Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Commonplace 243 George & History.

George liked the past. Not his own, perhaps, but the past as recreated by middle class and above male academics, who cherry-picked the bits they wanted to preserve. The best of them were serious-minded explorers who trawled the original sources to find accounts of what had gone before, representing prior times as best they could with what they had found in their research. Of course, most of what was written about in British history, even what was based on primary sources, is skewed in favour of the white, male middle-class and above; women, children and the poor were never fully or fairly represented. In George's day, the British Empire ruled in much of the world - but few historians wanted to view that empire from the position of its subjugated peoples; women, too, were a species beyond the ken of the average male historian.
Sandal Castle near George's home town of Wakefield, West Yorkshire. click
History can be seen as a study in interpretation. Who really knows what motivated Henry VIII to disdain Anne of Cleves? What did he stand to gain from Thomas Cromwell's execution? Did he really write 'Greensleeves'? (Well, no, he didn't, but it is presented as fact in some history books and is often touted in dramatisations of his life.) Was he a good or bad ruler? Was Elizabeth I better? We read the biographies and fall back on making up our own minds, regardless of what we have read. I prefer Elizabeth to Henry, but is that because she's a woman? I always think of her as courageous and a good role model to women who want to live in spite of men, not because of them; whereas Henry seems to be self-indulgent and spendthrift of his talents. Perhaps it's all about identification - I identify with the sort of woman who proves she is as able as any male counterpart.

George was lucky to be born in Yorkshire, a place chockablock with history. Apart from the Vikings, the War of the Roses, and the effects of the English Civil War, (not to mention the Industrial Revolution), one of Yorkshire's most famous claims to historical fame is the Battle of Towton where 28,000 men were killed in one day. If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit the battlefield, you will get some idea of how massive the fray must have been click and how terrain and luck were two of the most significant factors, but not as important as weather. (Remember George's obsession with weather and how it finished him off? Commonplace 139).
Towton Cross battlefield

Of all the historians George admired, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) click was probably his favourite. Gibbon's 'The History of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' was a treasure he clung to and reread many times, often using what he found there as inspiration. On a slightly lighter note, he admired John Ruskin, though he went off Ruskin, possibly because of the casual display of wealth Ruskin employed in his writing. For example, in February 1889, when in Venice, George was reading Ruskin's highly-regarded 'The Stones of Venice', a treatise on the Art and architecture of that city. In his diary, George writes:
By the bye, why does Ruskin invariably address himself to rich people? In "S. Mark's Rest", eg, when speaking of the Pillars, he tells you to imitate the capitals by cutting "a pound of Gruyere cheese". Then again "From the Grand Hotel, or the Swiss Pension, or the duplicate Danieli with the drawbridge, or whatever else among the palaces of resuscitated Venice you abide", etc. - This is a great fault. He then goes on to demolish Ruskin and point out the mistakes made in these few extracts (eg no drawbridge at Danieli). Spite and envy, two of George's dark traits, come into play here. Though he admired Ruskin, in secret, George was jealous of the ability, the vision, and the money Ruskin could draw on to swan about writing readable, inspired books. Deep down, George would have liked to be Ruskin, which made jealousy and eventual falling out of love as the only way for him to deal with his feelings of envy. He is being a tad hypersensitive here - Ruskin in using cheese for non-cheese illustrative purposes, and so it cannot be viewed literally. 
Richard Plantagenet 
(Richard III's father click).
In this rant against Ruskin, George goes on:
This fault of temper leads him into other errors. Speaking of the Rialto: "You will probably find it very dirty, - it may be indecently dirty, - that is modern progress, and Mr Buckle's civilization". Absurd; old Venice was vastly dirtier, as we well know. Do we? 

Anyhoo, this chap Buckle; who was he and what was George reading him for?

According to his Wikipedia page (all the greats have Wiki pages haha), and as mentioned by George in September 1889, Henry Thomas Buckle gave us his life's work in the form of his 'History of Civilization' (click for free download). This is not to be confused with Sir Kenneth Clark's opus on all things Art: 'Civilization', (made into a groundbreaking tv series click -everyone should see it), who is not to be mistaken for Ken Clarke, the MP and so-called 'big beast' of the Tory party click, considered left-wing by hard-line Tories. Much as Mao might be seen as to the left of Stalin?? Anyhoo...

Mr Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862) was a chap who was too ill for much school learning when he was a child, but managed to become an expert historian, thanks to the 10-hour days of self-imposed study he put into learning all about it. He inherited enough money to travel and fund the writing of his comprehensive overview of whatever he thought might be termed 'Civilization'. In a time when science was highly regarded, and when every discipline required a testable application of some sort of scientific principle, Buckle was of the opinion that history has a similar set of predictable and quantifiable, principles. In this, he skates closely to the Positivist creed set down by Auguste Comte, and followed by George for a brief while when he was hobnobbing with Frederic Harrison. To Buckle, external factors such as climate, agriculture and weather have as much impact on civilization as the acts and behaviour of people. He also thought wealth is the basis of culture (which is the bedrock of civilization) - which predates the work of Abraham Maslow click by a century. (It was Maslow who gave us the Hierarchy of Needs that suggest the attainment of self-actualization can only take place in the absence of financial insecurity.) 
Richard III much maligned and much loved by 21st century folks
Born: 1452  Died: 1485. State burial: 2015 click 
Some of Buckle's most ambitious ideas are well worth taking a look at. He held that religion, literature and government are, at the best, the products and not the causes of civilization. (This fits in with generally held twentieth century view that the Arts tend to follow trends, not set them. Artists are observers and interpreters, not innovators.) Another is (from the Wiki page):
That the progress of civilization varies directly as "scepticism," the disposition to doubt and to investigate, and inversely as "credulity" or "the protective spirit," a disposition to maintain, without examination, established beliefs and practices. Buckle was sceptical about the so-called civilizing effects of organised religion, which again is a reasonable view based on what we now know about the terror and bigotry exemplified by religious fundamentalism of all stripes. 
Facial reconstruction of Richard III click
Buckle also wrote for periodicals and his 'The Influence of Women On The Progress of Knowledge' was published by Fraser's Magazine in April of 1858 (the year George's first wife Marianne aka Nell was born). We know George read many books about the 'problem' of women possibly to help him flesh out his female characters, but mostly to give him a template for managing the women in his life. He was spectacularly ignorant of what women are really like, but he wrote confidently about how we should be 'managed', and gave us plenty of tips for how we should behave in a more emancipated climate. None of his relationships with the women in his life were particularly successful - according to George, even his mother wasn't keen on him! He was smart enough to realise that the shoe would soon be on the other foot, and women would be claiming their rights, having waited in vain for men to gift them, and so his study of what were the current trends in suffrage developments was all about self-preservation.

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