I’ve often asserted that the material in Of Woodbridge and Hedgely is, to at least some degree, derived from the examination of the works of Jane Austen, and the woman herself. This has mostly to do with the construction of the female characters, their interpersonal interactions throughout the novel, and perhaps the theme of the progressive female protagonist, somewhat defiant of the orthodox social norms that appeared to be in place in early 19th century England. These are not what I wish to presently address (there is a brief overview of such in a video I posted in the introductory entry of this blog), but instead, I desire the audience will observe that Jane Austen has achieved a certain amount of veneration with regard to the literary phenomenon of realism, and that I too, in my novel, have drunk from this selfsame well; save I’ve plunged a little further in, having addressed the rather rough edges of cultural perceptions by small town country folk. (Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!)
One of the main themes of the novel is the examination of the mechanisms in which flawed belief systems, existing secondary to base desires, fears, and religious, or otherwise self-reinforced group thinking, explode the acceptance of science by those outside of the scientific community. Here a parallel can be drawn in that these deficiencies can also manifest as chauvinistic nationalism, and the publishing of impolite thoughts on cultures removed from that of those doing the act. In other words, those that cannot escape scientific ignorance, by their own character deficits, may indeed also fail to avoid cultural ignorance and the rudeness that coexists with such. Incidentally, climate activist and journalist Peter Sinclair often blogs about the intimate coupling of anthropogenic climate change denial and racism among a subset of often-uneducated, American conservatives, which are represented in my novel by the Hedgely Particular Baptists. So with that introduction, let’s take a look at some of the passages from the novel:
Firstly, we have the character Mr. Edwards, the Hedgely Particular Baptist preacher, who introduces the audience to the reality of 19th century English elitism in Episode One, when he instructs his chronically brash wife on the subject of tolerance:
‘Tolerance, Mrs. Edwards! Tolerance, my love,’ Mr. Edwards kindly offered in the baritone voice that matched his tall, grey, near plump and leathery exterior, as he came within range of the ladies after having settled with their carriage. ‘For we are but one set of folk upon this earth out of countless others. And though across our oceans we do find inferior varieties with which we do our best in their keeping, our own countrymen, regardless of their extremity shall not be treated any worse than they, and therefore tolerance must be issued. Oh, how do you do Ms. Moore?’
This exemplifies the hypocrisy of a few of our more outspoken American Christian conservatives: They luxuriate in pontificating morality, whilst simultaneously holding conspicuously immoral positions, as they hold fast to the communal beliefs of their local social circles, which seek to justify their particular prejudices with convenient interpretations of the Bible. This is the only instance of elitism that the preacher showcases throughout the story, but it is implied that such is well ingrained inside the Edwards’ household, as his wife, from time to time, will profess the Englishman’s superiority over his French, German, or otherwise European counterparts. Such initially happens just a few paragraphs removed from her husband’s Episode One offering:
…Great minutes went by as Ms. Moore politely acknowledged this or that in the inexhaustible prose of the minister’s wife as she issued a flight of thoughts along many a subject: the Union’s internal strife and how caviler the newer members were at molesting orthodoxy for the sake of growing a following; Mr. Winter’s horrid glass-shed-of-a-thing that spoiled his backyard; and how poor the cooking had been at the inn recently and the demise of servitude in general. But as she started to pontificate on French and German inferiority, Mr. Edwards thankfully stepped in, noticing that the slight pink in Ms. Moore’s cheeks began to smolder…
In Episode Two, as Harriet and Charlotte prepare to entertain Mrs. Edwards by way of voice and piano in her private parlor, we gather a little more of her disdain for Europeans. The significance in her use of the word ‘medieval’ is that England was at ground-zero of the Industrial Revolution, and at the forefront of engineering innovation, whilst other countries were laggards in comparison. This likely informed Englishmen that they were indeed superior to their European brethren; their breeding being conflated with their technical advantage:
After having explained she fell square in the mezzo range and that in want of a score she and Harriet were only proficient in but a few ancient songs from a historical compellation that had found its way from overseas to the manor’s library long ago – and such not overtaking Mrs. Edward’s sense of English superiority, for ‘there were composers that may almost rival the three ‘H’s’: Handel, Haydn, and Henry Purcell’, though she would not commit that much further, so many of the ‘medieval continentals having stunted thoughts from malnutrition and inbreeding’ – Harriet sat at the pianoforte and gave Charlotte her first note.
And just a few paragraphs down we have Mrs. Edwards struggling with her primal reaction to the Moore ladies’ song, despite it being performed in the ‘inferior’ Italian language:
…The first few passages, steeped in piano driven sensitivity, capitulated to bold fortes, that the poet would certainly not be mistook: ‘Doubt not its truth; Open my breast and see it written on my heart’, she sang in his native language as he referred further to his love. And though Mrs. Edwards spoke not a lick of any inferior language, she was frightfully stirred by the Moore ladies’ interpretation which exuded a relentless magnitude of female sensuality that went far beyond what was expected of English women, much less gentlewomen. Indeed she was powerless against it, and despite the small, remaining pin prick of her now anesthetized rationality working it hardest to cause her shame, the rest of her mind, and body, was flooded by the universally appealing Renaissance tonalities the ladies afforded the room so that she could not move to object. She surely was bewitched…
Now let us examine the indiscreet approach to cultural relations by oWaH’s field workers, who keep dispersed agrarian duties along the outskirts of the binary towns, but are shown to congregate at times, especially at The Plough or Woodbridge Inn – their local pubs – on account of these serving scrumpy (apple cyder) and other alcoholic beverages. In the following example we have these men – some of which having likely been impressed as able men upon Royal Navy ships during the Napoleonic Wars, and others having naturally embraced the nationalist rivalry between England and France secondary to these wars – displaying contempt for the latter country in their private, class-warfare humor involving the gentleman Mr. Winter, whom they’ve dubbed ‘The Frenchman’ or ‘The Crapaud’, as he chronically wears the selfsame blue jacket, reminiscent (for jesting purposes) of a French soldier’s. The joke was certainly not meant to breach their personal circle, but in this scene at The Plough, inside Episode Four, the men’s drunkenness affords them boldness enough so that Mr. Winter indeed overhears their revelry:
The manners on the inside of the inn were no better: He struggled quite profoundly with the folding of his umbrella, and by the time one of Mrs. Bagley’s men came to his assistance, he was breathed and in a slovenly state, concerning his hair and posture. Then at the disposal of his cloak, his now famous blue jacket made its appearance, and that, wrapping such an unkempt person, inspired a set of laborers watching him from the dining hall to offer a few private comments, which were unfortunately inflamed to a roar by their mates:
‘No sir, no sir – the gentleman is not a crapaud! He is no so loathsome!’
‘Huzzah!’, yelled a chorus of drunkards nebulous to the jester.
‘Nor sallow faced!’
‘Nor hollow eyed!’
‘Nor herring gutted’
‘Nor spindle shanked, goiter necked, sore mouthed, sad looking, half clad, tatterdemalion, petty, swaggering; an’ nor at all a bog trotting potentate!’
These are actual insults from Victorian England, pulled from an elitist essay malignantly describing the German people, if I recall correctly; though I’ve forgotten my source.
The laborers’ unrefined notions on exogenous cultures and races again presents in the front of Episode Seven, as an argument unravels involving the transmutation of species (and variants within a species):
‘Sir – though I do not follow you with the creatures, I believe you have become too colourful with Mr. Darwin, for ‘plain chance’ is not reasonably followed by ‘all possible chances’, and in what Mr. Moore has told us of the man’s philosophies there does not appear the like to what you say,’ returned the Woodbridge’s best man, further adding, ‘But were it that Mr. Darwin indeed has pointed in the direction you suggest, then just as Mr. Cuvier’s great mammoth no longer walks the earth as his cousin the elephant does, there then exists the chance that some cousin of man may be long buried in the earth, but awaiting the naturalist’s shovel. And have you not heard of the physical variants of the savages from the lesser continents?’ A hard pinch of dissatisfaction came over him and his mates as he improvised on topics absorbed from Mr. Moore’s last lecture.
‘I heard ‘ems was of a rather strange physique and colour, but on account o’ their savagery an’ not more. Oh, oh, oh!’ the Hedgely cried in alarm as he pointed over the heads of the Woodbridge’s at their table, causing them to turn around only to find the keep with their scrumpy. ‘My apologies, sirs: I reckoned it were a winged boar or a crocodilian-duck! Ha, ha, ha!’
The ‘winged boar’ is obviously a flying pig, and its implication is sincerely held by the man uttering the term as a means to cause injury to his opponents at the pub; but the ‘crocodilian-duck’ is a hat tip to science journalist Potholer54, who runs/ran a YouTube channel dedicated to confounding anti-science positions kept by men with both religious and political motivations for doing so.
Incidentally, the scene also portrays the reality of how those without scientific backgrounds accept science: through the acceptance of the opinions of experts in their respective fields. Ironically, this too almost parallels blind faith, save that our scientific systems consistently produce credible results and progress, and thus it is perfectly reasonable to consider those as trustworthy. (And this is why the modern conservative think tanks, funded by the fossil fuel industry, spend a great deal of their time trying to smear climate experts with non-scandals like Climategate or conspiratorial notions of government tax allocation abuse, &c. They seek to confound the public’s trust in our modern scientific systems; at least along the topics of climate and geophysics.)
Readers should further note that even though the Woodbridge laborers are defending these early notions of evolution, again merely by deferring to their town’s scientific authority, Johnathan Moore, as a trustworthy source of information (and in many cases just defending the man out of loyalty), they too are struggling with the concept, having been indoctrinated by religion all their lives. Indeed, even the protagonist George Moore, Johnathan’s brother and benefactor, has trouble with the subject throughout the story, though he is never brazenly dismissive of it, as the antagonists are. This, I believe, adds a handsome dose of realism to the novel.
But let us turn back to our original subject with a few closing thoughts: I’ve mostly portrayed the antagonists in the novel as the ones keeping improper or immoral stances on cultural and race relations. This is where the realism stops. The truth is a man can be good, right, and heroic in some areas of this life, whilst also being a total failure in others, especially concerning cultural sensitivity during the era in which the novel is set: The cherished opera composer, Richard Wagner, is said to have held antisemitic view points in some of his essays and writings, for example. Indeed, several of our greatest American presidents were slave owners. Thus it would not be so burdensome to conceive that both the Woodbridge field workers, as well as their Hedgely counterparts would have individuals among them, equal and significant in number, that were indifferent to cultural sensitivity at this point in history; and that this circumstance is certainly not limited to the lower caste, if you take my meaning. Alas, a writer can only chip so much morality away from a protagonist, for the sake of realism, before the audience rejects them as such, and so they – the readers – are contentedly left with either characters awash in false purity, or a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, regarding this subject of cultural sensitivity. Asking, of course, gets uncomfortable: How many friends did Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley have, that fought politically against the Slave Trade Act of 1807? And did Darcy, Bingley, or any other of the prominent figures in Jane Austen’s books themselves gather on the ‘wrong side of the fence’ with respect to the Act?
And finally we come to end with one last thought concerning evolution, xenophobia, elitism, racism, and structured social conflict in general. Are not these rooted in primal, hunter-gatherer tribalism, which originated secondary to evolutionary pressure regarding the competition for resources, mates, shelter, &c.? In other words, individual early hominids that coagulated into small clans and who declared outsiders, or other clans, as enemies when necessary (as they were competing for limited resources) were more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation, than the ‘lone-wolves’ in their area, or those with some altruistic prerogative. And not only does an evolutionary explanation exist for these constructs, a generalized definition of their manifestation can be afforded in fairly simple terms: 1) group together in a clan; 2) find something different between your clan and another competing clan in a formal manner; 3) use that as a rallying point to influence your clan to (sometimes viciously) interact with the competitors for the purposes of grabbing as much resources as possible; and 4) do so. And it matters little what variable one picks in defining the said difference: race, culture, geographical location, religious affiliation, political ideology, &c. The idea is to pick a difference, and then convince your brethren that they are superior with respect to such, in order to justify the taking of the other side’s resources.
Mr. Princep illustrates this in Episode Ten of oWaH:
‘I had thought on it a little sir; but if there were as steady work as you say, then I will do so even more. And if I have indeed caused such a sand storm, even at present, I suppose it would therefore be my duty to reverse it, if at all possible; but you will observe that one could place a race of men, who do not vary in the least their physical, emotional, and ceremonial qualities, onto a plot of land where none was less equal in situation to any other, but in the end let half be of blue eyes and the other of brown, and before long they would be at each others’ throats over it. What might the articles entail, do you think?’ asked Mr. Princep as he attempted to massage his lower back in his chair as they occupied Mr. Winter’s study.
[Note: this is a re-posting of a blog article I wrote in July of ’15, my WordPress account having been unexpectedly wiped clean for an unknown reason.]