Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Social Background to Thomas Hardy

The Background: Its Importance
Hardy's novels arc a comprehensive and elaborate study of English life and manners in the opening years of the reign of queen Victoria. Hardy matured and created during these years, and it is in the fitness of things that he has studied the life of the times with which he was most intimately familiar. This makes his novels important social documents and a detailed consideration of Victorian life and manners is essential for a proper appreciation of Hardy's art.

The Spirit of Questioning
The most marked social changes in Victorian England took place in the later sixties and seventies. About the middle of the century the old landmarks are still there, but they are no longer so prominent. The landed aristocracy still rules the rural parts, and still leads society in London and its-country-house gatherings; the individualist businessman still flourishes, with the honest, limited virtues of self-help. But these classes no longer fill most of the scene as in the past. Social institutions and the classes privileged so far have already grown corrupt and degenerate. In all ranks of life free criticism of social customs and religious beliefs takes the place of settled creeds. There is unprecedented rise of the spirit of Questioning. It is a
liberal, out-spoken age, whose most representative men are neither the aristocrats nor the shop-keepers, but men of university education, or men of trained professional intelligence., Dickens and Thackeray, among others,
are critics of their age, the latter more so than the former.                        
Rapid Social Change: The Democratic Spirit
Democracy, bureaucracy and collectivism begin to advance like a silent tide. Many changes mark off the age from the previous one. The impact of Darwinism begins to be increasingly felt on religious orthodoxy. Oxford and Cambridge arc gradually thrown open to all irrespective of religious beliefs. Science and history begin rapidly to lake their place besides the classics, and mathematics in the academic world. In order to enlist the ablest young men from the Universities in the new bureaucracy, a competitive examination is made the normal method of entry to the Civil Services; the working men of the town receive the right to vote by the Reform Act of 1832, and the other Acts which followed. The Forester's Act provides primary education for all, and the Trade Unions receive a new Charter of Rights corresponding to their growing power in business administration. Limited liability companies take the place of the old family firms; the professional and social emancipation of women goes forward on the lines advocated in Mill's Subjection of Women. Women's colleges are found at Oxford and Cambridge and Women's secondary schools are much improved; the Married Woman's Property Act releases the wife, if she has money of her own, from economic bondage to her husband; the equality of the sexes begins to be advocated in theory and finds its way increasingly into the practice of all classes. The demand for the political liberation of women is the outcome of a very considerable degree of social enfranchisement already accomplished.
Collapse of Agriculture
But the greatest single event frought with immeasurable consequences for the future, is the sudden collapse of English agriculture. A series of bad seasons aggravate the trouble in its initial stages, but the real cause is the development of the American grainlands within reach of the English market. English agriculture is more scientific and more highly capitalized than q American, but under these conditions the odds are too great. The overthrow of the British landed aristocracy by the far distant democracy of the American farmers is one outcome of this change of economic circumstance. An even more important consequence is the general divorce of Englishman from life in contact with nature, which in all previous ages had helped to form the mind and the imagination of this island race. Statesmen tend to regard the fate of agriculture with indifference because it involves no acute problem of unemployment. The farm labourer does not remain on the land when his occupation there has gone. He either goes to the town and finds work, there, or he migrates overseas. He neither loves the land on which he worked merely as a hired hand, nor are the opportunities of the town unknown to him.
Economic Troubles
Meanwhile the landlords and farmers, who have neither the wish nor the power to divorce them from the soil, suffer and complain in vain, for their day as the political rulers of England is over. Both the Liberal and the Conservative intelligentsia are saturated with the Free Trade Doctrines. But economists fail to perceive that agriculture is not merely one industry among many, but also a way of life, unique and irreplaceable in its human and spiritual values. The fate of agriculture is only one example of the near-sightedness characteristic of the English state policy. The Victorians make no plans for the future; they are content to meet those demands and to solve those problems whose pressure is already felt.
The Cosmopolitan Spirit
Other causes also made the English lose some of the complacency and sureness of the early years of the century. England was no longer the first in industrial machinery or in military power. The Franco-Prussian War was the first shock and then America and Germany rose as rival manufacturing powers. Some sense of this led to improved technical education in England. It also induced a more friendly and respectful attitude to America than the English political classes had shown during the American Civil War. The democratic England of the new era was better able to understand the United States and 'the Colonies,' as Canada and Australia were still called.
Rise of Socialism
The new situation led also to an anxious interest in modern Germany, which Englishmen had been content to ignore so far. Matthew Arnold's Friendship Garland and George Meredith's Harry Richmond warned England that national education and national discipline in the heart of Europe was creating a new kind of power that had a jealous eye on the easily won, carelessly guarded and ill-distributed wealth of England. At the same time Russia denounced the ill-employment of wealth in destroying beauty, and its ill-distribution so corrupting alike to the superfluously rich and the miserably poor.
No doubt, there was no strong movement of socialism among the working classes till the last years of the century, but discontent with the spirit of laissez faire had been growing long before John Stuart Mill died in 1873, bequeathing liberal philosophical doctrines that strongly influenced the thought and practice of the age that followed. Mill's doctrine was semi-socialistic. In his thought, democracy and bureaucracy were to work together, and it is largely on these lines that the social fabric of modern England has, in fact, been constructed, even though Mill himself and his philosophy have passed out of fashion.
Prosperity: The New Merchant Class
In spite of such decays and drawbacks, the Victorian era was, on the whole, an era of great prosperity and increasing wealth in which most sections of society shared. A newly rich, and prosperous merchant class came into being as a result of increased overseas trade, and the old merchant class, less shrewd and enterprising, was pushed out. The increased prosperity of the nation made it possible for adventurers like Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley to live on credit —on nothing a year. Manners were gentler, streets were safer, life was more humane, sanitation was improving fast, working-class housing, though still bad, was less bad than ever before. Conditions of labour had been improved, real wages had risen, hours of work had been shortened. But unemployment, sickness and old age, not yet regularly provided for by the State, still had terrors for the workmen.
Better Conditions of Life
The liberal policies of Peel and Glandstone lifted the weight of taxation from the poor by reducing indirect taxation to a minimum. Besides this, Free Trade also claimed credit for the enormous increase of shipping and overseas trade. Under such conditions of 'free trade' prosperity, many articles that were luxuries in the early years of the century were common comforts in the Victorian Era. Food, clothing, bedding, furniture were far more abundant than in any previous age. Gas and oil-lighting were giving way to electricity. Holidays by the seaside had become a regular part of life for the lower middle class and even to large sections of the working class, particularly in the north. But the week-end out of town was just beginning. It was already a custom among owners of big country houses and their guests, but it was scarcely yet known to the middle-class family. Travelling and touring by a craze. While some toured to explore the highways and by ways of their own land on foot or on bicycle, others swarmed over France, Switzerland and Italy in greater numbers than even before.
Social Climbing: Snobbery
Society was getting mixed. 'Society' in the older and stricter sense of the term was a limited world, entry into it being closely guarded by certain Whig and Tory Peers. But in the Victorian era 'society' had a vaguer meaning; it had grown more open and accessible. Social climbing became a fact; those in the lower stratum constantly struggled to move up. This in turn gave rise to snobbery.
Population Trends
In the beginning of the era, large families were still customary in the professional, business and working class world, and the population rose. Only at a much later date did it become evident that a reduction was beginning in the size of families, in the first instance in the professional and middle class families, charged with heavy 'public-school' fees, and among the better-to-do artisans struggling to keep up a high standard of life.
Science and Religion: Skepticism
Puritanism in ethical and sexual ideas, qualified by too frequent weakness of human nature in practice, was the order of the day. There was much hypocrisy, and resort to double standards. The Puritan attitude to life and conduct was inculcated by the Anglo-Catholic religion that had grown out of the Oxford Movement of the thirties, and had spread wide. It was strongest among the parish clergy, but its hold upon the common man was growing weaker. The growth of the scientific outlook and rationalism were undermining religion. But Darwin's theory of evolution and the idea of 'man descended from a monkey' were totally incompatible with existing religious idea of creation and of man's central place in the Universe. Naturally the religious world and the scientific men took up arms to defend their respective positions. The strife raged throughout the Victorian Era.
The Advance of Science
The break-up of Victorian, "Compromise", traditions and conventions was accelerated by the rapid advance of science. Science, with its emphasis on reason rather than on faith, encouraged the spirit of questioning. Victorian beleifs, both religious and social, were subjected to a searching scrutiny and found wanting. The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1850 is of special significance from this point of view. His celebrated theory of Evolution contradicted the account of Men's origin as given in the Bible. His theory carried conviction   as   it   was   logically   developed   and   supported be overwhelming evidence. Man's faith in orthodox religion was shaken; he could no longer accept without question God's. omnipotence, benevolence mercy etc., for such orthodox notions of God were contradicted by facts Similarly, Darwin, with his emphasis on the brutal struggle for existence '' which is the law of Nature, exploded the romantic view of her as a, 'Kindly Mother', having a "Holy plan" of her own. The process started by Darwin was completed by philosophers like Huxley, Spencer, Mill, etc. The impact of these developments in science and philosophy on the works of Hardy is far reaching.
The Rise of Pessimism
Thus the established order, customs, faiths and beliefs, traditions and customs, were losing their hold on minds of the people, and the new order of things had not yet been established. Man had lost his mooring in God, Religion and Nature. The mechanistic view of the universe precluded any faith in a benevolent creator. Man felt, to quote Hardy himself, "Orphan and defrauded". He took a gloomy view towards life, for he felt miserable and helpless with nothing to fall back upon. It was for the first time, says David Cecil, that, "conscious, considered pessimism became a force in English literature." The melancholy poems of Arnold, the poetry of Fitzgerald, Thomson's Vie City of God, and the works of Thomas Hardy, all reflect the pessimistic outlook of the late Victorian era. This growth of pessimism was further encouraged by the flow of pessimistic thought from Europe, where pessimism was much in the air at the time.
In the early years of the 19th century, Archaeology and History were in rapid progress, and their discoveries strengthened the hands of science in the strife against orthodox beliefs. An Academic 'liberal' party, of great intellectual distinction and very much in earnest, fought the battle to free Oxford and Cambridge from the bondage of Church monopoly, and won it by The Test Act of 1871. Academic study now embraced physical science and medieval and modern history as strongly as humanism and mathematics. Queen Victoria's reign was indeed the period when Oxford and Cambridge were most in the public eye. Their reform, particularly the abolition of religious tests for academic posts, was one of the chief political questions of the day. Trained intellect gradually became a youngman's best passport to learning, instead of social patronage or fashionable friends. The most characteristic achievement of the reign was the Dictionary of National Biography, initiated and largely financed by a private individual, George Smith. It is the best record of a nation's past than any civilization has produced.
A change in the direction of levity, if not of laxity, took place, due, no doubt, in part to the gradual crumbling of religious faith with which a strict and slighty ascetic moral code had always been associated. When the hold of religion on the public mind was weakened, religion could no longer influence the social conduct of the people, and Victorian taboos on sex relaxed. The last decade of the century is the decade of the Yellow Book and 'art for art's sake'. A more free and frank treatment of sex became increasingly common in literature.
Religious Movements
The conflict between science and religion among the educated classes was crudely but effectively reproduced in Charles Brodlaugh's militant atheism, preached on public platforms to masses of working men; while the last great Evangelical revival, the Salvation Army, brought the enthusiasm of' conversion' to the host of the houseless and unfed, to the drunkard, the criminal and the harlot. To bring street bands and coloured uniforms into the service of Protestant religion was something new. It was no less significant that the Salvation Army regarded social work and care of the material conditions of the poor and the outcast as an essential part of the Christian mission to bring peace to the souls of men and women. It was largely for this reason the Salvation Army enjoyed such power.
Another movement, analogous to the Salvation Army in its combination of religious and social motive, was Total Abstinence, or Tetotalism. Not only Tetotalism but also the proper and moderate use of wine and beer were encouraged by the increasing amenity and diminishing monotony of life, by rival amusements and occupations such as reading, music, playing and watching organized games, bicycling and sight-seeing, country and seaside holidays, above all by more active and educated minds and more comfortable homes.
Class Struggle: Trade Unionism
In the Victorian era 'capital' and 'labour' enlarged and perfected their rival organizations on modern lines. Many an old family firm was replaced by a Limited Liability Company with a bureaucracy of salaried managers. It was also a step away from individual initiative, towards collectivism and municipal and State managed business. This in its turn increased the numbers and importance of shareholders as a class. The shareholders themselves had no knowledge of the lives, thoughts or needs of the workmen employed by the company in which they held shares, and their influence on the relations of capital and labour was not good. Fortunately, however, the increasing power and organization of the Trade Unions, at least in all the skilled trades, enabled the workers to meet on more equal terms the managers of the companies who employed them. Under these conditions, the increasing national income was rather more equally distributed between the various classes. But the distinction between capital and   labour, the personal segregation of the employer from the employed in their ordinary lives, still went on increasing. Marxian doctrines, therefore, as to the inevitability of the class struggle, constantly gained ground, and the more opportunist collectivism preached by the Fabian Society was still more influential. However, all such doctrines were too theoretical to affect the English worker to any great extent. It was the practical need to defend Trade Union rights that brought Labour into politics to form a party of its own. Trade Unionism soon became; in most trades and in most regions of England, a very powerful weapon of defence for workmen.
Increasing Urbanisation
The beginning of Queen Victoria's reign saw the so-called 'feudal' society of the country still in being, but under changing conditions indicative of the advance of democracy even in rural England and penetration of village Life by forces and ideas from the cities. With the coming of railway transport, the intrusion of urban life upon the rural parts increased and the agricutural way of life began to disintegrate. The country houses and the country estates were now less than ever supported by agricultural rents, which American imports had lowered and brought into arrears. The life at the country house was now financed by money which the owner drew from industry or other investments, or from his income as landlord of more distant urban areas. The old village life was gradually transformed into something half-suburban by newspapers, ideas, visitors and new residents from the cities. The distinctive rural mentality underwent urbanization, and local traditions yielded to a national outlook.
Municipal Reforms
In the realm of politics also, town and country were becoming assimilated. The agricultural worker received the right to vote, by which he could vote as he wished, regardless of farmer and landlord. Elected country councils were established as the administrative units of country life. There was a rapid improvement in sanitation, lighting, locomotion, public libraries and baths, and to some extent in housing. The Central Government supported the efforts of the local authorities to better the life of the citizen by grants - from taxes, conditional on favourable reports by Government Inspectors.
Industrialisation: Increased Ugliness
Municipal reforms supported by the State prevented much social hardship. The death rate rapidly declined, town life was made increasingly tolerable on it’s purely material side, and primary education became universal. But the urban and suburban life made no appeal to the imagination, as did the old village life of England, or the city life of ancient and medieval Europe. Civic pride and civic rivalry among the industrial towns of the north was almost entirely materialisic and not at all aesthetic. The pull of smoke and smuts in itself was enough to discourage any effort at beauty or joy in physical surrounding.
There had been practically no town planning for the Victorian cities. In vast areas of London and other cities there was no open space within reach of the children, whose only playground outside the school yard was the hard and ugly street. To millions the divorce from nature was absolute, and so too was the divorce from all dignity and beauty and significance in the wilderness of mean streets in which they were bred, whether in the well-to-do suburb or the slum. The new education and the new journalism were both the outcome of these surroundings and partook of their nature. A generation bred under such conditions might retain many sturdy qualities of character, might even with better food and clothing improve in physique, might develop sharp wits and a brave, cheery, humorous attitude to life, but its imaginative powers must necessarily decline, and the stage is thus set for the gradual standardization of human personality. There, was increasing awareness of this ugliness. Ruskin inspired the rising generation of writers and thinkers with a sense of disgust at the ugliness of industrial civilization. Looking back through history, they thought they saw fairer world than modern' Lancashire. But there was no going hack, except in imagination.
Spread of Education
During the period under question, education was not only a national requirement on the necessity for which al! were agreed; it was also the chief battleground of various religious groups. A sort of religious compromise was reached and England was enabled to obtain a system of universal primary education without which she must soon have fallen into the rear among modern nations. The average school attendance rose from one and a quarter million to four and a half million, while the money spent on each child was doubled. But the state did little as yet for Secondary Education; nor was there a sufficient ladder of school scholarship to the Universities for the ablest children in primary schools.
The Empire: The Colonies
Social life in Victorian England would have been a very different thing, if it had not been the centre of a great maritime trade, and of an Empire. For generations past, the ways of thought and habits of life in English towns and villages had been strongly influenced by her overseas connections. During Victoria's reign, when the tide of emigration was still running stronger than ever, the postage stamp kept the emigrant in touch with his people at home. Often he returned home and told tales of the lands he had visited. In this way human manner, the middle and lower classes knew quite as much about the 'Empire' as their 'betters'. The professional and upper classes also went out to careers all over the world to govern, and trade, and hunt. Englishmen got lucrative appointments in India and other colonies. In this manner, a vast and varied overseas experience was for ever pouring back into every town and every hamlet in Victoria's England.
An Era of Peace and Complacency
Victorian prosperity and Victorian civilization, alike in their grosser and their higher aspects, were due to a long immunity from great wars and from any serious danger to the nation. Safe behind the shield of the navy, Englishman thought of all the problems of life in terms of peace and security which were in fact the outcome of temporary and local circumstances, and not part of nature's universal order. On the whole, England's supremacy on the high-seas was used on the side of peace, goodwill and freedom. Thus developed the Victorian complacency, the Victorian faith in the supremacy of the English nation, and the Victorian faith in endless progress. To the Englishman, foreign affairs were a branch of liberal and conservative politics, tinged with emotion, a matter of taste, not a question of existence.

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