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August 04, 2005

God for England and Sir Arthur - Arthur Bryant's The Age of Elegance, England 1812-22

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The Age of Elegance, England 1812-22
by Arthur Bryant
first published 1950, Collins
Pp. 439. The Reprint Society, 1954

The Age of Elegance is the concluding volume of Sir Arthur Bryant's trilogy about Britain in the Napoleonic wars, following on from The Age of Endurance and The Years of Victory. It covers an astonishing decade: the greatest of all English military victories in the Iberian Peninsular and at Waterloo, but also as impressive a collection of intellectual and artistic figures as we have ever mustered. In no particular order, Cobbett, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Constable, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey, Blake, Austen, Ricardo and Malthus were among those who can be quoted as contemporaries. Not to mention a mad king, his fat and detested Regent son ("The fourth of the fools and oppressors called George" as Byron described him) and his fat and lascivious (and very popular) wife, Caroline. Add some of the greatest disorders and repressions of our history, both to be found at "Peterloo", and you have the widest possible canvas for the historian. The Age of Extremes might have been a better title.

Bryant's picture of the nation of 1812 and the army which secured the peninsular in that year is full of paradox. It is a nation of drunks and hooligans, beset by crime and corruption, barely supporting an army who fight like tigers for a king they do not believe in. But it is also the best nation on earth and on the point of becoming the most powerful because for all its very obvious faults and problems it is a nation of free men, uncowed by the superstition and etatisme which bedevil the entire continent, a place where dissent can be found on any subject: Shelley is an atheist, Byron an intermittent supporter of Napoleon. Above all, it is a nation generating levels of wealth not seen since the days of Rome and generating it mostly in ways it is still in the process of inventing.

Up to a point Bryant seems to be a conservative and nationalist historian. His Epilogue begins with him saying, "True aristocracy, after true religion, is the greatest blessing a nation can enjoy". The contrast between England and France seems inspired by Burke for it is the contrast between the genuine, evolving modernity of British commerce and pragmatism and the fake, ideological modernity of Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite.

Multiple sources are used to demonstrate the degraded condition of France a quarter of a century after the Revolution and to stress the perceived nobility of British troops when compared with all others in the war. (With an element of contradiction for there is no pretence about the drunken ravages perpetrated by British troops after the fall of Badajoz. Indeed, this generates the best single anecdote in the book as the stunningly beautiful fifteen-year-old Juanita Maria de los Dolores de Leon is entrusted to the care of an English gentleman. Within forty eight hours Captain Harry Smith has married the girl. He goes on to be Governor of the Cape so she goes on to be the answer to a glorious quiz question: "Which town in KwaZulu Natal is called after Juanita . . . . etc?")

But this is distinctly a book of two halves which differ markedly in mood, the last four chapters being considerably darker in tone than the first seven. The survey of England in 1814 during the Elba hiatus is largely based on the testimony of the plethora of foreign visitors, including the Tsar and his entourage, who have arrived for the peace negotiations and celebrations. It is a picture of a land which is uniquely sleek and solid, a land of whitewashed cottages with roses round the door where even the rural poor eat and drink well.

But in his account of social and economic conditions after Waterloo Bryant relies more on domestic sources, including Cobbett, and the picture becomes one of enclosure and rural dispossession and of an upper class of "cads" and "snobs" who are increasingly detached and callous in respect of the plight of the poor. It is as if Bryant himself has changed, like Cobbett moving from High Tory to radical (and watching Wordsworth and Coleridge going the other way). Laissez-faire is no longer vigorous and creative, but short-sighted and irresponsible. It is as if the nation has reached a peak in the historical roller-coaster in 1815 and is about to begin a rapid descent.

There is an interesting passage in which Bryant attempts to explain his change of mood (p. 327):

Competition was the condition of English economic life. The end of competition was increased wealth and liberty for the individual. The virtues which made for success in it were largely those which had given England victory in battle and which were engendered by the free and Christian society in which the more fortunate of the English grew up. But the end of life was imperceptibly ceasing to be the pursuit of those virtues and was becoming instead the property and prestige which those virtues created. . . . . The distinction between the love of liberty and private selfishness was finer than Britons realised or cared to admit.

Thus a decay of national purpose, a reversing of means and ends – if you can swallow changes at this level of abstraction and significance. But there is also another resolution of Bryant's apparent contradictions: he is a lover of rural England, not of the landscape, but of the culture and tradition. And the Napoleonic wars were above all the time when an Olde and perhaps even Merrie England began an accelerating decline, in which more than 1,700 enclosure acts complemented the rise of industry (still, in 1815, in its "lusty infancy") to the status of economically and politically dominant national activity. The politics of the generation after Waterloo were dominated by the issue of agricultural protection (the Corn Laws were passed in 1815, prohibiting the import of grain until the price rose to 80/- a bushel). Many rural traditions and pastimes whose roots were a thousand years old passed away completely and the forty four "high days and holidays" became a mere four "bank" holidays. There is a real phenomenon here, not mere sentimentality, the loss of a way of life which we can never recover.

So: a country whose economic and cultural vigour is much admired. But also a society which seems to be increasingly violent and discontented and where the respect for established institutions has declined to a dangerous degree. We have here a vicious underclass. We also find agonies over the loss of traditional ways, over the future of Europe, and over the depth of divisions which have appeared in society. England 1815-22: rings quite a few bells, doesn't it? Plus ca change is appropriate, but the comparison deserves more than glossing over with a comfortable cliché.

And it is also worth thinking about what Sir Arthur Bryant might do for the study of history now. Note that my copy is a Reprint Society edition, produced by the premier book club of its day which put serious hardbacks into hundreds of thousands of English homes every month. This history came between two novels, though we have no way of knowing what proportion of the recipients actually read it. What might Bryant's mainly patriotic (and always patriotically concerned) writing of history contribute to the learning and reading of history now?

I am inclined to think that my sons would have so much more enjoyed this story-telling, with characters ranging from the Great Duke and Fat Prinny to heroic Irish camp-followers and dispossessed crofters, than the projects on the history of medicine and the deconstruction of the Wild West myth which were actually foisted on them as history. We won't have a national identity – or even a debate about national identity – unless we make people read Sir Arthur Bryant or somebody very much like him.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. He is continuing his education by reading those classics he has previously neglected. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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what a marvellous article. i hope that the thoughtful author is working on a book. meanwhile i am dusting off my copies of Bryant.

Posted by: s masty at August 10, 2005 06:47 PM

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Lincoln Allison's article on (Sir) Arthur Bryant's, Age of Elegance. It helped me to appreciate that impressions I had gained of radical changes in his (Bryant's) views were correct, as well as suggesting reasons for the changes.
I had used the book some time ago, along with many others, to provide information for a novel I was writing but have turned to it many times since simply for recreation. The article above will add to my future enjoyment.

Posted by: D J Haw at January 30, 2006 09:01 AM

I read a beautiful description of an English village cricket match I thought it was in the Age of Elegance. I cannot find it again perhaps Lincoln Allison can confirm that it was the Age of Elegance not another work of Arthur Bryant.( Please remove the no spam from the front of my email address)

Posted by: chris pickard at February 2, 2006 07:49 PM
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