Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some half-formed thoughts on Virginia Wool on Lord Chesterfield and the eighteenth century

In 1927, Virginia Woolf wrote a short essay on Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son. If you're not familiar with the letters, here's a thumbnail: they consist of a witty, elegantly conversational program of instruction in how to become a gentleman and be successful, largely through social graces and dissembling. Here, for example, is Chesterfield at his most amusingly detailed:
In your person you must be accurately clean; and your teeth,hands, and nails, should be superlatively so; a dirty mouth has real ill consequences to the owner, for it infallibly causes the decay, as well as the intolerable pain of the teeth, and it is very offensive to his acquaintance, for it will most inevitably stink. I insist, therefore, that you wash your teeth the first thing you do every morning, with a soft sponge and swarm water, for four or five minutes; and then wash your mouth five or six times. Mouton, whom I desire you will send for upon your arrival at Paris, will give you an opiate, and a liquor to be used sometimes. Nothing looks more ordinary, vulgar, and illiberal, than dirty hands, and ugly, uneven, and ragged nails: I do not suspect you of that shocking, awkward trick, of biting yours; but that is not enough: you must keep the ends of them smooth and clean, not tipped with black, as the ordinary people's always are. The ends of your nails should be small segments of circles, which, by a very little care in the cutting, they are very easily brought to; every time that you wipe your hands, rub the skin round your nails backward, that it may not grow up, and shorten your nails too much.
And here he is in a slightly more abstract mode:
There are people who indulge themselves in a sort of lying, which they reckon innocent, and which in one sense is so; for it hurts nobody but themselves. This sort of lying is the spurious offspring of vanity, begotten upon folly: these people deal in the marvellous; they have seen some things that never existed; they have seen other things which they never really saw, though they did exist, only because they were thought worth seeing. Has anything remarkable been said or done in any place, or in any company, they immediately present and declare themselves eye or ear witnesses of it. They have done feats themselves, unattempted, or at least unperformed by others. They are always the heroes of their own fables; and think that they gain consideration, or at least present attention, by it. Whereas, in truth, all they get is ridicule and contempt, not without a good degree of distrust: for one must naturally conclude, that he who will tell any lie from idle vanity, will not scruple telling a greater for interest. Had I really seen anything so very extraordinary as to be almost incredible, I would keep it to myself, rather than by telling it give anybody room to doubt, for one minute, of my veracity.
Woolf's essay, like nearly all her essays on other writers, is generous, perceptive, and even, by the end, deeply empathetic as she imagines Lord Chesterfield's unexpressed disappointment that his son's career turned out noway so glittering as he'd foreseen. But what caught my attention particularly today was her early setting of the scene. I'll quote it at length because its internal development is so nicely linked, sentence by sentence:
When Lord Mahon edited the letters of Lord Chesterfield he thought it necessary to warn the intending reader that they are “by no means fitted for early or indiscriminate perusal”. Only “those people whose understandings are fixed and whose principles are matured” can, so his Lordship said, read them with impunity. But that was in 1845. And 1845 looks a little distant now. It seems to us now the age of enormous houses without any bathrooms. Men smoke in the kitchen after the cook has gone to bed. Albums lie upon drawing-room tables. The curtains are very thick and the women are very pure. But the eighteenth century also has undergone a change. To us in 1930 it looks less strange, less remote than those early Victorian years. Its civilisation seems more rational and more complete than the civilisation of Lord Mahon and his contemporaries. Then at any rate a small group of highly educated people lived up to their ideals. If the world was smaller it was also more compact; it knew its own mind; it had its own standards. Its poetry is affected by the same security. When we read the Rape of the Lock we seem to find ourselves in an age so settled and so circumscribed that masterpieces were possible. Then, we say to ourselves, a poet could address himself whole-heartedly to his task and keep his mind upon it, so that the little boxes on a lady’s dressing-table are fixed among the solid possessions of our imaginations. A game at cards or a summer’s boating party upon the Thames has power to suggest the same beauty and the same sense of things vanishing that we receive from poems aimed directly at our deepest emotions. And just as the poet could spend all his powers upon a pair of scissors and a lock of hair, so too, secure in his world and its values, the aristocrat could lay down precise laws for the education of his son. In that world also there was a certainty, a security that we are now without. What with one thing and another times have changed. We can now read Lord Chesterfield’s letters without blushing, or, if we do blush, we blush in the twentieth century at passages that caused Lord Mahon no discomfort whatever.
There's unquestionably some kicking against the Victorians—her parents' generation, still around and in the way—here, with which I can to some extent sympathize. When I view her preference for the eighteenth century in that context, I think I understand it better: we see our immediate predecessors' blind spots and hypocrisy up close and writ large, and—crucially—far more clearly than they do. Earlier ancestors, on the other hand . . . well, our relation to them is more gentle, less vexed. We see their failings at just enough distance that we forgive them; we wish they had known better, and we tell ourselves we somehow would have had we been in that position, but none of it presses against us and our own attempts to establish identity and correct the world with the same force that more recent generations' mistakes do.

What's particularly interesting in this passage today, however, isn't even so much the generational conflict (though the struggle between Bloomsbury and the lingering Victorians is never not interesting) as Woolf's statements of the present day's uncertainty. The eighteenth century was "settled and circumscribed." "Masterpieces were possible." "It knew its own mind; it had its own standards." There was security and certainty, "a security that we are now without."

Though I would be willing to grant that there may be a kernel of truth here—any era that produces epics and rediscovers the Greeks seems more likely to be solid than one marked by World War I—at the same time, that's not the impression I've ever had of the eighteenth century. Cyril Connolly called the first half of it "a transitional age full of a certain beautiful clumsiness"; I think of it as an era of a slight, but important opening up, at least in the world of letters, with all the insecurity that would almost necessarily accompany it. Samuel Johnson is my touchstone here: a truly self-made man who found a place for himself in the burgeoning world of print, which demanded (and, at least to an extent, rewarded) a constant supply of new material. The picture you get of that world from Johnson's writings—and even from Boswell's own journal, as despite coming from money and position he approached life as if it were an act of creation and he needed to make his own way—is of a far from settled civilization. Johnson was certain of one thing, heaven, and he proclaimed with certainty on many others, but his own career and its restless inquiry suggest a complicated world that Woolf's description of a self-satisfied, static era doesn't really support.

At the same time, isn't it always the case that the present feels unsettled, usually in an unprecedented way? Don't we feel that now? The golden age was never so golden as we remember; in fact, there was never a golden age at all. Yet knowing that never seems to make the ground beneath our feet feel any more solid.


  1. This is all very thought-provoking, and you leave me reconsidering the ways in which we so often err when we deconstruct the past (and alter it) in order to make some sense of then and now, which never seems to end in satisfactory understanding of either. But what choice do we have? Your posting tends to prove the answer. All the best from a new effort to better understand (but not deconstruct) Transcendental American literature --

  2. distance makes the heart grow fonder? v.w. is one of my favorite writers, but she definitely had an individualistic pov. dr. johnson had a tough time supporting himself and it wasn't all due to his peculiar habits(his erratic work regime, early fondness for port until he gave it up, and general evasion of what we would call normal social contacts). it was a time of burgeoning capitalism and in that respect somewhat similar to our own; he had a hard time making a living until after his dictionary came out; even up until he got his pension; in addition he had a household to support until tittie died, and then that black guy, can't remember his name. i see this comment is a bit more rambling than i had intended; oh well, tx for an interesting post which stirred up the old grey matter...