Yesterday marked the 200th anniversary of the legislation that abolished slave trade in the British Empire and marked the beginning of the fight the Royal Navy waged for a long time against other slavers, particularly Arab ones.
There has been a great deal written about the subject, some sensible some completely nonsensical like the calls for Britain to apologize (to whom is not made clear) for being one of just about every country and civilization in owning and trading slaves, though, clearly there was something different about a country that firmly proclaimed that owning and trading slaves was actually wrong. That is what makes this anniversary so right and worthy of celebration.
Tory Historian saw about half of a new exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery (half because closing time approached), called “Between Worlds – Voyagers to Britain 1700-1850”. There will be a return visit and a posting on the basis of that. There are many fascinating portraits and stories in the exhibition.
However, as we are celebrating the end of the slave trade, one particular portrait (and various copies and etchings made from it) needs to be mentioned. It is that of William Ansah Sessarakoo, the son of a wealthy West African slave trader, whose father sent him to Europe in 1749 to be educated.
En route he himself was put into slavery by the treacherous (and, one assumes, European) captain of his ship. Sessarakoo was rescued by the British government, brought to Britain, introduced to George II and generally treated like a prince (which he may or may not have been). He was compared to Oroonoko, the eponymous hero of Aphra Behn’s play.
Oroonoko is a noble prince who is wrongly sold into slavery. To say that a noble man or a rich one should not be sold into slavery is not quite the same as to say that slavery is wrong.
There was a comment to that effect in the visitors’ book, though the author of it clearly misunderstood a great deal. He or she thought that describing somebody as being wrongfully enslaved was very odd as there could be no rightful enslavement. As a matter of fact William Ansah Sessarakoo would not have agreed with that. There is no evidence that he was in any way like John Newton the author of “Amazing Grace”, who had been a slave trader and accepted the wrongness of it, trying to expiate his own guilt.
A comment like that misunderstands and does not acknowledge how astonishing, historically speaking, was the idea that we take for granted: no man or woman has the right to own another man or woman.
Even somebody like Tory Historian who finds sports events just a tiny bit dull, has to thrill to the story of Sir Roger Bannister and the breaking of the four-minute mile on May 6, 1954 in Oxford. (Actually, Tory Historian has seen the plaque on Iffley Road.)
There is something undeniably English about the man in his quiet persistence, overcoming initial disappointment and equally quiet withdrawal from too much public attention to carry on with his medical work and research. Of course, some people might argue that even in England that sort of behaviour is a thing of the past.
Today's is Sir Roger Banniser's birthday. Happy Birthday, Sir Roger.
Tory Historian came across an old edition of one of the William Brown books, “William - the Outlaw” by Richmal Crompton. Came across describes the process very well as people in a neighbouring street had put out a couple of boxfuls of old books, encouraging passers-by to take what they wanted and to leave financial contributions, should they so wanted. Tory Historian did leave some.
The books were all a little decrepit and were clearly part of a somewhat random family collection. There was a strong smell of damp hanging around them and “William - the Outlaw” had a sticker that indicated it had been acquired in a bookshop in Lusaka. In fact, there must be an interesting tale around those books.
However, first things first. A book newly acquired requires some reading. In this case, this meant an entire afternoon happily devoted to William Brown and the Outlaws.
Richmal Crompton had the enviable knack of being able to draw any reader immediately into the world she describes. Within a few pages one knows a good deal about William, his parents and siblings, the Outlaws, the school they go to, their other friends and enemies, the village in general and, what is more, one cares about them.
Some aspects remain a little vague. Just exactly how large is that village? Or is it a question of several villages close to each other, all surrounding a nameless town where, one assumes, most of the men work, with farms and fields around them?
For the village has a strongly defined class structure with society being run by matrons and families who live in large houses called things like “The Laurels” and descending to those people in the cottages such as jobbing gardeners. The Browns and the other Outlaw families are in the middle.
They are not particularly grand but Mr Brown manages to keep a cook, a parlour maid and a gardener, as do the parents of Ginger, Douglas and Henry. Mrs Brown is always involved in village activity, such as fetes and bazaars, much disliked by Mr Brown. Robert, William’s brother goes to university and Ethel, his sister, does nothing very much apart from buying new hats, going to garden parties and flirting with young men.
The vicar’s wife figures prominently, as do other locally active ladies.
There is another gang in the village or nearby, the Hubert Laneites against whom the Outlaws wage permanent war. It is assumed that the Hubert Laneites are probably from slightly better off families.
There are enough children in either this one village or several neighbouring villages to keep one or two boys’ schools and, presumably, a girls’ school going, with the assumption that a number of the socially superior children probably attend boarding schools. Children of jobbing gardeners and suchlike, go to the elementary school and get jobs soon after that, possibly by going into service.
William’s school is obviously dedicated to good education and even the Outlaws manage to pick up a certain amount of random knowledge. It is, in fact, surprising how much boys who are dedicated to the outdoor life, playing pirates and Red Indians and the avoidance of anything that smacks of learning, actually know.
The title story of “William - the Outlaw” involves the four eleven year old boys discussing (with a hit and miss accuracy) such matters as parliamentary legislation, trade unions and letters to the press on the subject of people needing a lot of fresh air.
In other stories they display some knowledge of history and literature. Douglas, who is the intellectual of the group, is even knowledgeable about Bible stories and suggests that Joseph must have been like a particularly obnoxious and sneaky boy in the village, called Georgie. Sadly, the growth of civilization prevents the Outlaws from dealing with Georgie as Joseph’s brothers had dealt with him, but they still manage to defeat the little sneak, with the help of one right-minded adult and through some knowledge of English history. (No, no, read it yourself. The story is called “Georgie and the Outlaws”. You won’t regret it.)
In the “Knights of the Square Table”, the Outlaws are driven by bad weather to reading a book about King Arthur, given to Ginger by his aunt, and the tales enthral them.
When William affirms that there must still be wrongs to right though they probably do not hear about them, Ginger agrees:
My father’s got a lot of wrongs to start with. Rates an’ income-tax an’ that sort of thing.William disagrees:
We’re not going to start rightin’ those. It’d take us months to right those. They’re not really wrongs, either. They’re only things grown-ups go on about at breakfast. They’d go on about somethin’ else if we got those righted. They aren’t what I call wrongs. Not like bein’ put in dungeons an’ havin’ your lands ravidged by giants nd your castle stole off you by false knights.Well, he has a point.
Needless to say, their desire to emulate the knights of old ends in a complicated disaster but they do manage to bring the young man they have befriended together with his damozel.
William does almost always mean well. It is not his fault and not really fair, as he keeps trying to explain, that things go wrong.
Tory Historian’s own favourite story is “William, Prime Minister”, in which Henry, who usually knows things about the outside world, explains to them what the forthcoming election is all about:
“Do shut up int’ruptin’, said Henry, “I’m tryin’ to tell you ‘bout this gen’ral election. There’s four sorts of people tryin’ to get to be rulers. They all want to make things better, but they want to make ‘em better in different ways. There’s Conservatives an’ they want to make things better by keepin’ ‘em jus’ like what they are now. An’ there’s Lib’rals an’ they want to make things better by alterin’ them jus’ a bit, but not so’s anyone’d notice, an’ there’s Socialists, an’ they want to make things better by taking everyone’s money off ‘em and there’s Communists an’ they want to make things better by killin’ everyone but themselves.”This may have been published in 1930 and the Liberals are but a sad dream but for all of that, it is hard to find a better summary.
William, wisely, eschews political ideas and goes for personalities, becoming Conservative because the man who had been their guest a little while ago “who’d just returned from a shooting trip in the African Veldt where he’d shot elephants, buffaloes and numerous other animal, and had once met a lion face to face on a jungle path when he was totally unarmed and had walked past it showing no more concern than if it had been a hen” is a Conservative.
On that platform, he wins the election, becomes Prime Minister and is immediately faced with demands from the electorate. Fulfilling, more by luck than design, the first demand, William, again wisely, decides that being Prime Minister is no fun at all, resigns and goes off to play Red Indians.
Would that other politicians followed his example.
Tory Historian has reluctantly decided to mention a Whig Prime Minister of some importance: Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, the man who piloted the Great Reform Act through Parliament in 1832.
Today is his birthday. He was born on March 13, 1764 in Falloden, Northumberland.
His biography is one of an immensely worthy politician, what with presiding over that Reform Act, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833 (though, as we know slave trade was abolished some time before that) and the restrictions on the employment of children.
There is, however, a surprising aspect to his personality. He seems to have been very highly sexed. The fact that his wife produced 16 children (while, according to accounts, remaining cheerful) may just point to the fact that he was keen on doing his duty. But few school textbooks that expostulate on the Great Reform Act ever mention the fact that the Earl Grey was the great love of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who even bore him a daughter (a fairly scandalous occurrence even among the lax Whig aristocracy).
This is not that daughter but the oldest one, Georgy, born well in wedlock. Still, Reynolds’s picture, exhibited at the moment at the Royal Academy is a delight.
Today, our readers will be intrigued to learn, is International Women’s Day. What better day there is to write about one of the greatest woman writers in the English language, one who was, moreover, according to Professor Marilyn Butler, a conservative in her outlook.
In her “Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries” Professor Butler contrasts Jane Austen with Maria Edgeworth, the latter being a representative of the Enlightenment while Miss Austen harks back to a different set of ideas. While appreciating that changes are happening in the world she describes, Jane Austen, nevertheless, glorifies the old-fashioned community of the countryside with a responsible “leader” at the head of it.
Nor does she think highly of individuals following their own instincts, ideas or understanding. Her heroines achieve happiness only when they accept the judgements of the world. Then again, as Professor Butler refers to glancingly, the world, as represented by Sir Walter Elliott and Lady Russell (well-meaning, though the latter is) or by the Bingley sisters is not precisely accurate in its own judgements.
This is the problem with Jane Austen: it is immensely difficult to fit her into any category. She is largely conservative in her social attitudes but many of her own judgements are too radical even for modern film and TV producers.
Tory Historian is a great Jane Austen fan, having read all her novels several times, most of the early pieces and fragments, a couple of biographies, critical studies (most of them inadequate) and some of the letters. Therefore, the Mills and Boonification of Jane has not been to Tory Historian’s taste.
This is rather a new development in that back in the days the BBC had Sunday tea-time serials, which were not high-profile, there had been several extremely good adaptations of the Austen novels.
Once the “Classic Serial” became a flagship programme, everything has changed. The high-profile films have not helped. Those clever, witty, extremely hard-hitting novels have been turned into romantic mush.
The final insult is the latest film, which turns Miss Austen’s own life into mush. Young(ish) Anne Hathaway, last seen being unable to sustain the supposed main part in “The Devil Wears Prada” is smirking on posters as she is “Becoming Jane”. One wonders what she was before that.
Miss Hathaway tells us that she spent a month in London, reading all Jane Austen’s letters in the British Library. This may even be true. But why is it that neither she nor the film’s director or designer have managed to notice that young ladies of the period did not wear décolleté dresses during the day or go around bare-headed, as shown above in the drawing made by Cassandra Austen of her sister.
At the same time there has been an extraordinary promotion of Miss Austen’s male characters. According to all recent dramatizations, the novels are nothing but love stories with both members of the main couple being of equal importance. Several male actors have acquired the status of a sex symbol by playing in an Austen film or TV serial.
It seems that the modern film-maker finds it impossible to grasp that those novels are about women. The men are secondary, little more than marriage objects. Even when they are of importance in the community like Mr Knightley in “Emma”, they are seen entirely from the heroine’s point of view.
The famous TV series of “Pride and Prejudice” with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy starts with the young men riding into town (Meryton, one assumes). This places them at the centre of the subsequent plot.
Nothing could be further from the novel, which is about the Bennett family and, famously, starts with them discussing the recent arrival of Mr Bingley about whom they know very little but whom they suspect to be extremely eligible.
“Pride and Prejudice” is a clever picture of contemporary society. Unlike some Victorian novelists, Jane Austen has a clear idea of money. Mr Bennett has £2,000 a year and has been unable to increase that income or to save money for his daughters, largely because of his abdication of responsibility.
Mr Bingley has £4,000 or £5,000 a year and has not yet settled down. His sisters have an income of their own, so their father must have made quite a fortune in his business in the Midlands, something that they do not want to remember.
Mr Darcy is, of course, the representative of the old aristocracy, related to all sorts of people, the owner of a handsome estate that, unlike Mr Bennett, he pays attention to (though when exactly is hard to tell) and has £10,000 a year. This is to be viewed more like turn-over in a modern business rather than clear profit, as the money has to be used for the upkeep of Pemberley, the household, the estate as well as his lifestyle.
No-one can accuse Miss Austen of being a snob. She may not think young girls should follow their own inclination, not being capable of making the right decision, but neither is she exactly enamoured of snobbish creatures like Lady Catherine de Burgh or her toady, Mr Collins.
In the end, it is being a gentleman or one of a gentleman’s family that counts, as Elizabeth famously tells Lady Catherine. But a gentleman has to do his duties as well as enjoy privileges. Mr Bennett is a sad failure in this respect as are numerous other “gentlemen” in the novels. It is the new, rising class of naval officers who are shown to be the real gentlemen in “Persuasion”, not the vain, selfish, stupid baronet, Sir Walter Elliott.
One could go on like this and, possibly, there will be an article in the soon to be published next issue of the Conservative History Journal. At present, all Tory Historian can suggest is that all those who really love Jane Austen’s novels should unite in “reclaiming Jane” from the terrible mush that she has been consigned to recently.