Charles Dickens on the Mob in England’s Story

The thing to remember about the English story is that it is English.  We are not talking about the story of France, Egypt, China or Mexico.  It is like the story of a cricket club – except that the people having given power to a king, the story is how that power trickles back down to the people as in a pyramid of champagne glasses. 

The barons took back power off the king – and by some chance or miracle they did so expressly on behalf of all free men.  The landed gentry, especially the Puritan lawyers, fixed up the Stuarts, and left Parliament in power by giving it control of the money and the army.  Then it was the turn of business and the middle class until last century when voting became universal – and the cycle looked to be complete.

That picture of the devolution of power overlooks the fact that most people in England only came in touch with the power of government at the local level.  Since very few ever got to London, their lives were ruled by the local gentry, the squires or lords of the manor from feudal times who presided as justices of the peace – who dispensed their version royal justice. 

Here is the picture of one by Charles Dickens in the novel Barnaby Rudge.

….Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends.  By some he was called ‘a country gentleman of the true school,’ by some ‘a fine old country gentleman,’ by some ‘a sporting gentleman,’ by some ‘a thorough-bred Englishman,’ by some ‘a genuine John Bull;’ but they all agreed in one respect, and that was, that it was a pity there were not more like him, and that because there were not, the country was going to rack and ruin every day.  He was in the commission of the peace, and could write his name almost legibly; but his greatest qualifications were, that he was more severe with poachers, was a better shot, a harder rider, had better horses, kept better dogs, could eat more solid food, drink more strong wine, go to bed every night more drunk and get up every morning more sober, than any man in the county.  In knowledge of horseflesh he was almost equal to a farrier, in stable learning he surpassed his own head groom, and in gluttony not a pig on his estate was a match for him.  He had no seat in Parliament himself, but he was extremely patriotic, and usually drove his voters up to the poll with his own hands.  He was warmly attached to church and state, and never appointed to the living in his gift any but a three-bottle man and a first-rate fox-hunter.  He mistrusted the honesty of all poor people who could read and write, and had a secret jealousy of his own wife (a young lady whom he had married for what his friends called ‘the good old English reason,’ that her father’s property adjoined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself…..

Well, we can come back to the ruling class, but what about those they ruled – when their blood was up and they were rioting against their government? 

The English saw this in 1780 in what were known as the Gordon Riots.  The riots were led by Lord Gordon ostensibly against laws in favour of Catholics, but they were taken over by maddened deprived people who were out of control for nights and who burned down parts of London, including the house of Lord Mansfield.

….Through this vast throng, sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations, and the worst conceivable police, such of the members of both Houses of Parliament as had not taken the precaution to be already at their posts, were compelled to fight and force their way….  The air was filled with execrations, hoots, and howlings.  The mob raged and roared, like a mad monster as it was, unceasingly, and each new outrage served to swell its fury.

You might then say that honours were about even.  We saw much of it recently on the television in the insurrection at the Capitol at Washington. 

But it is not hard to picture those referred to by Dickens as ‘honest zealots’ – like those who attended MAGA rallies in the U S.  They are not among life’s winners, but it is very bad taste to say that they are losers.  They nurse the injustice done to them.  They crave revenge.  They want identity and recognised status.  They look for a leader who can banish the anxiety that comes from uncertainty.  They are not conditioned to handle doubt.  But, curiously, they revel in conspiracy theories – perhaps because at heart they are themselves conspirators.  They want to belong and to surf the power of the people.  This time it’s their turn.  They are in that sense the elect, the chosen ones, although the ‘elites’ are their first target.  Implacable history is on their side.  Who can withstand the power of the people?  They will take part in any action that suits their need and the fracture of power lets those below rise up.  In any revolution, the dregs come quickly to the surface.  Just look at that grotesque Jean-Paul Marat – preferably in his bath.

Dickens of course saw all this, and like his friend Carlyle, he was revolted by it.  The hero of Barnaby Rudge was an idiot.  Lord Gordon was a political fool.  (Erskine got him off – he was found to have had no ‘treasonable intent.’)  The comparison with the Capitol insurrection gets closer.  Dickens originally planned to have the riot led by three escaped lunatics from Bedlam.

The mob fed on rumour well before the Internet.

But when vague rumours got abroad, that in this Protestant association a secret power was mustering against the government for undefined and mighty purposes, when the air was filled with whispers of a confederacy among the Popish powers to degrade and enslave England, establish an inquisition in London, and turn the pens of Smithfield market into stakes and cauldrons, when terrors and alarms which no man understood were perpetually broached, both in and out of Parliament, by one enthusiast who did not understand himself, and bygone bugbears which had lain quietly in their graves for centuries, were raised again to haunt the ignorant and credulous, when all this was done, as it were, in the dark …. ‘Let’s have revenges and injuries …’ Without the slightest preparation, saving that they carried clubs and wore the blue cockade, they sallied out into the streets, and, with no more settled design than that of doing as much mischief as they could, paraded them at random …… There was not the least disguise or concealment ­indeed, on this night, very little excitement or hurry …   Fifty resolute men might have turned them at any moment, a single company of soldiers could have scattered them like dust, but no man interposed, no authority restrained them, and, except by the terrified persons who fled from their approach, they were as little heeded as if they were pursuing their lawful occupations with the utmost sobriety and good conduct …. Indeed, the sense of having gone too far to be forgiven, held the timid together no less than the bold … some had been seen by their employers active in the tumult, others knew they must be suspected and that they would be discharged if they returned; others had been desperate from the beginning, and comforted themselves with the homely proverb, that, being hanged at all, they might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. The least sanguine among them reasoned with himself that, at the worst, they were too many to be all punished, and that he had as good a chance of escape as any other man … The great mass never reasoned or thought at all, but were stimulated by their own headlong passions, by poverty, by ignorance, by the love of mischief, and the hope of plunder.

The next time we see the mob in a feral condition, they are feverishly compacted to watch the hangings of the rioters.

Well, Dickens saw the insurrection at the Capitol as clearly as those who saw the mob shout for Barabbas.  There is nothing new under the sun.

But let us go back to the part played not just by the squire but by those higher up, the aristocracy.  The caricature of Dickens is very entertaining.  Both Alan Bennett and Barry Humphries would have applauded.  But the English aristocracy survived while that of France did not.  All through the long history of England, the aristocracy was integral not just to governing the realm, but to the devolution of power within government. 

That was not so in France.  By 1789, the French nobility was useless and intolerably precious and not conditioned to negotiate any devolution of power.  Part of the reason was the prohibition of going into business (dérogation).  The English nobility lapped up making money in the City and later marrying rich American heiresses to keep the bloodlines and credit accounts fluid.  Carlyle said of the French nobility that ‘close viewed, their industry and function is that of dressing gracefully and eating sumptuously.’  Their flocks were not tended, ‘only regularly shorn.’

The English aristocracy also provided an escape valve at times when the devolution of power was stalled and a revolution was at hand – as with the Reform Bill in 1832 and the People’s Budget after 1909 – when revolution was avoided when the Crown threatened to create enough peers to see the popular will respected.

Where, then, did the sympathies of Dickens lie?  We don’t know – but he did say: ‘My faith in the people governing is on the whole infinitesimal; my faith in the people governed is, on the whole, illimitable.’

The last revolution the English had ended in 1689, when Dutch troops patrolled the streets of London.  The Gordon Riots in 1780 were the closest the English would get to further armed revolt.  There is, then, a lot to be said for that suggestion of Trevelyan that ‘if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.’  Cricket had to come into it somehow.  The whole shebang has been very English – except that when the barons turned up at Runnymede under arms, they were not carrying cricket bats.

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