Posts tagged ‘emigration’

10/11/2022

Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers

 

The society of the Dudleys soon rapidly extended beyond their own hitherto narrow, though happy circle; all that friendship could suggest was exerted to make those previously known to them, not only reconciled, but delighted with the resolution they had adopted of seeking a home in this distant region. While those who did not possess the advantage of a previous acquaintance with this amiable family were not neglected, but immediately experienced the benefits of the kindest attention and most cordial assistance. Thus emigration was robbed of all its bitterness; for could any grieve at an exile from their own country, where they had so long been the victims of difficulties and anxieties, when their arrival at their new home was greeted with such warm-hearted benevolence and hospitality, and where they at once found themselves in society, which while it was graced with every charm of refinement and elegance, possessed also the more solid qualities of high intellect and sterling worth, and over which good-humour, sincerity, and a warm feeling, ever presided?

 

 

 

 
 

First things first: Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers is a frequently misattributed book—one often credited to the historian and sociologist, William Howitt, who in the 1850s spent two years travelling through Australia, chiefly Victoria, and wrote a number of observational books about it upon his return to England. My best guess is that there was confusion between this work and Howitt’s A Boy’s Adventures In The Wilds Of Australia, which was published in 1854 (and which I may or may not take a look at, anon).

So while you can still find an annoying number of references to this book as by William Howitt, its author was actually Sarah Ricardo Porter—and this is not the only way in which history has shafted her.

I am very indebted to Sergio Cremaschi’s conference paper, “Sarah Ricardo’s Tale of Wealth and Virtue”, later published in the History of Economics Review, for not only providing an outline of the author’s life, but for explaining some of the stranger touches in her only novel.

Briefly, Sarah Ricardo was the sister of the political economist, David Ricardo, and married George Richardson Porter, a government statistician who made important contributions to British economic, sociological and educational writings from the 1840s through the 1860s. Consequently, Sarah has too often been treated just as a footnote to either her brother’s career or her husband’s (she is often referenced as “Mrs G. R. Porter”), without due notice being given to her own achievements in the area of children’s education. She was an active member of the Central Society for Education, a radical organisation – so it was considered in the 1830s – which advocated not only the establishment of primary schools for the working-classes, but the removal of religious teaching from the curricula: it was on this point that previous school planning had generally foundered, since by definition any given religion would exclude a large section of the target population.

Meanwhile, Sarah Porter wrote essays on educational theory, including her belief in the importance of engaging the imagination of children when teaching them (she was, as Cremaschi puts it, an anti-Gradgrind), and a mathematical textbook, in addition to her one novel.

This background, as I say, explains some of peculiarities of Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers, which – alas! – is not really a novel about Australia, but rather one about English social problems in that nebulous period between the Regency and the Victorian era (and, significantly, before the passing of the First Reform Bill), and how some of them might be solved: Australia is merely the chosen forum for the working out of Porter’s theories.

This is also very much a “novel of sensibility”, with the characters making emotional speeches at one another while they contemplate their circumstances, and a great deal of it devoted to Porter’s ideas about the existing structures of English society and the more desirable social arrangements that might be possible elsewhere; her aspirations for human interaction; and the responsibilities of people to one another—particularly the responsibility of the rich to the poor.

As Sarah Porter acknowledges in her preface, her knowledge of Australia was likewise all theoretical: her background information was drawn from The Present State Of Australia; a description of the country, its advantages and prospects, with reference to emigration by Robert Dawson, chief agent to the Australian Agricultural Company, a business founded by the Macarthur family which had negotiated a grant of one million acres of land to be used for experimental projects in emigration and farming. (There’s a much bigger story here, but it is beside our present point.)

Though her novel is aimed at a younger audience, Porter’s preface is addressed to their “judicious parents”, who—

    …are always desirous of ascertaining how far truth is blended with fiction, and what accurate ideas their children may obtain from the perusal of any work which may fall into their hands.
    The following short tale is founded on the circumstance of a gentleman, with his highly-educated son, settling in Australia, and there for a long period cheerfully submitting to all the hardships and privations attendant on such a situation. Although the events leading to and arising out of this fact, as here narrated, are purely fictitious, yet the Author has been careful to make the latter in strict accordance with a settler’s life and habits; while implicit reliance may be placed on whatever is found in these pages relating to the natural history of Australia, and to the manners and character of its native inhabitants…

We will return a bit later to the implications of that last phrase.

Alfred Dudley; or, The Australian Settlers opens in England, where Mr Dudley is the squire of a small country estate and lives quietly and (another of Porter’s favourite words) “usefully” with his wife and four children. The eldest and only boy, Alfred (thirteen when the narrative opens, just of age when it closes), is the apple of his parents’ eye; he is also, in spite of an estrangement between his mother and her brother, heir presumptive to the estate and property of his uncle, Sir Alfred Melcombe:

He had accumulated immense wealth by his parsimonious habits, and always declared that his property should devolve on the person who should bear his title. Such an education was therefore sought to be given to Alfred, as should best fit him for the high station in society which he appeared destined to fill. Under the judicious guidance of his parents, ably assisted by an intelligent tutor, his character gradually developed itself, giving promise of future excellence; and many a dream of parental ambition saw in him the future luminary of his age and country.

Storm clouds are on the horizon, however. Mr Dudley is approached by a relative of his own about a business partnership—his contribution to which is described in terms guaranteed to make anyone familiar with 19th century English literature shudder in horrified anticipation:

[He] sought to induce his kind friend to enter with him into a banking concern in the neighbouring town. He professed to require nothing from Mr Dudley but the use of his name, which would at once give character and stability to the establishment. Mr Dudley, unfortunately, was not a man of business, and did not exactly understand the responsibility he should incur by such an arrangement; being also of a confiding, unsuspicious temper, he in a fatal moment consented to become the partner of one whom he had always believed to be a man of strict integrity, as well as of good abilities and practical knowledge.

The inevitable happens: the man of strict integrity embezzles the funds and does a bunk, and Mr Dudley is left to face the defrauded bank customers. It never occurs to him to do anything other than meet the full responsibility and he is able to do so, but only by selling Dudley Manor and emptying out the family coffers. On the remnants of their property, the Dudleys then retire to an obscure corner of France (where they find a small colony of English people in similar straits), where they work at picking up the pieces and learn to support themselves:

    Alfred proved himself a valuable and persevering coadjutor to his father; while the little girls were delighted at the wonderful effects produced by their own industry. When the parterres had, by the united exertions of the whole family, been tolerably cleared from rubbish, healthy fruit-trees and valuable plants were discovered, which had been choked up by the noxious weeds.
    In a surprisingly short time, that which had been unsightly and unproductive, exhibited a pleasing and flourishing appearance. While Mr and Mrs Dudley contemplated, with no small complacency, the improved condition of their present abode, they were astonished how soon their minds had accommodated themselves to circumstances, and how much of content and cheerfulness already surrounded them. They were still a happy family, and were pleased to find that this happiness did not depend on adventitious circumstances.

Sir Alfred Melcombe, in spite of his “immense wealth”, does nothing to assist his relatives; on the other hand, their new “poor but happy” arrangements offend his pride: he demands that, his heir shall not be contaminated by plebeian modes of subsistence, or by coming in contact with penury and privation; in short, that Alfred be sent to public school in England. Mr and Mrs Dudley’s ambitions for their son’s future lead them to acquiesce; and though Alfred begs to be allowed to stay with his family and share their difficulties, he reluctantly obeys when they insist.

While he is away, his parents’ thoughts turn to their future. They long to return to England, but recognise that the country in its present condition offers little hope for them beyond mere subsistence; and Mr Dudley begins to consider emigration. He is still trying to resign himself to this course of action when he receives a letter from a friend, who has settled in Australia—

This gave a brilliant account of prosperity in that far distant land; enlarged so enthusiastically on the benefits almost certain to accrue from obtaining a grant of land there; and dwelt so warmly on the beauty of the climate, that Mr Dudley’s fancy was caught by the alluring picture…

But there are many practical objections to the scheme, including the frail health of the youngest daughter, Mary; and finally Mr Dudley proposes that he go on ahead, alone, to prepare a home for his family in the new land; and that they join him when he has built a secure future for him. Mrs Dudley doesn’t like this idea one bit, and nor, when he returns home during his holidays and hears of it, does Alfred—though his suggestion is not that his father give up the scheme, but that he accompany him to the new land and be his partner in re-establishing the family.

Alfred and Mr Dudley, as is their wont, then makes speeches at one another:

    “I cannot consent, my son,” his father would say: “you are destined to fill a higher station than that of an Australian settler: your uncle is willing, nay, anxious to continue to you the benefits of what is considered the best education, and to confer on you all the advantages arising from wealth. Amid our misfortunes it is an inexpressible consolation that you at least are spared the vicissitudes of our lot. We have not to mourn over the extinction of those ambitious parental aspirings with which we have been wont to illume your future path. You will not, my child, disappoint our hopes: you will yet fulfil all our fondest wishes: you will shine among the first stars of your country—the eloquent orator, the incorruptible legislator, the enlightened statesman, and perhaps the benefactor of your species.”
    “And will this,” exclaimed Alfred, “will this be fulfilling all your fondest wishes? Would you have me become the undutiful, cold-hearted son—the neglectful, selfish brother—who could see his parents and sisters, they who had always showered upon him all the tenderness and affection which give value to life, could calmly see them become exiles from their country, to seek a refuge where his protecting arm might shield them from danger—a home which his unwearied exertions might deprive of its desolation, while he should bask in all the luxuries bestowed by a capricious relative, and unfeelingly withheld from those nearest and dearest to him? Should I fulfil all your wishes by becoming such a wretch? Oh, my father!”—he hid his face in his hands, and sobbed aloud…

Well. His father’s desire that Alfred become an “eloquent orator” comes back to bite him, as after much more similar back-and-forth, Alfred’s arguments finally win out. The two begin to make their preparations for departure (including, as is mentioned in passing, investing some of their small resources in a starter flock of Merino sheep); while the womenfolk give up their ramshackle property and move in with some friends to save expenses.

The journey is slow and frustrating, five months in duration; and it is eleven months before the first letters from the emigrants reach France. (From this point, the narrative toggles between straight description and excerpts from Alfred’s letters.) Alfred, we find, has mixed feelings about his new surroundings:

“We had several fellow-passengers who, like ourselves, were voluntary exiles, seeking an asylum in that country to which the criminal is banished. There is certainly something unpleasant associated with Botany Bay—it always brings with it ideas of disgrace and coercion; and I should, for my own part, have been much better pleased if my father had decided on some other place of destination; but after all, this is nothing but prejudice, and I can be as virtuous and free in Australia, as if it were not contaminated by vice and misery…”

That attitude doesn’t stop Mr Dudley from acquiring a couple of convict labourers, we should note; and later descriptions of the immigrants’ living arrangements include assurances of strictly separate living-quarters—tents at a distance to start, and later a designated cottage, with the convicts banned from ever setting foot in the main house.

(The use of the c-word is mine, however: on the whole Porter prefers “servants”.)

The Dudleys do not linger in Sydney. On board they found new friends in Mr and Mrs Pelham, who likewise has been brought to emigration by their circumstances and by positive reports from friends; and the two pairs of newcomers acquire adjoining land grants, so that they may be company for each other and share their resources as they work to build their new homes, which are to the north of the main settlement (near Newcastle, in the region now known generally as the Hunter Valley or just “the Hunter”), which is accessible by boat up a river.

One of the most interesting things about this book is its attitude to manual labour—at a time when no man who wanted to be considered a gentleman would dream of soiling his hands with work of any kind (recall Sir Alfred’s horrified reaction to “plebeian modes of subsistence”). Porter, conversely, finds not only dignity in labour, but in self-sufficiency; and though they need the assistance of their, ahem, servants, both Mr Dudley and Alfred not only throw themselves into the hard physical exertions needed to get themselves established, they end up finding pleasure in the work itself, and take pride in their accomplishments:

    The first dawn of day saw them at their work, which they did not quit until night. Their industrious example and liberal remuneration induced their servants to extra diligence; and in a very short time some acres were cleared, enclosed, and planted. They had then time to think of their present wants, and of providing themselves with a more substantial habitation. For this purpose the father and son turned carpenters: assisted by their servants, they cut down trees, stripped the bark, and sawed the trunks into logs and planks. While thus so unremittingly employed, they were far from being unhappy. This may best appear from a letter Alfred, about this time, addressed to his sisters:
    “How often, my dear sisters, I wish you could take a peep at us; you would scarcely recognise your sunburnt father and brother in their linen jackets, busily engaged in their multifarious occupations… For the first month we were nothing but labourers in the field: we could then afford no time to the conveniences of life, and were forced to be content with the provisions with which we had plentifully supplied ourselves from Sydney. The flour and the Indian corn-meal were prepared à la hâte, merely as we required it; and we were right glad at night to stretch our weary limbs under the shelter of a tent…

Once the clearing and the planting are under control, however, Mr Dudley and Alfred turn their attention to the building of a real house, to accommodate their womenfolk. Their long-term plans envisage a new Dudley Manor, as far as it can be replicated; but sensibly they attack the work piecemeal, getting their absolute necessities in place first.

The Dudleys are assisted in all facets of their work not only by advice from the Pelhams, who have the property next door (and are also getting a house built; deliberately, front door to front door is about a mile), but the fleet of boat-borne pedlars who ply their trade on the river, bringing goods of all sorts upriver for sale, and for a commission carrying produce to Sydney, to the farmers’ agents. The Dudleys’ first crop of “maize” goes that way and sells for a good price, giving them a measure of financial security and enabling them to move to the next phase of land development and house-building.

We hear a great deal more about all this, and the Dudleys’ adjustment to their new life, but most of it we’ll take as read. A far more important plot-thread is now introduced, as Alfred – having gained more spare time after his father hires more servants, and more “servants”, to do the heavier physical work – begins to explore the terrain surrounding the property.  Out riding, he comes across an aboriginal woman who has injured her ankle, and her toddler; he helps them onto his horse and leads them to their encampment—which we now hear is some “two miles away”. We also learn that Alfred had seen some natives before this, though previously “they avoided him”.

Alfred’s rescue of the woman and child breaks down the barriers, however, and he is welcomed, thanked and invited to stay for dinner (at this stage, mostly through sign language, we gather). It is getting late, so Alfred declines; he also, against the tacit advice of the natives, insists that he will be fine on his own. Fortunately for him, a young native boy is sufficiently doubtful of his bush navigation skills as to follow him—and just as Alfred is contemplating his dilemma, the boy – called “Mickie”, whatever his name actually is – emerges from the falling darkness to lead him home.

The natives, Mickie in particular, become a constant presence in Alfred Dudley from this point on. Unsurprisingly, this aspect of the novel sometimes makes us clench our teeth: the natives fall all too easily into “serving” the white settlers; their speech, a mixture of real terms presumably culled from Robert Dawson and a form of pidgin English, contains the word “massa” far too frequently; and Alfred himself evinces a rather patronising attitude when recounting tales of the Dudleys’ black neighbours, Mickie in particular, in his letters.

However – and this is a very big HOWEVER – Porter’s subsequent depiction of the peaceful co-habitation of the black natives and white settlers, and the habits of friendly give-and-take that develop, is striking—and all the more so because, I gather, here she rejects the views of Dawson (who, like the majority of those in charge of settlement, considered the natives as just one more obstacle to be cleared off the land).

Mr Dudley even encourages the natives to live on his property, a touch unprecedented (and possibly even unique) in this sort of literature: Alfred finds the natives – with their “their inoffensive manners and kind-hearted dispositions” – an extremely pleasant change of company from the convicts. While Mickie’s attachment to Alfred has more of the “good and faithful servant” about it than we might like, the boys share adventures in which Mickie is able to show off-his bush-lore; and when various disasters afflict the settlers, it is usually the young native who saves the day with his quick thinking and local knowledge. Furthermore, Alfred later explicitly interdicts the use of the word “savage” by another young settler; and when this boy makes Mickie the butt of a practical joke, Mickie promptly pranks him back—and there is no suggestion that he is out of line in doing so. Towards the end of the novel there is mention of a new school, in which the white and black children were, without any distinction, admitted.

Along the way we get scenes like this:

    Mickie was now quite in his element, and was on the alert to do the honours of his native woods to me. Our first care was directed to the horses, which we tethered to a tree, and abundantly supplied with long grass. He next, using his knife with great dexterity, stripped some large pieces of bark from the trees, cut some forked sticks, and made a very comfortable bark covering, resembling the hood of a chaise, under which I could creep and lie as snug as under a curtained canopy; while daylight allowed us, we collected together a heap of dried leaves and branches, and soon made a glowing fire.
    Mickie supplied my little hut with plenty of long grass and soft bark from the tea-tree, and every arrangement seemed to be made, necessary for passing the night most comfortably. My companion, who knew every inch of the ground, now went in search of a narrow streamlet, which he recollected ran near this spot; he succeeded in bringing a small supply of water for the horses… He next produced a bag, which was suspended to his belt, and which had been filled with biscuit and bread by his friends at Newcastle; he poured the contents into my lap, and with an air as if he considered me his guest in the bush, apologised that he had nothing better to offer me…

Of course—there’s both idealism and naivety in all this from Porter; but the generosity of her vision, another face of the “human connection” that she emphasises so much in this book, is admirable.

Now— This may or may not be the best time to mention that Kate Grenville’s prize-winning historical novel, The Secret River, is curiously enough set at the same time and in exactly the same geographical area as Alfred Dudley, and includes a number of similar details including the river pedlars—though alas, its depiction of race relations is rather more realistic.

And Porter, too, allows a more realistic touch to intrude, when Alfred comes across Mickie being literally treed by an angry, gun-wielding white man:

“‘What is the matter?’ I exclaimed to the man; ‘why do you seek to hurt the boy?’ ‘He is a little black rascal,’ he gruffly replied, ‘and if he do not come down I will shoot him.’ ‘Don’t let him tchoot me, massa—don’t let him tchoot me,’ vociferated Mickie, still continuing his oscillations. ‘What has he done,’ said I, again addressing the man, ‘that you should seek a fellow-creature’s life?’ ‘Fellow-creature!’ he scoffingly answered; ‘that little twisting black thing my fellow-creature! If such vermin not only refuse to be useful but are mischievous likewise, they must be put out of the way.’ I know not whether it were indignation or prudence which restrained my tongue, and prevented me from telling him, how much superior in the scale of being was the kind-hearted Mickie to the brutal wretch before me…”

When the white man is reinforced by two others, Alfred decides that discretion is the better part of valour, and he and Mickie escape the scene om horseback (the others fire at them as they go). Alfred is not quite satisfied with himself for what he can’t help feeling is just running away, however—

“As to my father, he has nothing of the old Spartan in him, and would rather rejoice over my flight than weep over my grave…”

Another interesting touch then emerges. We’ve seen hints before of a changing societal attitude towards the treatment of animals, in books like Milistina and Family Pictures; here Sarah Porter takes it a step further, having Alfred reject animal killing as a measure of manliness, particularly killing for pleasure:

“Our dear mother, from my earliest childhood, so constantly and so forcibly impressed on my mind and heart the inhumanity of being cruel in sport, and of finding pleasure in the exercise of any pursuit which would cause pain to even the meanest creature that has life, that both my taste and my principles revolt from scenes of blood. I could never understand what amusement a man of any refinement could feel in witnessing the writhing agonies of his feathered victims, or in following the chase in the unequal contest of one poor terrified creature against a concourse of biped and quadruped assailants…”

This is another way in which Alfred Dudley separates itself from the vast majority of colonial fiction, which almost always included a hunting scene in which the (inevitably male) protagonist would prove himself by killing an elephant, a tiger or a bear, according to which colony we happened to be dealing with.

(Australia of course was always rather awkward in that respect, not having any large predators: no-one looks tough bagging a Tasmanian devil.)

Mind you, you could accuse Porter of having her cake and eating it, as in spite of a number of critical comments from Alfred, she does include a hunting scene that ends with him killing something—but only for the best of reasons (and note Porter’s choice of language). Mickie’s move to manhood requires that he hunt and kill a kangaroo on his own, and Alfred tags along purely as a spectator:

At length a herd of kangaroos did actually appear in sight, and we were off in various directions in pursuit, seeking to surround some of our prey and prevent their escape. Mickie and I kept together, and we had a long chase after one. Mickie begged me not to use my gun, as he wished to prove that he was a man to-day, and ‘to catch kangaroo all by himself.’ He was fired with ambition, and had set his heart on signalising himself in this important expedition. I promised to be an idle though admiring beholder of his prowess; and after much creeping, dodging, and watching, the poor terrified creature, hemmed in at all sides, took to the water. Mickie, first darting at it his spear, plunged in after it…

This is almost the last thing that Mickie ever does, and Alfred finally intervenes to save his friend’s life:

Now the fearful contest commenced: it seemed a trial of strength and dexterity. The creature caught hold of his assailant, hugged him close, and held him down with his head under water… Mickie’s strength appeared gradually lessening; and at length the kangaroo kept his head under water for so long a time, that I could no longer remain an inactive spectator: I levelled my gun, and shot it through the body. It was evidently mortally wounded; but yet little Mickie did not take advantage of this rescue, and floated, still fast locked in the embrace of his dying foe. I was alarmed, and instantly plunging into the water, with some difficulty disengaged him from the convulsive grasp of the kangaroo…

Mickie is more angry than grateful for the rescue, but is mollified when Alfred subsequently lets him use his gun (which I would have thought against the rules, but anyhoo).

Things continue to progress well for the Dudleys (unrealistically well: applying English farming methods to Australian conditions was exactly why many settlers crashed and burned, but once again, anyhoo), until Mr Dudley begins to make plans to bring his wife and daughters out. Initially he intends to travel back to Europe to escort them, though he frets over leaving Alfred alone for so many months; but he is forestalled when the female Dudleys seize an opportunity and set out on their own behalf, and the family is unexpectedly reunited.

A few months later the little society is expanded again by the arrival of Frederick and Emilia Egerton, the orphaned niece and nephew of Mrs Pelham. Frederick is a rackety young man, whose thoughtlessness causes trouble for his new companions on several occasions; but he learns a few stern lessons about responsibility, and has besides Alfred as a model:

“That Alfred, about whom my uncle and aunt used to fill their letters, whom you know I had predetermined to dislike, and moreover to quiz unmercifully, is indeed ‘a pattern fellow’ but not that pedantic prig which we understand by that term. Dislike him! Had I made a thousand vows to that effect, they would all have dissolved in thin air when I first saw his bright smile, and when, as he cordially shook my hand, he welcomed me home, and hoped we should be brothers. Quiz him! Not I, nor all the choicest fellows of our school could do that; he has a greater talent for quizzing than any one I ever knew. In this he has ‘a giant’s strength,’ though he rarely ‘uses it as a giant.’ He is the very prince of fun; but he seems to have an innate feeling where fun ends and mischief begins—there he makes a dead halt.”

Over the final stretch of Alfred Dudley, Sarah Porter turns her attention back to her social and economic theories. The Dudleys and the Pelhams thrive in their new environment, and the former almost forget their English connections—Sir Alfred having fallen silent since his heir made his choice to throw in his lot with his parents, after sending one last sneering letter to assure Alfred that though he might inherit the title, he will never get the property. But years later, a letter from a lawyer announces that, on his death-bed, Sir Alfred could not bring himself to separate title and fortune, and Alfred inherits the lot.

This event throws a pall over the happy little Australian community, as these events seem to demand Alfred’s return to England. Mr and Mrs Dudley are caught in a bind, dismayed at parting with their beloved son, but still nursing those early ambitions for him, as “the eloquent orator, the incorruptible legislator, the enlightened statesman” of his country.

I am reminded here of the amusing passage in Anna Karenina in which the hero of the novel that Anna is reading is described as, “Almost reaching his English happiness, a baronetcy and an estate.” This was thought at the time to be a wink at Anthony Trollope, but it serves as a summation of rather too much 19th century English fiction.

And of course—“a baronetcy and an estate” are exactly what Alfred is offered here. He has ideas of his own on the subject, however—one of which is that England isn’t his country any more.

We may or may not consider Sarah Porter’s ideas on education for the working classes or on race relations “radical”, but she does something in the final section of her novel that, writing in 1830, definitely raises eyebrows: she chooses wealth over birth; not in a grasping way – on the contrary – rather, she argues that birth only helps you; but if you have wealth, you are in a position to help others.

What’s interesting in all this is Porter’s gloomy contemporary view of England—and she was not wrong: at the time it was a country beset by social ills and, although it never succumbed to revolution as many other nations did around this time, it was closer to it than history tends to acknowledge; and indeed, the passing of the First Reform Bill is itself an acknowledgement of just how scared those in power were of what might happen.

How bad things were getting is suggested in the sense here of Porter washing her hands: she sees no immediate solution for the masses, only an escape for the few via emigration. Alfred’s final decision is to turn his back on his inheritance—rent out his property, put trustworthy agents in charge, and stay in Australia to work with his parents and the Pelhams on building a model community filled with the right sort of people:

…his benevolent mind delighted in planning vast schemes for removing a portion of human misery. Living already in comparative affluence and comfort, his wealth could but little increase the enjoyments of his family and himself, except by being expended in the blessed office of doing good to others. It is always a source of the most gloomy reflection to every feeling heart, that so many fellow-beings should appear to be inevitably consigned to irremediable poverty and wretchedness, and Alfred rejoiced in the idea that he should now perhaps be enabled to rescue a small portion of these from their cheerless and apparently hopeless lot; to effect this, he was desirous of obtaining as large a grant of land as he could, in the neighbourhood of his father’s location, with which he hoped to be the instrument for doing extensive good in proportion to the means employed…

(Note the emergence of that critical signifier of the novel of sensibility, benevolence; though later, note also Porter’s own qualifier, judicious. There speaks the economist.)

The plan agreed upon involves seeking out those of the middle classes and the landed gentry who, like Mr Dudley, have come a cropper through no fault of their own; but also those of the working- and farming-classes who have proven themselves to be “honest and industrious”. The Dudleys’ goal here is not only to give those who deserve it a second chance, but to raise the general moral tone of Australia.

For which I’m sure we thank them.

Alfred does have to travel to England to settle his inheritance. While there, he also sets this picking-and-choosing process in motion, inviting those who meet the criteria to emigrate, and arranging for local agents to take over the work. He then returns to Australia—and his parents have an epiphany:

As Mr Dudley contemplated this scene with gratified delight; as he reflected on the judicious benevolence which had converted so large a mass of misery and privation into so vast a sum of human happiness now collected around him, (happiness which but for Alfred would never have been called into existence, and the extension of which appeared to have no other boundary than the immense sea-girt tract of land which they inhabited,) he said, “Yes, my son, you have indeed more than fulfilled my most ambitious, fondest wishes; if you have renounced worldly honours, you possess far more valued distinctions. If you have not the admiration of the world, you have the love of a grateful multitude; while your dominion is more exalted than the most extravagant dreams of parental ambition could have desired—your sway is higher and purer than that of terrestrial sovereigns, for you reign in the hearts of the many whom you have rendered happy. Blessed reflection! Yes, you are indeed fulfilling the end of your being, and my cherished child is the benefactor of his species.”
 

 

31/01/2020

Wilhelm Meister’s Travels (Part 2)


 
But if now after this detailed narrative I have to confess that I have still not arrived at the conclusion of my purpose, and that I may only hope to arrive there by means of a detour, what am I to say, how can I excuse myself? In any event, I should like to make the following point: if the humorist is permitted to throw his account into confusion, if he boldly leaves it to the reader finally to discover in its half significance what can possibly be got from it, ought it not to be appropriate for the man of sense and reason to aim in an apparently strange way at many points round about, so that they can be recognised and understood as finally taking place and being comprised in one focal point, just as the most varied influences surrounding the individual impel him to a decision which he would not have been able to take in any other way, neither from inner impulse nor from outer occasion?

 

 

 

 

We catch up with Wilhelm upon his return to the Pedagogic Province to collect Felix. Here we learn more about the peculiar form of education and training to which he and his fellows have been subjected: a description which feels like it’s parodying something, some contemporary theories of education, perhaps, yet is at the same time played straight.

Art and music play a vital role in the province’s educational approach, and there is much discussion and practical demonstration of both. All the arts are praised here—except drama, which is dismissed as not an art at all, but a leech upon all the real art-forms, using bits of all of them but creating nothing itself. Drama is excluded from the province:

Sighing deeply, Wilhelm cast his eyes down, for all at once everything that he enjoyed and suffered on the stage came before him; he blessed the pious men who had known how to spare their pupils such grief…

But of course it isn’t just Wilhelm who is touched on the raw by this condemnation. As mentioned during our consideration of Apprenticeship, Goethe was artistic director of the court theatre at Weimar for over twenty years; so we are not surprised to find him butting in again:

Indeed the editor of these papers may himself confess at this point that it is with some reluctance that he lets this strange passage go through. Has he not also in many ways directed more life and energy to the theatre than is reasonable? And could he indeed be convinced that this has been an unpardonable error, a fruitless effort?

Wilhelm then attends a music festival up in the mountains, where he encounters Montan / Jarno again. Their surroundings provoke a wide-ranging debate among the attendees about the broader implications of geology, and Jarno disappoints Wilhelm by refusing to say what he thinks; or rather, he agrees with each theory in turn:

“You blame me for lending a helpful hand to everybody in their opinions, as indeed there is always a further argument to be found for everything; I added to the confusion by so doing, it’s true, but really I can no longer take the present generation seriously…”

Ah, yes, yes, yes… These young people today, with their thin muslin gowns, and their indecent waltzing…and their novel-reading.

Jeez, Johann. Old and cranky much?

Mind you—if that still sounds familiar today, Jarno’s rider to this also remains depressingly relevant:

“Everyone knows for himself what he knows, and he must keep it secret; as soon as he speaks about it, conflict stirs, and as soon as he becomes involved in controversy he loses his sense of balance, and what is best about him is, if not destroyed, at least disturbed.”

We then get a lengthy interlude involving Wilhelm’s letters to Natalie—one of which contains some of this novel’s most powerful writing, as Wilhelm recounts a story of his boyhood, of a trip into the countryside with his family, and of a passionate friendship made and lost in a single day:

     It was already becoming dusk when we once more approached the woodland corner where my young friend had promised to wait for me. I peered around to the best of my ability to ascertain whether he was there; when I failed to see him, I ran impatiently ahead of the slowly moving company, dashing back and forth through the bushes. I called out, I became afraid; he was not to be seen and did not answer; for the first time I felt a passionate grief, doubled and redoubled.
     The immoderate requirement of intimate attachment was already developing within me, and already there was an irresistible need for me to free my mind of the image of that blonde-haired girl through conversation, and to release my heart from the feelings which she had aroused in me. It was full, and already my mouth whispered in preparation for flowing over; I loudly reproached the good boy on account of neglecting a friendship and a promise.
     But soon I was to face great trials. Women rushed shrieking out of the first houses of the village, howling children followed, nobody would give an explanation. From the one side we saw a sad procession move around the house at the corner; it went quietly down the long street; it seemed like a funeral procession, but a multiple one; there was no end of bearers and borne. The screaming continued, it increased, a crowd came together. “They are drowned, all of them, drowned! That one! Who? Which?” The mothers, who saw their own children round about, seemed to be consoled. But an earnest man stepped up and spoke to the clergyman’s wife: “Unfortunately I stayed out too long, Adolph is drowned, and five altogether, he wanted to keep his promise and mine.” It was the man, the fisherman himself, and he went further on with the procession; we stood terrified and benumbed. Then a little boy stepped forward and handed over a sack: “Here are the crabs, lady”…

All of this, and great deal more of reminiscence and rumination (including upon the critical moment when, as he lay wounded in the forest, he first saw the woman he came to think of as “his Amazon”), leads up to Wilhelm’s declaration of his decision to become a surgeon.

The second volume of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels breaks off here, at least in narrative terms: it actually concludes with a single poem, called Testament, and twenty pages’ worth of aphorisms (which we are later led to believe are Makarie’s): some dealing with matters already touched upon, some serious, some less so:

What is false has the advantage that it can always be chattered about, whereas what is true has to be made use of straight away, or else it is not there.

Wilhelm’s training takes place off-screen, as it were, and we rejoin him as he is riding into a town whose population has mysteriously swelled, and people spend a great deal of time singing; Wilhelm even recognises a song of his own composing. He takes a room at an inn, where over the door is inscribed, ‘Ubi homines sunt modi sunt’:

“Where people come together in society, the manner in which they wish to be and remain together immediately develops.”

Lenardo turns up unexpectedly, in company with Natalie’s younger brother, Friedrich; the former is now a member of the Society.

We are then given correspondence between Wilhelm and Hersile concerning the mysterious casket and the fallout from their possession of it. Hersile also scolds Wilhelm for his unsatisfactory letter-writing:

“Corresponding with you is completely like a monologue; for your replies are like an echo, taking syllables up only in a superficial way in order to let the sounds die away. Have you even once written something in reply to which an answer could again have been given? Your letters stop short and are rejections!”

Wilhelm decides he isn’t that interested in the contents of the casket. Instead we hear about his medical training, which took an odd turn. There is much general discussion here of the German situation with regard to the provision of cadavers for students, and we gather that a similar pattern events unfolded there as in Britain (Scotland, at least), with body-snatching and other crimes developing in response to ever-stricter regulations. Less because of this than his deep ambivalence, Wilhelm throws in his lot with an artist who specialises in minutely detailed anatomical models that, in his opinion, eliminate much of the need for bodies:

“You are to learn in brief that construction is more instructive than destruction, binding more than separating, bringing what is dead to life more than further killing what has already been killed…”

The next section of the novel gives us excerpts from Lenardo’s diary, recounting his observations among a mountain community of spinners and weavers—activities that we hear about to inordinate length. However, this is also the only section of either novel which, for all their dwelling upon arts and crafts and the choosing of careers, acknowledges the value of women’s work.

We know in passing that Wilhelm found the girl Nachodine and wrote to Lenardo about her. We now learn of his oblique report that she was safe in, “A domestic situation, based on piety, enlivened and sustained by industry and order… A succession of those working with their hands in the purest, basic sense surrounds her…” Lenardo now wonders if she is established in such a community; might even be hidden in this one…

Lenardo’s other thoughts concern a new acquaintance who earns his living travelling amongst the scattered mountain-dwellers and mending and maintaining their equipment; although he has other skills too:

“He is a master in his trade and can account completely for anything to do with spinning and weaving, he can work things out, preserve them and repair them, as they are needed and to suit everyone’s requirements.”

Lenardo ponders:

Ought not this man who handled tools and weaving equipment in such a masterly fashion to be able to become a most useful member of the Society? He thought all this over and considered how the merits of this skilful worker had already made a great impression on him. He therefore steered the conversation to that subject and asked the man the question, as if in jest, but all the more directly, whether he would not like to join a society of some significance and consider planning to emigrate overseas.

That last phrase finally brings Wilhelm Meister’s Travels into focus. At the end of Apprenticeship, we heard of the Society’s plans to establish a branch in America, and here it is finally revealed that the leaders are gathering skilled men for that purpose. This is the explanation for the influx of people to the town where Wilhelm is staying at the inn, however we do not get to the point for some further time yet.

Of course we don’t. First, we have to have two more interpolated narratives. The first of these is “The New Mesuline”, about a selfish young man who discovers that his new wife is actually the daughter of a dwarf king and capable of changing herself from her tiny natural form to become human-sized. She promises him all the wealth and luxury he could desire, but upon certain strict conditions…

Based upon European folklore (in which Mesuline was, rather, a mermaid-like figure), Goethe’s fairy-tale has been much analysed since its publication in this, its final form.

A second story, “The Dangerous Bet”, follows almost immediately (that is, there is an intervening letter from Hersile about that damned casket). This is a tale about a barber’s wager that he can pull a nobleman’s nose and get away with it, a joke which has far-reaching consequences.

And at this point, a touch under halfway through the third volume of Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, we get this:

The all-important day had arrived; it was the day when the first measures were to be initiated  in connection with the group emigration; it was the day when it would be decided who really wanted to go afar off into new lands or who would prefer to tarry and seek his fortune over here, on the cohesive soil of the old world.

The men who have gathered are artists and artisans, each highly skilled at a particular form of endeavour. It is, strangely enough, Lenardo who first addresses the assembled crowd. He is tasked with presenting the advantages of emigration, which he couches in terms of building communities from the ground up—morally as well as physically:

     “It has been said, and said repeatedly: Where things are well with me, there is my native country! Yet this comforting adage would be even better expressed if it said: Where I am of use, there is my native country!… If I now say: May everyone aim to be of use everywhere to himself and to others, this is not in fact teaching or advice, but the utterance of life itself…
     “It is in this sense that we may now see ourselves as participators in a world federation. The concept is simple and great, its execution, given intelligence and vigour, is easy. Unity is all-powerful, and so there is to be no division or conflict among us. As far as we have principles, they are common to us all… A man who devotes himself to what is most essential will always be the one to fulfil his aims most surely; on the other hand, others who may be seeking what is higher or more delicate need be more cautious in the path they choose. But whatever a man may take up, the individual on his own is insufficient; social relations are the prime need of a stout-hearted man. All useful people should be connected with one another, just as the organiser of a building operation is on the look-out for an architect, and the architect is concerned for masons and carpenters.
     “And hence everyone knows how our League came into being and what its conditions are; each one of us could at any moment use his special skill to good purpose and could be assured that wherever he might be led by chance, inclination and even passion, he would always be well recommended, received and assisted…
     “After that we have undertaken two duties in the strictest fashion: to respect all forms of worship, for they are all contained more or less in the Creed; furthermore, to be likewise tolerant of all forms of government… Finally, we consider ourselves obliged to practise and encourage morality without pedantry and severity…”

(Alas— We shouldn’t get carried away by the seeming liberality of all this. By “all forms of worship”, evidently all forms of Christian worship was intended: the Jews are explicitly excluded: How should we permit him a share in the highest cultural phenomenon since he rejects its origin and tradition?)

It did occur to me, rather too late, that a better way of addressing Wilhelm Meister’s Travels might to have been to ignore everything but this section of the novel, which crystalises the aims and purposes of the Society, as well as Goethe’s own ideas about the proper functioning of society (small ‘s’).

I have also discovered, on the way through this piece, that many people have done the reverse—that is, excerpted the interpolated narratives and analysed them as standalone works, ignoring the framework altogether. (Though it occurs to me that they may be considering the original, 1821 edition, rather than its revised successor.)

But neither of these approaches captures the peculiarly frustrating nature of this novel as a whole.

And we’re not done with the frustrations just yet. As did Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Travels does not conclude at what appears to be its natural climax. Instead – of course it does – it offers another interpolated narrative, “Not Too Far”, about a wife led astray by her passion for society (the other kind of small-s society) and admiration.

The unhappy husband of the story, Odoard, turns out to be another Society member; and he is tasked in turn with spelling out the advantages of staying in the Old World; arguing that, properly recognised and seized, there are numerous opportunities to reclaim neglected and mismanaged land and to exercise all the gathered skills. He also expands upon the philosophy of the training insisted upon by the Society, and executed in the Pedagogic Province:

“The stages of apprentice, journeyman and master must be observed most strictly; in these too there can be many gradations, but examinations cannot be conducted too carefully. Whoever comes forward is to know that he is giving himself to a demanding art and that he may not expect that the requirements of this art will be casual; a single link that breaks in a great chain destroys the whole.”

From here we jump to the conclusion of Lenardo’s diary entries, which we were not given before (via Wilhelm’s reading) because he had sent those pages to Makarie for her judgement. We hear of the rest of his stay in the weavers’ community, his confirmation that Wilhelm had been there before him, and his discovery of the long-missing Nachodine.

We also learn that the artisans’ community is under threat from the coming of machinery, and that there too the great question of whether to stay or to emigrate is under debate.

And it is here, some twenty (!) pages from the conclusion of its narrative, if not the novel per se, that Wilhelm Meister’s Travels ties itself back into the events of Apprenticeship—and fittingly enough, in a most aggravating manner:

We must therefore report in the first place that Lothario with his wife Theresa and Natalie, who did not wish to be separated from her brother, have already gone to sea in fact, accompanied by the Abbé…

(“Did not wish to be separated from her brother”…but evidently doesn’t give a toss about being separated from Wilhelm. But then, what’s a few more months…?)

But we, in our narrative and descriptive function, should not permit these dear people, who at an earlier stage gained so much of our affection, to undertake such a long journey without our having provided more news about their intentions and actions up to this point, especially as it has been so long since we heard anything in detail about them. None the less we shall omit doing this since their activities hitherto were directed only in a preparatory manner towards the great venture to which we see them heading.

I’m learning to hate you, Johann.

Though in fact, we do get a typical end-of-novel wrap-up concerning various other characters, and who is staying and who is going; as well as another weird interlude concerning Makarie and her internal solar system; another letter from Hersile about that damned casket; plus a reference to a desperate young man on horseback who, in attempting to catch up with a boat travelling down a river, suffers a bad fall and lands in the water. He is dragged up onto the boat in critical condition, but his life is saved by a surgeon on board.

The two are then revealed as Felix and Wilhelm. The end.

No, really.

Actually…not really. After this we get another poem (untitled here, but usually referred to as “Upon Viewing Schiller’s Skull”), and nineteen more pages of Makarie’s aphorisms—including no less than sixteen of them upon a single topic, nothing less than Laurence Sterne himself. I will quote only one:

However much we are diverted by the sight of a free spirit of this type, we are equally reminded, particularly in this case, that although we find all this entrancing, it is not right for us to absorb anything of it, or at least not much.

And you didn’t, Johann. You really, really didn’t…