We have got the 2nd vol. of Espriella’s Letters, & I read it aloud by candlelight. The Man describes well, but is horribly anti-English. He deserves to be the foreigner he assumes. — Jane Austen, 1-2 Oct 1808, at Castle Square, Southampton (LeFaye 141)
Dear friends and readers,
I’ve been reading Robert Southey’s Letters from England in the evening since mid-summer, partly in reaction to Austen’s off-hand dismissal. I’ve discovered it to be a work of original genius: presented appealingly as the story of imagined journeys through England by a Spanish Catholic, Southey’s Letters from England is a perceptive cultural, indeed anthropological analysis of England, circa 1807. He is unusual for seeing in the way medicine is practised has to be seen in the understood of religious attitudes of people as much as their political maneuvering. His depiction of the economic and political doings of English people is relevant to our world today. There is a long varied disquisition on religion and religious sects at the time. Southey’s descriptions of places he loves (the Lake District for example), make parts of his book an exquistely lovely prose poem. He celebrates libraries; he analyses the literary marketplace of his day in a candid sophisticated way (book history!) He is funny. I especially loved his genuine concern for animals, his hatred of slavery, and empathy with the oppressed poor and vulnerable. His book is a rich gem.
Southey is disappointing when he comes to speak of specific women. While not overtly anti-feminist, not concerned with women as such most of the time, one chapter (Joanne Southcote) brings out a startlingly virulent misogynistic strain linking this book to his famous corrosive rejection of Charlotte Bronte’s book. His book does connect to Austen: she read and didn’t like it (she says for its anti-englishness) and fits into (soars above) the popular “letters from” genre of the era, which I find Austen often read.
Southey is particularly good for 19th century England; you would have to go far to find as ample, alive and interesting a book on England in the early 19th century as this. I recommend it to anyone seeking to get a feel for England rather than most 21st century books. The perspective is that of a radical left critique (for the most part). I found I could not easily summarize the book or rewrite in synopsis style, so after a brief introduction these are the summaries and evaluations I’ve been writing on Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo (corrected) these months — with a few appropriate pictures.
My edition is a good older one: adequately enough annotated with an insightful introduction by Jack Simmon (Prof of History, University College, London), it was printed in 1951 by The Cresset Press. Particularly good are his notes connecting the book to England in 1951. For those on a budget who nonetheless do not want to resort to a struggle with a google book or find a facsimile reprint (book on demand), it’s a fine choice. You’ll cherish your volume when you’ve done.
There is a new expensive edition published by Chatto & Pickering, said to be the “first fully annotated, critical edition” by Carol Colton. I guess the word “fully” is key to this statement. Simmons’s notes are accurate, detailed enough and often give you good analogies from contemporary works and he reprints Southey’s notes by Espriella too. Chatto & Pickering’s critical blurb tells you how Southey “blurs the boundaries of fact and fiction to produce a complex work of literary merit — there is no other prose work of its kind during the Romantic period. Among the topics covered are: provincial customs, political intrigues; theater and sports; religious sects; poverty and criminality in urban centers; science and medical progress; Georgian London; social change” and the state of the army and navy.”
Note the values here. To say a work crosses the boundaries of fact and fiction would not have appealed then. It is true that like many travelogues a lot of the travel is half-imagined and our narrator is an imagined character. The blurb entirely omits the radical politics of the book and its relationship to our world today. Price 100 pounds now and 180 pounds later. ISBN: 978 1 84893 209 8
Letters 1 – 3
I read the introduction and first chapter. It’s a book hard to summarize; much
of its quality thus far is a product of the interaction of the persona and what he sees. Since Southey’s Spaniard gentleman begins in Cornwall (I can’t seem to leave Cornwall in my reading these months) I can compare the opening to Collins’s Rambles Beyond Railways. Collins presents himself as an unnamed version of himself (hired journalist) and can fill us in on what he read about Cornwall to start; Espriella is a traveler who might be compared to an independent scholar i in a library. It’s not a job (like Collin’s is); Espriella travels for the love of it and to inform his fellow Spaniards what England is really like. The idea is he knows nothing and on top of this he admits his Catholicism may get in the way of understanding what he sees.
I wonder about this persona. In the introduction to the book, Simmons goes over Southey’s life and tells how he had a wealthy uncle who lived in Lisbon and went to stay with the uncle at a formative moment (early 20s, after the friendship with Coleridge reached its first collapse); he visited Portugal again after he married and spent 14 months there. He had been an ardent Republican and the experience of the Peninsula and how he saw France in 1793 made him begin to turn conservative. He was a radical politically and that meant religion, and we are told he hated Catholicism as this imprisoning repressive system/religion. He returned in 1801 to do aimless unquiet wandering, a struggling writers writing all the time (poetry which hardly ever makes anyone any money); a turning point was someone (there must be a person) began to give him reviewing for the Quarterly Review. After that he reviewed all his life and the payments for this, a small annuity (oh how wonderful such things are) were a kind of continual small grease to go on with as he wrote and wrote much else. In 1803 he and his wife were invited to visit Gretna Hall. He never left. A huge room was set up for him (with a lovely view) and from there he wrote as if his life depended on it — well at any rate everyone around him did depend too.
I can only think that the assumption of this religion is a kind of excuse to
fend off criticism of him. In her nasty comment Austen refers to this
Spanishness as simply an irritant. For my part he does not seem to be at all
Spanish, not even a little bit. His perspective is that of the middle class
English man when he describes the coach.
The first chapter reminds me of travel books which start with complaints, only
his depiction of Cornwall is of a place physically beautiful (desolate too) and economically desperate. Like many travelers he sees the travelers’ world and it is one of high bustle, inconvenience, with thus far comic vignettes – in the coach.
Southey’s book is very good. Witty, lively, and quietly critical of the established order. This is the moderate radical people speak of (an oxymoron I know).
A few examples: he tends to tell stories of catastrophic awful behavior to women as if it’s a half joke when he knows it’s not. A man who does not imprison his wife, but rather rows her out to an island rock at low water, and leaves her there to think he will not come back. He only returns when the tide is close to drowning her (p. 19)
Very hard physical labor performed by women (p. 22) pointed out to us as unfair affliction.
A sequence where he shows how the countryside around Launceston (Cornwall) is ruined by enclosures (25). Another where he points out how people are driven to starve and move into towns where they are beggars and prostitutes.
In Exeter he tells of how a literary society attached to a circuliating club which was lively and thriving was “broke” up by the gov’t because it was said to foster French Revolution ideas. A thrown-away line tells us this has been done in “every town, village, and almost every family in the kingdom”. When you read this, you can remember that he is talking as a Spaniard, who would be seen as a reactionary so this is a double mask.
In Devonshire he shows how a “notoriously venal” rotten borough really works, How few people live in Honiton, the number of representatives (p. 31) and so on
How Gilbert Wakefield was (in effect) murdered by the British gov’t by his imprisonment. This man was a “favourer of the French revolution.” He was locked up on a trumped up charga=e — having in an answer to a Bishop on the question of dissenters used the fable of teh ass and his panniers. It was a threat to rulers it was said. Public feeling ran high on his behalf. Nonetheless about a show trial (all pretense of justice acted out_), he was put in a prison under rules which permitted no visits. His family could not give him good regularly or warm clothes. (Prisons are themselves shown to be death-like horrible places.) He became very ill and nothing was done (like Edward Fitzgerarld). Shortly after Wakefield was released he died. (p. 35). Southey spoke to someone in power about it and said how much ‘more humane” it would be to repress such documents in the first place (no one believes Milton); the reply, ah but yes then the public would see “too open a violation of the liberty of the press.” Why people think that people in earlier eras were less sophisticated in their viciousness than we today I’ve never figured out.
So amid he wit and humor and realistic descriptions of counties, towns, roads, we have a quiet telling of the intense repressions of the 1790s and early 1800s.
Unexpected (I was not surprised by any of the details of the above) was Southey’s real sympathy for horses. So he was part of the new movement for sympathy for animals. There are a couple of striking examples by the third chapter. So, e.g., in his description of post-chaises, Southey shows how “the life of a post-horse is truly wretched.” One of them in the particular instance had been “rubbed raw by a harness.” They are given little or no rest between journeys. The rationale (as Southey knows) resembles that of slavery. The owner finds “it more profitable to over work their beasts and kill them by hard labour in two or three years than to let them do half the work and live out their natural length of life” (p. 32).
Jane Austen’s criticism is as usual so general (mild xenophobic resentment) and off the cuff it’s hard to say that she’s displeased because of the liberal perspective of Southey’s book, but it cannot be dismissed that that may be it.
Letters 4 – 7
Salisbury Cathedral gives him a chance to critique the destructive behavior of all the fanatic religious cliques as well as the establishment, all the while celebrating its beauty. Although he does the strange beauty of their configurations justices, he does not like ugly modern iron bridges. Nor do I
He has carefully read earlier travel books — interesting this. A scholarly type.
Then he gets into London. I can see that a huge swatch of the book takes place in London. Southey was not that much of a traveler after all.
I read on into Southey’s first days in London and discovered two passages I’ve come across before. This is not a forgotten book. It’s read and remembered.
Both are part of an increasingly strong critique of fundamental customs in 18th and early 19th century life. Southey tells the story of one Governor Wall who during a crisis at sea became so hysterical and brutal he had three men flogged to death. The event was so ugly (it included the floggers tiring and everyone resting and then continuing) and horrifying that it went even beyond the bounds of what was considered acceptable. And what was acceptable was vicious. Wall had to flee and lived in hiding for many years; finally his own circumstances and the post-Revolutionary era made him think that the propaganda would be on his side. Not so. He was hanged — but not (as Southey points out) for brutality or over-flogging, rather on a point of law, whether what he had done was an execution (that would have been fine) or murder (not fine). In other words the court maintained the right and justness of flogging to death.
Southey’s retelling of the incident is part of larger chapter where he critiques the military system of the UK then. He says there should be a clearly demarcated limited term of service, for then you would get more volunteers. He clearly regards pressing as an outrage. The “grievous evils” of the military system includes the way the rich can buy a substitute and the poor can’t. The famous passage comes at the end of an account of the brutalizing and corrupt ways of spending time: he writes that “he who has once been a solider is commonly for ever after unfit for everything else.”
I’ve seen that quoted. I should add that Southey is horrified by the custom of leaving rotting bodies hanging and tells stories of families trying to retrieve their relative or friend’s body — thus reinforcing the thesis of _Albion’s Fatal Tree_ that friends tried to rescue bodies from the scapels of the medical establishment.
The other piece I’ve come across comes first in the sequence on London. Southey really gives the reader an idea of the immense crowdedness of London — or so it felt then. The remarkable variety and press of goods. Southey’s uses his Spanish persona and shows shopping in London is a mode of exhibiting oneself and one’s class instead of getting what you need.
He imagines the reader walking with him up the street past St Paul’s, and then critiques the way the streets around St Paul’s obscure its beauty which he says is not really cared about no matter what people claim. Why so? After the 1660 fire there was a chance to re-landscape and leave it free and that was ignored, and again in the 18th century there had been a chance to re-landscape and again no one did anything. The passage is too long for me to quote but it was quoted by J. R. H. Weaver after WW2 was over to support an argument for preserving an open view of the church after all around it had been destroyed (p. 51)
Southey also in a comic description reveals English people are bad at pageantry. This section may be intended as a satire on Spanish customs.
Byron has done great harm to this man’s general reputation and deprived us of good books showing that there was a middle kind of decency in the UK at the time – the political positions here are that of Radcliffe — Southey cannot inveigh against nunneries but he is not keen.
Letters 8 – 17
Several superb chapters. This is really able satire which is at the same time realistic enough to present to the reader a sense of London life at the time.
Letter 11 describes London shopping showing beyond a doubt how much of it is done to forward your position, your caste, how the shops are themselves become very fancy in order to appeal to what I’d called identity-snob politics. The section reminded me of a brilliant chapter in Trollope’s Small House at Allingham where the DeCourcy’s go shopping for carpets and the cad of the novel who has jilted the novel’s wonderful heroine, Lily, sees what shits they are and also how much he is going to have to cough up in money earned beyond the dowry to keep this woman and her tribe in countenance. A new fangled “comfort” is spreading throughout London.
Southey’s tone is not harsh, but he makes some subtle points which are relevant still: such as “this metropolis of fashion” is actually growing more “monotonous in appearance” because of the need to appeal to this broader swathe of upper class or aspiring types. He can’t get over the windows and the verandas – which make a place colder. For the first time I realize the veranda in Persuasion which the Mary Musgrave and Charles are proud of is ludicrous in their climate. Part of the point.
Letter 12 a serious disquisition on larger politics. Southey shows that most people did not understand why a peace treaty had emerged, nor who the individuals in the parties were or what was at stake. He doesn’t say a lot (protecting himself) but enough to suggest it’s a matter of individuals jockeying for position. Here his not being a Spaniard is plain (the way he discusses Ireland). He is with Pitt for Peace and admires Addington
Letters 13 and 14 give real descriptions of typical rooms in London and typical dress, not so satirically presented. A production design person for a costume drama could do worse than read this. Details of furniture, of conveniences, of hats. Chapter 15 gives us the meals Londoners ate, the luxuries. This again brings out Southey’s humanity when it comes to animals. How savage and shocking really the brutal treatment of the animals in butcheries. Southey comes up close and gives details, we are to feel for these sheep covered wit their own blood, herded mercilessly and sometimes slaughtered slowly for fun. He makes us aware how much of the food on the English table comes from elsewhere. Also again politics. A law against brewing or roasting your own coffee to protect an industry. A long piece on the brutal uses of chimney sweeps – here as a Spaniard he can make points.
A great deal of the pleasure is in the style, natural, easy yet not infrequently aphoristic, as in: “If humanity is in better natures an instinct, no instinct is so easily deadened, and in the mass of mankind it seems not to exist. There’s some fun, like a rage for conveniences, the new ingenious mechanics and inventions (e.g., corkscrews). I’m with Southey on innovation
A letter on espionage — not for politics but revenue. We see how people preyed upon one another to snitch to the revenue officer such that vast protection rackets emerged. I felt I was reading a Dickens novel or material for one.
Letter 17: there is a realistic description of the insecurity and fragileness of the theater building itself as well as a funny treatment of the audience’s behavior: Southey is part of the modern (group who want quiet in a theater, who have come there to see the show, and such a segment of the audience was not the dominant force until later in the 19th century. I re-read Southey’s funny chapter on the rage for “comfort.” In 1807 these “proud islanders” seemed to want to enjoy themselves and have many conveniences and they could do so and get all sorts of things in London.
Letters 18 – 20
Letter 18 is about Drury-Lane Theater and our Spanish friend, Espriella, goes to a performance of The Winter’s Tale, which on one level astonishes him for its splendour, size (so many people brought together), beauty (richness and light).
However, the performance left much to be desired. I felt I was reading a cross between Charles Lamb dismayed at what in reality people can do on a stage when they try to enact something adequate to Shakespeare’s conceptions and a Voltaire-like take on the absurdities of the half-wild half-madness of a Shakespeare play. Not that he does not take time out to describe the impressiveness of Mrs Siddon’s arresting Hermione (surpassing in theatrical effect is what he called her performance, costume, presence), with a little on Kemble as Leontes.
Then the afterpiece which sounds like a full play in its own right of Don Juan — no playwright is named. He emphasizes the ending of whatever it was he saw, the statue saying this seemed to be the favorite part of the spectacle and himself found it a “high style of fancy, truly fine and terrifice. The sound of his marble footsteps upon the atage struck a dead silence throughout house.”
As a Spaniard he complains English writers are not very respectful of the Spanish stage or audience while their audiences continue to “delight in one of the most monstrous of our dramas.” About the content or themes, he has nothing to do. Austen does mention Don Juan and it’s a a cruel monster of depravity (despite the comedy).
I recently re-read Trollope’s Barchester Towers and he has a long rant by his narrator decrying the awfulness of sermons; Southey’s apparently milder send-up of these awful sermons is actually more radical in its content. Trollope protests against the boredom, egoism, and stupidity of what’s said without giving any idea of the probable content. Southey gives an idea of the content (moral and theological) and then tells of the trading and business of sermon-selling, sharing, the creation of “outlines” sold. He says the popular preachers are those most into histrionics and those who give upbeat accounts of the world which never trouble or disquiet the unthinking norms of their listeners at all. He gives a general outline and mocks the kinds of quotations used (Ossian!). It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing for (as I wrote last time) many of these preachers are acting to forward their careers, make deals outside the pulpit, somehow make small bits of money then too.
After I read Catherine Jones’s The passionate Sisterhood, Southey went up enormously in my estimation. He was the only one of these male romantics really to support the women he married (plus some of those he had not married but were his friends’ “women”), he inflicted least children on them; I was impressed by his habits of hard-work and genuine cooperation and sacrifice of himself (not quite enough to forgive the putdown of Bronte which I fear he did on other women, or not enough to forget it), and I’ve liked very much his occasional poetry, radical abolitionist verse and early radical play Wat Tyler. Now I see much more to the man in his thought.
Letter 19 is a description of an English church service and here the Spanish point of view is serviceable. He is an outsider, not sympathetic, seeing in. It’s like somebody from Mars retailing these curious behaviors. The rigid hierarchies (e.g., the powerful own or rent their pews)). One problem is that as a satire which gives real insight it falls flat. A methodist perspective would read the meaning into these details and de-construct them. I suspect Southey was aware the mask here freed him from having to say something dangerous (risky)
It’s a letter I can’t do justice to. Southey attempts to characterize the religious spirit or attitudes of the British people as it were from an anthropological point of view. He sees a lack of mysticism, looks at the specific customs that go with each festival (what’s eaten, rituals of medicine). He find traces of Catholic or high church behavior (icons, lights). In Spain much in daily life is calculated to remind people of religion; in the UK it’s utterly played down, down to the outfits the priests wear and how they marry.
He finds the religion of death is cut off — meaning religious practices which bring people in their minds in close proximity to the world of the dead. He finds this strange: no consolation offered, just cut off, as if there is nothing there on the other side. He talks of being cut off from one’s sorrow, not given rituals or ways actively to cope (prayers). I can’t make out if this is ironic, but I think not.
He says this schism did result in a Bible in English, clergy who preach in English. He seems to see no gain here. It’s imaginary the claim that Roman Catholics cannot read their Bible in the vernacular he says. All they must do is translate the Vulgate (an approved text of course). He says that they drink wine is at least one thing left to them — so “they are right to make the most of what they have.” As to marriage, it brings poverty, which gets him to how the clergy is more a sheer profession or career in the UK.
It was also in France and Spain too.
How clergymen are commercial adventurers selling and buying curacies.
Letter 20: a passion for collecting, from books to tulips. Each type with their devotees explained:
A long piece on flowers and the tulip rage elsewhere.
A fun part is about how people collect china and cats – cats. He maintains that the English believe there is no such thing as a male “tortoise-shell colored cat.” Well there are. Court cases not so funny of someone suborning one another and trying to get someone hanged so he can get his hands on a certain kind of farthing.
I found of real interest Southey’s description of physical books, what people with mania collect (margins, tall books, rarities). The good is to preserve volumes that would otherwise perish. Private people allow others to use their collections (a class bias and connections would come in here though) and then Southey explodes in complaints about how public libraries run; badly managed, absurd restrictions. The want of convents is here deplored — in Spain did such places keep libraries open to the public?.
Letter 20: He of course is against the total want of respect for the Virgin Mary, “cold unimpassionated uninteresting” when it comes to stories, all moral lecture.
The best thing is the ambition of the preacher or clergyman, what they are there to get for themselves – rendered comically but there.
Letters 21 – 25
From collecting as a significant habit of the English, Southey moves (Letter 22) onto coins as such (what they look like, how made, how recently debased and diminished, then a history of money (physical money), paper circulation and finally forgery and its dread punishments (hanging, remorseless and very
hard to get off). In this free-shaped sort of book, he can then extend his
remarks and there is an insightful discussion of the rationales given for
the draconian punishments for forgery, stealing and petty theft at the time.
Southey moves beyond the usual, we have to defend the reality of money, to a
more general principle I’ve never seen enunciated. A punishment should be
harsh not in accordance with the violence or cruelty of the crime itself,
but how easy it is to be done. I was startled. According to this, then
smoking marijuana should perhaps get torture? But such was the supposed
rationale. I rush to say this section by Southey is informed by his
rejection of such inhumanity, rigor and he is as against putting people into
prison for debt as Johnson in his famous Ramblers was, but I’ve never seen
the rationale before. Southey then speaks to this rationale: if it be that a
punishment should be fitted to the ease of the crime, he says the community
must make the crime harder. He comes out with suggestions of how to make it
hard to forge a note. He suggests something hard to engrave which is large
and visible to the common eye, and shows how this may be done.
Perhaps he means to expose this rationale as hypocritical, but as other of
his sections I’m not sure he is ironical here.
Then to the city, and where else but Westminster Abbey (Letter 23). The three
foundings (it was founded, then refounded, and then rebuilt). First when it
was converted from a temple of Apollo (Diocletian) and its second place
after Gastonbury Abbey; the miracle story told to explain this. Southey has
some fun with this, and then turns about and says anyone who says he does
wrong to tell such bogus nonsense would be wrong, for it is “important to
know what has been believed, whether it be truth or not.” He is
anthropological in this book. And sceptical too: no individual opinion can
be a “standard of truth” either. The ravages of the Danes, the long period
of the Tudors with gothic rebuilding. Southey as a Spaniard is against the
puritanical destructions; “instead of erecting tombs, their delight was to
deface the old.”
This leads into an interesting discussion of the gothic. In an earlier
chapter Southey had said the English are not mystic, and looks at these
monuments as symbols of power and prestige — Newton on one and the Earl of
Stanhope on another great pile. He gets a kick out of referring to Cromwell
(whose bones were dug up and thrown out and tomb destroyed) as “the
The strangeness of going round looking at tombs which moves into a portrait
of a verger who emerges as a gothic figure (in the genre sense) himself.
After the portrait of the gothic-like verger (Letter 23), we move round Westminster and our Spanish conductor tells us how the English have this habit of touching everything and you can find little quarrels played out by paying attention to what’s defaced or ruined. If they hate a book, they”ll cut out a leaf in it. He points to a major monument to Major Andre, hanged by Washington as a spy; the story is told in relief. Well it’s head was struck off after someone else struck off Washington’s (as a traitor). He ends saying that if the public “were indiscriminately admitted” into many of the public places, including churches, “everything valuable … would soon be destroyed.”
So much for the happy camper theory of contented non-violent English people.
Then skin and hair color and names (Letter 24). Southey offers the idea that the complexions and hair colors of English people show their favorite myths about their origins of themselves cannot be. If Celts were had fair hair and eyes, where does all this dark hair, dark eyes, and swarthy (brownish) skin come from. (Alas, he had not Steve Olson’s Mapping Human History to refer us to.)
Then names: how they reflect identity politics (the Bible), partisan ship (politics), snobbery (Cecilia Amelia and Wilhemina now shoving out Bridget, Joan and Dorothy; how abbreviations are formed, fashions from war heroes (news-stories of the day — like people today naming their children after favorite TV characters).
Months are latin-derived but not days and the “Saxon Paganism” of these leads him to say how no one in England gets married on a Friday; superstition denominates that bad luck.. St Swithin’s and valentine’s day (which Austen wrote her last poem when she lay dying upon). He sees this as sad vestiges of Catholicism, as well as their statuary Again I can’t tell if he’s ironic or which is his target (Spanish customs or English) or perhaps human nature itself as comical.
Ch 25: the prevalence of “vermin” everywhere (bed bugs) leads to foxes and fox-hunting and by a natural transition back to something more felt: Southey’s feeling for animals. The regulation shooting — murdering of birds — which in similar terms Austen dislikes. This wholesale butchery is described and what results from or swirls round it. The poaching laws which make it illegal for ordinary people to kill in order to have something to eat. Sales everywhere and sale signs too (including coaches), larders of inns supplied — in Southey’s account this gross killing is not done just for sport, but to make money, to sell the animals for food. He says the real reason more middling farmers resent the killing because they are not profiting. And the section ends:
“Some species by these continual persecutions have been quite rooted out, others are nearly extinct, and others only to be found in remote parts of the island. Sportsmen lament this, and naturalists lament it also with better reason.”
He would support Jane Goodall and the environmental as well as pro-animal lobbies today. The use of the word “persecution” is right. What have these animals done to be so persecuted? And it fits his persona too.
The “field sports” lead to a chapter on the poor laws and workhouses which is immense, and one Southey shows much compassion and thought in. for the reader of 2011 that I summarize it separately. Southey’s description of the way the poor were treated in 1807 and the attitudes underlying this treatment is directly parallel to the treatment we see meted out to the poor (unemployed, people getting food stamps, disabled people) today.
He begins by saying with the Spanish “charity is a religious duty”. He then basically dismisses what the Spanish do, saying only they “support the poor” by alms, hardly adequate.
His interest is England. It’s a matter of law. So he goes back to Elizabethan times, the dissolution of the monasteries and describes the “disgrace” of the poor laws. These are supported by a system of parish taxation which is seen by those who pay the taxes as a grievance.
The agents are “overseers” and the office so troublesome only lower middle people do it, and they do it with “rigid parsimony.” They are lavish with their own enjoyments (salaries they get for doing this work). Each penny is given reluctantly and made to “feel his poverty as a reproach.”
This system is backed up by a “worst evil:” each parish bound to provide for its poor works hard to throw out everyone else no matter how sick, how desperate. “There is no liberty in England for the poor.” Anyone not belonging to a parish and poor is “apprehended as if he were a criminal” and “sent back to his parish.” Women giving birth are thrown out while doing so.
He says the “principle” of the poor laws is that the price of labor is enough to support a family; if the season is unusually hard, the parish assists them. Otherwise not. Southey says this behavior is backed up by the notion if you give poor people more than subsistence they will waste it in riot, drink or worse yet be idle. “Plausible” as this seems (Southey’s irony I’m beginning to see is very quiet), it’s “fallacious” and cruel. It assumes as its “as is the depravity of human nature.” In fact were the poor to have more than subsistence, they would and do when this happens save, live healthier more productive lives with opportunities for advancement from education.
But no one pays attention to this.
When the poor grow too old to work, they are thrown in workhouses. Humiliated by being forbidden to live as adults (separated from spouses so no sex can go on). The kind of people who work in work houses are those who get no better situation. Any children here grow up without love. For an older person it is particularly “heart-breaking” to be subjected to “harsh and unfeeling authority” from someone much younger “neither better born or bred,” just as often worse.
England boasts of its wealth, but it has huge numbers of people living in abysmal poverty. Southey then depicts a typical street in London and villages in winter. Riots break out in times of scarcity and the reaction is draconian punishment (this happens in Graham’s Four Swansthe novel I’m just now reading).
Beyond what human nature is, Southey fingers “the manufacturing system” as the “main cause” of all this misery. It is the “inevitable tendency of that system to multiply the number of the poor, and to make them vicious, diseased and miserable”. Rousseau is see by Southey (perhaps ironically) as committing “high treason” against “human nature” and blaspheming “Omniscient Goodness” by his comparing people in savage to people in social states. But Southey says then that they “who say society ought to stop where it is; that it has no further amelioration to expect, do not less blaspheme the one [God] and betray the other [human nature?]. As now set up the improvements of society do not reach the poor. The gentry are better lodged, better educated, but the poor live as “the slaves of old,” work hard, badly bed, not well taught at all [I add it's in no one's interest to teach them]. He says if we compare the well off in social states (modern) we see they have “full enjoyment of all” their powers, bodily and intellectual.” In savage states all have equal access to what is on offer, and he concludes therefore it’s better for poor people to be born in primitive society “than in a civilized country, where he is in fact the victim of the civilization”.
Letters 27 – 30
Chapter 27 takes us through St Paul’s in the same thorough way as our
narrator took us through Wesminster (the monuments, the nakedness of the
church — to a catholic — its summit and a sublime view; this leads to Ch
27 all about Catholicism in England. It’s hard for me to grasp where Southey
is, much of it seems sympathetic to Catholics yet I read he disliked
Catholicism intensely — all his talk about nuns escaping persecution just
doesn’t feel ironic. I have a similar problem with the next chapter, on
non-conformity. I do think the underlying narrator is intensely sympathetic;
the point is made over and over that the establishment has nothing to fear
from either group and seems at heart against persecutions: of catholics or
nonconformists. But again I’ve read Southey opposed the extensions of the
Then a lovely travelogue type chapter on the pictures, seaside places, which
is made to have some bite because Southey says such places have really grown
up as place where “parents” try to dispose of their daughters. (This has
connections to the Austen letters where the parents have brought the
daughters to Bath and then tour, except all the girls meet are other poor
fringe young women, mostly unmarried.)
Espriella is going to the lake district – where we (and Southey’s first readers) knew he lived.
Chapter 30 is a sort of satire and exposure of the picturesque. Southey’s theme is how “within the last thirty years a taste for the picturesque has sprung up; — and a course of summer traveling is now looked upon to be as essential as ever a course of physic was in old times …” Some flock to the shore, others to the mountains, some to lakes, yet more to Scotland …
Thus his commentary in his travelogue that people do this to palm off their unmarried daughters, to show off their material goods, as a form of conspicuous consumption (though he doesn’t use the term that’s what he means), enrichening Bath and doctors and encouraging mountebanks is attached to this new movement.
He would have approved of Marianne Dashwood’s satire on the use of cliched language.
Nonetheless, he is eager to set forth, and we get him packing and heading for the lake district. He does not go there directly but begins at a stage coach to Oxford and he provides a realistic yet comic description of what it was like to travel inside, on top of a coach and four just laden down with luggage, and what ensues is a very interesting description of the landscape and places.
Still reading this one — albeit very slowly — Southey turns just charming (there’s no other word for it) as he begins to travel in group of picturesque seeming places. As he says “it’s impossible not to like the villas” one sees as a tourist, “so much opulence, and so much ornament is visible about them,” all orderly and aesthetically so consoling. He has his narrator stand in the middle of a corn field looking about Oxford: it’s as good as a costume drama film adaptation (see p. 172). The only drawback is some of what happens in inns, for example, the habit of “calling for wine which you know to be bad, and paying an extravagant price for what you’d rather not drink” (p. 171)
He just celebrates Oxford — probably this reflects him as a reading man while threading in the bloody history of individuals; the services in the library, the kinds of degrees available, the history of the Bodleian, and then comes to the Cotswolds — wholesome with much being grown and farmlands everywhere. Not picturesque, better than that he says (so he agrees with Edward Ferrars in the dialogue with Marianne where she complains about cliched ideas and he sasy he prefers to see prosperous farmers, sunny skies, clean roads).
What is good is shown stoutly to be good. He doesn’t satirize to satirize at all.
Letters 32 – 35
Very soothing late at night last night. He doesn’t just celebrate Oxford but brings out lovely things (the old bells with their huge sounds and names) and funny oddities that have changed: he mourns the disappearance of the old topiary once made out of yew,and he points out the irony that these colleges were founded as religious places by the church at the time Catholic, but now Catholics and dissenters are excluded. He does point out how no degrees are gotten by most of the young men; Oxford is there for divinity study. To do law you go to London, medicine Edinburgh, music where the musician pleases. The exams though have been made real, not just pretend going-through the motions as they were before 1800. Protestantism does not build monumental buildings so the people have to depend on the vanity of donors (not to worry) and the buildings are often built for science or knowledge rather than religion.
When he moves on to Godstow he retells the story of Rosamund first poignantly and then (in effect) deconstructs it: tells what probably happened and ironically suggests why the distance.
The beauty of the landscape is presented under the aspect of its uses. What hops look like, how grown, the uses is typical.
I now think the reason I can’t tell when he is satirizing the UK through the persona of a catholic Spaniard and sympathetic to the Spanish, is he’s not clear in his mind about it. He says how in Spain the libraries are very generous and lend out their books to all who come; in Oxford you have to be let in and then the books are chained. It could also just be this anthropological thrust of the book.
But when all is said of the serious content what is striking is Southey’s poetic prose at times and his sudden turn to depth of passion and compassion, an appreciation of the strangenesses and cruelties of life. There’s a long description of Oxford seen during a lightning storm that I’ll scan in for my blog, here’s a bit:
The tower, the bridge, the trees, and the long street, were made as distinct as at noon-day, only without the colours of the day, and with darker shadows — the shadows, indeed, being utterly black. The lightning came not in flashes, but in sheets of flame, quivering and hanging in the sky with visible duration. At times it seemed as if the heaven had opened to the right and left, and permitted a momentary sight of the throne of fire” (pp. 179-80).
I was very moved by a tale of a young mentally retarded or disturbed young man taken care of all his life by his mother who Southey says probably did love having him with her as he so loved her. When she died, he could not understand or appreciate what was happening when she was buried. He went and dug her up, and took her corpse home and attempted to feed her, and Southey gives us this gothic poignant scene complete with dialogue of the poor young man hovering over this dead hand and face says “why d’ye look so pale, mother? why be you so cold?” (p. 191)
We are left to wonder what happen to him as the carriage and narrative moves on to the next day and place.
For the rest of the book, see comments.