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MONTHLY BLOG 116, THE LONG EIGHTEENTH CENTURY’S MOST AMAZING LADY RECLUSE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Image of Lady Hester Stanhope
(1776-1839)
Garbed as an Oriental Magus

More than matching the fame of the most notable male recluses of eighteenth-century Britain was the renown of the amazing Lady Hester Stanhope.1 She not only cut herself off from her aristocratic family background to live remotely but did so, at first in grand style and then as a recluse, in the Lebanon.

Her story indicates that there were some remarkable options open to independent-minded women, with independent fortunes but no family attachments. In fact, there was quite a substantial amount of female solitude in the eighteenth century.2 The caricature view, which asserts that every woman was under the domestic tutelage of either a husband or a father was just that – a caricature.

There were plenty of female-headed households listed in contemporary urban enumerations; and a number of these were formed by widows living alone. Many lived in the growing spas and resorts, where low-cost lodgings were plentiful. Some would have other family members living with them; but the poorest were completely alone. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817), the protagonist Anne Elliott meets in Bath an old school-friend, the widowed Mrs Smith. She is impecunious and disabled. Her lodgings consist of two small rooms; and she is ‘unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant’. Nonetheless, solitary living was not the same as being a recluse. Local gossip networks helped to counter isolation, as Jane Austen well understood. Hence, although socially remote from Bath’s smart visitors, Mrs Smith gets all the up-to-date news ‘through the short cut of a laundress and a waiter’.3 As a result, Anne Elliott is surprised to discover how much information about herself and her family is already known to her old friend.

Lady Hester Stanhope was utterly different. Lively, charming, and wealthy, she was the daughter of the 3rd Earl Stanhope and, in her late twenties (1803-6) acted as political hostess for her uncle Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Her social elevation and experience of life at the heart of government gave her immense self-confidence. But Pitt’s death in 1806 left her looking for a role.

In retrospect, Stanhope’s subsequent adventures indicate something of the social plight – or, put more positively, the challenges – facing talented and spirited upper class women, who did not wish (or manage) to marry or to go into business. There were plenty of female commercial entrepreneurs, usually of ‘middling’ social origins.4   And there was a positive ‘femocracy’ of high-born women who pulled the political strings behind the scenes.5 > But these were generally married ladies, hosting salons and gatherings for their particular party affiliation, under the ‘shelter’ of their husband’s rank and wealth. The options were much more limited for a single aristocratic female, albeit one with a modest state pension granted after the death of Pitt (at his request). In 1810 Stanhope began to travel extensively in the Middle East; and she never returned to Britain. Initially, she had a sizeable entourage with her; and she attracted the attention of crowds as she toured. By the end of her life, however, she was running out of money and had become a complete recluse.

During her long self-exile, she did a number of remarkable things. Firstly, she adopted her own version of male oriental dress. She sported a velvet robe, embroidered trousers, soft slippers, a swathed turban. and no veil. So attired, she caused a sensation on her travels. In 1813, crowds gathered to see the ‘Queen of the Desert’ as she rode triumphantly on horseback into the remote and beautiful city of Palmyra, having crossed the territory of potentially hostile Bedouins. That moment was, for her, one of intense joy. Her garb and demeanour signalled that she had cut herself off from her previous life; and, even more pointedly, that she rejected any submissive female role, whether in the occident or orient. She was visibly her own person. Indeed, she was a grand personage, meeting local power brokers and Ottoman officials as a potentate in her own right.

A second notable initiative happened in 1815. Stanhope at the age of 39 broke new ground in terms of female self-employment – literally, when she tried some pioneering archaeology.6 She won permission from the Turkish authorities to excavate the ancient port of Ashkelon, north of Gaza. There were disputes, both then and later, about the outcomes of this search for fabled treasure. But Stanhope’s method of basing dirt-archaeology upon documentary evidence from medieval manuscripts showed that she was not attempting a random smash-and-grab raid. But, either way, it was not an adventure that she ever repeated.

Instead, it was a moment of religious revelation which constituted Stanhope’s third claim to fame – and which governed her behaviour for the rest of her life. At some stage c.1815 she was told by Christian sooth-sayers that she would become the bride of the Messiah, whose return to Earth was imminently due. Nothing could be more aptly dramatic. Stanhope accepted her destiny; and settled down to wait. She found two noble and distinctive horses, which were carefully tended for years, awaiting the moment when the returned Messiah and his bride would ride forth to judge the world at the Second Coming.

Excited prophecies of the End of the World can be found in any era,7 and were particularly rampant in Europe in the febrile aftermath of the French Revolution and the prolonged Napoleonic wars. At different times, individuals have claimed to be the returned Messiah – or to be closely connected with such a figure – or to know the exact date of the Second Coming. In the Christian tradition, it is rare for women to claim divinity or near-divinity on their own account. However, in 1814 Joanna Southcott, aged 64, announced that she was pregnant with the new Messiah and, briefly, attracted a large following, until she died of a stomach tumour, without producing the miraculous child. During her lifetime, she had instituted her own church, with a male minister to officiate at the services. And the Southcottian movement has survived as a small sect, with numerous twists and turns in its fortunes, into the twenty-first century.8

By contrast, Lady Hester Stanhope’s vision remained an individual destiny. Visitors approached her in her Lebanese retreat, impressed by her magus-like reputation.  But Stanhope did not attempt to found a church or a supporting movement. Instead, she settled in to wait patiently. That response is a not uncommon one when a divine revelation is not immediately realised. True believers keep faith. It is the timing, not the vision, which is inaccurate. So the answer is to wait, which is what Stanhope indomitably did. Living initially in first one and then another disused monastery, she retreated eventually to a conical hill-top site with panoramic views at Joun, eight miles (13k) inland from Sidon. There she lived as the de facto local magnate. She was accepted within the religious mix of Muslim, Christian and Druze communities that has long characterised the Lebanon; and she tried to protect the Druze from persecution on grounds of their distinctive blend of Islam, gnosticism and neo-platonism. Doctrinal rigidity was very far from her personal mindset.

Only with time did Stanhope become a real recluse. By the mid-1830s, her original English companions had either died or returned home. Her funds ran low and she was besieged by creditors. The servants, allegedly, began to steal her possessions. Lady Hester Stanhope received her few last visitors after dark, refusing to let them see more than her face and hands. Reportedly, she suffered from acute depression. The Messiah did not come. Yet there was a sort of glory in her faithfulness. Her life’s trajectory was utterly distinctive, not one that could be emulated by others. Buoyed by sufficient funds, she made an independent life in an initially strange country, far from the political salons of early nineteenth-century London. And she persisted, even when impecunious. Stanhope died in her sleep aged 63, still awaiting her destiny – and having made her own legend.

ENDNOTES

1 There are many biographies: see e.g. K. Ellis, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope (2008); and a pioneering survey by C.L.W. Powlett, The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope (1897).

2 B. Hill, Women Alone: Spinsters in England, 1660-1850 (2001).

3 J. Austen, Persuasion (1817/18; in Harmondsworth, 1980 edn), pp. 165-7, 200.

4 N. Phillips, Women in Business, 1700-1850 (Woodbridge, 2006); H. Barker, Family and Business during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford, 2017).

5 E. Chalus, Elite Women in British Political Life, c.1754-90 (Oxford, 2005).

6 For a sympathetic account, see https://womeninarchaeology.com/2016/05/05/lady-hester-lucy-stanhope-the-first-modern-excavator-of-the-holy-land/.

7 J.M. Court, Approaching the Apocalypse: A Short History of Christian Millenarianism (2008); C. Wessinger (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Millenialism (Oxford, 2011).

8 J.K. Hopkins, A Woman to Deliver her People: Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution (Austin, Texas, 1982); J.D.M. Derrett, Prophesy in the Cotswolds, 1803-1947 (Shipston-on-Stour, 1994); P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995; 2000), pp. 106-8. 124, 139; J. Shaw, Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a female Messiah and her Followers (2012).

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MONTHLY BLOG 115, THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY INVENTION OF TWO NEW SOLITARY OCCUPATIONS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

1793 Statue of Ancient British Druid,
Croome Park, Worcestershire

Not only did a few famous eighteenth-century recluses choose solitude (see BLOG no 114, June 2020) but others found that isolation went with the job. Two new occupations called for people with self-contained personalities, who were willing to live and work ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’, to cite the evocative words of Thomas Gray (1751).1

Firstly, there were the light-housekeepers, employed to tend the dramatic new structures being constructed around the British coast to keep shipping safe.2 These men and the few women in the business had to be punctilious in sticking to the timetables of the job, and able to keep themselves busy with daily repairs and maintenance. Their lamps needed constant attention, to keep the lenses clean and wicks trimmed. Some keepers brought their families with them – indeed some jobs were handed on from father to son. But their work and lifestyles were unavoidably isolated.

Light-housekeepers, who were expected to keep their eyes open for shipping in distress at sea, sometimes found themselves in danger too. The world’s first sea-girt Eddystone Lighthouse (1698-1703), which was situated on perilous rocks off the Cornish coast, did not last long. Wood-built, it was destroyed in the notorious ‘great storm’ of 1703. Also killed in the cataclysm were Henry Winstanley, its architect who was checking for repairs – and three light-housekeepers. The imperative need for their warning beacon was such that three successor structures have since been built on or near the original site. A second Eddystone (1708-55) burned down in 1755, killing its 94-year-old light-housekeeper. He was looking at the blaze, open-mouthed, when he fatally swallowed a globule of hot lead, dying several days later. (The third Eddystone lasted from 1756-1877, until replaced by the current Victorian edifice, located very close to the original (1878- now).)

Notwithstanding the isolation and occasional dangers, the light-housekeepers stuck devotedly to their roles. They knew that their beaming lamps conveyed messages of hope and support for all seafarers. And the keepers formed part of a coastal watch-guard, which included customs officials and lifeboat crews.

Things were quite otherwise in the case of an entirely new eighteenth-century post for solitary workers. A few wealthy landowners with a taste for re-envisaging the simple life built hermitages in their rolling parklands. And they hoped to employ real individuals to inhabit these properties in a suitable druidic lifestyle. The ideal hermit was a man with an imposing presence, long hair, and a beard. He should have a taste for solitude but equally be willing to remain on view as a living statue.3 But suitable candidates were hard to find. The hermits generally had no tasks other than being – and no close colleagues, being neither part of the estate workforce not part of the employing household. They were intended to be truly lonely, in order to live the role.

In the mid-1740s one resident hermit was established in a specially built Heritage at the aristocrat Charles Hamilton’s lavishly landscaped Painshill Park, near Cobham, Surrey. However, the new recluse lasted three weeks in the job – before absconding. His contract was thereupon cancelled.

But, in other cases, the hermit was asked to play a particular role. At Sir Richard Hill’s Hawkstone Estate, near Market Drayton in Shropshire, visitors in 1784 could ring a special bell and gain admittance to the grotto. There sat a venerable hermit, in front of a table bearing a skull, an hour-glass, and an open book. Conversation was allowed, in which the sage would participate with graceful melancholy.

Elsewhere, however, employers expected hermits to remain silent. One landowner advertised for a recluse who was prepared to take a vow of silence for seven years – and, in the meantime, not to wash – and to let his hair and nails grow unchecked. There was, however, no rush of applicants. Before long, the fashion for employing humans as estate ornaments collapsed.

Already by the mid-eighteenth century, some landowners were experimenting with the use of model or dummy hermits. These were cheaper and much more tractable than living people. One mechanical hermit at Samuel Hellier’s estate at The Wodehouse, near Wombourne in Staffordshire, was reported in the 1770s as being moved (by a hidden servant) in a lifelike manner to delight visitors. Such contrivances showed how landowners tried to entertain the touring guests, who frequently called to view estates and the public rooms of grand houses. An ancient hermit gave an estate the patina of antiquity.

Druid statues, meanwhile, offered an equally visible but managerially easier option. They too alluded to ancient British mythologies; and signalled an intended link with the deep past.4 Thus two powerful druidic figures were installed in 1776 to flank the main entrance to the Palladian Penicuik House in Midlothian, Scotland. And in 1793 the owners of Croome Park, near Croome D’Abitot, in south Worcestershire, joined the fashion. Their finely brooding statue of a druid (shown above in 2013 photo) was carved in the new and fashionable Coade stone, which lent itself to expressive designs.5

Figures in a landscape were a means of attracting human attention. Only a few had the space and funds for large statues. But miniaturised versions began to become popular in Britain from the 1840s onwards, with the importation from Germany of specially manufactured garden gnomes.6 In 1847 Sir Charles Isham imported a batch of these terracotta figures to adorn his garden at Lamport Hall, at Lamport, Northamptonshire. Today one gnome, named Lumpy, still survives on display. He is only an indirect descendant of the eighteenth-century hermits. But the fashion for statues and gnomes shows how people continue to add human images to complement a garden design – long after the real-life human hermits disappeared. To recap: the light-housekeepers accepted their solitude, as it was embraced for a good cause, applauded by all. But a lonely life as someone else’s invented hermit did not prove at all appealing.

ENDNOTES

1 T. Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751).

2 T. Nancollas, Seashaken Houses: A Lighthouse History, from Eddystone to Fastnet (2018).

3 See the invaluable study by G. Campbell, The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome (Oxford, 2014).

4 R. Hutton, Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (2009).

5 A, Kelly, Mrs Coade’s Stone (Upton-upon Severn, 1990).

6 T. Way, Garden Gnomes: A History (2009).

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MONTHLY BLOG 114, SELF-ISOLATION EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STYLE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig.1 Engraving (1808) of Lord Rokeby (1713-1800),
a famous eighteenth-century self-isolator,
who looked like a wise old wizard
but whose actual message was obscure.

It’s not original to note that humans are a highly social species. But it’s only now becoming generally appreciated just how damaging a period of prolonged and enforced isolation from others can be. Basically, it’s bad news for both physical and mental health.1 Of course, some individuals do embrace silence and seek solitude. Maybe for spiritual reasons. Yet such conscious choices, which can be revoked at any time, are very different from enforced solitude, not of an individual’s seeking.

The eighteenth century in Britain provided two quirky individuals who famously created their own isolated lifestyles, cushioned by their private incomes. So what can be learned from their stories? No great revelation of enlightenment emerges. Instead, the two men have been slotted into the history of zany English eccentricity.2 They certainly both fitted into that category plausibly enough. Yet do their lifestyles convey some further message for humanity in the early summer of today’s special virus-avoiding Lockdown?

One of these isolates was the well-connected Matthew Robinson, 2nd Baron Rokeby (1713-1800). He was a landowner, with legal training and literary interests. In his thirties (1747-61), he became MP for Canterbury. There was nothing to suggest his impending eccentricity. Anyhow, at a certain point, he developed a passion for daily immersion in water for hours on end. At first, he walked from his country estate near Hythe (Kent), on the edge of Romney Marsh, to swim in the sea, bathing for hours until he was exhausted and had to be rescued. Then he constructed a private pool in a glass-house attached to his country mansion, which he refused to heat. Again he stayed for hours in the water, refusing company. He got nourishment chiefly from an infusion of beef tea; refused to see doctors; and claimed that he could best worship naturally, in the water and under the stars. Occasional visitors were treated to readings of his lengthy poems.

When Rokeby (rarely) appeared in public, he was taken for a foreigner, on account of his flowing locks and massive beard. Anecdotes circulated about his lifestyle; and prints were engraved (as shown above), to illustrate his hirsute appearance. His younger sister, the highly sociable literary lady and bluestocking Mrs Montagu, wrote sardonically that her brother had become a modern Diogenes: ‘he flies the life of London, and leads a life of such privacy and seriousness as looks to the beholder like wisdom’.3 Ouch. Evidently his nearest and dearest were not impressed. His two younger sisters remained busy and productive: Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800), later dubbed ‘Queen of the Blues’, and Sarah Scott (1723-95), the novelist and translator, whose Millennium Hall (1763) envisaged a harmonious community of women without men.4

For his part, Rokeby wrote and said nothing memorable, despite looking ever more like a wizard in his later years, He did not do anything to foster swimming or sea-bathing. His eccentric pastime remained a purely private matter, which ended only with his peaceful death in bed, unmarried and childless. His estate and the barony passed to a cousin.

What did all it mean? Rokeby’s lifestyle suggests a personal quest for ecological simplicity, before there was an ecological movement to join him or for him to join. He does not seem to have been personally unhappy; or, at any rate, did not announce any disquiet. Yet his story seems at very least to have been one of unrealised talents, particularly when contrasted with his siblings.

A second case of self-isolation was that of John Tallis (1675-1755). As reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine, he stayed in bed for the last 30 years of his life, swathed in coverings and with a peg on his nose, in a darkened, draught-proof room in a country inn at Burcot (Worcestershire).5 He saw no-one but a few occasional visitors, impelled by curiosity – and his servants, who replaced his bed annually.

Insofar as he justified his strange lifestyle choice, Tallis claimed, to general bemusement, that his morbid fear of fresh air was triggered by an old beldame’s curse. Evidently, he had sufficient funds to pay for his lodging and minimal keep. And no family intervened to try to change his mind. Throughout, Tallis declined to seek medical or even spiritual help for what seemed to be a prolonged and debilitating physical and/or psychological malady.

By the end of his life, he was becoming classed among the ranks of great British eccentrics. His sad tale probably provided the inspiration for William Wordsworth’s later ballad The True Story of Goody Blake and Harry Gill (1798). That jingling poem recounted a malediction directed at a wealthy but hard-hearted farmer, who had no compassion for a poor old woman gleaning in his hedgerow.6 His penalty for an icy heart was then to lie abed, forever chilled:

Oh!  what’s the matter?  what’s the matter?
What is’t that ails young Harry Gill?
That evermore his teeth they chatter,
Chatter, chatter, chatter still.
Of waistcoats Harry has no lack,
Good duffle grey, and flannel fine;
He has a blanket on his back,
And coats enough to smother nine.

Wordsworth’s imaginative evocation was much more vivid than anything communicated by Tallis, who gave no further explanation of his condition. The poet’s moral was that a flinty heart brought its own penalty. Property-owners should not begrudge the poor who gleaned in the fields and hedgerows, Wordsworth concluded pointedly.7

Tallis’s own inert self-isolation baffled everyone during his lifetime. Such a fatalistic belief in a personal curse already seemed like a relic of a bygone age, if that was indeed his motivation. It may simply have been an excuse for doing what he wanted, although his 30 year bed-rest did not seem very enjoyable. Certainly no witnesses to Tallis’s fate made any move to get him exorcised or the notional curse removed.

However, thanks to the transmuting power of poetry, this eccentric case of self-isolation prompted Wordsworth’s appeal for liberal warm-heartedness. ‘A-bed or up, by night or day;/ His teeth they chatter, chatter still,/ Now think, ye farmers all, I pray,/ Of Goody Blake and Harry Gill’. It’s always open to self-isolates to explain themselves to the wider world. But, if they don’t, then others will have a stab at doing so for them. After all, the moral is that isolates are not actually alone. The human community is watching, trying to detect a message.

ENDNOTES:

1 K.T. Rowe (ed.), Social Isolation, Participation and Impact upon Mental Health (New York, 2015); R. Fiorella, R. Morese and S. Palermo, Social Isolation: An Interdisciplinary View (2020).

2 J. Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (1875); E. Sitwell, The English Eccentrics (1933); D. Long, English Country House Eccentrics (Stroud, 2012); S.D. Tucker, Great British Eccentrics (Stroud, 2015).

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Robinson,_2nd_Baron_Rokeby.

4 J. Busse, Mrs Montagu, Queen of the Blues (1928); S.H. Myers, The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1990).

5 Gentleman’s Magazine (March 1753), p. 123.

6 J.A. Sharpe, A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England (2016), pp. 251-2.

7 W. Wordsworth, Poetical Works, ed. T. Hutchinson (1920), pp. 536-7.

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MONTHLY BLOG 78, WHO CARES? GETTING PEOPLE TO VOTE

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

Elections again! And public moodiness at being asked to decide on weighty matters once more. The last thing that Britain’s campaigners for a democratic franchise ever imagined was that electors, once enfranchised, would not use their votes. Was it for nothing that the democratic campaigners known as the Chartists in the 1840s were thrown into gaol? or that imprisoned suffragettes in the 1900s were force fed? But it’s turned out that achieving a flourishing democracy, defined as the full participation of all citizens in the political process, requires more than simply legislating to extend the franchise.
2017-06 No1 who-cares-1-620x250
People have to want to use their vote. One immediate possibility is to adopt the Australian system, where since 1924 it been compulsory for all citizens to register for elections and to cast a vote.1 Spoiling the ballot paper, to cast a non-vote, is allowed. It amounts to ‘abstaining in person’, to borrow a resonant phrase from Frank McGuire (an independent Irish Republican MP), when he travelled to the House of Commons from Belfast on 28 March 1979 but declined to vote to save the Callaghan government. It then fell by a margin of one vote, ushering in eleven years of Margaret Thatcher.

I personally hanker after the benefits of compulsory voting, provided that the system always gives scope for returning a blank paper. On the other hand, there are arguments against as well as for this process. Voters don’t always like it – their democratic choice? Hence some countries have switched from compulsory to optional systems. Take, for example, the Netherlands: in 1917, it introduced compulsory voting, along with the advent of a universal adult franchise; but in 1967 it abolished this requirement.

Another complication comes when voters resist compulsion, even while it remains their legal duty. That’s reported as happening in Brazil, which is the world’s largest country to have compulsory voting. Nonetheless, at the presidential election in 2014, over 30 million electors (about 21 percent of all those registered) did not vote. It’s still a good turnout but the sheer number of people flouting the law is very high. In effect, their aggregate non-participation means that compulsory voting has been de facto sidelined.

Anyway, in Britain this option is not on the political agenda. So what else might be done to encourage voting? One answer is instrumentalist. Tell young people in particular that their interests are being overlooked because their percentage participation has fallen steeply from the levels once taken as the norm in the postwar years. In 1992, 66% of young adults aged 18-24 and on the electoral register voted, compared with 38% in 2005 and 44% in 2015.2 And the decline is even larger, if the number of young people who are not on the electoral register is taken into account. No wonder politicians have turned their attention to the older generations and there is talk of ‘intergenerational warfare’.

It’s true that there are no reserved ‘student seats’, so young people’s votes are widely scattered across many constituencies. Hence many say (rather than ask): why bother? Nevertheless, politicians will get their statisticians to pore over survey data to see which demographic groups bothered to vote. So the answer is: you have to bother, to get noticed politically.

Yet it’s clearly not good enough to view the questions in purely instrumentalist terms. Voting means contributing to the full democratic community, not just calculating ‘what’s in it for me?’ So it’s sad and even sinister for the good health of a democracy to have lots of young people who are either apathetic or alienated. Spoiling one’s ballot paper is one thing. Not bothering to turn out to vote is bad news for society as a whole and also for the absentee young voters themselves. They are depriving themselves of constitutional involvement (no matter how dry and dusty) in the world in which they live: as it were, consigning themselves to victimhood.

So what can be done to encourage voting among the won’t-vote brigades of all ages? Some of the answers point to the politicians. Their campaigning styles, for example. Electors are alienated if those seeking their votes appear too robotic, lacking spontaneity and authenticity. Even more depends on politicians’ achievements in office. If they offer high and perform low, then cynicism becomes rife. (A degree of scepticism is good – but not corrosive cynicism).

There’s an additional major problem from the mainstream press, which loves melodrama. It slams politicians as robotic if they conform boringly to the party line but equally attacks them as confused or ignorant or dastardly if they stray the tiniest bit off-message. Let alone the problems generated and multiplied endlessly by the social media, which encourage an unsavoury mix of either undue adulation or venomous personal hostility.3

Another big looming question focuses upon how much governments themselves can buck the big impersonal trends of global history. So many things – like international finance markets, international businesses, international social media, international terrorism, international crime, world-wide climate change, environmental pollution, and so forth – seem to operate beyond the current scope of democratic control and regulation, which is depressing, to say the least.4 If politicians in a national forum seem powerless, then no wonder that individual voters at grass roots level feel even less in control of their own or the nation’s destiny. But, in response to such challenges, the answers have to be more, not less, democratic engagement.

It’s not just the politicians who are responsible. So what about the voting process itself? Can the system be made more user-friendly? In the eighteenth century (in the minority of large constituencies with a wide franchise), voters cast their votes publicly.5 An election was a community occasion, with elements of the carnivalesque. Crowds turned out to hear the candidates speak from the open hustings and to cheer or boo the electors as they voted. Flags were flown and party favours sported. The fact that voters literally stood up to be counted, before all their friends and neighbours, made open voting the purest form of voting, in the opinion of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. It would force citizens to think of the public good, and not just their personal self-interest: ‘The best side of their character is that which people are anxious to show’.6

13.4 Rowlandson Westminster Election 1808

Fig.2 Rowlandson’s 1808 view of a Westminster parliamentary election, where candidates address the crowds from the specially constructed wooden hustings, erected in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden.

But, ever since the introduction of the secret ballot (1872 in Britain), the process of voting lost its element of community participation. And that’s become even more noticeable since the advent of postal voting on demand (2001 in Britain). The process has become not just secret but utterly individualised and secretive. No doubt that’s one of the reasons that the traditional party posters have virtually disappeared from people’s windows.

There were and are excellent reasons to protect electors from undue pressure. But it’s not good to lose the excitement and community involvement involved in an election, which is a collective event with a collective impact.

Perhaps there might be parties or at least a cup of tea on offer for those who vote in person in polling stations? And/or an on-line App for millions of people to record: ‘I’ve voted! Have you?’ And what about practice elections in schools? And constituency or regional Youth Parliaments? And networks of local societies – and/or student societies – linked for campaigning purposes? Let alone shop-floor democracy at work? And ways for isolated workers in large-scale enterprises to link up into organised networks? Plus, of course, an effective electoral registration system, which encourages rather than discourages people to get into the system.

Political life should never be a simple top-down process. Instead, democracy is an entire lifestyle and lifetime commitment to participation. Voters are invited to insert their own meanings into the processes. All the same, it’s no surprise that the Chartist demand for annual parliamentary elections is the only item of their visionary six-point programme that has not yet been adopted.7 Moreover, voters’ election-fatigue suggests that it is unlikely to gain mass support any time soon. Instead, it’s more important to revise and update the electoral processes to recover full community involvement in a true community event.

1 The information in this and the following two paragraphs comes from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_voting

2 E. Phelps, ‘Young Adults and Electoral Turnout in Britain: Towards a Generational Model of Political Participation’ (University of Sussex European Institute [SEI], Working Paper 92, 2006); ‘Why Aren’t Young People Voting?’ University of Warwick Background Paper’ (c.2006); and http://www.if.org.uk/archives/6576/how-high-was-youth-turnout-at-the-2015-general-election

3 Among a growing literature, see e.g. A. Bruns and others (eds), The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics (2015); T. Highfield, Social Media and Everyday Politics (Cambridge, 2016); S. Shaked (ed.), The Impact of Social Media on Collective Action (Oxford, 2017).

4 For a meditation on that theme, see J. Lanchester, ‘Between Vauxhall and Victoria’, in London Review of Books, 39/11 (1 June 2017), pp. 3.6.

5 See variously P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting, Standing Up to be Counted?’ Monthly BLOG/53 (May 2015), in http://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/; and website ‘London Electoral History, 1700-1850’, www.londonelectoralhistory.com.

6 J.S. Mill, Considerations upon Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-64, esp. p. 164.

7 The Chartists’ six demands were: (1) universal adult male franchise (achieved in 1918; and matched by the adult female franchise in 1928); (2) voting by secret ballot (achieved in 1872); (3) equal representation via roughly equal sized-constituencies (implemented by an independent electoral commission from 1885 onwards); (4) no property qualification for candidates to stand as MP (achieved 1858); (5) payment for MPs (achieved 1911); and (6) annual parliamentary elections (not achieved). See M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007); D. Thompson, The Dignity of Chartism: Essays by Dorothy Thompson, ed. S. Roberts (2015).

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MONTHLY BLOG 77, IDEAS TAKING A WRONG TURN

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

2017-05 No1 Rising phoenix tattoo - CopyMeditating about ideas taking a wrong turn (there are a lot of wrong turns around), I was reminded of the eighteenth-century saga of phlogiston – or the spirit of fire. It was a concept that held sway in scientific circles for many years, before it was found to be wrong. Not fruitfully wrong, stimulating fresh research and new developments. Just simply erroneous – in intellectual terms, a wrong turning.

There may be similarly erroneous ideas around in science today: superstring theories in theoretical physics,1 for example, or ‘dark matter’ in astro-physics (let alone ‘dark energy’ and/or ‘dark electromagnetism’).2 Such big concepts are intriguing ‘fillers’, often triggering intense debates. They fill a gap in knowledge, where there is perceived to be a problem but, as yet, no research-based solution with an accompanying explanatory theory. Sometimes such ideas are later empirically substantiated. Equally, however, sometimes not.

In the case of phlogiston, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientists were keen to understand what happens in the process of combustion. Some large logs are burned – and all that is left is a small pile of ashes. Hence one apparently logical answer was that combustion had released into the atmosphere a fiery element, almost like the spirit of fire itself, which, once freed, was released into the air. Substances that burned easily were full of this ignitable matter. The idea was formulated in 1667 by a German alchemist and physician, Johann Joachim Becher; and developed in 1703 by his former student Georg Ernst Stahl, a professor of medicine and chemistry. He was not the first to coin the term phlogiston, derived from the Greek for ‘inflaming’; but his analysis propelled the term into scientific currency.3

Research doubts, however, began eventually to circulate. Not all physical matter was reduced in weight by combustion. Some metals did the contrary. But somehow the principle of phlogiston as the spirit of fire remained an attractive one. The term remained widely in use among the developing community of researchers in Britain and France. Thus when in 1772 the Scottish chemist and botanist Daniel Rutherford4 managed to isolate and identify nitrogen as a separate gas, he named it ‘phlogisticated air’ (burnt air). The Nonconformist minister-cum-experimental-scientist Joseph Priestley was another who accepted the concept of phlogiston. In his path-breaking explorations of the composition of air, he was one of the first to identify oxygen as a gas. But he stuck with the old vocabulary, calling it ‘dephlogisticated air’. Accordingly, when Priestley was satirised for his radical political ideas, he was shown by the cartoonist as the fiery Dr Phlogiston – trampling underfoot the Bible, whilst simultaneously igniting the laws of England.5
2017-05 No2 priestley phlogiston

Satirical print of Priestley as Dr Phlogiston:
The Priestley Politician or the Political Priestley

However, chemical theories and practice changed fundamentally after 1778. The French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-94) not only identified and named ‘oxygen’ but also showed its key role as an oxidizer during combustion. There was no spirit of fire waiting to be released into the cosmos. References to phlogiston still lingered but were increasingly sidelined. Quietly, the entire theory behind the concept was dropped.6 Lavoisier also identified and named hydrogen (1783).7 The study of chemistry was advanced onto a new footing, aided by the increasingly international pooling of research. Henceforth ‘Air’ was not just air; and ‘Fire’ was not just fire.

Now phlogiston is known in the scientific lexicon as a category error. It commanded belief for a surprising amount of time, despite research doubts. But the concept did not lead to any interesting intellectual outcomes. It held sway and then quietly vanished.

Three morals for later generations. Firstly, there is often a hidden romantic idea (like the spirit of fire) or a cosmic vision behind apparently coldly rationalistic scientific concepts. Secondly, theories, even if very widely and genuinely accepted, remain no more than theories, until they are tested and confirmed empirically. Big organising ideas may become adopted because they are plausible or useful or powerful or attractive. Yet they don’t become world beaters, until they are verified. Thirdly and lastly, wrong turnings make for easy walking, until they suddenly don’t. Maybe that last proposition applies not only in the realm of ideas but in today’s politics too.

1 Compare B.R. Greene, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions,  Theory, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (1999); and L. Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (Boston, 2006).

2 R.H. Sanders, The Dark Matter Problem: A Historical Perspective (Cambridge, 2010).

3 J.H. White, The History of Phlogiston Theory (1932).

4 For Daniel Rutherford (1749-1819), see wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Rutherford.

5 For Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), see R.E. Schofield, The Enlightenment of Dr Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1733-73 (Philadelphia, 1997); idem, The Enlightened of Dr Priestley: A Study of his Life and Work from 1773-1804 (Philadelphia, 2004).

6 J.B. Conant (ed.), The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775-89 (Harvard, Mass., 1950).

7 F.L. Holmes, Antoine Lavoisier – The Next Crucial Year: Or, the Sources of his Quantitative Method in Chemistry (Princeton, 1998); J. Jackson, A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat and the Race to Discover Oxygen (New York, 2005).

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MONTHLY BLOG 63, THE VALUE OF VOTING – AND WHY THE PRACTICE SHOULD NOT BE MOCKED

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Many more voters than previously realised cast their votes in local and national elections in eighteenth-century England. They were thereby creating – sometimes riotously and casually, but generally decorously and seriously – a culture of constitutionalism. It amounted to an emergent proto-democracy. It was not yet a full democracy, in which all adult men and women have a vote. Yet it was a culture which, importantly, chose to decide certain key disputes by casting equal votes and by then accepting the verdict of the majority.
2016-03-Election-placard1784

Satirical sketch of election placard in Westminster (1784), showing opposition candidate Charles James Fox as a wily fox with his slogan ‘the Rights of the Commons’.
Despite the brickbats and satire, Fox won.

This procedure was much safer and more rational than deciding by fighting; much more effective in winning wider consent than deciding by bribery; and much more involving for all participants than deciding by the casting of lots. Even if not all the eligible electorate actually chose to use their vote (and there were invariably some non-participants), they always had the option.

A proto-democratic culture of constitutionalism promoted public debate about the candidates and the issues, as well as a basic respect for other points of view, which might turn out to have majority support.

In the eighteenth century, the franchise was unfair and unequal, which made it a valid target for reformers. Nonetheless, in a few large constituencies with ‘open’ electorates, the number eligible to vote, via an urban freeman or rate-payer franchise, was very great. The key examples were the cities of London, Westminster, Norwich and Bristol. They had many voters (all men in this era), from a wide range of social backgrounds: from aristocrats to artisans, shopkeepers, and even some labourers. Votes were cast publicly – which meant that votes were open to challenge if the witnessing crowd doubted the eligibility of the voter – and the results were taken as registering public opinion, in the nearest the eighteenth-century constitution offered to a serious test of the views of political ‘outsiders’.

Historically, the fact that Georgian England already had a voting tradition helps to explain how the country later made the transition into full democracy so bloodlessly. Already in the eighteenth century the rudiments of the electoral process were evolving: candidate speeches; party manifestoes; electoral slogans and placards; party colours; door-to-door election canvassing; ward organisations; celebrity endorsements; shows of public support in rival demonstrations and mass meetings; close scrutiny of the voting process; declaration of the results with, upon occasion, a formal challenge and recount; and, finally, acceptance of the outcome. (The Georgian custom of chairing the successful candidate around town was not always implemented then and is today not considered obligatory).

Not only were parliamentary and civic elections contested in these large open constituencies, but during these years the practice of constitutional voting was becoming adopted in many other, different circumstances. It pointed away from the troubled civil wars of earlier times towards a calmer, safer society. Many different non-governmental institutions used the mechanism of voting, for example to determine their own membership.

For example, in numerous private clubs and societies, potential recruits had first to be nominated by one or more existing members. Then votes were cast secretly, for or against; and any candidate who was ‘blackballed’ (negatived) was declared to have lost. This practice continues in some private clubs to this day. It was (is) a particularly severe test, since the excluded candidate might have won a large majority of all votes cast. In that case, it could be accused of being anti-democratic, allowing a small group to negative the will of the majority. The moral, in all cases, is that the rules for voting are crucial in framing how each voting system works.

Other non-governmental organisations which used some version of balloting in the eighteenth century included bank management boards and charitable institutions like London’s Foundling Hospital, established in 1739. That body used voting by its Trustees to recruit new Trustees, when existing ones died or retired. Clearly, these were socially exclusive bodies. But they were upholding the convention that each vote from a valid voter has equal value and that the will of the majority should prevail.

Importantly, too, it’s known that some middling- and lower-class groups used the mechanism of voting to resolve disputes over appointments. For example, a number of Nonconformist churches chose their ministers by such means. The Congregationalists in particular valued this procedure. Potential candidates would appear before a congregation, preach a sermon, and then submit to a vote, no doubt after further behind-the-scenes canvassing and enquiries. In these ways, many people had the experience of participating equally in a collective decision to find out what the majority (including those who were not so vociferous) really wanted.

So what follows? Firstly, the culture of voting is one to be appreciated – and used. Secondly, the constitutional rules for each system of voting really matter. They should be clearly framed to allow each system to operate fairly within its remit – and the rules, once established, should not be tampered with for partisan advantage. And lastly, electors should not be summoned frivolously to the polls. That way, disillusion and apathy develop.

Look at the low turnout for elections to the European Parliament. And there’s a good reason for that. Electors know that the institution has no real power. It is not a supreme legislative or tax-raising body; and, unlike a national Parliament, no executive government is either constituted from its ranks or is scrutinised closely by it. The current arrangements do no good for either the European Union or participatory democracy. Sham elections are destructive of a genuinely civic process, which needs to be cultivated, valued, and made real – not mocked.

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Short Summary: Proto-Democracy’, section 1.7, in E.M. Green, P.J. Corfield and C. Harvey, Elections in Metropolitan London, 1700-1850: Vol. 1 Arguments and Evidence (Bristol, 2013), pp. 55-67; also in www.londonelectoralhistory.com, section 1.7.

2 See P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting: Standing Up to be Counted?’ BLOG no. 53 (May 2015).

3 BLOG illustration from Rowlandson’s Procession to the Hustings after a Successful Canvass (1784) in http://www.magnoliasoft.net/ms/magnoliabox/art/547698/procession-to-the-hustings-after-a-successful-canvass-no14 (detail).

4 Over time, however, the clergy’s professional qualifications tended to be emphasised over the power of congregational election: see J.W.T. Youngs, The Congregationalists: A History (New York, 1990; 1998), pp. 69-70.

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