Friday, November 27, 2015

Shakespeare on Young Men and "Criminal Energy"

SHEPHERD I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting -- Hark you now! Would any but
these boiled brains of nineteen and two-and-twenty
hunt this weather? They have scared away two of my
best sheep, which I fear the wolf will sooner find
than the master  ....
The Winter's Tale (III.iii 58-67)

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald, (Pop) Cultural Critic

I'm currently reading the collected letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, and have to say they're rather charming and entertaining (oh dear, I'm beginning to sound like Fitzgerald myself). They are full of everyday gems like the following, from a letter to her older daughter Tina:

Quite exhausted emotions raised by Eurovision Song Contest: We felt sure Cliff should have won, though doubtful about his dress of nylon ruffles and dandy's velvet-effect suit. It was very odd Germany suddenly giving 6 votes for Spain, I'm sure it was a vote to promote trade. (Wollen Sie in Spanien gehen?) As usual I was quite wrong as the one I though best got no votes at all, and Sandie Shaw looked frightful in ostrich-effect feathers and was hit by a piece of stage.
Just to remind you of the target of her sartorial critique (and how astute it was):


Other passages in the letters are more wistful and melancholy, for instance when she describes a conversation with her other daugher to Tina:

Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying: "What a funny old couple you are!" and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn't really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seemed to be crumbling into dust.

The following assessment of, again, her older daughter's disappointment with her English degree at Oxford contains an insight we should pass on to our students at the beginning of each semester:

I'm sorry that the poor English school is so dull too - the truth is, though I would never dare saying it in public, that the value of studying literature only really appears as you go on living, and find how it really is like life - that it all works - and it's a pity this can't somehow be shown in the course, except I suppose in Marxist Free Universities.

I'm not so sure about the Marxist Free Universities (in fact, I don't even know what she means by that), but in the first part of the quote Fitzgerald seems to put the finger on what may be the tragedy of the humanities.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

"The 5th now is considered a holiday by the lower classes"

A few notes from the archives about events on the Fifth of November in the early nineteenth century in Lewes.

Where it sounds like they had a right good time.

 Deposition of James Burridge, constable:

“I also was upon duty as police officer in the Town of Lewes upon the night of the fifth day of November instant and saw a great mob of persons unlawfully assembled together and making a great noise & disturbance, letting off fireworks and having lighted tar barrels through the high street. About ten o’clock I was violently assaulted by the mob who hustled me and threw stones at me and gravel and dirt into my eyes whereby my eyes were much hurt and painful.” 

Deposition of Stephen Clarke, constable:

“I saw a great riot and disturbance in the town with persons letting off fireworks, rolling lighted tar barrels and throwing lighted fire balls….Many of the persons in the disturbance were in disguise having masks and some having their faces black red and white and many of them had very large sticks.” 

Henry Powler Mackay deposed that he saw the tar-barrels fireworks and riotous mob:

“I have not joined in such occasions, there was more than ever I have before. I have not let off fireworks since I left school…The 5th now is considered a holiday by the lower classes. I do not think the town would have been quiet if the police had not been there.” 

Deposition of William Bennett:

“…I have seen bonfire nights in Lewes and it was similar to the one last time, I saw tar barrels last year and windows broken.” 

 According to reports, many of the police were violently assaulted with sticks and clubs.

 Feeling nostalgic for the good old days yet?

(Source: The National Archive, ASSI 36/4 Sussex assizes 1841. These were among the sources I used in my first book, Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-Century England: The Shadow of Our Refinement, which is soon to be available as a paperback.)