Sunday, January 15, 2017

Some curiosities from 'Self Control', an 1811 novel


Jane Austen was very rude about Self Control, a novel by Mary Brunton that came out in 1811, the same year as Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility. Austen said she would go one better and in her next book have her heroine cross the Atlantic in a boat by herself [1]. This was an unfair swipe at Brunton whose kidnapped heroine Laura escapes her American captors by floating down river to safety in an Indian canoe, narrowly avoiding drowning in a waterfall. Saved by a farmer, our heroine is conducted to Quebec where she boards a ship for her home in Scotland.

And here's the point: lacking money to pay for her passage, she persuades the captain to accept a banker's draft, which can be cashed at the voyage’s end. On arrival at Glasgow we read: 


“The next morning she gave the captain a draft for the price of her passage; and producing her purse and Mrs De Courcy's ring, offered them as further security; ... The sailor, however, positively refused to accept of any thing more than the draft, swearing that if he were deceived in Laura, he would never trust woman again.” [2] 

Paying for travel by draft as early as 1811? (or the 1790's which is when I suppose the action is set.) I was intrigued … 

But having looked it up I find that ordinary citizens had been able to write cheques since around 1650. Here's one of the earliest surviving handwritten cheques in England, dated 16th February 1659.  

A 1659 handwritten cheque. The amount is £400 - over £40,000 today.
Printed cheques, it appears,  were introduced by the Bank of England in 1717 and the earliest surviving cheque on a printed form is dated 1759.  However, as we have seen, in Self Control Laura gave the captain the draft “the next morning”  so I imagine we are to suppose Laura tendered a handwritten cheque similar to the image above.  The context makes it improbable she would have had time to visit a bank to get a proper form.   

For international merchants using bills of exchange the banking system and cheques seem to go back to the 9th century at least, see Wikipedia.  But it's ordinary people, if you will permit me use that word loosely, that I am interested in. 

Another historical curiosity from Self Control.  Early in the story, Laura and her father have to travel from Edinburgh to London: the surprise here is that they go by sea.  By land would have been more convenient in every way, but much more expensive, so a sea passage was chosen as the mode of conveyance best suited to her father’s finances. "Five days they glided smoothly along the coast. On the morning of the sixth, they entered the river, and the same evening reached London." [3]

Application to the officers of police

I was startled to come across the word “police”.    I had thought this word came into use in the 1840’s, at the very earliest. But to my surprise, in 1811 you could contact the police to report missing persons. After Laura is kidnapped, her friend Mrs De Courcy searches for her, by advertising in every newspaper, and by making “application to the officers of police for assistance in her inquiries” in London. [4]   I see from the Oxford English Dictionary that “police” is first found thirteen years earlier, in 1798. 


In Pride and Prejudice the housekeeper guides Elizabeth and the Gardiners through Pemberley's interior. From Jane Austen's World blog.
A party is got up to view pictures in a country estate, in the owner’s absence [5]– putting me in mind of the Pemberley visit in Pride and Prejudice; an episode which has long puzzled me, that you could just turn up at a grand house and ask to be shown round by the housekeeper. In Self Control, the visit is with the owner’s  prior permission, so the parallel is not exact. But I've subsequently found an essay explaining the protocol of these country houses visits.[6]

It seems that in the 18th century it was accepted that respectable people could view the lavish country homes of the aristocracy and landed gentry.  A tip to the gardener or housekeeper for their trouble was often all that was expected. Though in some cases you bought tickets. The scale of country house tourism at the end of the century was prodigious. In August 1776 the visitor book for Wilton, a great house with a celebrated collection of artwork, showed 2,324 visitors in the previous year; and the second half of the 18th century saw 26 editions of four different guidebooks to this house.  The blog Jane Austen's World is also very good on this topic.

I see I haven't actually told you anything about the novel itself, but maybe that's another day's work. I'm slowly making my way through some of the books that Jane Austen would have had on her shelf, and finding it much more enjoyable than I expected. Next I might say something about Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story, 1791.



[1] When writing her Plan of a Novel, Austen wrote to her niece: "I will redeem my credit with him by writing a close imitation of 'Self Control' as soon as I can. I will improve upon it. My heroine shall not only be wafted down an American river in a boat by herself. She shall cross the Atlantic in the same way, and never stop till she reaches Gravesend." (Jane Austen's letters,4th ed. Oxford University Press. p. 295)
[2] Self Control chap XXXIV
[3] Self Control chap VII
[4] Self Control chap XXXII
[5] Self Control chap XXIV
[6] “A Fine House Richly Furnished: Pemberley and the Visiting of Country Houses”, Stephen Clarke (2000), in Persuasions, the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Thanks to Eileen Collins for drawing this to my attention.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

My worst day at school

I'm going to tell you about my worst memory from school.  This would be when I was six.  For some reason I associate it with Christmas, and I imagine this is because it was the last day of the Christmas term.  There was a test, or a sort of quiz, and the lady teacher called out the questions, we wrote down the answers, then at the end we had to swap answer sheets and score each other’s work. And here's my worst moment. The question was, what sort of dog is Sarah? Sarah being the school dog. Actually I tell a lie as Sarah was not the dog’s name, that was another dog at another school, an Airedale Terrier. The dog I'm going to tell you about wasn’t an Airedale Terrier and wasn’t called Sarah, but as I've forgotten the name, Sarah will do for now.

I agonised over the answer to this question, of what sort of dog Sarah was. And I really do mean agonised. I can feel the agony now. And what made it worse, another child was going to mark my work. Here's what I wrote down on my answer sheet:-



I stared at what I had written, and the more I stared, the wronger I knew it was. I knew it was wrong in three ways, at least: I knew I hadn’t spelt black right. Moreover I knew one of the letters was formed wrong, though I couldn’t fathom which, or how.  But most all I knew I had made a category error, as I think it's called.  I knew that black, however spelt, wasn’t the answer looked for. I sensed that I wasn’t being asked what colour Sarah was.  I sensed I was being asked some other sort of question.   Though without any inkling what that question might be.  The question was, of course, what breed Sarah was - though I didn't know the word breed, didn't have the concept of breed, couldn’t name any breeds, knew nothing about dogs. I was sure all the other children did, they all had dogs and ponies and stuff at home.  This was a private kindergarten in Sussex you see. I can tell you now, that Sarah was in fact a black Labrador, and LABRADOR was the answer sought.  Probably none of the other children could spell Labrador but though I can derive comfort from that thought now, I couldn't then.  

Eventually I ran out of time, the papers were to be swapped, and I handed my paper over, with that shaming word BLAC on it. This is my worst memory from school and it's associated with Christmas. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Utopia, some thoughts

“For what justice is there in this: that a nobleman, a goldsmith, a banker, or any other man, that either does nothing at all, or, at best, is employed in things that are of no use to the public, should live in great luxury and splendour upon what is so ill acquired, and a mean man, a carter, a smith, or a ploughman, that works harder even than the beasts themselves, and is employed in labours so necessary, that no commonwealth could hold out a year without them, can only earn so poor a livelihood and must lead so miserable a life, that the condition of the beasts is much better than theirs? ” 

From Thomas More’s Utopia, 1516. This month is the quincentenary and Verso Books have brought out a commemorative edition. Must get this book. Sadly, came across it too late to drop any hints for Christmas. 


A woodcut by Ambrosius Holbein, illustrating a 1518 edition of Utopia
Utopia – or as we might say, “nowheresville” – was the name of an imaginary republic, usually described as a place in which all social conflict and distress has been overcome. But I need to read it to check this; here's another extract, which is fine till you get to the discordant note of the two slaves:-

They have built over all the country, farmhouses for husbandmen, which are well contrived, and are furnished with all things necessary for country labour. Inhabitants are sent by turns from the cities to dwell in them; no country family has fewer than forty men and women in it, besides two slaves. There is a master and a mistress set over every family; and over thirty families there is a magistrate.

Is utopianism any good?

There have been many utopias over the years, including visions of a socialist society. Utopian Socialism had many advocates in the early nineteenth century, like Charles Fourier and Robert Owen.  Marx and Engels defined their own socialism as scientific socialism in opposition to utopian socialism. The difference being that Marx and Engels thought they had mapped out a route to get from here to there, whereas the utopian socialists merely hoped to persuade the capitalists to hand the stuff over. That’s my second-hand understanding of the distinction in any event. 

Now two positive quotes about utopianism:

China Miéville in the Verso edition : Utopianism isn't hope, still less optimism: it is need, and it is desire

Eduardo Galeano,  Uruguayan journalist, writer and novelist.1940-2015: Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I'll never reach it. So what's the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.

477 years

The early voyages of European discovery,  were, I imagine, amongst the influences that prompted More to write Utopia, and this has set my mind wandering off in another direction.  Between Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the West Indies in 1492, and Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in 1969, is only 477 years. I find this a sobering thought. 

La Niña, 1492.   Apollo 11, 1969
2009 replica of Columbus's ship La Niña. Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the Moon (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin )

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dr Johnson and a head carved on a carrot

Two months since I wrote anything here, what’s all this delay? Surely I can come up with some insightful and entertaining bon mots pertaining to Jane Austen? Or how about some nugget culled from the dusty byways of English grammar?  Well, perhaps  … but my mind’s been elsewhere,  agonising about Brexit, Trump, the drift towards fascism and what is to be done ...  and just how, why and when did anti globalisation which used to the province of the left, become a plaything for the extreme right. Tonight I've given up trying to pen something on these themes that you haven't read much better elsewhere, so I've decided to talk about Samuel Johnson instead.  Till a few days ago I only knew his definition of oats, “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”  To which his Scotch friend Boswell retorted, “But Sir, what horses, and what people!”  The dictionary definition is actual, though so far as I can tell Boswell’s retort isn't. I picked up a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson in a cancer charity shop in Cork last week, and may I take this opportunity to recommend you get or borrow a copy yourself. Almost every page contains pure entertainment.  

Left to right. Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. “Am I not a man and a brother” – medallion made in 1787 by Josiah Wedgwood [1]. James Boswell at 25, by George Willison

The first thing to say is Johnson was a strong slavery abolitionist, and no friend to the American colonists. Boswell records that in 1777, when in company with some very grave men at Oxford, Johnson’s toast was, “Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.” Johnson’s “violent prejudice against our West Indian and American settlers appeared whenever there was an opportunity”, Boswell tells us, revealing his own prejudice.  Of the American colonists, Johnson said: “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”  

His colour sufficient testimony 

It seems that in the year 1777 a negro was claiming his liberty in a Scottish court, and Johnson dictated an argument in his favour.  No law but that of violence, subjects a negro to his master, he argues; and the slaveholder’s pretended claim to the negro’s obedience is based on having “bought him from a merchant of slaves, whose right to sell him never was examined ….  The laws of Jamaica afford a Negro no redress.  His colour is considered as a sufficient testimony against him.”  The argument is worth reading in full, and I have it for you, along with a handful of other extracts from
The Life of Johnson, on a separate page.  Johnson could get vexed when opposed in argument, and after debating slavery and the taxing of the American colonies, two subjects which Johnson and Boswell disagreed on, they went to bed bad friends. 

As you would expect from the writer of the first dictionary, Johnson was jealous of infractions on the English language.  He found fault with Boswell for using the phrase to make money. “Don’t you see (said he) the impropriety of it?  To make money is to coin it: you should say get money.” Boswell doesn't agree though, and thinks the phrase to make money is pretty current. In an object lesson to those of us who would stem the tide of language change, Johnson “was particularly indignant against the almost universal use of the word idea in the sense of notion or opinion, when it is clear that idea can only signify something of which an image can be formed in the mind”. We may have an idea or image of a mountain, a tree, or a building; but Johnson objected to an idea or image of an argument or proposition.  Lawyers “delivering their ideas upon the question under consideration” was modern cant, he thought.[2]

The finest head cut on a carrot 

Going into a convent for fear of being immoral was like a man cutting off his hands for fear he should steal. “There is, indeed, great resolution in the immediate act of dismembering himself; but when that is once done, he has no longer any merit: for though it is out of his power to steal, yet he may all his life be a thief in his heart.”

He argued against the value of sculpture. Painting is okay, as it consumes labour proportionate to its effect; “but a fellow will hack half a year at a block of marble to make something in stone that hardly resembles a man. The value of statuary is owing to its difficulty. You would not value the finest head cut upon a carrot.”  

Two final offerings, Johnson declared “It is commonly a weak man who marries for love”, and thought it was better to shoot a highwayman in the heat of the moment than to testify against him later in cold blood.  You can find all these things in my extracts.

I'm collecting books that Jane Austen had on her own shelves. According to her brother Henry, Johnson was her favourite moral writer in prose [3].  And in a 1798 letter, Austen wrote of getting Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  I'm now reading Johnson’s Rasselas, and have recently finished a handful of other 18th century novels. Which are not, I'm happy to say, as bad as I expected. My mistake was starting with Richardson’s Pamela.  It's dire, but I'm reassured to find Johnson also thought Richardson dire. More of this anon perhaps.

As a postscript, I see that challenged by Boswell about his prejudice against the Scots, Johnson admitted: “Why, I own, that by my definition of oats I meant to vex them.” (1783)


[1] For slave medallion by Staffordshire pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood, see Smithsonian National Museum of American History 
[2] In Rasselas I find: “Knowledge is certainly one of the means of pleasure, as is confessed by the natural desire which every mind feels of increasing its ideas.” (ch XI) Here Johnson appears to have flouted his own rule.
[3] Henry Austen “Biographical Notice” in the 1st edition of Northanger Abbey (Dec 13th 1817)

Friday, October 14, 2016

The awkwardness of "Awkward"

I've come across another word that describes itself. 




Stare at awkward long enough and I think you'll agree with me. What an awkward word,  with that wkw in the middle. It turns out to be a combination of the Middle English adjective “awk” and the directional suffix “-ward.”

It seems  “awkward” was coined in the 1300's in Scotland and northern England, where it meant “turned in the wrong direction”.  The word "awk" meant the wrong way round, backhanded. Other possible meanings are sinister, ominous, perverse.

Here’s an example of the sinister/ominous meaning of "auke" from Philemon Holland’s 1600 translation of Livy’s history of Rome and the Roman people. In this passage Livy refers to those who disparage the Roman practice of augury:

Now let them mocke on and scoffe at our religions. Let them deride our ceremonies. What makes matter (say they) if those pullets pecke or eat not? What if they come somewhat late out of their coupe or cage? What if a bird sing auke or crowe crosse and contrarie? How then?


And here's a late example from 1674, where perhaps perverse is meant. It's in a scientific treatise from the 17th century clergyman Nathaniel Fairfax: 


What we have hitherto spoken, will seem to have less of auk in it

That is, what we have hitherto spoken, will seem less perverse.   Fairfax was keen to use native English words only, and I suspect that by 1674, having “less of auk in it” already sounded old-fashioned, or dare I say, awkward.  (I have more on Nathaniel Fairfax and the context of this quotation in an appendix.  It interests me because of a connection to the history of science. He seems to have been exploring some of the thoughts that gave rise to calculus at about the same time.)

For an early instance of "awkward", there's the Middle English poem Pricke of Conscience (1340): the world thai all awkeward sette (they turned the world all awry).


A bit of etymology


“Awk” is Scandinavian in origin.  Its equivalent in modern Swedish is “avig”. Suppose you were to put a shirt on back-to-front, this in Swedish would be “att ha skjortan avig”, literally to have the shirt the wrong way.  There's a German word "Abweg" meaning the wrong way, which looks as if it ought to be related, but so far as I can tell it isn't. 


I can't account for why,  but it tickles me that the “ward” in awkward has something to do with direction, as in northward, onward, backward, inward, and so on. We can perhaps think of awkward as equivalent to the non-existent word wrongward.

My Shorter Oxford Dictionary tell me that the suffix ”-ward” gives the meaning of having a specified direction, and is connected with the Latin verb vertere (to turn). I find that an especially fruitful piece of etymology as it helps us to think of “–ward” as having the meaning turned in the direction of.  So: turned in the direction of in, turned in the direction of out, turned in the direction of north, etc.  Then there's "toward", and the interesting case of "untoward". In Middle English there was a word “fromward”; which in Old English apparently meant "about to depart; doomed to die; with back turned."

“-ward” can in principle be added to any location, to suggest progressing or pointing towards that place.  As in she raised her eyes heavenward.  Or this sentence from H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898): In the road that runs from the top of Putney Hill to Wimbledon was a number of poor vestiges of the panic torrent that must have poured Londonward on the Sunday night after the fighting began. And in a recently published legal history of New York we find: It was not until the colony became a state that the pendulum of emigration and settlement swung New Yorkward.[1]

I thank the excellent Grammarphobia blog [2] for calling my attention to the awkwardness of “awkward”. It puts me in mind of the opposite case, the mellifluousness of “mellifluous”.  A curiosity I had something to say on back in May.

“Awkward” and “mellifluous”  are autological words, words that describe themselves – or so it seems to me.  


[1] Courts and Lawyers of New York: A History, 1609-1925, Volume 1 (2010) by Alden Chester

[2] The blog is the source of many of the foregoing quotations and I've even plagiarized the title of this post from it. You'll find more information in an email from the blog editors reproduced in the appendix.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

But why did it feel that way?

Soon after the news of the Brexit vote came out, I wrote a piece describing what it felt like. Shock, disbelief, a country I don't recognise, these were some of my thoughts, which seemed to be shared by many of those with whom I am in contact in England, by Guardian columnists, and the like. Since then, I've been puzzling firstly, why these thoughts ... and secondly if they are the right thoughts. 

What were we voting for, we who voted Remain? It's perhaps presumptuous to say “we” because there will be many different we’s but I'm going to make a stab at saying what the we that I belong to voted for.  And the first thing to say is that it was neither the dull economic arguments often put forward by the Remain side; nor was it a vote for the EU that actually exists – the EU that wants to crush the Greek people and hand power to the corporations through TTIP.  Read George Monbiot on this theme: “I’m starting to hate the EU. But I will vote to stay in.”

No, not for what the EU is but what it should be. Equally, for what sort of country Britain should be. A connected and inclusive nation, not an angry island on the edge, in the words of the Guardian editorial two days before the vote. 


This montage encapsulates what I was turning my back on when I voted Remain.

And why was the Leave result so devastating? It appeared to be a vote for the Farage poster that encouraged voters to turn their backs on refugees, for a murky blend of xenophobia, nationalism, humble patriotism, and nostalgia for an imaginary lost age, a rainbow where the malignant merges into the stupid and the stupid merges into the naïve. The racist abuse “go home we voted Leave” that has followed the result, strongly reinforces the point.

Now for the hard bit

Those then were the thoughts that motivated a Remain vote and greeted the result. And up to here was easy enough to write. But what follows has been through several drafts and I'm not sure I've got it right yet. Since the vote there's been another analysis. That the large proportion of working class Leave votes in post-industrial Britain, if you’ll allow me to use that phrase, was a howl of anguish against the status quo. Why vote for what is, when what is is crap. I had a message from England after the vote along the lines of, “Is something good going to come out of all this.  I don't see what it is yet” ... and maybe this is it, that the dispossessed have found a voice. But if so they’ve used it to say the wrong thing. Life is bad! Let’s do what the right wing of the Conservative Party wants and see if that helps!  In the words of Fintan O’Toole writing in the Irish Times, it's a Downton Abbey fantasy rebellion of toffs and servants all mucking in together.

But I'm being dismissive again and I didn't intend that. Lisa McKenzie’s Guardian article “Brexit is the only way the working class can change anything” is worth a read. Writing a week before the vote, she says working-class people are sick of being called ignorant or racist because of their valid concerns. Hmm. What do I say about this ... let’s try: undeniably the Leave campaign was directed to the ignorant and racist. £350m a week for the NHS forsooth! So like it not, the burden of proof is on those who voted Leave.

Stupid to be taken in by this?
But the referendum is a chance for the marginalised working class to have their say, goes the argument. No explanation though of how voting Leave will help, or lessen precarity [1] and fear. Indeed the architects of Brexit hope to undermine workers rights many of which are based on European law. See a TUC report from February, UK employment rights and the EU.

Granted, in precarious employment, it's hard to enforce rights. And in no employment, impossible. But handing over to libertarian free marketers? What kind of answer is that? The drift of McKenzie’s article, and similar ones I've seen, appears to be things are so bad they couldn’t be worse so let’s take a punt on leaving the EU, it might be better, who knows. That may not be stupid or racist, but it is reckless. A recklessness born of desperation, it will be argued. Here I stop. I ought to have said something about the various studies contradicting the the view that immigration is the cause of falling wages. If my essay appears incomplete, I can only apologise.

[1] Apparently I haven't been keeping up, because “precarity” is the new word for the effects on workers of neoliberalism.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Jupiter over Death Valley

To Ballingeary near Cahir, Co Tipperary, on Wednesday to give a talk on a few curious facts about the universe to an ICA meeting (Irish Countrywomen’s Association). An appreciative audience. I showed them some arresting graphics of the relative sizes of the Earth and the other planets - but nothing I produced could match an image which I have just come across showing what Jupiter would look like in our sky if at the same distance as the Moon.

 


It's as if seen from Death Valley, California, by space artist Ron Miller. At the Moon’s distance (c. 240,000 miles, or 386,000 km) Jupiter appears about 1,600 times larger than the Moon, shown for comparison in the next image:


Jupiter is our solar system’s largest planet, two and half times as massive as all the other planets together.

Miller's images were published in The Atlantic, along with Saturn and the other planets, each hovering over Death Valley

And here’s a link to Ron Miller’s other work.