Delay, Ideas, Narrative etc.July 26, 2009
Posts are always few and far between these days, as life in other areas online and offline takes up most of the finite time I have. Anyways, they will continue, as spurting this crap out from time to time is still fun.
First up, the post on capitalism in Japan. I’ll return to this later, as I’m going there again soon and want to look around and read a little more with that particular subject in mind. Anyways, a small sample of thoughts of late…
The other day, I was thinking about how stories (whatever they may be about) expressed through a number of different mediums have such an all encompassing effect on, well, everything in our culture. Not that this is a revelation or anything (for those of you thinking “well, duh”). It’s just cool to think about. The latest thoughts in regard to this were triggered whilst I was watching the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice (of all things!) which prompted me to re-read the novel. Go ahead, laugh… OK, but really… Just think about that novel.
The first thing to be said before I go on is that Pride and Prejudice completely ignores the emerging working classes of the time. I’ll say more about this below. However, it does reveal so many things about the emerging middle classes and their connection to the old aristocracy and landed gentry of England (as well as some insights on religion as well). Hence it is still an important novel to read for anyone interested in history from a general leftist point of view. It’s also simply a good read.
Jane Austen’s witty, scathing, sarcastic and ironic commentary on the society that existed during her time was first published in 1813. OK, there’s a corny love story in there as well (and there’s no doubt that she was a good story-teller as well as a good writer), but there’s so much more going on in this novel. You see the influence of all the old ideas that had dominated English culture during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance such as remnants of feudalism, inheritance of property and property owned by simply the King/Queen and a landed lord class and the like. But you also see the new emerging middle class philosophies of capitalism, entrepreneurship and new ways of controlling property and expanding the political power of the emerging middle classes. If you look a little closer, I think it becomes clear that Darcy is not just a member of the aristocracy. He is a prime example of how some aristocratic and middle class ideals and ideas started to merge during this period. He’s a business man just as much as he’s a toffee-nosed snob. These ideas and ideals manifested themselves in a new ruling class that had cemented much of their power in England (and Europe) by the time of the First World War. It is far too simple to say that the aristocracy died out. A large proportion of them merged with the middle classes over two to three generations during Austen’s time.
Many of them were making the transition from a landed aristocracy to a business savvy, property owning (and buying), money owning middle class. An exception is Lady Catherine – a die hard member of the decaying aristocracy of the time, relying on old social norms over new middle class ideas. She despises Elizabeth and her family – especially Mrs. Bennet’s middle-class background.
We all know the story of Darcy and Elizabeth’s pride and prejudice getting in the way of their true feelings for each other. These are personal, of course, but they are completely focused on class consciousness. Elizabeth constantly mocks Darcy as an upper class snob and Darcy is appalled at the middle class Bennet’s behaviour on several occasions and lumps Elizabeth into the category of crude, uncultured middle class scum. Whilst there is this definite divide between the middle and upper classes in the novel, there is also a constant merging of these two classes together which gives us a snapshot of the emerging relationship between them during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There is a constant attempt from middle class characters in the novel to emulate and mingle with those of the upper classes. From ‘above’ there is also a reluctant admittance that as one moves through society, one must mix with this new emerging middle class. This is revealed beautifully in the novel through the Netherfield Ball episode.
The very fact that Darcy and Elizabeth are able to overcome their respective classist reservations by the end of the novel reveals an emerging middle (and working!) class ideal of personal character and hard work determining one’s lot and not simply class or wealth. While I don’t think this is all Austen was getting at, it is nonetheless front and centre in the story. If the novel was written one or two hundred years earlier, there wouldn’t have even been a middle class and Darcy would simply have married Anne DeBourgh. This change in social attitude with members of the younger generation is further revealed by the union between Bingley and Jane Bennet as well.
The Darcy-Bennet and Bingley-Bennet unions are a reflection of what was happening at large in the middle and upper classes of England at this time. There was a broad unspoken alliance of sorts between these two as over a few generations, their vested interests and new business ventures were propelled by an all-encompassing political and social will that unfolded throughout the 19th century. It is interesting to note that at a time when France was reeling from the middle class inspired revolution of 1789, England was gradually consolidating power and wealth at home and abroad through old aristocratic conventions and vigorous new middle class entrepreneurship. This is not to say that England was without political and class tension and upheaval. But the overall enduring strength of this unspoken alliance and transition is there for all to see: the royal family are still in Buckingham Palace today.
As for the working classes, anyone who’s read Austen will know that she didn’t write about them at all. She has been criticised for this by many. However, I think this criticism is unfair. Austen wrote her works with the society she grew up in and experienced in mind. Were she to write about the working class experience of her time, she would have had to live and work among workers. This was not the circumstance into which she was born and she cannot be criticised for that. She has given us valuable insights into middle and upper class society, not the working classes. If anything, this should increase the importance of her works for those of us on the left. Equipping ourselves with only a working class outlook is narrow and counter productive. Besides, there are a plethora of other sources to consult on the different dynamics of the working class experience during this period.
So, I’ve read a few good books of late. One in particular that I’d recommend is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s an excellent story with a narrative from the perspective of death. Beautifully written, it is a unique take on life in Germany just before and during the Second World War. This is a topic which has been written about many times, but this work stands out and both young adults and adults alike will get so much out of it. Go and read it… Now!