each unbounded arbitrary lord:
And laws are vain, by which we right enjoy,
If kings unquestion’d can those laws destroy.

They’re still rhyming couplets but the thought, the argument flows through them, so that it no longer feels like a series of stops and starts. Moreover, the way the logic of the argument flows over the cat’s eyes or bumps of each couplet’s end-rhyme creates a complex mental pleasure – the reader processes the cleverness of the rhyme but doesn’t stop at it because the flow of the argument carries you forward. There’s a kind of counterpointing, or two rhythms going on at the same time, which is not unlike musical counterpoint.


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A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996) 7 – the reign of James II

Because King Charles II died in February 1685 without a son and heir – without, in fact, any legitimate children from his marriage to Catherine of Braganza – the throne passed automatically to his brother, James Duke of York, who ascended the throne as King James II.

Catholic James was a professed Roman Catholic and a zealous reformer. He wished to lift the multiple legal restrictions which had been placed on his fellow Catholics and, as a balancing gesture, to lift legal constraints on the Puritans and non-conforming Protestant sects. However, within three short years he managed to alienate almost every party and profession in the country, and especially the powerful Whig politicians.

The seven bishops The crisis came to a head over two big issues. First James made the error of trying seven Anglican bishops for seditious libel. To be precise, in April 1688, encouraged by the Quaker leader William Penn with whom he had struck up an unlikely friendship, James re-issued the Declaration of Indulgence first promulgated by his brother, and ordered Anglican clergy to read it in their churches.

When seven Bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, submitted a petition asking the king to reconsider this request, they were arrested and tried for seditious libel, the trial taking place in June 1688. This looked like a full-frontal attack on the Church of England which was, by now, central to almost everybody’s concept of the English political system.

A Catholic son Secondly, his Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, who he had married in 1673, bore him a Catholic son and heir, James Francis Edward, on 10 June 1688. Now, when James’s only possible successors had been his own two Protestant daughters – Mary and Anne – from his first marriage to Anne Hyde (who had died in in 1671) most Anglicans could put up with James’s pro-Catholic policies in the belief that they were a temporary aberration from what was essentially a Protestant succession. But the young prince’s birth at a stroke made it seem likely that Britain would become a Catholic dynasty and that the unpopular religious policies James was ramming through would become permanent. All kinds of former loyalists began to think again.

The supposititious child And so did the people. Rumours quickly spread about the baby, irrational sometimes hysterical rumours, the most lurid of which was that the baby proclaimed as the Prince of Wales hadn’t been born to Mary of Modena. The rumour went that the royal couple’s actual baby had been stillborn and so a new baby was smuggled into the Palace in a warming pan, purely to satisfy Jame’s dynastic ambitions. It doesn’t make sense, but it can be seen as a fairly simple piece of wish fulfilment: people just didn’t want it to be true that James had sired a Catholic heir.

Prince William Channels of communication between English Parliamentarians and nobles who opposed James and the solidly Protestant William, Prince of Orange (a state of the Netherlands) had been open since the 1670s. William was in fact the grandson of Charles I, being the son of Charles’s daughter, Mary and so, before the birth of the baby, had been third in line to the throne. And he had himself married his cousin, James II’s daughter by from his first marriage, another Mary who – until the baby was born – had herself been first in line to the throne. In other words William had close blood ties twice over to the English ruling family. James II was his father-in-law.

For these reasons Protestant William’s position as a possible successor to Charles II, instead of Catholic James, had been widely canvased among Whig politicians during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81. In the event the crown passed peacefully in 1685 to James but, as he alienated more and more sectors of British society, William’s name began to reappear in political conversations – not as a direct replacement, but maybe as some kind of regent or protector, nobody was quite sure what.

William the defender What Kishlansky’s account brings out that William was totally aware of all these developments in England and their implications for him. And not just for himself, but for his country. Since he turned of age William had played a key role in the Netherlands’ ongoing resistance to King Louis XIV of France’s ambitions to seize its territory. From the Exclusion Crisis onwards he was alert to the possibility that England, with its great wealth, its army and its powerful navy, might, in some form, come under his control. But how? What form would it take?

Thus William had well-placed spies and ambassadors in London who not only kept him informed of events but acted as propagandists for his cause, promoting him as a defender of Protestantism and traditional English liberties against the Francophile, Catholic James.

The Immortal Seven All these tendencies crystallised in the sending of a letter to William, on 30 June 1688, jointly signed by a group of seven Protestant nobles and clerics which invited the Prince of Orange to come to England with an army. In fact William and the dissidents had been discussing what constitutional or legal forms could be used to justify his invasion since April the previous year. The letter of invitation wasn’t a spontaneous gesture but a carefully calculated contrivance agreed by both sides.

The letter The letter asked William, who was a nephew and son-in-law of James II, to use military intervention to force the king to make his eldest daughter, Mary, William’s Protestant wife, his heir. The letter alleged that the newborn prince was an impostor. The letter told William that if he landed in England with a small army, the signatories and their allies would rise up and support him. The Invitation reprised the grievances against King James and repeated the widely held claim that the king’s son was ‘supposititious’ (the technical term for fraudulently substituted). The letter then went on to give advice about the logistics of the proposed landing of troops.

The courier It was symbolic of the widespread disaffection throughout the English military and navy that the message was carried to William in The Hague not by a spy or diplomat but by Rear-Admiral Arthur Herbert (the later Lord Torrington) disguised as a common sailor, and identified by a secret code. It was also importantly symbolic that the seven signatories (who became known as ‘the Immortal Seven’) were not all dyed-in-the-wool opponents: five were Whigs, but two were Tories, traditionally the party of the Court.

Louis offers help By September it had become clear that William planned to accept the invitation and to ‘invade’ England. Louis XIV could see this, too, and he offered James French support, but James a) thought his own army would suffice b) didn’t want to become even more unpopular by inviting French Catholic troops onto English soil. He also c) couldn’t believe that his own daughter, Mary, would conspire against him.

Defections What he hadn’t anticipated was that when William did finally arrive with his Dutch army, landing at Brixham in Devon on 5 November 1688, many Protestant officers would defect from his army and join William, as did James’s younger, unmarried daughter, Anne.

James runs away James had joined his army in Salisbury preparatory to marching south-west to engage William who had made his base at Exeter but, as key commanders and their troops defected, he lost his nerve and took horse back to London. On 11 December James tried to flee to France, first throwing the Great Seal of the Realm into the River Thames. He was captured by local fishermen in Kent hunting for just such fleeing Catholic priests and officials, but released and placed under Dutch protective guard. But William didn’t want to try or officially dethrone James, that would cause all kinds of complications and remind everyone of the execution of Charles I – it was much more convenient to occupy a throne which had been vacated – in other words to create the convenient fiction that James had abdicated of his own free will.

And so William let James escape on 23 December and take ship to France, where he was received by his cousin and ally, Louis XIV, who offered him a palace and a pension.

James’s Catholic crusade

What Kishlansky’s relatively brief chapter on James’s reign brings out, that I’d forgotten, is the astonishing speed and thoroughness with which James tried to recatholicise England.

The Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion In 1685, soon after Charles’s death, James’s opponents in exile conceived a large-scale invasion of Britain, with a landing in Scotland to raise Protestants who had suffered under the Stuarts, and one in the West Country. The Scottish rising under the Earl of Argyll failed to materialise but Charles II’s oldest and most charismatic son, James Duke of Monmouth, landed in the West Country and raised a large army which gathered support as it marched towards Bristol. James dispatched an army to the West of England which massacred the rebel army at the Battle of Sedgmoor on 6 July 1685. But what Kishlansky emphasises is that James ensured that as many officers as possible in the winning army were Catholics.

It’s a stock A-level history question to ask why the English establishment and army gave James their full support when he crushed the Monmouth rebellion in the summer of 1685 and yet just three years later, abandoned him in droves and let him be overthrown?

Recatholicising policies The answer is simple. In the summer of 1685 the nation as a whole didn’t yet know what to expect from James, but three short years later, they had learned the scale and thoroughness of his Catholicising ambitions. Just some among James’s many recatholicising policies include that he:

  • allowed the creation of Catholic seminaries in London, sent a message to the pope and supported newly-established Catholic presses in London and Oxford
  • set priests to convert his leading ministers and daughter Anne and sent one to convert Mary in the Netherlands
  • replaced half the royal judges with Catholics
  • appointed four Catholics to the Privy Council and composed an inner council including his Jesuit confessor
  • this council set about trying to retire JPs across the land and replace them with Catholics
  • Catholic officers were drafted into the militia and into the standing army
  • the two universities had Catholic officials imposed on them and when the fellows of Magdelen College Oxford refused to accept a Catholic warden, he had them all sacked and replaced with Catholics
  • he sent the Catholic Tyrconnell to be lieutenant-general of the Irish army and he immediately set about purging the army of Protestants; hundreds of Protestant gentry fled
  • insisted the bishops restrain anti-Catholic preaching by vicars under their charge, and set up a commission to charge Anglican officials who didn’t carry this out

All this by the end of 1686. In 1687:

  • London was stripped of Anglican aldermen, militia captains and members of livery companies
  • all Lords Lieutenant were issued three questions to ask potential JPs which required the latter to support repeal of the Test Acts

The Dissenters do not rally Throughout his aggressive recatholicisation, James had hoped that the many Dissenters and Non-conformists who had been persecuted under Charles’s long reign would welcome change and religious toleration. But they didn’t. The Dissenters James was counting on to help him remained largely silent. He underestimated the strength of their enmity to Catholicism, with its devotion to a foreign pope and its overtones of political absolutism.

The Anglicans weary James also took it for granted that his Anglican subjects would passively obey him, and so they did, to begin with… but ultimately he miscalculated the extent of their tolerance, building up reservoirs of opposition at every level of the political system.

James tries to engineer a supportive Parliament Then, in November 1687, the public learned that Mary of Modena was pregnant. James redoubled efforts to set up a compliant parliament by sending commissioners to check the loyalist character of its electors around the country. More Tories were put out of their seats and replaced with Catholics or dissenters. He used whatever expedients he and his ministers could devise to ensure the selection of a parliament compliant to the recatholicising project.

The Declaration of Indulgence So it was against this background that James reissued the Declaration of Indulgence and ordered it to be read in every Anglican pulpit, that the seven bishops petitioned for this order to reconsidered and James, a man in a tearing hurry, had them tried for seditious libel, an extraordinary proceeding. They were acquitted by a London jury.

Considered in this much detail, it’s hard to see James’s policy as anything other than a thorough and concerted attack on the Church of England and Anglican belief at every single level of society.

William of Orange’s plans

William the defender Meanwhile, Kishlansky goes into just as much detail about William of Orange’s position and aims. William, born in 1650, was a Protestant prodigy whose sole aim in life was to protect the Netherlands from the France of Louis XIV. Ever since he had married James II’s daughter, Mary, in 1677, England had played a part in his diplomatic calculations, and Dutch ambassadors and propagandists had been at work for some time presenting himself as a friend, and possibly saviour, of Protestant England.

William’s awareness He had watched the political crises at the end of Charles II’s reign, the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis, with a canny eye, looking for his best advantage. Thus, as he saw James’s government set about alienating everyone in England and important factions in Ireland and Scotland, William was constantly aware of its impact on him and his wife, and on her and his succession to the throne.

The geopolitical threat The birth of the Prince of Wales not only pushed him and his wife further down the order of succession, it helped to crystallise the real geopolitical threat the Low Countries faced. Louis XIV was again making belligerent noises and informed sources expected him to make a renewed attack on the Netherlands in 1689. Like his brother before him, James was a confirmed Francophile and was actually on the payroll of Louis XIV, who was subsidising his government.

Thus the situation for William was one of cold political realities: he needed to neutralise England by any means necessary in order to avoid an attack not just by France, but France in alliance with England.

William had been in touch for some time with opponents of James’s regime in England who had developed a network of dissidents and gauged the extent of opposition, not just in political circles but, crucially, in the army and navy – and the birth of the Prince of Wales triggered action on both sides.

William suggests the letter It was William who actively asked the seven leading British political figures to write him a letter and suggesting the subject, making it an invitation to him to come and investigate a) the circumstances of the birth of James’s son and heir and b) to protect English liberties.

Even so it took four long months for William to mount an amphibious landing on England’s shores, and this period was long enough for James to discover what was being planned.

James suddenly reverses direction In Kishlansky’s account it is almost comic the way that James, suddenly realising how many people he had alienated, set out on a charm offensive to rebuild his reputation. He suddenly announced that no Catholics would be allowed to sit in the upcoming parliament. He restored the bishop he had suspended and abolished the hated Commission for Ecclesiastical Causes. He restored all the Anglican fellows he’s sacked from Magdelen College. He abrogated all the charters on cities and boroughs since 1679, which had the effect of reinstating Tory Anglican mayors, aldermen and councillors. In the counties Tory lords lieutenant and JPs were reinstated.

William of Orange’s declaration It was too late. In October William published a declaration in which he announced he planned to come to England in order to preserve and maintain the established laws, liberties and customs’ of the nation. Another plank of William’s strategy was to be claiming to defend the hereditary rights of his wife, Mary, as one in line to the throne, by investigating the alleged ‘supposititious’ birth of the Prince of Wales. In other words, his declaration carefully laid out a suite of arguments designed to appeal to Tories and traditionalists.

William’s invasion fleet William assembled a huge invasion fleet, 500 ships carrying 20,000 of his best soldiers and 5,000 horses. He warned supporters to expect him on the North or West but let himself be guided by the wind which carried him down the Channel (and kept the English fleet in harbour) making landfall at Brixham in Devon on 5 November, an auspicious day for Protestants. It took two weeks to disembark his army which he marched to Exeter.

James’s army On 17 November James left London for Salisbury where his own army was encamped. On paper he commanded 25,000 men and could expect local militias to supply at least as many again. On paper, it looked like things were heading towards an epic battle to decide the future of England. But there was no battle.

James panics As soon as he arrived at Salisbury, James’s nerve broke. He suffered from insomnia and nosebleeds. He decided his army wasn’t large enough. Two of his most senior commanders defected. On 23 November he returned to London to discover his other daughter, Anne, had deserted him and gone to the Midlands, where insurgents for William had already taken major towns. His advisers told him to call a parliament and send envoys for peace and to ‘pardon’ William.

Negotiations On the short wet December days the envoys struggled to make William an offer. William’s Whig advisers weren’t, in fact, that keen for a parliament to be called since they needed to time to assure their support around the country. While these negotiations were stuttering forward, all sides were astonished by the news that James had fled London. His last acts were to officially disband his army, destroy the writs required to summon a Parliament, then he threw the Great Seal into the Thames i.e. James did everything he could to sabotage the machinery of government.

Anti-Catholic riots When Londoners learned James had fled there was an outbreak of anti-Catholic violence with rioters attacking and burning Catholic chapels. And it was now that James, in disguise, was captured by local fishermen in Kent hunting for just such fleeing Catholic priests and officials. After he was recognised, James returned to London where at least some of the crowd cheered his arrival.

William orders James to leave William had begun his march on London and he and his supporters were stymied by this sudden reversal in the situation. After pondering all the alternatives, William sent an order to James to vacate the capital within ten hours, and an escort of Dutch guards to assist him to do so and to accompany him to Rochester.

Second time lucky The great mystery in all of this is why James didn’t stand his ground and rally whatever patriots he could find against what was clearly a foreign invasion. But he didn’t. He meekly went along with the Dutch guard who were given instructions to let him slip away at the first opportunity and now, for the second time, James made an escape to the Kent coast, and this time successfully took ship to France.

What do we do now? At this point the situation became humorous with the kind of comedy we find in the history of human affairs again and again, because – Nobody knew what to do. The Tories would certainly not have welcomed William’s invasion if they had thought of it as such, as a conquest by a foreign prince. The Whigs were William’s natural supporters but were themselves divided, some saying William should place Mary on the throne, convene a Parliament to ratify her succession, and then retire to become merely a king-consort. The more full-blooded Whigs wanted William as king. The leading figure of the day, Lord Halifax, pithily summed up the confusion:

As nobody knew what to do with him, so nobody knew what to do without him. (quoted on page 283)

The Convention Parliament When he arrived in London, William summoned the Lords Temporal and Lords Spiritual to assemble, and they were joined by the privy councillors on 12 December 1688. On 26 December they were joined by the surviving MPs from Charles’s last Parliament, the one he held in Oxford (none from James’s tainted Catholic Parliaments). This assembly in turn summoned the Convention Parliament, consisting of Lords and Commoners, which recommended setting up of a ‘Convention’ to decide a way forward, which was formally opened on 22 January 1689.

The key fact was that nobody wanted civil war or the outbreak of rebellion in either Scotland or Ireland. The solution had to be fast. And so it was that the knottiest problem in English history was solved by the Convention Parliament in just two weeks!

Lords and Tories In the House of Lords some, especially the bishops, wanted a simple restoration of James, the rightful king. Other Tories suggested that William and Mary might rule as ‘regents’ until the death of James II, and then Mary would reign as rightful queen thereafter. William, Mary and Anne all let it be known that they opposed this option, the two women deferring to the male monarch.

Whigs In the House of Commons, Whigs put forward a formula that James had abrogated the contract between a sovereign and his people by abdicating. But 1. the notion that monarchy rested on some kind of voluntary contract between sovereign and people was unprecedented and revolutionary in implication, and 2. it was far from clear that James had, in fact, abdicated. He had been ordered to leave.

Plus 3. the whole point of a hereditary monarchy is that the throne is never vacant: the moment one monarch dies, his or her heir succeeds. Even if James had abdicated, then his son the Prince of Wales automatically became the rightful heir – but nobody at all wanted rule by a baby (referred to by many of the debaters as ‘the brat’, according to Kishlansky). And 4. the notion that abdication created a sort of vacuum which had to be sorted out by the people implied another revolutionary idea – that the people in some sense elected their monarch. An elective monarchy.

Reluctant acceptance Nobody wanted to explicitly say this, as it made a mockery of the fixed hierarchical principles on which the whole of English society rested. But nonetheless, this notion of an agreement by the people to choose a sovereign was the formula which was eventually accepted for the simple reason that the alternative – that the king had been overthrown by an armed invasion – was worse. That idea would legitimise the violent overthrow of the rightful monarch and take everyone back to the constitutional chaos of the 1640s.

Arguments The differing arguments were played out in disagreement between the Commons, which accepted the new reality, and the Lords who held out for significant rewording the Act agreed by the Commons. The deadlock dragged on for days until William, always a busy man, threatened to go back to Holland and leave the English with a broken country.

The Lords capitulated and both Houses passed an Act declaring William and Mary joint King and Queen of Britain.

The Declaration of Rights While the politicians had been arguing, the nation’s top lawyers had been drafting a Declaration of Rights. Like the Act, the Declaration had to be very careful in its language, ambiguous at a number of key moments in order not to alienate the different groupings of Whigs and Tories.

A compromise Like many other constitutional documents (the Magna Carta or the American ConstitutionThe Declaration of Rights was less a bold statement of timeless principles than a fix-up designed to be acceptable to the largest number of the political nation. As it progressed through drafts, it evolved into a ringing restatement of old and existing laws and liberties, sweeping away James’s innovations, but not proposing anything new.

Even then, the situation called for equivocation. If William had been forced to agree to the Declaration, he would have become in effect an elected monarch and the monarchy and elective monarchy – something which was anathema to most of the bishops and lords and Tories throughout the land.

A tricky coronation William’s coronation had to be accompanied by the Declaration but not dependent on it. Hence the peculiar fact that at William’s more-elaborate-than-usual coronation on 11 April 1689, the Declaration was read out before William was crowned, and he referred to it in the speech after his coronation as embodying the principles for which he had entered the country – but it was carefully made clear that his crowning was in no way dependent on accepting the Declaration. And no-one mentioned abdication or contracts or elective monarchies or anything like that. Shhh.

Muddling through Once again the English had managed their way through a massive constitutional crisis on the basis not of logical principles, but of fudging and mudging, of masking ambiguity and unclarity in robes and orbs and high ceremonial. Was it a triumph of enlightened constitutional principles, or of English pragmatism, or of barely concealed hypocrisy?

However you interpret it, what came to be called ‘the Glorious Revolution’ certainly solved one immediate and pressing problem, but laid up a whole series of longer-term challenges for the future.


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A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996)

Mark Kishlansky (1948 – 2015) was an American historian of seventeenth-century British politics. He was the Frank Baird, Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University, editor of the Journal of British Studies from 1984 to 1991, and editor-in-chief of History Compass from 2003 to 2009.

Kishlansky wrote half a dozen or so books and lots of articles about Stuart Britain and so was invited to write Volume Six of the Penguin History of England covering that period, under the general editorship of historian David Cannadine.

I think of the history of Britain in the 17th century as consisting of four parts:

  1. The first two Stuarts (Kings James I & Charles I) 1603 – 1642
  2. The Civil Wars and Protectorate (Oliver Cromwell) 1642 – 1660
  3. The Restoration (Kings Charles II & James II) 1660 – 1688
  4. The Glorious Revolution and Whig monarchs (William & Mary, then Queen Anne) 1688 – 1714

Although obviously you can go by monarch:

  1. James I (1603-25)
  2. Charles I (1625-42)
  3. Wars of the three kingdoms (1637-53)
  4. Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1653-1660)
  5. Charles II (1660-1685)
  6. James II and the Glorious Revolution (1685-88)
  7. William & Mary (1688-1702)

I appreciate that this is an English perspective, and Kishlansky is the first to acknowledge his history tends to focus on England, by far the largest and most powerful of the three kingdoms of Britain. The histories of Scotland and Ireland over the same period shadowed the English timeline but – obviously – had significant events, personnel and continuities of their own. From the start Kishlansky acknowledges he doesn’t have space to give these separate histories the space they deserve.

Why is the history of seventeenth century Britain so attractive and exciting?

The seventeenth century has a good claim to being the most important, the most interesting and maybe the most exciting century in English history because of the sweeping changes that affected every level of society. In 1600 England was still a late-medieval society; in 1700 it was an early modern society and in many ways the most advanced country on earth.

Social changes

  • business the modern business world was created, with the founding of the Bank of England and Lloyds insurance, cheques, banknotes and milled coins were invented; the Stock Exchange was founded and the National Debt, a financial device which allowed the British government to raise large sums for wars and colonial settlement; excise and land taxes provided reliable sources of revenue for the government
  • empire the British Empire was defined with the growth of colonies in North America and India
  • feudal forms of government withered and medieval practices such as torture and the demonisation of witchcraft and heresy died out
  • media newspapers were invented and went from weekly to daily editions
  • new consumer products domestic consumption was transformed by the arrival of new products including tobacco, sugar, rum, gin, port, champagne, tea, coffee and Cheddar cheese
  • the scientific revolution biology, chemistry and physics trace their origins to discoveries made in the 1600s – Francis Bacon laid the intellectual foundations for the scientific method; William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood; Robert Boyle posited the existence of chemical elements, invented perfected the air pump and created the first vacuum; Isaac Newton discovered his laws of thermodynamics, the composition of light, the laws of gravity; William Napier invented logarithms; William Oughtred invented the multiplication sign in maths; Edmund Halley identified the comet which bears his name, Robert Hooke invented the microscope, the quadrant, and the marine barometer; the Royal College of Physicians published the first pharmacopeia listing the properties of drugs; Peter Chamberlen invented the forceps; the Royal Society (for the sciences) was founded in 1660
  • sport the first cricket and gold clubs were founded; Izaak Walton codified knowledge about fishing in The Compleat Angler; Charles II inaugurated yacht racing at Cowes and Queen Anne founded Royal Ascot
  • architecture Inigo Jones, Sir Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh created wonderful stately homes and public buildings e.g. Jones laid out the Covent Garden piazza which remains an attraction in London to this day and Wren designed the new St Paul’s cathedral which became a symbol of London
  • philosophy the political upheavals produced two masterworks of political philosophy, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which are still studied and applied in a way most previous philosophy isn’t
  • non conformists despite repeated attempts to ban them, Puritan sects who refused to ‘conform’ to the Restoration settlement of the Church of England were grudgingly accepted and went on to become a permanent and fertile element of British society – the Quakers, Baptists and Presbyterians

Political upheaval

At the centre of the century sits the great 20-year upheaval, the civil wars or British wars or Great Rebellion or the Wars of Three Kingdoms, fought between the armies of parliament and the armies of King Charles I, with significant interventions by armies of Scotland and Ireland, which eventually led to the execution of the king, the abolition of the House of Lords and the disestablishment of the Church of England – achievements which still form a core of the radical agenda to this day. These revolutionary changes were- followed by a series of constitutional experiments under the aegis of the military dictator Oliver Cromwell, which radicalised and politicised an entire generation.

Soon after Cromwell’s death in 1658, his regime began to collapse and elements of it arranged for the Restoration of King Charles II, who returned but under a new, more constitutional monarchy, restrained by laws and conventions guaranteeing the liberties of British subjects and well aware of the mistakes which led to the overthrow of his father.

But none of this stopped his overtly Roman Catholic brother, who succeeded him as James II in 1685, making a string of mistakes which collectively alienated the Protestant grandees of the land who conspired to overthrow him and replace him with the reliably Protestant Prince William of Orange. James was forced to flee, William was invited to become King of England and to rule according to a new, clearly defined constitution or Bill of Rights, which guaranteed all kinds of liberties including of speech and assembly.

All of these upheavals meant that by 1700 England had the most advanced, liberal and open society in Europe, maybe in the world, had experimented with a wide variety of political reforms and constitutions, and developed one which seemed most practical and workable – which was to become the envy of liberals in neighbouring France, and the basis of the more thoroughly worked-out Constitution devised by the founders of the American republic in the 1780s.

Studying the 17th century combines the intellectual excitement of watching these constitutional and political developments unfold, alongside the more visceral excitement of following the dramatic twists and turns in the long civil wars – and then following the slow-burning problems which led to the second great upheaval, the overthrow of James II. There is tremendous pleasure to be had from getting to know the lead characters in both stories and understanding their motives and psychologies.

Key features of 17th century England

The first two chapters of Mark Kishlansky’s book set out the social and political situation in Britain in 1600. These include:

Britain was a comprehensively patriarchal society. The king ruled the country and his word meant life or death. Le Roy le veult – the King wishes it – was the medieval French phrase still used to ratify statutes into law. The monarch made all political, legal, administrative and religious appointments – lords, ministers, bishops, judges and magistrates owed their position to him. In every locality, knights of the shires, justices of the peace administered the king’s laws. The peerage was very finely gradated and jealously policed. Status was everything.

And this hierarchy was echoed in families which were run by the male head of the household who had complete power over his wife and children, a patriarchal household structure endorsed by the examples in the Bible. Women might have as many as 9 pregnancies, of which 6 went to term and three died in infancy, with a further three children dying in infancy.

The family was primarily a unit of production, with all family members down to small children having specified tasks in the often backbreaking toil involved in agricultural work, caring for livestock, foraging for edibles in woods and fields, producing clothes and shoes. Hard physical labour was the unavoidable lot of almost the entire population.

Marriages were a vital way of passing on land and thus wealth, as well as family names and lineages. Most marriages were arranged to achieve these ends. The top responsibility of both spouses were the rights and responsibilities of marriage i.e. a wife obeyed her husband and a husband cherished and supported his wife. It was thought that ‘love’ would grow as a result of carrying out these duties, but wasn’t a necessary component.

Geography 80% of the population in 1600 worked on the land. Britain can be divided into two geographical zones:

1. The North and West The uplands of the north-west, including Scotland and Wales, whose thin soils encouraged livestock supplemented by a thin diet of oats and barley. Settlements here were scattered and people arranged themselves by kin, in Scotland by clans. Lords owned vast estates and preserved an old-fashioned medieval idea of hospitality and patronage.

Poor harvests had a catastrophic impact. A run of bad harvests in the 1690s led to mass emigration from Scotland to America, and also to the closer ‘plantations’ in Ulster.

It was at this point that Scottish Presbyterians became the majority community in the province. Whereas in the 1660s, they made up some 20% of Ulster’s population… by 1720 they were an absolute majority in Ulster, with up to 50,000 having arrived during the period 1690-1710. (Wikipedia)

2. The south and east of Britain was more densely populated, with villages and towns instead of scattered homesteads. Agriculture was more diverse and productive. Where you have more people – in towns and cities – ties of kinship become weaker and people assess each other less by ‘family’ than by achievements, social standing and wealth.

The North prided itself on its older, more traditional values. The South prided itself on being more productive and competitive.

Population The population of England rose from 4 million in 1600 to 5 million in 1700. There were maybe 600 ‘towns’ with populations of around 1,000. Big provincial capitals like Norwich, Exeter or Bristol (with pops from 10,000 to 30,000) were exceptions.

London was unlike anywhere else in Britain, with a population of 200,000 in 1600 growing to around 600,000 by 1700. It was home to the Court, government with its Houses of Lords and Commons, all the main law courts, and the financial and mercantile hub of the nation (Royal Exchange, Royal Mint, later the Bank of England and Stock Exchange). The centre of publishing and the new science, literature, the arts and theatre. By 1700 London was the largest city in the Western world. Edinburgh, the second largest city in Britain, had a paltry 40,000 population.

Inflation Rising population led to a squeeze on food since agricultural production couldn’t keep pace. This resulted in continuous inflation with foodstuffs becoming more expensive throughout the century, which reduced living standards in the countryside and contributed to periods of near famine. On the other hand, the gentry who managed to hang onto or increase their landholdings saw an unprecedented rise in their income. The rise of this class led to the development of local and regional markets and to the marketisation of agriculture. Those who did well spent lavishly, building manors and grand houses, cutting a fine figure in their coaches, sending the sons to university or the army, educating their daughters in order to attract wealthy husbands.

Vagrancy The change in working patterns on the land, plus the rising population, led to a big increase in vagrancy, which the authorities tackled with varying degrees of savagery, including branding on the face with a V for Vagrant. Contemporary theorists blamed overpopulation for poverty, vagrancy and rising crime. One solution was to encourage the excess population to settle plantations in sparsely populated Ireland or emigrate to New England. There were moral panics about rising alcoholism, and sex outside marriage.

Puritans Leading the charge to control immoral behaviour were the Puritans, a negative word applied to a range of people who believed that the Church of England needed to be further reformed in order to reach the state of purity achieved by Calvinists on the continent. Their aims included:

  • abolition of the 26 bishops (who were appointed by the king) and their replacement by Elders elected by congregations
  • reforms of theology and practice – getting rid of images, candles, carvings etc inside churches, getting rid of elaborate ceremonies, bells and incense and other ‘Roman’ superstitions
  • reducing the number of sacraments to the only two practiced by Jesus in the New Testament
  • adult baptism replacing infant baptism

Banning Closely connected was the impulse to crack down on all ungodly behaviour e.g. alcohol (close pubs), immorality (close theatres), licentiousness (ban most books except the Bible), lewd behaviour (force women to wear modest outfits, keep their eyes on the ground), ban festivals, ban Christmas, and so on.

Trans-shipping The key driver of Britain’s economic wealth was shipping and more precisely trans-shipping – where goods were brought in from one source before being transhipped on elsewhere. The size of Britain’s merchant fleet more than tripled and the sized of the cargo ships increased tenfold. London’s wealth was based on the trans-shipping trade.

The end of consensus politics

The second of Kishlansky’s introductory chapters describes in detail the political and administrative system in early 17th century Britain. It is fascinating about a) the complexity of the system b) its highly personal orientation about the person the monarch. It’s far too complicated to summarise here but a few key themes emerge:

Consensus Decisions at every level were reached by consensus. To give an example, when a new Parliament was called by the king, the justices of the peace in a county met at a session where, usually, two candidates put themselves forward and the assembled JPs discussed and chose one. Only very rarely were they forced back on the expedient of consulting local householders i.e. actually having a vote on the matter.

Kishlansky explains how this principle of consensus applied in lots of other areas of administration and politics, for example in discussions in Parliament about acts proposed by the king and which needed to be agreed by both Commons and Lords.

He then goes on to launch what is – for me at any rate – a new and massive idea: that the entire 17th century can be seen as the slow and very painful progression from a political model of consensus to an adversarial model.

The entire sequence of civil war, dictatorship, restoration and overthrow can be interpreted as a series of attempts to reach a consensus by excluding your opponents. King Charles prorogued Parliament to get his way, then tried to arrest its leading members. Cromwell, notoriously, was forced to continually remodel and eventually handpick a Parliament which would agree to do his bidding. After the Restoration Charles II tried to exclude both Catholics and non-conforming Protestants from the body politic, imposing an oath of allegiance in order to preserve the model of consensus sought by his grandfather and father.

the point is that all these attempts to purify the body politic in order to achieve consensus failed.

The advent of William of Orange and the Bill of Rights in 1689 can be seen as not so much defining liberties and freedoms but as finally accepting the new reality, that political consensus was no longer possible and only a well-managed adversarial system could work in a modern mixed society.

Religion What made consensus increasingly impossible? Religion. The reformation of Roman Catholicism which began in 1517, and continued throughout the 16th century meant that, by the 1620s, British society was no longer one culturally and religiously unified community, but included irreducible minorities of Catholics and new-style Calvinist Puritans. Both sides in what became the civil wars tried to preserve the old-fashioned consensus by excluding what they saw as disruptive elements who prevented consensus agreements being reached i.e. the Royalists tried to exclude the Parliamentarians, the Parliamentarians tried to exclude the Royalists, both of them tried to exclude Catholics, the Puritans once in power tried to exclude the Anglicans and so on.

But the consensus model was based on the notion that, deep down, all participants shared the same religious, cultural and social values. Once they had ceased to do that the model was doomed.

Seen from this point of view the entire history of the 17th century was the slow, bloody, and very reluctant acceptance that the old model was dead and that an entirely new model was required in which political elites simply had to accept the long-term existence of sincere and loyal but completely different opinions from their own.

Political parties It is no accident that it was after the Glorious Revolution that the seeds of what became political parties first began to emerge. Under the consensus model they weren’t needed; grandees and royal ministers and so on managed affairs so that most of them agreed or acquiesced on the big decisions. Political parties only become necessary or possible once it had become widely accepted that consensus was no longer possible and that one side or another in a debate over policy would simply lose and would have to put up with losing.

So Kishlansky’s long and fascinating introduction leads up to this insight – that the succession of rebellions and civil wars across the three kingdoms, the instability of the Restoration and then the overthrow of James II were all necessary to utterly and finally discredit the old late-medieval notion of political decision-making by consensus, and to usher in the new world of political decision-making by votes, by parties, by lobbying, by organising, by arguing and taking your arguments to a broader political nation i.e. the electorate.

In large part the English Revolution resulted from the inability of the consensual political system to accommodate principled dissension. (p.63)

At a deep level, the adoption of democracy means the abandonment of attempts to repress a society into agreement. On this view, the core meaning of democracy isn’t the paraphernalia about voting, that’s secondary. In its essence democracy means accepting other people’s right to disagree, sincerely and deeply, with what you hold to be profoundly true. Crafting a system which allows people to think differently and speak differently and live differently, without fear or intimidation.


Related links

Notes on William Congreve

This short post consists of the interesting points from the introduction to the 1985 Penguin edition of Congreve’s plays, introduced and edited by Eric S. Rump. (I’m afraid I find it funny that a man who edited a book full of smutty jokes was called Rump.)

Congreve was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1670. His family moved to Ireland where he was educated at Kilkenny College – where he met fellow student Jonathan Swift, b.1667 – and at Trinity College in Dublin.

Aged 19, in 1689, Congreve left Ireland to travel to London and make his fortune as a wit. Aged 22 he published a novel titled Incognita: or, Love and Duty reconcil’d, whose title sounds like a play.

He befriended John Dryden, the leading literary figure of the age, who supported him through the rest of his career, writing rave reviews and introductions to his plays.

A year later his first comedy, The Old Bachelor, was performed. In all, Congreve write just four comedies, and in a relatively short career of seven years. They are:

  • The Old Bachelor (1693)
  • The Double Dealer (1693)
  • Love for Love (1695)
  • The Way of the World (1700)

And one tragedy:

  • The Mourning Bride (1697)

Congreve abandoned the stage for good in 1700, just as he turned 30.

A ‘good’ run for a play in those days was fourteen nights. Thus The Old Bachelor was a runaway success and played for… fourteen nights! A failure ran for three nights, the bare minimum required to cover its costs, a fact referred to in several of the plays themselves. William Wycherley’s second play, Love In A Wood, was not a success, ran for just 6 nights, and was never revived in his lifetime.

The Old Bachelor is, according to Rump, ‘a play in which a young, talented writer is content to re-explore the comic territory earlier mapped out by writers such as Etherege and Wycherley, but in doing so, is able to bring to the material’. It has freshness and distinctiveness.

It is also notable for the skill with which Congreve gives each character their own speech rhythms. Some critics claim you could be given any bit of dialogue from any of his four plays and be able to identify the character solely from their speech rhythms and idiolect. Rump thinks that’s pushing it a bit, but the fact people suggest this shows the care Congreve took to give each character their own distinctive speech patterns.

Congreve’s fourth and final play, the Way of The World, followed a gap of five years and was much-anticipated. It opened to great expectation and was presented by an all-star cast – but it was a relative failure. Why?

Well, it was by 1700 twelve years since the Glorious Revolution had swept away the Stuart kings and their world of carefree aristocratic hedonism. The new queen, Mary II, was more like Queen Victoria. She was not amused by the stage’s persistent attacks on marriage and conventional morality.

The times had changed. The overthrow of James II in 1688 represented not just a change in monarch but the triumph of the new mercantile class over the libertine aristocrats of Charles’s court.

Did Congreve intend to cease writing for the stage after The Way of the World bombed? He was certainly stung by the criticism of his plays included in the detailed critique of the stage written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), so much so that he wrote a long reply, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations.

But Collier was merely reflecting what many people felt by the late 1690s. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had been founded in 1692 and began to bring lawsuits against playwrights for outraging public morality. So did Congreve abandon the stage with an aristocratic flourish of disdain? No.

The record shows that Congreve continued his association with the stage after The Way. He shared with Vanbrugh the management of the new Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Semele, set first by Eccles and a lot later by Handel. He translated the works of Molière, and produced over the next ten years a trickle of poetry and translations of Latin classics for various collections – in other words he continued to be active in the theatre and in literature and letters. But he never again wrote a play.

In 1714, on the accession of the Whig Hanoverian King George, Congreve was given financial security with the award of a sinecure, Secretary to the island of Jamaica. He never married but had dalliances with several aristocratic ladies, most notably Henrietta Godolphin, second Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. They probably met some time before 1703 and the duchess subsequently had a daughter, Mary, who was believed to be his child. Upon his death, Congreve left his entire fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough.

William Congreve died in London in January 1729 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Reviews of William Congreve

Reviews of other Restoration comedies

The Way of The World by William Congreve (1700)

FAINALL: If it must all come out, why let ’em know it, ’tis but the way of the world.

From a historical point of view, the most interesting thing about The Way of The World is that it was not well received. It was an attempt to continue the Restoration comedy conventions of aristocratic libertinage into what had become, by 1700, a new world of mercantile, bourgeois respectability. Its studied cynicism felt out of date.

MIRABELL: I say that a man may as soon make a friend by his wit, or a fortune by his honesty, as win a woman with plain-dealing and sincerity.

To quote the excellent Wikipedia article:

The tolerance for Restoration comedy even in its modified form was running out at the end of the 17th century, as public opinion turned to respectability and seriousness even faster than the playwrights did. Interconnected causes for this shift in taste were demographic change, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William’s and Mary’s dislike of the theatre, and the lawsuits brought against playwrights by the Society for the Reformation of Manners (founded in 1692). When Jeremy Collier attacked Congreve and Vanbrugh in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1698, he was confirming a shift in audience taste that had already taken place. [The Short View is actually mentioned by name in The Way of the World, act 3, scene 2]. At the much-anticipated all-star première in 1700 of The Way of the World, Congreve’s first comedy for five years, the audience showed only moderate enthusiasm for that subtle and almost melancholy work. The comedy of sex and wit was about to be replaced by the drama of obvious sentiment and exemplary morality. (Restoration comedy Wikipedia article)

The cast

The names, as usual, include some comic inventions which immediately raise a smile e.g. Petulant, Foible and Mincing. But the profiles are thin compared to some other cast lists I’ve read.

THE MEN
Fainall – in love with Mrs. Marwood
Mirabell – in love with Mrs. Millamant
Witwoud – follower of Mrs. Millamant
Petulant – follower of Mrs. Millamant
Sir Wilfull Witwoud – half brother to Witwoud, and nephew to Lady Wishfort
Waitwell – servant to Mirabell

THE WOMEN
Lady Wishfort – enemy to Mirabell, for having falsely pretended love to her
Mrs. Millamant – a fine lady, niece to Lady Wishfort, and loves Mirabell
Mrs. Marwood – friend to Mr. Fainall, and likes Mirabell
Mrs. Fainall – daughter to Lady Wishfort, and wife to Fainall, formerly friend to Mirabell
Foible – woman to Lady Wishfort
Mincing – woman to Mrs. Millamant

Overall plot summary

Mirabell and Mrs Millamant are in love. Mrs Millamant’s vain aunt and guardian, old (55) Lady Wishfort, is preventing their marriage as revenge on Mirabell for having pretended to be in love with her. Mrs Millamant is set to inherit a fortune from old Lady Wishfort, so long as she marries with that lady’s approval. Mrs Millamant loves Mirabell but pretends not to.

Mrs Millamant is also wooed by two silly lovers, Witwoud and Petulant, who cordially dislike each other and are the butt of countless jokes by the much cleverer Mirabell and Fainall.

Mirabell devises a plot (‘a matter of some sort of mirth’) to embarrass Lady Wishfort, who is eager to get a husband. Mirabell persuades his servant, Waitwell, to dress up as his uncle, Sir Rowland, and woo Lady Wishfort. (Waitwell has been married that day to Lady Wishfort’s waiting woman, Foible.) Mirabell hopes that when Lady Wishfort realizes how foolish she has been in a) nearly committing bigamy b) the social disgrace of being wooed by a servant – that she will give permission for the marriage of Mirabell and Mrs Millamant – and also part with the fortune she controls.

Money, as always, is a key element to the plot.

This is the main plot. There are other characters and incidents involving marriage and money. Lady Wishfort’s daughter is married to Fainall, Mirabell’s confidant and sidekick. Fainall, besides sparking off Mirabell, is having an affair with Mrs. Marwood.

Also dominating sections of the play is the sub-plot about the prospective husband who Lady Wishfort has selected for Mrs Millamant, namely her nephew Sir Wilfull Witwoud (half-brother to the other Witwoud).

There are other admirers of both Mirabell and Mrs Millamant. Possibly the least sympathetic character is Mr. Fainall, son-in-law of Lady Wishfort and lover of Mrs. Marwood, who goes from being Mirabell’s ‘friend’ to becoming his bitter vengeful enemy.

More detailed plot summary

Act 1 A chocolate house Mirabell and Fainall have just finished playing cards. A footman comes and tells Mirabell that Waitwell (Mirabell’s male servant) and Foible (Lady Wishfort’s female servant) were married that morning. Mirabell tells Fainall about his love of Mrs Millamant, Fainall explains the ladies love meeting in a women-only ‘cabal’.

Witwoud appears and demonstrates what a fool he is:

WITWOUD: My dear, I ask ten thousand pardons. Gad, I have forgot what I was going to say to you.

Our heroes get Witwoud to insult his supposed friend, Petulant, in his absence. He reveals the extraordinary fact that Petulant sometimes arranges for himself to be ‘called’ by friends when he’s in a pub, so as to appear popular. Then Petulant appears and there is more comic business, but not before Petulant has announced he hears that Mirabell’s uncle, Sir Rowland, has arrived in town.

Witwoud and Petulant announce they will go for a stroll round St James’s Park and Mirabell draws out the uncouthness of their manners; they think being rude and coarse enough to gentlewomen to make them blush is an achievement, what they call being severe.

Act 2 St. James’ Park Mrs. Fainall and Mrs. Marwood are discussing their hatred of men. Fainall and Mirabell appear and while Mrs F and Mirabell walk ahead, Fainall accuses Mrs. Marwood (with whom he is having an affair) of loving Mirabell (which she does). They have a terrific argument, with her threatening to tell everyone and his wife that they’ve been having an affair – leading her to burst into tears and he to apologise profusely. Not very funny.

Continuing the theme of unhappy marriage, Mrs. Fainall (Mirabell’s former lover) tells Mirabell that she hates her husband, Fainall, and then they begin to plot to deceive Lady Wishfort into giving her consent to the marriage.

MRS. FAINALL: So, if my poor mother is caught in a contract, you will discover the imposture betimes, and release her by producing a certificate of her gallant’s former marriage.
MIRABELL: Yes, upon condition that she consent to my marriage with her niece, and surrender the moiety of her fortune in her possession.

Enter Mrs Millamant accompanied by the fool, Witwoud, and her servant, Mincing. Some funny lines:

WITWOUD: I confess I do blaze to-day; I am too bright.

and:

WITWOUD: Pray, madam, do you pin up your hair with all your letters? I find I must keep copies.
MILLAMENT: Only with those in verse, Mr. Witwoud. I never pin up my hair with prose. I think I tried once.
MINCING (her maid): O mem, I shall never forget it.

Mrs Millament is very angry and cynical about mankind, love etc. She perplexes Mirabell with a parting shot that she knows about his ‘plan’. How the devil does she know that?

Enter the newly-wed servants Waitwell and Foible. Congreve does write funny lines:

MIRABELL: Waitwell, why, sure, you think you were married for your own recreation and not for my conveniency!

Mirabell reminds them of their roles in the plan, namely Foible will tell Lady Wishfort that Mirabell’s rich uncle, Sir Rowland, has arrived in town, and Waitwell will then dress in disguise and pretend to be Sir Rowland.

Act 3 Lady Wishfort’s house We’ve had to wait till the third act to meet the ogre, Lady Wishfort. We are introduced in a comic scene with Lady Wishfort and the maid, Foible, who struggles to manage her hair, her makeup (and her booze). Foible exits while Lady Wishfort talks to Mrs Marwood, who mentions she saw Foible just now in St James Park with Mirabell.

Foible returns and commences the Mirabell’s plan – telling Lady Wishfort that the newly-arrived Sir Rowland is interested in her. Lady Wishfort brings up the matter of Foible being seen with Mirabell but Foible thinks quickly on her feet and says Mirabell was calling Wishfort a super-annuated old so-and-so which so infuriates Lady Wishfort that she ceases to be suspicious. Then regrets frowning and raging, has her makeup been affected? Foible has a funny line:

FOIBLE: Your ladyship has frowned a little too rashly, indeed, madam. There are some cracks discernible in the white varnish.
LADY WISHFORT: Let me see the glass. Cracks, say’st thou? Why, I am arrantly flayed: I look like an old peeled wall. Thou must repair me, Foible, before Sir Rowland comes.

Exit Lady Wishfort and enter Mrs Fainall who reveals to Foible that she knows about the whole plan. They both depart but they have been overheard in turn by Mrs Marwood, who now knows about the scheme and the parts everyone is playing.

Mrs Marwood and Mrs MIllamant both lie to each other about how much they hate men and Mirabell in particular.

MRS. MARWOOD: I detest him, hate him, madam.
MRS MILLAMANT: O madam, why, so do I.  And yet the creature loves me, ha, ha, ha!  How can one forbear laughing to think of it?

Sir Wilful Witwoud arrives, a booming 40-year-old countryman who embarrasses his would-be foppish brother and ridicules his foppish appearance and speech.

WITWOUD: Why, brother Wilfull of Salop, you may be as short as a Shrewsbury cake, if you please. But I tell you ’tis not modish to know relations in town. You think you’re in the country, where great lubberly brothers slabber and kiss one another when they meet, like a call of sergeants. ’Tis not the fashion here; ’tis not, indeed, dear brother.

Mrs Marwood has told The Plan to Fainall as well as the fact that Mrs Fainall was once Mirabell’s mistress. He is doubly angry at his ‘friend’ a) for cuckolding him b) if Mirabell marries Mrs Millamant, Fainall’s wife will be deprived of Lady Wishfort’s legacy, and so Fainall will be worse off. (I think.)

Fainall rants against his wife, declares he never loved her, tells Mrs. Marwood he’ll get his wife’s money and go off with her (Mrs M). He kisses Mrs Marwood.

Act 4 Mirabell and Mrs Millamant discuss in detail the conditions under which they would accept each other in marriage. This has become known as The Proviso Scene and a) the frankness with which they discuss marriage as a business arrangement and b) the equality with which they do so i.e. the man isn’t dictating to the woman, they both approach the negotiation as equals, has meant the scene is referenced not only in books about Restoration comedy, but is often referenced in social histories of the period.

In fact during the scene they also reveal their the depth of feeling for each other. The scene leads up to Mirabell finally proposing to Mrs Millamant and, with Mrs. Fainall’s encouragement (almost consent, as Mrs Millamant knows of Mirabell’s and Mrs F’s previous relationship), Mrs Millamant accepts.

Mirabell leaves as Lady Wishfort arrives. She is flustered by all these people arriving at her house, including Sir Wilfull Witwoud, and she wonders how to receive him. Witwoud and Petulant reel in having got drunk with the country cousin. Sir Wilfull is carrying on getting very drunk and, according to Mrs Millamant, stinks (‘He has a breath like a bagpipe’).

Drunk Sir Wilfull is led away in time for Lady Wishfort to receive the pretended Sir Rowland who is, of course, Mirabell’s servant in a disguise. He pretends to be a brave braggadochio and when he hears that Mirabell has in a little way been wooing Lady W, he threatens to draw his sword and run him through!

The scene is notable for the way Lady Wishfort uses comically elaborate diction and Sir Rowland is bombastic.

LADY WISHFORT: No, don’t kill him at once, Sir Rowland: starve him gradually, inch by inch.
WAITWELL: I’ll do’t. In three weeks he shall be barefoot; in a month out at knees with begging an alms; he shall starve upward and upward, ’till he has nothing living but his head, and then go out in a stink like a candle’s end upon a save-all.
LADY WISHFORT: Well, Sir Rowland, you have the way,—you are no novice in the labyrinth of love,—you have the clue.  But as I am a person, Sir Rowland, you must not attribute my yielding to any sinister appetite or indigestion of widowhood; nor impute my complacency to any lethargy of continence.  I hope you do not think me prone to any iteration of nuptials?

This leads into a clever comic sequence: Sir Rowland has just begun wooing Lady Wishfort when a letter arrives from Mrs Marwood which Lady Wishfort starts reading aloud – and it explains that the man claiming to be Sir Rowland is an imposter!

Waitwell/Sir Rowland panics but his wife (and Lady Wishfort’s maid) Foible, tells him to seize the letter and face down the situation – so Waitwell/Sir Rowland seizes the letter from Lady Wishfort in mid-reading, and claims it is a hoax sent by Mirabell, a vain attempt to discredit Sir Rowland and retain his legacy, and – still in character – Waitwell/Rowland threatens to cut his throat, damn his eyes etc, and storms out to get a marriage contract for himself and Lady Wishfort to be married that night.

The interaction of the three, and especially Foible’s whispered asides to Waitwell, and then her spoken and feigned shock to Lady Wishfort, are all very funny. Incidentally an example of a woman (Foible) being far more quick-witted and clever than her man (Waitwell).

Act 5 There’s a sudden jump in the plot. Somehow Lady Wishfort has found out about The Plan and the act opens with her furiously denouncing Foible for her part in it and threatening to send her back to the slums where she found her.

And in fact she is entirely justified in being furious at discovering that her own pampered servant was exploiting her and exposing her to ridicule.

Lady Wishfort exits and Foible explains everything to Mrs Fainall i.e. Mrs Marwood revealed The Plan to Lady Wishfort who has sent to have Waitwell arrested. It was Mrs Marwood who revealed to Mrs Fainall that Mrs Fainall had once been unfaithful with Mirabell. But in this conversation, Foible also reveals that the servants once caught Mrs Marwood in a night of passion with Mirabell. Aha!

Enter Lady Wishfort with Mrs. Marwood, whom she thanks for unveiling the plot, but Mrs Fainall argues fiercely that she is not guilty and not to blame. There is an extended passage where Lady Wishfort describes Mrs Fainall’s childhood and how they took extreme care to make sure she was never exposed to boys or men or any kind of temptation (the theatre etc). I didn’t quite understand what it is Mrs Fainall is supposed to have done which is so ruinous: is it to have had some kind of fling with Meribell?

Enter Fainall who uses the information of Mrs. Fainall’s previous affair with Mirabell, and Mrs Millamant’s contract to marry Mirabell, to blackmail Lady Wishfort. Mr Fainall orders Lady Wishfort that a) she is forbidden to marry b) her daughter i.e. Mrs Fainall, shall immediately make over to him the remainder of her fortune.

MR FAINALL: Lastly, I will be endowed, in right of my wife, with that six thousand pound, which is the moiety of Mrs. Millamant’s fortune in your possession, and which she has forfeited (as will appear by the last will and testament of your deceased husband, Sir Jonathan Wishfort) by her disobedience in contracting herself against your consent or knowledge, and by refusing the offered match with Sir Wilfull Witwoud, which you, like a careful aunt, had provided for her.

Fainall exits to give Lady Wishfort time to consider his demands.

Enter Mrs Millamant who declares that she has heard that The Plot is revealed, apologises for her part in it and is ready to marry Sir Wilfull. They call in Mirabell who throws himself at Lady Wishfort’s feet and abjectly asks, not even for forgiveness, but for Pity.

Re-enter Fainall still insisting on his demands; the blackmail threat is otherwise he will tell all the town about Mrs Fainall’s infidelity. But Lady Wishfort has been a little touched by Meribell’s pleading (and so has drunk Sir Wilfull who threatens to draw his sword and chop up Fainall’s document.)

At this critical juncture, Mirabell hints that he might have a way of saving Lady Wishfort’s fortune and her daughter’s reputation. Lady Wishfort says she’ll give anything, anything for that to happen; even the hand of Mrs Millamant in marriage.

Mirabell then presents two witnesses. First Mincing and then Foible confirm that Mrs Marwood is in love with Fainall, and that they conspired this whole thing together, Mincing adding that they found them in bed together. But this doesn’t address the main point – it discredits the pair but is no solution.

Then Mirabell presents his second trick. Waitwell brings in a black box which contains a legal document, witnessed by Witwoud and Petulant, whereby Mrs Fainall, while she was still a widow and before she married Fainall, signed “A Deed of Conveyance of the whole estate real of Arabella Languish, widow in trust to Edward Mirabell“.

In other words – it is not in Lady Wishfort’s power to give her daughter’s money to Mr Fainall, it is already legally pledged to Mirabell – and so Fainall’s blackmail scheme collapses!

He makes a rush as if to attack Mrs Fainall, but bold Sir Wilfull steps between. Fainall and Mrs Marwood depart, utterly crushed and vowing revenge.

MRS. FAINALL: Thank Mr. Mirabell, a cautious friend, to whose advice all is owing.

Lady Wishfort forgives her maid, Foible, and Mirabell’s servant Waitwell. And Mirabell is thanked by getting the hand in marriage of Mrs Millamant and the full £12,000 inheritance.

The way of the world

Congreve sprinkles references to the title throughout the text, using various incidents in the play to justify it.

FAINALL: Why, then, Foible’s a bawd, an errant, rank match-making bawd. And I, it seems, am a husband, a rank husband, and my wife a very errant, rank wife,—all in the way of the world.

FAINALL: If it must all come out, why let ’em know it, ’tis but the way of the world.

FAINALL: Very likely, sir.  What’s here?  Damnation!  [Reads] ‘A Deed of Conveyance of the whole estate real of Arabella Languish, widow, in trust to Edward Mirabel’l. Confusion!
MIRABELL: Even so, sir: ’tis the way of the world, sir.

But things are not so just because a writer says so. The claim that the way of the world involves adultery and faithless spouses or the humiliating revelation of embarrassing secrets or the overthrow of all your plans in ‘confusion!’ is neither a proof nor a truth.

It is just a rhetorical reinforcement of the cynical worldview the Restoration comedies demanded. In a way, the more his characters claim that that kind of behaviour is ‘the way of the world’, the less it feels like it. The more it feels like the outdated worldview of a bygone era.

Conclusion

For some reason I liked this play. I warmed to the rural boisterousness of Sir Wilfull Witwoud, and the scene where Sir Rowland is found out is very well done. The squabbling between Witwoud and Petulant is mildly diverting. Lady Wishfort’s pretentious diction when being wooed by the fake Sir Rowland is funny.

The way the entire play revolves around one Great Plan gives it simplicity and purity. But there are, I think, two objections:

1. The Great Reversal in the last act shares the weakness of all Restoration comedies, that it feels contrived. Right at the very very end it turns out that the fate of almost everyone depends on that one legal document, the deed of conveyance, a deus ex machina, a rabbit pulled out of a hat.

In the theatre it may work well as a sudden and dramatic revelation – but as you go away and think about it, it is an extraordinary vision that an entire set of human lives and loves are made to hang on one legal document. And that Mirabell knew about it all along and didn’t tell anyone he had this one-stop solution!

The more you think about it, the more contrived and unsatisfactory this feels.

2. I can’t overcome a nagging sense that the characters are all unpleasant. Fainall is meant to be Mirabell’s friend but quickly becomes an unpleasant, exploitative enemy. Mrs Marwood is just a graceless Iago, a fount of hate. Lady Wishfort is a crabbed, pretentious old lady. Mrs Millamant, for me, never comes to life. Maybe part of the reason the Provision Scene is remembered is because it’s one of the few scenes where she comes to life. They’re just not a very likeable crew.

Restoration clichés

Restoration comedies are all stuffed with the same old cynical clichés about men, women, marriage, poets, fops, lovers, cuckolds, mistresses and so on. Rather than ‘the way of the world’, they present an endless iteration of a small number of ideas about a narrow range of persons. A few of them are given more than usually memorable expression in this play:

Men

MRS. FAINALL: Is it possible? Dost thou hate those vipers, men?
MRS. MARWOOD: I have done hating ’em, and am now come to despise ’em; the next thing I have to do is eternally to forget ’em.

The country

MRS MILLAMANT: I nauseate walking: ’tis a country diversion; I loathe the country and everything that relates to it.


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Love For Love by William Congreve (1695)

SIR SAMPSON LEGEND: You are hard to please, madam: to find a young fellow that is neither a wit in his own eye, nor a fool in the eye of the world, is a very hard task.

The humour of a Restoration comedy often starts with the cast list – the names are always inventively comic in their literalness, and the character profiles are often very droll. Thus:

THE MEN
Sir Sampson Legend – father to Valentine and Ben
Valentine – fallen under his father’s displeasure by his expensive way of living, in love with Angelica,
Scandal – his friend, a free speaker
Tattle – a half-witted beau, vain of his amours, yet valuing himself for secrecy
Ben – Sir Sampson’s younger son, half home-bred and half sea-bred, designed to marry Miss Prue
Foresight – an illiterate old fellow, peevish and positive, superstitious, and pretending to understand astrology, palmistry, physiognomy, omens, dreams, etc.; uncle to Angelica
Jeremy – servant to Valentine
Trapland – a scrivener
Buckram – a lawyer

THE WOMEN
Angelica – niece to Foresight, of a considerable fortune in her own hands
Mrs. Foresight – second wife to Foresight
Mrs. Frail – sister to Mrs. Foresight, a woman of the town,
Miss Prue – daughter to Foresight by a former wife, a silly, awkward country girl

This one is fairly full and meaty though markedly less expansive and funny than those of Wycherley’s characters in The Plain Dealer, and this first impression is confirmed by the play, which I found rather dull and slow to get started.

The Plot

Valentine Legend is a young wastrel aristocrat who’s spent all his money and is heavily in debt. His father won’t pay off his debts unless he signs over his rights to the family estate to his younger brother, Ben, who’s been an officer at sea for some years. (Money – note how money is the prime driving force of the play, and is the first thing to be carefully explained.) Although Valentine is skint, he is in love with fair Angelica who hasn’t shown much opinion of him either way.

Valentine is chaffed by his long-suffering servant, Jeremy, and then visited by his side-kick / number two / confidante, Scandal, who acts as his foil throughout the play, allowing Valentine to explain his situation at each stage of the plot.

Like all the other Restoration comedies there is also a ridiculously mannered fop. Each one of these has a slight quirk, a distinctive variation on the theme, and the fop in this play, Tattle, prides himself on his tact and diplomacy but is, in reality, constantly blabbing and giving things away.

Debt collectors come calling, who Valentine’s man, Jeremy, manages to put off for another day, then an officer called Trapland, also come to collect debts, who they treat to a glass of sack. Mrs Frail visits and there are crude double entendres at her expense.

Act 2 scene 1 Clever Angelica ridicules her uncle Foresight’s absurd superstitious beliefs in astrology etc and makes lewd suggestions about his and the silly old Nurse’s midnight rituals. She exits.

Valentine’s father Sir Sampson arrives and he turns out to be nearly as much of a pedantic superstitious astrologer as Foresight, a bombastic, swaggering old bombast. Enter Valentine who tries to explain about his inheritance but the conversation gets diverted into a discussion of Valentine’s parentage and then of his servant Jeremy. Legend warns that Valentine’s younger brother, Ben, is due to arrive tonight or tomorrow at which point he plans to sign over his inheritance to him.

Mrs Frail and the second Mrs Foresight are sisters. They return from swanning around town. They bitch at each other then swear to be pinkie friends. Mrs Frail is worried about her prospects. She announces she’s setting her cap at Legend’s younger son, Ben, due any minute back from sea. Mrs Foresight’s step-daughter, Miss Prue, is slated to be Ben’s wife, but she has recently become enamoured of the silly fop, Tattle, something Mrs Frail wants to encourage so as to leave Ben for herself.

A little scene where Tattle has to teach the very innocent unworldly Miss Prue how to behave like a London flirt, which is almost enjoyable because it’s almost sweet.

Act 3 In front of Angelica and Valentine, Tattle proves himself the soul of indiscretion, by overtelling several gossipy stories, showing off and implicating various posh women. He is, in other words, an epitome of Indiscretion as Foresight is of the mad old astrologer, and continually regretting having said too much:

TATTLE:  Gadso, the heat of my story carried me beyond my discretion, as the heat of the lady’s passion hurried her beyond her reputation.  But I hope you don’t know whom I mean… Pox on’t, now could I bite off my tongue.

Ben finally arrives and turns out to be a roister-doister sailor, not that interested in matrimony, a girl in every port etc. His dad leaves him alone with Miss Prue but his blunt ways quickly alienate her and they end up insulting each other. Just as Mrs Foresight and Mrs Frail come along, which falls pat into their plan, as Mrs Frail fancies Ben for herself, insofar as he is heir to Sir Samson’s estate. This sequence is rounded out by Ben and his sailors singing a song and having a dance.

For his part, Scandal embarks on a plan to persuade Foresight that he is unwell, coming down with something, in order to get him out of the way so he can make love to Mrs Foresight. She is initially scandalised by Scandal’s boldness, but slowly he talks her round.

I can’t put my finger on it, but all this is boring. It lacks the pizzazz of The Plain Dealer. Valentine just isn’t very interesting, Scandal is boring, Tattle is sort of funny as an over-talkative fop, but none of them are as funny as Novel and Lord Plausible from The Plain Dealer.

Act 4 Valentine pretends to be mad. This means the lawyer Sir Samson has brought – Buckram – considers him unfit to sign the document assigning his portion of the inheritance to Ben. Seeing this and realising Ben will not be rich, Mrs Frail immediately reconsiders her plan of marrying Ben, and takes the opportunity to have a fierce argument with him – making him think she’s gone mad.

In the same scene Scandal talks aside to Mrs Foresight and seems to be saying that they spent the previous night together, something Mrs Foresight rejects or denies. Maybe I’m in the wrong mood, but I didn’t find any of this funny. It seemed laboured and contrived.

Mrs Foresight conceives the plan of presenting Mrs Frail as Angelica to Valentine when he’s mad, getting him to sign the marriage papers and tumbling them into bed together, then they’ll be married. Scandal gets wind of this scheme and he and Valentine agree it will be amusing to egg them on.

Then Angelica herself arrives and Valentine drops his madness in order to talk to her straight. Unfortunately, she was inclining towards him precisely because she thought he had gone mad – for unrequited love for her! When Valentine explains that, on the contrary, his madness is a scheme designed to get his father to drop the plan of handing his portion to brother Ben – i.e. it is an entirely mercenary plan and nothing to do with love – Angelica reverts to being standoffish and aloof.

ANGELICA: How! I thought your love of me had caused this transport in your soul; which, it seems, you only counterfeited, for mercenary ends and sordid interest.

I think a lot of my dislike of this play is down to the character of Angelica: there are strong female leads playing more or less the same role in all the other comedies I’ve read – for example Florinda and Hellena in The Rover or Alithea in The Country Wife – but they had fire and vim; Angelica just comes over as irritatingly non-committal and contrary.

JEREMY: What, is the lady gone again, sir? I hope you understood one another before she went?
VALENTINE: Understood!  She is harder to be understood than a piece of Egyptian antiquity or an Irish manuscript: you may pore till you spoil your eyes and not improve your knowledge.

Act 5 Angelica – improbably – makes up to Sir Sampson, an old man in his 50s. She wants to marry him, now, and he gets very over-excited at the idea, tells her to get a lawyer and a priest.

Enter Jeremy who is encouraging Tattle in his mad scheme to disguise himself as Valentine and woo Angelica.

Enter Miss Prue whose father has told her she no longer has to marry Ben – since he renounced his inheritance and says he prefers to go back to sea – and so she now wants to marry Mr Tattle, who she had such a frank exchange of flirting with back at the end of Act 2. Clearly, she is now an embarrassment to Tattle, who tries to put her off, saying no man of fashion is consistent to a woman for 2 days in a row! Fie, madam!

Enter Mr Foresight (who of course has foreseen none of these complex twists and turns). His daughter Miss Prue complains that she needs a man, she wants a man, but Foresight says poo, nonsense and tells her Nurse to take her home.

At which point Ben arrives and tells the assembled company (Scandal, Foresight, Mrs Foresight) that his father (Sir Sampson) has gone mad. Howso? Because he’s preparing to marry Angelica (who is Foresight’s niece). So now Valentine is mad, Sir Sampson is mad, this news prompts Mrs Foresight to go mad, and Foresight says he’ll go mad if Mrs F does. So this conceit or theme of madness has turned out to be the play’s guiding one. And, of course, Scandal sees his friend Valentine’s plan to win Angelica by feigning madness, going badly wrong.

Enter Sir Sampson and Angelica fawning over each other and their lawyer Buckram. Sampson confirms it to everyone, asks Foresight to give his niece away at the forthcoming wedding. Scandal runs off to tell his friend Valentine about this abrupt turn of events. Ben advises his father to be wary but Sir Sampson takes advice very badly and blusters and huffs that he will disinherit him, and asks the lawyer to be sure Ben will inherit nothing, at which there are bad words between Ben and the lawyer.

Sir Sampson’s bombastic turn of phrase and his irritable readiness to disinherit both his sons is another major thread in the play.

Enter Mr Tattle and Mrs Frail who have calamitous news – they are married by mistake! Tattle thought he was marrying Angelica, and Mrs Frail thought she was marrying Valentine, and so both are undone! This is sort of funny, especially the way they are rude and dismissive of each other,

TATTLE: Gad, I never liked anybody less in my life. Poor woman! Gad, I’m sorry for her too, for I have no reason to hate her neither; but I believe I shall lead her a damned sort of a life…
MRS. FRAIL: Nay, for my part I always despised Mr. Tattle of all things; nothing but his being my husband could have made me like him less.

The happy twist It probably has a technical name, but in every one of these Restoration comedies the leading man and the leading woman resist each other, scorn and mock each other right up till three minutes before the end, when they suddenly undergo a miraculous reversal of attitudes and suddenly realise how much they love each other.

And so it is here that, when Sir Sampson calls on Valentine to sign away his inheritance, Valentine prepares to do so and when his friend Scandal tries to stop him, Valentine makes a noble speech about how he only ever wanted the money in order to make Angelica happy. Aaaah.

SCANDAL: ’Sdeath, you are not mad indeed, to ruin yourself?
VALENTINE: I have been disappointed of my only hope, and he that loses hope may part with anything. I never valued fortune but as it was subservient to my pleasure, and my only pleasure was to please this lady. I have made many vain attempts, and find at last that nothing but my ruin can effect it; which, for that reason, I will sign to – give me the paper.
ANGELICA: Generous Valentine!  [Aside.]

Angelica happens to have the bond in question in her hand and promptly tears it up in front of everyone and declares her love for Valentine. Turns out her heart was always his all along – she was just pretending to be haughty and aloof! He goes down on his knees to her – it’s a deal!

Angelica takes the opportunity to tell old Sir Sampson he must reform, become a better father, relent his ‘unforgiving nature’ – confirming my sense that that was one of the themes of the play. Infuriated, Sir Sampson curses Foresight and his stupid belief in astrology and storms out, at which point Tattle (who, remember, has married Mrs Frail by mistake) has a funny line:

TATTLE: If the gentleman is in disorder for want of a wife, I can spare him mine.

The musicians have arrived who were to serenade Sir Sampson’s wedding. Scandal tells ’em to play on to celebrate Valentine and Angelica. And it’s Angelica who has the last word.

Many critics, and most feminist critics, berate Restoration comedy for its alleged misogyny. So it is worth pointing that the last word of this long play is given to a woman, who uses it to criticise men and their vain expectations and self-serving rhetoric:

’Tis an unreasonable accusation that you lay upon our sex: you tax us with injustice, only to cover your own want of merit. You would all have the reward of love, but few have the constancy to stay till it becomes your due. Men are generally hypocrites and infidels: they pretend to worship, but have neither zeal nor faith. How few, like Valentine, would persevere even to martyrdom, and sacrifice their interest to their constancy! In admiring me, you misplace the novelty.

The miracle to-day is, that we find
A lover true; not that a woman’s kind.

Thoughts

I found this play the most dry and dusty, contrived and unsatisfying of the ones I’ve sampled so far. I smiled once or twice, but I just didn’t find the vast expense of verbiage expended on Foresight’s belief in astrology or Sir Sampson’s bombastic bad temper or Miss Prue’s childish innocence or Tattle’s inability to keep a secret, made them that funny.

Probably on stage Love For Love comes to life much more, and I could see the comic aims and intentions of all these humorous characters and contrived situations – but I found it quite a dry and laboured read.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Gamini Salgado makes several points about the play and its position late in the history of Restoration comedy. By the time it was performed in 1695, the early merry days of King Charles II were long gone (his brother James had been deposed in favour of a foreign, Protestant king with a completely different set of values, in 1688) with the result that Valentine comes over as a lot less of the heartless libertine than the classic hero of Restoration comedy, and Scandal also is a lot milder in his support of his friend. And I think that’s one of the things I disliked, they both had less energy than previous male pairs.

This is related to the fact that the target audience was now wider than it had been for Etheredge or Wycherley – the earlier plays were mostly performed at the Drury Lane theatre which was favoured by royal patronage and attended by aristocrats, whereas Love For Love was performed at a new theatre in Lincolns Inn Fields for a broader, more middle class audience.

Somehow Valentine’s subterfuges – pretending for a page or two at the start to become a poet, pretending later on to be mad – feel silly and superficial. They lack the sustained bite of Manly’s misanthropy in The Plain Dealer or the snappy repartee of Dorimant and Medley throughout The Man of Mode. This, Salgado suggests, was partly a response to a broader, less arrogant audience, and to a general softening of the times.

Is there a connection with the fact that Money is most to the fore in this plot, in the sense that the key driver of the story is which of his sons Sir Sampson is going to leave his estate to? Does the softening of the aristocratic arrogance of earlier comedies, and the new emphasis on money (and the prominence of the sailor son) indicate that Britain had become a much more mercantile and bourgeois society by the 1690s than it had been in the 1660s?

When I read the Wikipedia article about The Way of The World, the answer seems to be a resounding yes:

In 1700, the world of London theatre-going had changed significantly from the days of, for example, The Country Wife. Charles II was no longer on the throne, and the jubilant court that revelled in its licentiousness and opulence had been replaced by the far more dour and utilitarian Dutch-inspired court of William of Orange. His wife, Mary II, was, long before her death, a retiring person who did not appear much in public. William himself was a military king who was reported to be hostile to drama. The political instabilities that had been beneath the surface of many Restoration comedies were still present, but with a different side seeming victorious.

One of the features of a Restoration comedy is the opposition of the witty and courtly (and Cavalier) rake and the dull-witted man of business or the country bumpkin, who is understood to be not only unsophisticated but often (as, for instance, in the very popular plays of Aphra Behn in the 1670s) either Puritan or another form of dissenter. Until 1685, the courtly and Cavalier side was in power and Restoration comedies belittled the bland and foolish losers of the Restoration. However, by 1700, the other side was ascendant…

The 1688 revolution which overthrew James II created a new set of social codes primarily amongst the bourgeoisie. The new capitalist system meant an increasing emphasis on property and property law. (The Way of the World Wikipedia article)

All of which maybe explains why Love For Love lacks the extreme aristocratic attitude of the earlier plays, and is more suffused by the language of money and contracts.


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