Politics of nostalgia

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By 2017-10-29

By Indeewara Thilakarathne
Ceylon Today Mosaic

In this week's column, I revisit my previous topic of how English literature codified attitudes toward business. What is of great interest is the fact how literature intersected with developments in the sphere of economics in eighteenth century England.
In an essay titled "Eighteenth Century Attitudes towards business", W. A. Speck of University of Leeds observes these seminal developments as; "Tory satirists built on Davenant's Double to depict a whole new upstart gentry of Whig war profiteers who allegedly upheld the corrupt ministry of Walpole. They were indulging in what has been termed 'the politics of nostalgia', imagining a golden age when the country had been ruled by its hereditary aristocracy and gentry, before access to landed estates had been opened up to parvenus from the City of London.

That such an era existed largely in their imaginations was irrelevant, as was the fact that entry into the landed classes remained very restricted throughout the 18th century. Most businessmen who aspired to life in the countryside sought a house in the country with a few acres rather
than a country house with tenanted farms. Travellers noticed these country homes on the approaches to London in Essex and Surrey. Thus in Stratford, Essex, John Macky observed in 1714:

'Above two hundred little country houses for the convenience of the citizens in summer, where their wives and children generally keep, and their husbands come down on Saturdays and return on Mondays.'

Similarly, Defoe noted on the other side of town, along the road from Richmond to London, 'citizens' country houses whither they retire from the hurries of business, and from getting money, to draw their breath in a clean air '. Most businessmen who had houses in the country were commuters rather than landed gentry. Nevertheless, it only needed a few notorious examples in reality to feed the nostalgic myth. The most outstanding was the acquisition by the goldsmith Sir Charles Duncombe of the Helmsley estate of the second Duke of Buckingham, reputedly for £80,000 in cash, to feed the paranoia of the landed interest. As Pope expressed it:
And Hemsley once proud Buckingham's delight,
Slides to a Scriv'ner or a City knight."
That nostalgia of a golden era was a myth readily fed into the minds of the masses and was more or less based on few examples such as that of goldsmith Sir Charles Duncombe who bought the Helmsley estate of the second Duke of Buckingham.
Interestingly the relationship of traditional landowners, who were supposed to behave as patriarchs, with the community has been apparently changed.

Speck further observes; "Upstart landowners who were allegedly usurping the place of traditional landlords were accused of introducing inappropriate business methods into estate management. Traditionally, country gentlemen were expected to act as patriarchs presiding over their local communities.

The relationship between them and their tenants and neighbours was one of reciprocal rights and duties. Inferiors owed deference to their superiors but these in turn were required to treat those below them with sympathy and understanding, not rack- renting them in the interests of profit maximisation. The new breed of landlord was accused of acting more like patricians than patriarchs, reducing the traditional relationship to a crude cash nexus. Pope epitomised these contrary types in the characters of the Man of Ross and Timon. The Man of Ross, who was based on a real character, John Kyrle , who lived at Ross on Wye, was depicted as an exemplary patriarch.
Behold the Market - place with poor o'erspread!

The MAN OF ROSS divides the weekly bread:
Behold yon Alms - house, neat, but void of state,
Where Age and Want sit smiling at the gate:
Him portion'd maids, apprentic'd orphans blest,
The young who labour, and the old who rest.
Is any sick? The MAN OF ROSS relieves,
Prescribes, attends the med'cine makes, and gives.
Is there a variance? enter but his door,
Balk'd are the Courts, and contest is no more...

By contrast, Timon exploited his position as a landlord to gratify his own aspirations rather than to satisfy those of his neighbours.
At Timon's Villa let us pass a day,
Where all cry out "What sums are thrown away!"
So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,
Soft and Agreeable come never there.
Greatness with Timon dwells in such a draught
As brings all Brobdignag before your thought.
To compass this his building is a Town,
His pond an Ocean, his parterre a Down:

Who but must laugh, the Master when he sees,
A puny insect, shiv'ring at a breeze!
Lo, what huge heaps of littleness around!
The whole a labour'd Quarry above ground.

Timon has no sense of serving the community. He uses his wealth only to indulge his own vanity. His dining-room is described as a temple, the object of his worship being himself. Pope had to admit, however, that Mandeville had a point when he claimed that the conspicuous consumption of the aristocracy stimulated economic growth. As he conceded of Timon:

Yet hence the Poor are cloath'd, the Hungry fed;
Health to himself, and to his Infants bread
The Lab'rer bears: What his hard Heart denies,
His charitable Vanity supplies. "
It is observed that 'conspicuous consumption' of the aristocracy has also in a way contributed to the economic growth.

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