Posts

2018-01 No1 Hogarth's distressed_poet

MONTHLY BLOG 85, WORKING WITH WORDS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

A lot of the fun of being a writer comes from the sheer pleasure of working with words. Not only inventing new ones (see BLOG/84, November 2017). But additionally the multifarious challenges of finding the mot juste; of avoiding repetition of favoured words; and of avoiding clichéd combinations of nouns and adjectives Why should debates always turn out to be ‘heated’? or every array be denoted as ‘dazzling’? By the way, for those who enjoy nothing as much as a time-honoured cliché, there are splendid compilations to be consulted.1

2018-01 No1 Hogarth's distressed_poet

Fig.1 Detail from William Hogarth’s Distrest Poet,
from oil painting c.1736, engraved 1741.

My personal favourite is Gustave Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, which contains the following admirable dictum on ‘FEUDALISM: No need to have one single precise notion about it: thunder against!2

To keep myself alert when writing, I set myself three internal technical challenges – as well as thinking about my main message. One test is that no two paragraphs within an essay or book chapter should start with the same first word. That avoids visually boring readers with a page of prose that contains a repetitious string of ‘The …/ The… / The …/’.

The second test is to refrain from echoing key terms between one sentence and the next. It’s very easy to get one’s vocabulary stuck. But, fortunately, English is a rich and hybrid language, with many synonyms. So it is always possible to refer (say) to ‘Parliament’ in one sentence, and to ‘the ‘legislative’ in the next. And so on. That way, readers are not numbed by a monotonous repetition of the same word, again and again, within one paragraph. Adding variety can be tricky in the case of technical terms, for which there are few synonyms. Nonetheless, variation can be achieved by inserting short explanatory points in simpler language. Repetition (whether in terms of vocabulary or sentence structure) is a powerful stylistic device. Yet it entirely loses its punch if it is used all the time.

So my third challenge also requires diversification. Sentences should not all be alike in length. If every point is expressed with the utmost brevity, one after another, the result can be a mind-overwhelming rat-tat-tat of ideas, without time for thought and assimilation. Let alone qualifications and nuances.

Equally, however, too many very long sentences, end to end, can be so rich and intricate that they become soporific. I’ve expressed that viewpoint before (December 2015) and can’t resist quoting myself.3 ‘Alternatively, the full and unmitigated case for long, intricate, sinuous, thoughtful yet controlled sentences, winding their way gracefully and inexorably across vast tracts of crisp, white paper can be made not only in terms of academic pretentiousness – always the last resort of the petty-minded – but also in terms of intellectual expansiveness and mental ‘stretch’, with a capacity to reflect and inflect even the most subtle nuances of thought, although it should certainly be remembered that, without some authorial control or indeed domination in the form of a final full-stop, the impatient reader – eager to follow the by-ways yet equally anxious to seize the cardinal point – can find a numbing, not to say crushing, sense of boredom beginning to overtake the responsive mind, as it struggles to remember the opening gambit, let alone the many intermediate staging posts, as the overall argument staggers and reels towards what I can only describe, with some difficulty, as the ultimate conclusion or final verdict: The End!’ [162 words in one sentence, which were fun to write but rather exhausting to read].4

Ideally, every sequence of lengthy sentences, which are often unavoidable in academic writing, should be counter-balanced by a pithy dictum. (Something a bit weightier than a Tweet; but incorporating the same brevity). To my students, I define a pithy dictum as a meaningful statement that’s expressed in ten words or less. How to enjoy working with words? ‘Write with variety’.

1 J. Cresswell, The Penguin Book of Clichés (2000); N. Fountain, Clichés: Avoid Them Like the Plague (2012; 2015).

2 G. Flaubert, Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, transl. and ed. J. Barzun (1954), p. 38.

3 P.J.C., ‘Writing Through a Big Research Project, Not Writing Up’, Monthly Blog/60 (Dec. 2015).

4 This puny effort barely registers in the smallest foothills of long sentences in the English language, the best known example being Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), which is reportedly a sequence of almost 4,000 words (but including many shorter sentences put together without punctuation).

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 85 please click here

2017-12 No1 slip-man-black-banana-md

MONTHLY BLOG 84, INVENTING WORDS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Speakers and writers constantly adopt and play with new words and usages, even while the deep grammatical structures of language evolve, if at all, only very slowly. I remember an English class at school when I was aged about twelve or thirteen when we were challenged to invent new words. The winning neologism was ‘puridence’. It meant: by pure coincidence. Hence, one could say ‘I walked along the pavement, puridence I slipped and fell on a banana skin’. The winner was my class-mate Audrey Turner, who has probably forgotten. (I wonder whether anyone else remembers this moment?)

2017-12 No1 slip-man-black-banana-md

Fig.1 Slip Man Black Banana:
‘Puridence I slipped and fell on a banana skin’

Another new word, invented by my partner Tony Belton on 26 October 2013, is ‘wrongaplomb’. It refers to someone who is habitually in error but always with total aplomb. It’s a great word, which immediately summons to my mind the person for whom the term was invented. But again, I expect that Tony has also forgotten. (He has). New words arrive and are shed with great ease. This is one which came and went, except for the fact that I noted it down.

No wonder that dictionary compilers find it a struggle to keep abreast. The English language, as a Germanic tongue hybridised by its conjunction with Norman French, already has a huge vocabulary, to which additions are constantly made. One optimistic proposal in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1788 hoped to keep a check upon the process in Britain, by establishing a person or committee to devise new words for every possible contingency.1 But real-life inventions and borrowings in all living languages were (and remain) far too frequent, spontaneous and diffuse for such a system to work. The Académie française (founded 1635), which is France’s official authority on the French language, knows very well the perennial tensions between established norms and innovations.2 The ‘Immortels’, as the 40 academicians are termed, have a tricky task as they try to decide for eternity. Consequently, a prudent convention ensures that the Académie’s rulings are advisory but not binding.

For my part, I love encountering new words and guessing whether they will survive or fail. In that spirit, I have invented three of my own. The first is ‘plurilogue’. I coined this term at an academic seminar in January 2016 and then put it into a BLOG.3 It refers to multi-lateral communications across space (not so difficult in these days of easy international messaging) and through time. In particular, it evokes the way that later generations of historians constantly debate with their precursors. ‘Dialogue’ doesn’t work to explain such communications. Dead historians can’t answer back. But ‘plurilogue’ covers the multiplicity of exchanges, between living historians, and with the legacy of ideas from earlier generations.

Will the term last? I think so. Having invented it, I then decided to google (a recently-arrived verb). To my surprise, I discovered that there already is an on-line international journal of that name. It has been running since 2011. It features reviews in philosophy and political science. My initial response was to find the prior use annoying. On the other hand, that’s a selfish view. No one owns a language. Better to think that ‘plurilogue’ is a word whose time has come. Its multiple coinages are a sign of its relevance. Humans do communicate across time and space; and not just in dialogue. So ‘plurilogue’ has a tolerable chance of lasting, especially as it’s institutionalised in a journal title.

2017-12 No2 plurilogue Vol 1
A second term that I coined and published in 2007 is ‘diachromesh’.4 It defines the way that humans (and everything in the cosmos for good measure) are integrally situated in an unfolding through-Time, also known as the very long term or ‘diachronic’. That latter word is itself relatively unusual. But it has some currency among historians and archaeologists.

The ‘diachronic’ is the alternate pair to the ‘synchronic’ (the immediate fleeting moment). Hence my comment that: ‘the synchronic is always in the diachronic – in that every short-term moment contributes to a much longer term’. Equally, the conjunction operates the other way round. ‘The diachronic is always in the synchronic – in that long-term frameworks always inform the passing moment as well’.5 Therefore it follows that, just as we can refer to synchromesh gear changes, operating together in a single moment of time, so it’s relevant to think of diachromesh, effortlessly meshing each single moment into the very long-term.6

So far so good. Is diachromesh liable to last? I can’t find a journal with that name. However, the word in is circulation. Google it and see. The references are few and far between. But! For example, in an essay on the evolution of the urban high street, architectural analyst Sam Griffiths writes: ‘The spatial configuration of the grid is reticulated in space and time, a materialisation of Corfield’s (2007) “diachromesh”.’7

2017-12 No3 clock in Guildford high street

Fig.3 Guildhall Clock on Guildford High Street, marking each synchronic moment since 1683 in an urban high street, diachromeshed within its own space and time.

Lastly, I also offered the word ‘trialectics’ in 2007. Instead of cosmic history as composed of binary forces, I envisage a dynamic threefold process of continuity (persistence), gradual change (momentum) and macro-change (turbulence).8 For me, these interlocking dimensions are as integral to Time as are the standard three dimensions of Space.

Be that as it may, I was then staggered to find that the term had a pre-history, of which I was hitherto oblivious. Try web searches for trialectics in logic; ecology; and spatial theories, such as Edward Soja’s planning concept of Thirdspace.9 Again, however, it would seem that this is a word whose time has come. The fact that ‘trialectics’ is subject to a range of nuanced meanings is not a particular problem, since that happens to so many words. The core of the idea is to discard the binary of dialectics. Enough of either/or. Of point/counter-point; or thesis/antithesis. Instead, there are triple dimensions in play.

Coining new words is part of the trialectical processes that keep languages going through time. They rely upon deep continuities, whilst experiencing gradual changes – and, at the same time, facing/absorbing/rejecting the shock of the new. Luckily there is already a name for the grand outcome of this temporal mix of continuity/micro-change/macro-change. It’s called History.

1 S.I. Tucker, Protean Shape: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Vocabulary and Usage (1967), p. 104.

2 http://www.academie-francaise.fr/.

3 P.J. Corfield, ‘Does the Study of History “Progress” – and How does Plurilogue Help? BLOG/61 (Jan. 2016), www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/.

4 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), p. xv.

5 Ibid.

6 This assumption differs from that of a small minority of physicists and philosophers who view Time as broken, each moment sundered from the next. See e.g. J. Barbour, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in our Understanding of the Universe (1999). I might call this interpretation a case of ‘wrongaplomb’.

7 S. Griffiths, ‘The High Street as a Morphological Event’, in L. Vaughan (ed.), Suburban Urbanities: Suburbs and the Life of the High Street (2015), p. 45.

8 Corfield, Time and Shape of History, pp. 122-3, 211-16, 231, 248, 249. See also idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and T. Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert/ Concepts of Time in the Twentieth Century (Geschichte und Gesellschaft: Sonderheft, 25, Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91; also available on www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk.

9 www.wikipedia.org/Edward_Soja

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 84 please click here

2017-11 No2 Educating Rita

MONTHLY BLOG 83, SEX AND THE ACADEMICS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Appreciating sex means appreciating the spark of life. Educating numbers of bright, interesting, lively young adults is a sexy occupation. The challenge for academics therefore is to keep the appreciation suitably abstract, so that it doesn’t overwhelm normal University business – and absolutely without permitting it to escalate into sexual harassment of students who are the relatively powerless ones in the educational/power relationship.

It’s long been known that putting admiring young people with admirable academics, as many are, can generate erotic undertones. Having a crush on one’s best teacher is a common youthful experience; and at least a few academics have had secret yearnings to receive a wide-eyed look of rapt attention from some comely youngster.1 There is a spectrum of behaviour at University classes and social events, from banter, stimulating repartee and mild flirtation (ok as long as not misunderstood), all the way across to heavy power-plays and cases of outright harassment (indefensible).
2017-11 No1 Hogarth_lecture_1736

Fig.1 Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture (1736) satirises both don and students, demonstrating that bad teaching can have a positively anti-aphrodisiac effect.

If academics don’t have the glamour, wealth and power of successful film producers, an eminent ‘don’ can still have a potent intellectual authority. I have known cases of charismatic senior authority figures imposing themselves sexually upon the gullible young, although I believe (perhaps mistakenly – am I being too optimistic here?) that such scenarios are less common today. That change has taken place partly because University expansion and grade escalation has created so many professors that they no longer have the same rarity value that once they did. It’s also worth noting that single academics don’t hold supreme power over individual student’s careers. Examination grades, prizes, appointments, and so forth are all dealt with by boards or panels, and vetted by committees.

Moreover, there’s been a social change in the composition of the professoriat itself. It’s no longer exclusively a domain of older heterosexual men (or gay men pretending publicly to be heterosexual, before the law was liberalised). No doubt, the new breed of academics have their own faults. But the transformation of the profession during the past forty years has diluted the old sense of hierarchy and changed the everyday atmosphere.

For example, when I began teaching in the early 1970s, it was not uncommon to hear some older male profs (not the junior lecturers) commenting regularly on the physical attributes of the female students, even in business meetings. It was faintly embarrassing, rather than predatory. Perhaps it was an old-fashioned style of senior male bonding. But it was completely inappropriate. Eventually the advent of numerous female and gay academics stopped the practice.

Once in an examination meeting, when I was particularly annoyed by hearing lascivious comments about the ample breasts of a specific female student, I tried a bit of direct action by reversing the process. In a meaningful tone, I offered a frank appreciation of the physique of a handsome young male student, with reference specifically to his taut buttocks. (This comment was made in the era of tight trousers, not as a result of any personal exploration). My words produced a deep, appalled silence. It suggested that the senior male profs had not really thought about what they were saying. They were horrified at hearing such words from a ‘lady’ – words which struck them not as ‘harmless’ good fun (as they viewed their own comments) but as unpleasantly crude.

Needless to say, I don’t claim that my intervention on its own changed the course of history. Nonetheless, today academic meetings are much more businesslike, even more perfunctory. Less time is spent discussing individual students, who are anyway much more numerous – with the result that the passing commentary on students’ physiques seems also to have stopped. (That’s a social gain on the gender frontier; but there have been losses as well, as today’s bureaucratised meetings are – probably unavoidably – rather tedious).

One important reason for the changed atmosphere is that more specific thought has been given these days to the ethical questions raised by physical encounters between staff and students. It’s true that some relationships turn out to be sincere and meaningful. It’s not hard to find cases of colleagues who have embarked upon long, happy marriages with former students. (I know a few). And there is one high-profile example on the international scene today: Brigitte Trogneux, the wife of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, first met her husband, 25 years her junior, when she was a drama teacher and he was her 15-year old student. They later married, despite initial opposition from his parents, and seem happy together.

But ethical issues have to take account of all possible scenarios; and can’t be sidelined by one or two happy outcomes. There’s an obvious risk academic/student sexual relationships (or solicitation for sexual relationships) can lead to harassment, abuse, exploitation and/or favouritism. Such outcomes are usually experienced very negatively by students, and can be positively traumatic. There’s also the possibility of anger and annoyance on the part of other students, who resent the existence of a ‘teacher’s pet’. In particular, if the senior lover is also marking examination papers written by the junior lover, there’s a risk that the impartial integrity of the academic process may be jeopardised and that student confidence in the system be undermined. (Secret lovers generally believe that their trysts remain unknown to those around them; but are often wrong in that belief).

As far as I know, many Universities don’t have official policies on these matters, though I have long thought they should. Now that current events, especially the shaming of Harvey Weinstein, have reopened the public debates, it’s time to institute proper professional protocols. The broad principles should include an absolute ban of all forms of sexual abuse, harassment or pressurising behaviour; plus, equally importantly, fair and robust procedures for dealing with accusations about such abusive behaviour, bearing in mind the possibility of false claims.

There should also be a very strong presumption that academic staff should avoid having consensual affairs with students (both undergraduate and postgraduate) while the students are registered within the same academic institution and particularly within the specific Department, Faculty or teaching unit, where the academic teaches.

Given human frailty, it must be expected that the ban on consensual affairs will sometimes be breached. It’s not feasible to expect all such encounters to be reported within each Department or Faculty (too hard to enforce). But it should become an absolute policy that academics should excuse themselves from examining students with whom they are having affairs. Or undertaking any roles where a secret partisan preference could cause injustice (such as making nominations for prizes). No doubt, Departments/Faculties will have to devise discreet mechanisms to operate such a policy; but so be it.

Since all institutions make great efforts to ensure that their examination processes are fairly and impartially operated, it’s wrong to risk secret sex warping the system. Ok, we are all flawed humans. But over the millennia humanity has learned – and is still learning – how to cope with our flaws. In these post-Weinstein days, all Universities now need a set of clear professional protocols with reference to sex and the academics.
2017-11 No2 Educating Rita

Fig.2 Advertising still for Educating Rita (play 1980; film 1983), which explores how a male don and his female student learn, non-amorously, from one another.

1 Campus novels almost invariably include illicit affairs: two witty exemplars include Alison Lurie’s The War between the Tates (1974) and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975). Two plays which also explore educational/personal tensions between a male academic and female student are Willy Russell’s wry but gentle Educating Rita (1990) and David Mamet’s darker Oleanna (1992).

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 83 please click here

2017-10 No1 AUTHOR THINKING

MONTHLY BLOG 82, WRITING PERSONAL REFERENCES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

2017-10 No1 AUTHOR THINKING

What do today’s academics spend their time doing? Next to marking essays and planning research applications, one of the most common tasks is writing personal references for past and present students (and sometimes for colleagues too). Happily, such evaluations are not presented anonymously.1 Yet that makes writing them all the more testing.

The aim is to do full justice to the person under consideration, whilst playing fair with the organisation which is receiving the recommendation. Sometimes those aims can be in conflict. Should you recommend someone for a job for which they are not suitable, even if the candidate pleads with you to do so? The answer must be: No.

Actually I can remember one example, some years ago, when an excellent postgraduate wanted to apply for a new post which demanded skills in quantitative economic history. Since she did not have those special skills, I hesitated. She implored me to write on her behalf – it was in an era when new academic posts were rare – and, reluctantly, I did so. However, I told her that my reference would explain that she did not have the required skills, although she would be a great appointment if the University in question decided to waive those preconditions. (It was theoretically possible). In the event, she did not get the job. For the future, I resolved not to waste everyone’s time by writing references in unsuitable cases. A polite refusal does sometimes upset applicants. But it’s best to be frank from the start – and certainly better than writing a thumbs-down reference. (I decline to act if I can’t find anything positive to say).

Truth with tact is the motto. When writing, it’s good to dwell on the candidate’s best qualities, in terms of past attainments and future potential. But it’s seriously unwise to go over the top. Referees who praise everyone unreservedly to the skies quickly lose credibility. What is written should strive to match the best qualities of the person under discussion. Candidates often get called for interview; and it undoubtedly helps interview panels if the candidates broadly resemble their references. (It is ok, by the way, to warn panels in advance in cases of exceptionally nervous interviewees, who may need help to ‘unfreeze’).

Equally, when writing in support of candidates, it’s seriously wrong to go not over but under the top. There used to be an old-fashioned style of wry deprecation. It had a certain period charm. Yet in recent decades there’s been a definite inflation of rhetoric. Wry self-deprecation is still ok, when used in front of those who understand the English art of meiosis or ironic understatement. But deprecatory assessments, or even deprecatory asides, about other people are distinctly unhelpful in today’s competitive climate. Even one passing put-down can harm a candidate, when competing against rivals who are described in completely flattering terms.

Again, I remember a case at my University, where the venerable referee – a punctilious scholar of the old school – was warm but could not resist adding a critical aside. The candidate in question was much the best. Yet she lost out in the final choice, on the grounds that even her friendly referee had doubts about her. Really annoying. She went on to have a distinguished career – but elsewhere. We lost a great colleague.

Some months later I had a chance to talk with the venerable referee, who expressed bafflement that his candidate did not get the job. He was blithely unaware that he had, unintentionally, stabbed her in the back. It was a complete conflict between different generational styles of writing references. Later, I advised the candidate not to press me for further details (since these things are all confidential) but simply to change her referees, which she did. Such stylistic inter-generational contrasts still continue to an extent, although they take a somewhat different form these days. Either way, the moral is that balanced assessments of candidates are fine; shafts of sardonic humour or any form of deprecatory remarks aimed at an absent candidate are not.

Then there’s the question of different international cultures of writing references. Academics in some countries prefer a lyrical rhetoric of flowery but imprecise praise which can be very hard to interpret. (Is it secret humour?) By contrast, other references from a different stylistic culture can be very terse and factual, saying little beyond the public record. (Do they reflect secret boredom or indifference?) My advice in all cases is for candidates to choose referees from their own linguistic/academic/cultural traditions, so that recipients will know how to decode the references. Or, in the case of international applications, then to choose a good range of referees from different countries, hoping to balance the contrasting styles.

So there we are. Refereeing is an art, not a precise science. Truth with tact. Every reference takes thought and time, trying to capture the special qualities of each individual candidate. But, a final thought: there’s always one exception to the rule. The hapless Philip Swallow in David Lodge’s brilliant campus novel Changing Places (1975) encounters this problem, in the form of the former student demanding references – who never goes away. The requests pile up relentlessly. ‘Sometimes he [the former student] aimed absurdly high, sometimes grotesquely low. … If [he] was appointed to any of these posts, he evidently failed to hold them for very long, for the stream of enquiries never ran dry’. Eventually, Swallow realises that he is facing a lifetime commitment. He therefore generates an ‘unblushing all-purpose panegyric’, which is kept on permanent file in the Departmental Office.2 It’s just what every referee secretly craves, for use in emergencies. Just make sure that there are no flowery passages, no hyperbole, no ambiguities, no accidental put-downs, no coded messages, no brusque indifference, no sardonic asides, no joking. Writing personal references, on the record, is utterly serious and time-consuming business. Thank goodness for deadlines.

1 For my comments on writing anonymous assessments, see BLOG/80 (Aug. 2017) and on receiving anonymous assessments of my own work, see BLOG/81 (Sept. 2017).

2 David Lodge, Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses (1975), pp. 28-9.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 82 please click here

2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

MONTHLY BLOG 79, 2017 – ANOTHER SUMMER OF LOVE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Youth, youth: ‘it’s wasted on the young’, etc. But not this time. Having in my BLOG/78 (June 2017) chastised the young for not voting,1 it’s only right now to applaud their mass re-entry into electoral politics at the June 2017 General Election. It makes a huge difference across the board. And I’m not writing that purely as a Labour Party grass-root (though the majority of new young voters did vote Labour). I’m writing that because systemic non-participation of those who can potentially play a role is bad for the wider community, generating a simmering mood of distrust, cynicism, negativism and alienation. Are we ready for another summer of love, fifty years after 1967?
2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

Aurora Goddess of Dawn
© Heidi Wastweet (2003)

Of course, there is an electoral proviso. In 2017, youth turnout was 57 per cent among 18 to 19 year-olds, 59 per cent among 20 to 24 year-olds, and 64 per cent among 25 to 29 year-olds.2 All those figures marked significant increases over comparable levels in 2015, when turnout by those aged 18-24 was somewhere between 43-44 percent.3 Yet there is still room for more. And there was no doubt much regional variation, with especially high youth participation in constituencies with many students on the electoral roll, and lower participation elsewhere. But, hey, no complaints: it is a great development, from the point of view of a properly functioning democracy, full stop. And the return to the language of solidarity and love, after recent atrocities, is a splendid antidote to years of political emphasis upon atomised individuals.

Many of the young electors in their 20s who joined the Labour campaign in Battersea 2017 remind me of my own peer group in our 20s when we joined the Labour Party in the later 1960s.4 We too were full of energy and optimism. Also slightly naïve, in retrospect. But full of collective and individual confidence that we could resolve the problems of the world.5

In sociological terms, there are similarities too: lots of well educated activists, coming from middle-class backgrounds or from rising families, one generation up from the working class. However, one visible difference now, in London at any rate, is a welcome one: the ethnic composition of young Labour activists is much more relaxedly mixed than it was in our youth – reflecting long-term changes in the broader society – and changes among our friends and within our own families too.

What happened to the current of youth optimism and participation in the 1960s? It achieved quite a lot, especially in cultural, gender and ethnic politics. But it got diverted in the 1970s into a rampant individualism in lifestyles (‘tune in, drop out and do your own thing’) which eventually led to a form of anti-politics. Youth protests fizzled out. Moreover, the leftish youth politics of the 1960s triggered a militant counter-cultural resistance from the right, which fostered the successes in the 1980s of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA. Their hostility to ‘the Sixties’ was, in its way, a compliment to the impact of youth culture. Their successful counter-attack, however, simultaneously revealed how vulnerable, divided, and disorganised the Sixties cultural moment was and remained. It lacked the capacity to organise and survive.

Will the current youth involvement also fade away and eventually become dissipated? It’s an obvious risk. It’s hard for a mass movement to remain radiantly optimistic all the time, especially when encountering defeats as well as victories. On the other hand, there’s no necessity for history to repeat itself. The anti-state, anti-regulation, laissez-faire nostrums of the hard political right are now in trouble. The time is ripe for a Zeitgeist shift, which is already happening.

Furthermore, the young electorate today has a lot of really practical issues upon which to focus: the cost of education; the lack of available housing; the degradation of work conditions in the gig-economy; the need to surmount ethnic, class and religious divisions; and so forth. Such issues should help to keep the political focus strongly upon the immediate and the practical. I hope that lots of youthful activists will stand for office, locally and nationally; and/or work in community and political organisations on the ground, to prevent the current surge of involvement from becoming atomised and dissipated.

Oh yes, and another thing: those who really want to achieve changes have to dig in for the long haul. It means getting into organisations and sticking with them. And that means working with the continuing ‘golden oldies’ from successive generations, who were once themselves optimistic youth. Let everyone, who wishes to be a youthful activist, be allowed to be one, without age discrimination.

Battersea Labour provides a sterling example. Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) campaigned for many causes during her long lifetime, after becoming triggered into grass-roots activism at the age of 40. Among other things, she was a suffragette, a founder of Labour in Battersea, and an advocate of non-violent resistance, who influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King.6 Charlotte Despard’s last public engagement saw her addressing a mass anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933. She was then a young old lady aged 89. Let’s hope that we all stay as committed and indefatigable as was Despard, so that Solidarity and Love last for more than a summer.

2017-07 No2 Despard in Trafalgar Square 1933

Charlotte Despard, at the age of 89, addressing an Anti-Fascist Rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933: photo by James Jarché for the Daily Herald

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Who Cares? Getting People to Vote’, Monthly BLOG/78 (June 2017)

2 Voters by Age from YouGov survey, as reported in The Independent, 14 June 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/election-2017-labour-youth-vote-under-40s-jeremy-corbyn-yougov-poll-a7789151.html

3 From Ipsos/MORI survey, as reported by Intergenerational Foundation (2015): http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/How-did-young-people-vote-at-the-2015-general-election.pdf

4 We appear in DVD Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008), directed by M. Marchant; scripted by P.J. Corfield. Available on YouTube: http://youtu.be/ahKt1XoI-II; and also via Battersea Labour Party website: http://www.battersealabour.co.uk/redbattersea

5 A. Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-74 (Oxford, 1998); T. Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York, 1993); J.S. Baugess and A.A. Debolt (eds), Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture (Oxford, 2012).

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Commemorating Battersea’s Charlotte Despard … in Battersea’, Battersea Matters, ed. J. Sheridan (Autumn, 2016), p. 11; M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989).

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 79 please click here

MONTHLY BLOG 47, WOMEN AND PUBLIC SPEAKING – AND WHY IT HAS TAKEN SO LONG TO GET THERE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

 It really wasn’t done – for centuries. Women, respectable women especially, did not speak in public from public platforms. They do sometimes, anachronistically, in period films. So the script-writer of The Duchess (dir: Sam Dibb, 2008) decided that the famous eighteenth-century Duchess of Devonshire (played by Keira Knightley) should indicate her political commitment to the Whig reform cause by speaking at the public hustings for the 1784 Westminster election.

But the scene is a flat pancake. That’s no doubt partly because it never happened, giving the script-writer no historical documentation from which to work. The film is good at revealing the extent to which, as an aristocratic woman in the public eye, the Duchess is constrained by her social position. And then suddenly, she appears on a public balcony in her furs and feathers, delivering an impassioned election speech in favour of democracy to the London masses. There’s no sensation. No shock. There’s not even an angry husband, ordering her to desist. [See Fig.1a]

However, the script-writer knows, from evidence discussed in other scenes, that the Duchess was heavily satirised for her political affiliations. In 1784 she undertook the much milder action of canvassing in the Westminster constituency. She was young, charming, rich, high-ranking and a leader of fashion. Yet even she could not get away with it. She was socially pilloried in graphic prints which accused her of lewdly selling kisses to brutish plebeians for votes (see Fig.1b). Not only did the Duchess never venture publicly into politics again, but nor did other high-born ladies. They stuck to behind-the-scenes roles as political hostesses – not without influence, but not in the censorious public eye.

Fig.1a (L) The Duchess of Devonshire as imagined (2008) on the Westminster hustings Fig.1b (R) The Duchess as satirised in 1784 for canvassing the Westminster electors, in a print entitled ‘A New Way to Secure a Majority’

The reasons for this self-effacement were deeply rooted in Christian tradition. Women were seen as domestic helpmeets. They were expected to be modest, docile and, in public, silent. After all, St Paul enjoined that: ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches; for it is not permitted unto them to speak. But they are commanded to be under obedience … And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home.’1 And he further explained: ‘I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve.’2 Christian feminist scholars today debate about St Paul’s own personal attitudes. But the point was not so much his original intention but the meanings internalised by his followers over time. Women, formed from ‘Adam’s rib’, were subordinate beings. Like children, they should be ‘seen but not heard’.

This social convention began to dissipate only slowly in the later nineteenth century, with the campaign for the female franchise. As a result, it is hard to find any major speeches by a British woman on a public platform (especially an outdoor public platform), before the twentieth century. Queen Elizabeth’s speech to her troops at Tilbury docks (August 1588) is the one great exception; and that famous event was legitimated not just by her royal status but by fears of imminent invasion at the time of the Armada.

Of course, there were daring women who did sometimes break with convention. Particularly in times of social tension and political upheaval, there was greater scope for direct action. It was not uncommon for women preachers, often from lower-class backgrounds, to emerge in radical religious movements, such as in the 1640s. If the spirit moved someone to ‘bear witness’, a sincere belief in divine calling could override the Pauline proscription. So early Methodism, which stressed the teachings of the heart, saw many women lay preachers playing an independent role in the 1780s and 1790s.3 One of them was Elizabeth Tomlinson. She became aunt by marriage to the novelist George Eliot, who later drew a highly sympathetic pen-portrait of a Methodist female evangelist in the form of Dinah Morris in Adam Bede (1859). However, the novel ends with Dinah’s withdrawal from public preaching. And the same happened in many real-life cases as nineteenth-century Methodism became more institutionalised and conservative.4

Nonetheless, radical religion and politics remained possible outlets for women speakers. John Wesley himself had expressed the view that treating women only as ‘agreeable playthings’ constituted ‘the deepest unkindness … horrid cruelty … mere Turkish barbarity’.5 By the later nineteenth century, with the spread of literacy and further education, increasing numbers of women began to reject the subordinate role. It was still notable, however that a number of doughty feminists in the early days of the suffragette campaigns continued to express trepidation at speaking on public platforms. One who had no qualms was Charlotte Despard, shown in Fig.2 addressing a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square. She was, however, an exceptional person, emboldened not only by her Anglo-Irish upper-crust background but also, by the 1930s, by her venerable age, doughty personality and long political experience.6

Charlotte Despard at the age of 89, speaking at an anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square, 12 June 1933. Photo: James Jarché. © Daily Herald Archive, 1983-5236/11073 One reason for the continuing trepidation was because the art of public speaking does not depend solely on the nerve of the speaker. Successful oratory depends upon an unstated but very real reciprocity. The audience has to be prepared to listen and to respond. If those present are unwilling, then the result can be anything from hostile shouting, jeers, catcalls, obscenities, the throwing of missiles – or simply turning away. Social conventions, in other words, are policed not so much by law (though it may contribute) but by widely-shared conventional beliefs.

Before the twentieth century, the only example known to me of a real-life young woman who spoke publicly at a political rally occurred at the Norwich Guildhall in 1794. The orator was Amelia Alderson (later Opie), the daughter of a respected local physician and a social star among the radical intelligentsia. Her speech was reported in a private letter by a disapproving (if reluctantly admiring) older female witness, Sarah Scott.7 She herself was the author of Millennium Hall (1762), which advocated an elegant female-only community as a means of helping women to escape from domestic subordination. But even a proto-feminist like Scott disapproved of Alderson’s actions. Hence getting both men and women to accept female public speaking remains essential to achieve equality on the soap-box – and (a long-running good cause still not fully resolved today) in the pulpit. Down with biblical literalism! Speak up, everyone, and listen too!

1 Holy Bible, St Paul 1 Corinthians, 14: 34-35.

2 Holy Bible, 1 Timothy, 2: 12-13.

3 See D. Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England (Princeton, 1985).

4 P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995), pp. 105-8.

5 See John Wesley’s Sermon 98: On Visiting the Sick (1786), sect. III, 7: ‘There is neither male nor female in Christ Jesus’: in www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-98-On-Visiting-the-Sick

6 For Charlotte Despard, née French (1844-1939), see M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989).

7 J. Spencer, ‘Introduction’, in Sarah Scott, Millennium Hall (1762), ed. J. Spencer (1986), pp. ix-x, citing R. Blunt (ed.), Mrs Montagu, ‘Queen of the Blues’: Her Letters and Friendships from 1762 to 1800 (1923), Vol. 2, p. 304.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 47 please click here

MONTHLY BLOG 46, THE HISTORY OF THE HAND-SHAKE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

Not everyone shakes hands. But those who do are expressing an egalitarian relationship. As a form of greeting, the handshake differs completely in meaning from the bow or curtsey, which display deference from the ‘lowly’ to those on ‘high’. In one Jane Austen novel, a fearlessly ‘modern’ young woman extends her hand to a young man at a crowded party. Of course, it is Marianne Dashwood, the embodiment of ‘sensibility’. She has just re-encountered the errant Willoughly, long after he has ended their unofficial courtship. Marianne immediately holds out her hand, claiming him as an intimate friend. But he avoids her gesture. Marianne then exclaims ‘in a voice of the greatest emotion: “Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this? … Will you not shake hands with me?”’. He cannot avoid doing so, but drops her hand quickly. After a few short exchanges, Willoughby then leaves ‘with a slight bow’.2  He has dropped her. Their body language says it all.

There is a particular poignancy in this scene. In this era, men and women who were not related to one another would not ordinarily touch hands as a form of greeting. But, of course, lovers might do so. No wonder that a mere touch was so powerful when it was so rare. (And it retains its appeal today in romantic mythology and countless pop songs: I Wanna hold your Hand!)3  Shakespeare, as ever, had known the scene. Romeo understands the intimacy implied when he takes Juliet’s hand in a dance, as does she: ‘And palm to palm is like holy palmer’s kiss’.4

Even more definitively, a couple would touch hands in a marriage ceremony (even allowing for the many varieties of ritual associated with weddings).5 The wording was clear. ‘Taking someone’s hand in marriage’ is an ultimate symbol of good faith, along with the exchange of rings which remain visible on the hand. These are public signs of personal commitment. An earlier poetic expression also offered an endgame variant, in the form of a final handshake. Michael Dayton’s Sonnet LXI (1594) which starts ‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part’ invites the parting lovers to: ‘shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows’.

At the same time, a close handshake also has a set of commercial connotations. When two traders agree upon a contract, they may indicate the same by a handshake. However unequal they may be in wealth and commercial status, for the purposes of the deal they are equals, both pledging to fulfil the bargain. It constitutes a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ – upheld by personal honour. The same etiquette applies in making a bet.

Hence reneging upon a wager or deal sealed with a personal handshake is viewed as particularly heinous. The loser may even litigate for redress. Today the American Sports World News reports rumours that Charles Wang, the majority owner of the New York Islanders ice-hockey team, is being sued for $10 million by hedge-fund manager Andrew Barroway. Wang’s crime? He had allegedly reneged on a handshake pact to sell his Islanders franchise to Barroway.6
Typically, a handshake is a brief and routine affair, usually but not invariably with the right hand. True, there are variants. The prolonged handshake plus a clasp of the recipient’s upper arm by the shaker’s other hand is a gesture of special warmth – stereotypically undertaken by gregarious American politicians.7

Or there is the Masonic handshake. It gives a secret signal, allowing members of a separate society to identify one another. Apparently, there are many variants of the Masonic handshake, denoting differences in rank within the organisation. That information is rather depressing, since the handshake is, in principle, egalitarian. Nonetheless, it shows the potential for stylistic variation, from the firm muscular grip to the fleeting touch-and-drop.

Variations in styles of shaking hands are here caricatured as two gentlemen are almost dancing their mutual greetings; from www.etiquipedia.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10, consulted 11 Oct. 2014. Gradually, routine British styles of greeting began to incorporate the handshake. It was most common among civilian men of similar middle-class standing. By contrast, the toffs stuck with their traditional bowing and curtseying. Meanwhile, hand-shaking was rare among workers in ‘dirty’ trades and industries, because people in unavoidably grimy jobs usually tried to contain rather than to spread the dirt. The emblem of two clasped hands nonetheless appeared proudly on various trade union banners, as a pledge of solidarity.

The advent of the social handshake was thus not uniform across all periods and classes. But it could be found, between close male friends, in Britain from at least Shakespeare’s time. Yet its subsequent spread has taken a long time a-coming. For example, in 1828 the anonymous author of A Critique of the Follies and Vices of the Age was still expressing displeasure at the new popularity of the handshake, including between men and women.8

One reason for some snobbish hostility, among polite society in Britain, was the association of this custom with the republican USA, where its usage became increasingly common after American independence. There were also connotations of support for the hand-shaking citizens of republican France from 1793 onwards. English visitors to the USA like the novelist and social commentator Frances Trollope thus waxed somewhat critical of the local mores. In 1832, she deplored the habit of hand-shaking between both sexes and all classes (albeit excluding the non-free).For her, this form of greeting was too bodily intimate, especially as ‘the near approach of the gentleman [ironically] was always redolent of whiskey and tobacco’.9

Ultimately, however, the snobs were routed. Old-style bowing and curtseying has generally disappeared, although hat wearers may still doff their hats to ladies. However, the twentieth century also produced another twist in the tale. Just as the hand-shake was becoming quite widely adopted in Britain by the 1970s, it was suddenly challenged by a new custom, imported from overseas. It is the continental kiss, in the form of a light clasp of the upper arms and a peck on the cheek (or, for the physically fastidious, an air-kiss). Such a manoeuvre would give good scope to a later Marianne Dashwood, who might grip an errant Willoughby in order to kiss him warmly. Nonetheless, be warned: whatever the greeting style, body language always provides ways of signalling the rejection as well as the offering of friendship.

1  See P.J. Corfield, previous monthly BLOG 45 ‘Doffing One’s Hat’. And for fuller discussion, see PJC, ‘Dress for Deference & Dissent: Hats and the Decline of Hat Honour’, Costume: Journal of the Costume Society, 23 (1989), pp. 64-79; also transl. in K.Gerteis (ed.), Zum Wandel von Zeremoniell und Gesellschaftsritualen: Aufklärung, 6 (1991), pp. 5-18; and posted on PJC personal website as Pdf/8.

2  J. Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1st pub. London, 1811): chapter 28.

3 The Beatles (1963).

4  W. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (written mid 1590s; 1597), Act 1, sc. 5. A palmer was a successful pilgrim, returning from the Holy Land bearing palms as a sign that the journey had been achieved.

5  A traditional ritual of ‘hand-fasting’, announcing a solemn public engagement, has also been updated for use today in pagan marriage ceremonies.

6 Sports World News on-line 12.Aug. 2014, at www.sportsworldnews.com/articles, consulted 11 Oct. 2014.

7  See e.g. John Travolta’s film portrayal of a notably touchy-feely American presidential candidate, based upon Bill Clinton, in Primary Colors (dir. Mike Nichols, 1998).

8  Anon., Something New on Men and Manners: A Critique of the Follies and Vices of the Age … (Hailsham, Sussex, 1828), p. 174.

F. Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), ed. R. Mullen (Oxford, 1984), p. 83.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 46 please click here

MONTHLY BLOG 45, DOFFING ONE’S HAT

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

TV’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) provided many memorable images, not least Colin Firth as Mr Darcy diving into a pool to emerge reborn as a feeling, empathetic human being. This transformation gains extra impact when contrasted with the intense formality of his general deportment. When, after some months of absence, Darcy and Bingley re-enter the Bennet family home at Longbourn, they bow deeply in unison, whilst Mrs Bennet and all her daughters rise as one and bend their heads in synchronised response. Audiences may well sigh, admiringly or critically according to taste. What a contrast with our own casual manners. It satisfies a sense that the past must have been different – like a ‘foreign country’, in a much-cited phrase from L.P. Hartley.1

But did people in Georgian polite society actually greet each other like that on a day-to-day basis? There is good evidence for the required formality (and dullness) of Hanoverian court life on ceremonial occasions. A fashionable ball or high society dinner might also require exceptional courtesies. But ordinary life, even among the elite of Britain’s landed aristocrats and commercial plutocrats, was not lived strictly according to the etiquette books.

Instead, the eighteenth century saw an attenuation of the lavish old-style formalities, which were known as ‘hat honour’. In theory, men when meeting their social superiors made a deep bow, removing their headgear, with a visible flourish. Gentlemen greeting a ‘lady’ would also remove their hats with a courteous nod. For women, the comparable requirement was the low curtsey from the ‘inferior’ to the ‘superior’. Those who held their heads highest (and hatted in the case of men) the more socially elevated, since lowering the head always signalled deference. This understanding underpins the custom of addressing monarchs as ‘Your Highness’.

Illustration 1 ‘The Hopes of the Family’ (1799) shows a young man being interviewed for University admission. A don presides, wearing his mortar board, whilst the nervous applicant and his eager father, an old-fashioned country gentleman, have both doffed their hats, which they carry under their arms. An undergraduate in his gown looks on nonchalantly, his hands in pockets. Yet he too remains bare-headed in the presence of a senior member of his College. Only the applicant’s mother, who is subject to the different rules of etiquette for women, covers her head with a rustic bonnet.

V0040710 A school master is sitting at a table pointing at some books

Illus 1: A gentle satire by Henry William Bunbury, entitled

The Hopes of the Family (1799) – © The Welcome Library.

In accordance with this etiquette, King Charles I on trial before Parliament in 1648 wore a high black hat throughout the proceedings. It was a signal that, as the head of state, he would not uncover for any lower authority. The answer of his republican opponents was radical. Charles I was found guilty of warfare against his own people, as a ‘tyrant, traitor and murderer’. He was decapitated, beheading the old power structure very literally and publicly.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was some return to the old formalities. (Or at least hopes of the same). For example, in October 1661 the naval official and MP Samuel Pepys recorded his displeasure at what he considered to be the undue pride of his manservant, who kept his hat on in the house.2 Pepys expected deference from his ‘inferiors’, whilst being ready to accord it to his own ‘superiors’. But it was not always easy to judge. In July 1663, Pepys worried that he may have offended the Duke of York, by not uncovering when the two men were walking in sight of each other in St James’s Park.3 It was a tricky decision. Failure, to doff one’s hat, when close at hand, would be rude, yet uncovering from too far away would seem merely servile.

Over the very long term, however, all these formalities began to attenuate. With the advent of brick buildings and roaring coal-fires, the habitual wearing of hats indoors generally disappeared – mob-caps and night-caps excepted. And in public, the old gestures continued but in an attenuated form. With commercial growth came the advent of many people of middling status. It was hard for them to calculate the precise gradations of status between one individual and another. The old-style mannerisms were also too slow for a fast-moving and urbanising world.

As a result, between men the deep bow began to change into a nod of the head. The elaborate flourish of the hat gradually turned into a quick lifting or pulling. And the respectful long tug of the forelock, on the part of those too poor to have any headgear, turned into a briefer touch to the head.4

A notable example of the abbreviation of hat honour was the codification of the military salute. It was impractical for rank-and-file soldiers to remove their headgear whenever encountering their officers. On the other hand, military discipline required the respecting of ranks. The answer was a symbolic gesture. ‘Inferiors’ greeted their ‘superiors’ by touching the hand to the head. Different regiments evolved their own traditions. Only in 1917 (well into World War I) did the British army decide that all salutes should be given right-handedly.

Meanwhile, the female greeting in the form of a low curtsey, holding out the dress, also evolved into a briefer bob or half-curtsey. It was expected from all lower-status women when meeting ‘superiors’. But hat honour was confined to men. On public occasions, women retained their hats, bonnets and feathers. Even in church, they did not copy men in baring their heads but respected St Paul’s Biblical dictum that it was not ‘comely’ for women to pray to God uncovered.5

These etiquette rules delight TV- and film-makers. In reality, however, the conventions were always in evolution. Rules were broken and/or fudged, as well as followed. Moreover, by the later eighteenth-century in Britain a new form of interpersonal greeting had arrived. It was the egalitarian hand-shake. Jane Austen’s characters not only bowed and curtsied to each other. They also, in certain circumstances, shook hands. In one Austen novel, a fearlessly ‘modern’ young woman extends her hand to shake that of a young man at a public assembly. Anyone know the reference? Answer follows in next month’s BLOG on Handshaking.

1 L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1943, p. 1: ‘the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there’.

2 R. Latham and W. Matthews (eds), The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. II: 1661 (1970), p 199.

3 Ibid., Vol. IV: 1663 (1971), p. 252.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Dress for Deference & Dissent: Hats and the Decline of Hat Honour’, Costume: Journal of the Costume Society, 23 (1989), pp. 64-79; also transl. in K.Gerteis (ed.), Zum Wandel von Zeremoniell und Gesellschaftsritualen: Aufklärung, 6 (1991), pp. 5-18. Also posted on PJC personal website as Pdf/8.

5 Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians, 11:13.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 45 please click here

MONTHLY BLOG 44, QUOTATIONS AND IRONY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

Quotations should never be mangled and should always be cited honestly, with due attention to context. Yes – absolutely yes.  It’s axiomatic for all scholarship – but also for proper communications. It does happen that words are taken out of context and twisted into another meaning. But it’s never right.

To take an example: if a theatre critic sees a controversial play and writes: ‘The very last thing that I’d say is that this production is brilliant’, then the theatre’s publicity team could put the critic’s name in lights alongside the quotation: ‘This production is brilliant’. Factually, those attributed words are correct. The critic did write them. Yet the truncated quotation gives the reverse meaning to that intended. Both the critic and any members of the audience, who were deceived into attending on the strength of the critic’s recommendation, have grounds for complaint.

Another potential for misunderstanding comes when heavy irony is taken at face value. In one of Shakespeare’s famous oratorical set-pieces, Mark Antony mourns the assassination of Caesar by Brutus and his allies with the repeated phrase: ‘And Brutus is an honourable man’ … [They are all] ‘honourable men’. The stress upon the repeated phrase, like a refrain, urges the Roman crowd to understand that the words mean the reverse of what they apparently say.

By the end, the citizens turn against the assassins: ‘They were traitors: honourable men!1  On the face of it, Mark Antony has given Brutus a favourable character reference. In context, however, he stands condemned, not just as an assassin but as one who has basely betrayed his closest friend and colleague. ‘This was the unkindest cut of all’.

Nonetheless, there is a problem for anyone who uses irony. If the listeners or readers fail to get the implied message, then they will come to an erroneous conclusion. A Roman citizen who left the forum after the opening phrases of Antony’s speech (or who wasn’t listening carefully) could depart thinking: ‘I was sorry to hear of  Caesar’s death but it must be acceptable as Brutus, a man of honour, explained why he had to do it, and Antony confirms that Brutus is an honourable man’.

Irony, then, is powerful but risky. It depends upon an attentive community between speaker/writer and audience/readers which allows the words to be decoded successfully.

For historians, quoting from sources whose authors have long gone, there is always a challenge to understand meanings in their full context. When does a word or phrase in use mean its opposite? And did people in the past always get the hidden message?

When Jonathan Swift published his Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents or Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729), he provided an exercise in sustained irony that revealed itself through the moral enormity of the proposed solution. ‘A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food.’ Poor parents would solve their financial problems by selling their children, who would provide good food for the rich. Infanticide? Cannibalism? Class callousness? Swift does not advocate these. Instead, his irony conveys outrage at the poverty of the poor and the indifference of the rich.

Jonathan Swift’s famous use of sustained irony in his Modest Proposal (1729)Why am I writing about this now? Because I am currently thinking about the use of evidence and the dangers of inadvertent misinterpretation. The question really arises when using a lot of sources in a historical collage.

I have just done that in an essay, published in Social History, on eighteenth-century Britain as an ‘Age of Infidelity’.2  It cites at least 75 contemporary verdicts on the state of religion and irreligion. Many are book titles, some are declarations within books, some are printed texts reporting upon speeches and sermons.

A proportion of these works were clearly using overblown rhetoric, uttered in times of crisis. When John Bowlder agonised in 1798 that the British nation’s lack of faith seemed to portend nothing less than ‘the eradicating [of] Christianity in this Quarter of the World’,3  it is hard not to smile. Religion had more staying power than he was ready to admit. On the other hand, Bowdler’s deep anxiety was typical of many committed Christians in the later 1790s, when Britain was struggling in the prolonged war against France. Why such extreme danger? It could only be that God was angry with the nation for its irreligious ways.

Bowdler not only wrote to chastise the people but took practical steps to offer a remedy. He co-founded the Church Building Society, which provided new places of worship in the newly expanding towns. In my Social History essay, I am able to give further information about Bowdler, as he was a particularly notable contributor to the debates. His name on its own attracts interest. Two of his children, Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, removed all the saucy bits from Shakespeare, in order to make the bard acceptable for respectable family reading. Their reward was much public ridicule – and the invention of a new verb ‘to bowdlerise’. Such contextual information illuminates the era’s culture wars, in which the Bowdlers were eager partisans.

But, in an essay of approximately 7,000 words, it’s not possible to devote equal attention to the other 74 eighteenth-century contemporaries – laypeople as well as clergymen – who expressed views on the state of religion. It would overrun the restricted length of a scholarly essay – and confuse the unfolding analysis. Naturally, I checked all the sources that I used, for both content and context. And I especially searched for rival tracts, arguing that the eighteenth century was an ‘Age of Faith’ or equivalent.

Is it possible that I missed some exercises in irony? Logically, yes, although I hope not. (Please check my sources, all duly footnoted!) Sustained Swiftian-style irony is comparatively rare. Moreover, people writing on the state of irreligion tended to be heated and passionate rather than coolly playing with double meanings.

What I do claim to have found is not a debate without the potential for irony but instead one which circulated a new eighteenth-century cliché. It stated that the era was ‘an Age of Infidelity’. By this phrase, the commentators did not refer to people’s unfaithfulness to their marriage vows. That constituted ‘conjugal infidelity’, plentiful enough but far from unique to the eighteenth century. Nor did the commentators refer to apostacy: Christians in this period were not turning into Islamic or Jewish or any other religious variety of ‘infidels’.

No, it was the spread of secularisation that was being noted, chiefly in alarm: the advent of a society, officially Christian, where people had the option of not going to church, not following Christian lifestyles, and (even) not sharing Christian beliefs. It is possible that some eighteenth-century references to the ‘Age of Infidelity’ were meant ironically. But, if all that the commentators left were the unvarnished words, then they are liable to be read literally.

Ironists beware. Unless your double meaning is suitably signalled, it will become lost in time.

1  W. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (written 1599/1600), Act 3, scene 2.

2  P.J. Corfield, ‘“An Age of Infidelity”: Secularisation in Eighteenth-Century England’, Social History, 39 (2014), pp. 229-47; available via Taylor & Francis publishers online = www.tandfonline.com.

J. Bowdler, Reform or Ruin: Take Your Choice! (Dublin, 1798), p. 21.

4  For the CBS, now part of the National Churches Trust, see www.churchplansonline.org.

See Wikipedia, sub Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825): en.wikipedia.org.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 44 please click here