Working on an article about the prominent Conservative activist Lady Knightley of Fawsley who has been ignored by feminist historians for far too long I came across an interesting quotation in the first volume of her diaries, edited by Julia Cartwright (Mrs Ady) and published in 1915, two years after the diarist's death.
The entry is for July 30, 1860 when the then Miss Louisa Bowater was eighteen years old, well educated (at home), widely read and fascinated by many things: politics, religion, art, literature and social matters as well as day to day gossip and entertainment. From the age of fourteen she had kept a meticulous diary that is not only very well written but is a fascinating source of information about life and political matters of the period.
This is what Miss Bowater wrote that evening:
I was in great luck this evening for my cousins Charles and Harriet Ridley came down for the night, and at dinner I sat between Charles and Mr Hough, the Vicar of our church at Ham, with Harriet on the other side. The two latter had not been together many minutes before they were deep in theology, and presently I contrived to get a word in. We discussed Kingsley first of all. Mr Hough knows him intimately, and says he is a most extraordinary mixture, a rationalist and man of very unsound principles, an inveterate sportsman, greatly in earnest and at the same time undoubtedly attractive.A few explanatory points need to be added before I turn to my main one.
The word 'earnest' made Mr Hough remark that a great deal of mistaken homage is paid to earnestness without much regard to what the earnestness is about. I said, surely there was more hope of a man who was really in earnest about something, becoming earnest about the best things, than of a trifler. He disagreed, saying that the more firmly a man was wedded to wrong opinions the more difficult it was to turn him from these.
The Kingsley mentioned in the entry can be no other but Charles Kingsley, a well known and controversial figure of the period. The Bowater family lived for at least half the year, sometimes longer at Thatched House Lodge in Richmond Park, which in 1843 had been given to Louisa's father, General Sir Edward Bowater, a veteran of the Peninsular War and of Waterloo, who was Equerry to Prince Albert and, later, Groom-in-Waiting to the Queen. On his death, in December 1861 the house was given to Lady Bowater for life. Hence "our church at Ham", whose vicar seems to have been a narrow-minded sort of person and whom Miss Bowater seems to have found rather amusing and intellectually not very inspiring.
Nevertheless, one cannot help feeling that on this point he was more nearly correct than she. Earnestness, in itself, is no recommendation any more than the presence of principles, the modern equivalent of that. We do not value earnestness particularly but there is a great deal of praise for people, especially politicians, who "at least have principles". Depends on what those principles are, say I. Vladimir Lenin had principles as did many of his predecessors in the Russian radical movement. Can we really honestly rejoice in the fact that he came out on top in 1917 - 18?
Some time ago there was a brief posting on this blog about Russian conservative thinkers who, though more influential in that country, tend to be overshadowed in the West by the more glamorous liberal and radical activists and theoreticians.
Tory Historian’s own view that a good deal of trouble has come from Sir Isaiah Berlin, who first popularized Herzen and his successors in the West in the twentieth century. This was real popularization. No university course on Russian history managed to get by without studying Russian Radical Thought. And Sir Isaiah’s admiration prevailed. He ignored the nastier aspects of that thought and concentrated on what he saw as the nobility of the struggle. Our perceptions of Russian history are still coloured by that.Sir Isaiah Berlin, though an important theoretician of liberalism, is not a hero on this blog, partly because of his behaviour at various times and partly because of his thinking about other people, such as the Russian radicals. To him, their principles, their earnestness (and goodness me, were they earnest!) and their undoubted courage in their fight with the Tsarist regime was sufficient. Their actual ideas he skated over lightly.