Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Women in politics - a Victorian view

Harriet Harman has probably never heard of Alfred Austin. He was Queen Victoria’s last Poet Laureate, appointed by Lord Salisbury some years after the death of the previous Laureate, Lord Tennyson, and relentlessly lampooned in Punch and elsewhere as “Alfred the Little”, both because he was small in stature and not least because of the ineffably banal quality of his verse.

The most famous example is his poem about the severe illness of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), which contains the unforgettable lines

Across the wires the electric message came:

‘He is no better, he is much the same’.

Austin’s appointment unfortunately coincided with the dubiously legal Jameson Raid which was a precursor of the Boer War. An arch-Jingo, he leaped into the fray with a defiant poem beginning

Wrong! Is it wrong? Well, may be

But I’m going, boys, all the same…

There are girls in the gold reef city,

There are mothers and children too!

And they cry ‘Hurry up! for pity!

So what can a brave man do?...

So we forded and galloped forward,

As hard as our beasts could pelt,

First eastward, then trending northward,

Right over the rolling veldt…

This opening blast greatly annoyed Queen Victoria, but because her Prime Minister had rewarded an indefatigable party hack with the accolade there was nothing she could do about it. In reply to her protests Lord Salisbury replied: “It is a pity that this effusion was his first performance. Unluckily it is to the taste of the galleries in the lower class of theatres, and they sing it with vehemence.”

There are many entertaining stories about Austin, whose invincible self-importance was oblivious to the sometimes cruel jibes aimed at him. He once borrowed a flat from a friend, and wrote to him before taking possession asking for an assurance that no dogs would be left on the premises. His host replied that he could rest easy on that score, adding “for my part, I would be glad of an assurance that you will not leave any poems behind”. A judge who enquired whether Austin found writing poetry lucrative was assured by the Laureate that it kept the wolf from the door, whereupon he said “Oh, so do you read your poems to the wolf, Mr Austin?”

But the reason why Ms Harman might be interested in Alfred Austin is that he was an inveterate opponent of women’s’ suffrage, setting out his views in a letter to The Times in 1909:

“I cannot doubt, and have never doubted, that…women are precluded from any but an indirect share in Parliamentary elections… Of all national and Imperial issues that can arise, that of peace or war is the most important; and the preservation of peace, the most precious of all things, consistently with honour and self-protection, is much more likely to be imperilled by indulgence in sentiment than by any other cause. Calm, deliberate judgment, free from all untimely or too generous emotion, is its best protection. Will anyone deny that, in great emergencies, men are, as a rule and collectively, calmer and more submissive to sound judgment than women, whose virtues reside rather in another direction?

“Give women the franchise – and I cannot doubt it is a minority of them who wish to have it, and only the more emotionally combative of that minority who would exercise it – it is conceivable that war might be brought about by women against the effort of men to avert it, and, in that event, it would be men, and men alone, who would have to fight, and, if need were, to die…”

Women, Austin opined, have had “an unmitigatedly mischievous” influence on art. “They have ruined the stage; they have dwarfed painting until it has become little more than the representative of pretty little sentiment – much of it terribly false – and mawkish commonplace domesticities; and they have helped poetry to become, in the hand of Mr Tennyson at least, and of his disciples, the mere handmaid of their own limited interests, susceptibilities, and yearnings…On the stage, adventure, heroic courage, variety of passion – Shakespearianism, in a word – have had to give way to plays in which domestic sentiment and all that is expressed by the phrase ‘the female element’ have predominated.”

So there, Ms Harman, tell that to the Sisters and get off your high horse.

[With acknowledgements to Alfred Austin Victorian by Norton B. Crowell, 1955]


Jose said...

Just to tell you that these historic stories are always a source of knowledge for me. Thank you.

Bodwyn Wook said...

Hmm...back in my salad days in the early 1970s, I used to annoy a colleague who was ardently feminist:

"You know, Polly, in an earlier day women didnt have time for this hocus-pocus, they was too busy washing clothes by hand on a rock in the river and if they was lucky enough to have a man around who could hunt and keep off the other ones, there wasn't any of this palsy jabber about 'violence' neither!"

She would get really irate, whereas my friend, Vance, would join in:

"Right, Polly, gotcha! OK, Big Woman, say some MORE feminism! You wanna be a Big women and dish it out good, go ahead, we'll listen up real good...'cause why?
"Nice legs, that's why, Polly...NICE legs!"

One time she got really POed and snapped: "You men! dog-eat-dog...!"

"Oh, bitch, Bitch, BITCH!" cracked Vance.

We was, er, were all in our twenties and Polly, a really good person, snapped out of it pretty quick -- maybe Ms Harmon was less fortunate in her youth and didn't have any male-type buddies around to call her on this BS and help her nip it in the bud.

anticant said...

Oh dear. Isn't this type of male chauvinist piggery well past its use-by date?

I didn't post this item to ignite yet another battle in the endless sex war, but to illustrate how far attitudes have changed in a hundred years.

In my view, Harriet Harman's hankering after positive discrimination is old-fashioned too, and isn't appreciated by most of the sensible women I know.

I grew up in a family of strong women who more than equalled their menfolk in good sense and determination which they applied in a supportive rather than a combative way, so I always find these stroppy women like HH rather quaint. I know what my wise grandmother would have said about them!

If it weren't so non-PC, I would venture to suggest a bad case of penis envy.....

Bodwyn Wook said...

Of course 'tis.../my/ raffish little account is since nearly forty years ago! People either did snap out of it or else got parallelised in a sort of time warp -- it is this that makes their shouts & gesticulations of to-day so poibnant and, well, muffled & jargonised. They brandish at us through a sort of glass wall, frantically, and actually do want us of course to help them bust out of there.

Only we must /not/ leap to compassion, and we /must/ insist on their parole before letting them out of the henhouse again....

What of breast- and vulva-envy?

Bodwyn Wook said...

It may be that this sort of blinkered intractability among the parties in fact is a good trait for the well-being of Britain; at any rate, it was Vansittart who early on, in his sadly incomplete autobiographical memoir, / The Mist Procession/, wrote:

'I felt at an early age that the strength of the British lies in their inability to know when they are making fools of themselves.'

[p 27, op cit]

anticant said...

I' not too sure whether this is still a strength - witness Afghanistan, where our generals are trumpeting that we may have to stay for another 40 years. Somehow I doubt it.

Bodwyn Wook said...

The unconscious phantasy in such assertions is to thereby make good a claim to /control events/ -- History, eg -- for at least that much longer.

It is stark staring apotropaism and 'magical thinking' of the most wishful sort!

Anonymous said...

Great post, as Jose says, I always learn a lot on this site.

I think Harman is right to raise a lot of these issues, in particular the low rate of conviction for rapists.

I never much liked poetry anyway, I never moved past AA Milne.

Bodwyn Wook said...

When Anne and I go out a walk
we hold each other's hand and talk
Of what Anne and I will do
when we are forty-two.

And when we've talked about a thing,
Like rolling hoops or bicycling,
Or falling down on Anne's balloon,
We do it in the afternoon.

anticant said...

I agree about the low conviction rate for rape, but even worse is the low percentage of actual rapes reported because the victim is unwilling to go through the traumas of investigation and court appearance.

Worse still is the widespread use of rape as an instrument of war by national armies and mercenaries. I have never forgiven the late Pope John-Paul II for exhorting women raped by soldiers during the post-Yugoslav wars to "welcome the fruits of their womb as the gift of Christ" (or some such words).

Jose said...

Grand to have you back, Anticant, hope all has gone to your satisfaction.

Why these high dignitaries are always intent in making what happens in this world God's - or Christ's - "feats" is something that escapes my earthly comprehension.

Rape is rape is rape and its "fruit" will always be a repulsive presence for those who have had to bear it.

Hope John is alright.

Anonymous said...

Agree on rape, and for that I admire Harman for raising the profile of that. I didn't know Pope JP2 said that, that's an absolute disgrace.