LAND HO! Owen Dudley Edwards LADY BRACKNELL: What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted form one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up. That’s all that can be said about land.’ Thus Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act One. Son of the leading oculist, aurist, medical statistician, topographer and so forth in the Ireland of his day, whose knighthood confirmed his landowning status and whose tenantry after his death no doubt participated in the land war with the approval of the younger Wilde whom they impoverished. It was a paradox he performed rather than paraded: no doubt Jack’s statement in reply that the poachers were the only people who made anything out of his estate was code for tenants in a play so riddled with coding (‘earnest’ = ‘gay’) that it would defy the talents of Captain Scarlett. (Come to think of it, quite a lot of things seem to defy the talents of Captain Scarlett, otherwise MI 21/2 (we can’t afford Captain Crimson; don’t you know there’s a war on?).) On the other hand, it represented a kind of immunity, according to the poet Belloc, who in 1932 chronicled the case of William Shand, who had the habit of command, which got him into severe trouble on a liner bound for Ceylon. One day, as they were in the Red (Or Libyan) Sea, the Captain said: ‘I think it’s coming on to blow. Let everybody go below!’ But William Shand said: ‘Not for me. I’m going to stop on deck!’ said he. The Captain, wounded in his pride, Summoned the Second Mate aside And whispered: ‘Surely Mr Shand Must be extremely rich by land?’ ‘No’, said the Mate, ‘When last ashore I watched him. He is rather poor.’ ‘Ho!’ cried the Captain. ‘Stands it thus? And shall the knave make mock of us? I’ll teach him to respect his betters.
Here, Bo’swain! Put the man in fetters!’ In fetters therefore William lay Until the liner reached Bombay, When he was handed to the court Which deals with cases of the sort In that uncomfortable port; Which promptly hanged him out of hand. Such was the fate of William Shand. Belloc being a historian, however loose, thus illuminates the problem of King John, whose notorious lack of land no doubt accounted for his low repute among the sons of Henry II. It gave him some hold on immortality: any child with the slightest knowledge of Robin Hood knows that John is the ultimate baddy, and the only one to be named, apart from oneballad stands like Guy of Gisborne. Since Robin Hood’s best-known sidekick is probably Friar Tuck, and friars were hardly in existence before John’s death, he evidently wasn’t the real baddy in question, which shows what a lack of land will do for you dead or alive. Robin had no land either, but since he had Sherwood Forest for practical purposes, that would appear to have counted. John was of the landowning class, therefore his absence of land disgraced him; Robin (despite all the efforts to prove him a Norman Earl in drag) represented the users of common land, and thus was OK. The forest was of course the king’s, for purpose of persecution of any trespassers, which made it a matter of piety to ensure it was the land John lacked. On the other hand, people’s objections to royal savages mutilating folk for enjoying the use of the forest could apply to quite a number of John’s ancestors and descendants going back to William the Bastard whose grasp of sand when he fell after landing gave him proof that he had taken hold of his kingdom. Land meant ownership, ultimately of people. There was his opponent Harold’s reply to his brother Tostig before their battle when Tostig wanted their proposed reconciliation for his ally, Harold Hardrada, and English Harold offered him seven feet of English ground, ‘or perhaps as much more as he may be taller
than other men.’ When does land become equated with nation? Shaw tried his hand at it in Saint Joan: THE CHAPLAIN:
THE NOBLEMAN: THE CHAPLAIN:
THE NOBLEMAN: THE CHAPLAIN:
I cannot bear to see my countrymen defeated by a parcel of foreigners. Oh! you are an Englishman, are you? Certainly not, my lord. I am a gentleman. Still, like your lordship, I was born in England; and it makes a difference. You are attached to the soil, eh? It pleases your lordship to be satirical at my expense: your greatness privileges you to be so with impunity. But your lordship knows very well that I am not attached to the soil in a vulgar manner like a serf. Still, I have a feeling about it; [with growing agitation] and am not ashamed of it; and [rising wildly] by God, if this goes on any longer I will fling my cassock to the devil, take arms myself, and strangle the accursed witch with my own hands.
Yet land becomes the means by which aristocracy maintains itself and hypnotises its serfs of whatever nominal rank. It also has monstrous powers of selfrestoration. Evelyn Waugh wrote a preface to Brideshead Revisited in 1959 after 15 years: It was impossible to foresee, in the spring of 1944, the present cult of the English country house. It seemed then that the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century. So I piled it on rather, with passionate sincerity. Brideshead today would be open to trippers, its treasures arranged by expert hands and the fabric better maintained than it was by Lord Marchmain. And the English aristocracy has maintained its identity to a degree then seemed impossible ... Much of this book therefore is a panegyric preached over an empty coffin. Yet the origins of the land are not quite so convenient for Waugh’s delicate Catholic suggestion that aristocracy offered the latter-day witness and martyrdom formerly reserved to the monasteries; aristocracy in fact reached its Tudor heights by snappy acquisition of monasteries and their lands. In Ireland, land ended up where it did at the expense of the
monks’ coreligionist laity, some of whom had grabbed a sizeable portion of neighbouring monastic wealth when Henry VIII made it fashionable (enough of it had previously been grabbed when it was custom more than fashion). More modern Ireland sustained several land confiscations until my fellow-aboriginal Catholics owned 5% of the land, if that, while being the populations’ most numerous ethnics. William Carleton was Ireland’s most eminent literary convert from Catholicism to Protestantism and a great witness in the ensuing proselytism by evangelical journal, but he made few concessions to the sensibilities of his Protestant editors and readers when remembering the landwrongs of the people among whom he was born: ‘The Poor Scholar’ first appeared in 1833: One day about the middle of November, in the year 18—, Dominick McEvoy and his son Jemmy were digging potatoes on the side of a hard, barren hill, called Esker Dhu. The day was bitter and wintry, the men were thinly clad, and as the keen blast swept across the hill with considerable violence, the sleet-like rain which it bore along pelted into their garments with pitiless severity. The father had advanced into more than middle age; and having held, at a rack-rent, the miserable waste of farm which he occupied, he was compelled to exert himself in its cultivation, despite either obduracy of soil, or inclemency of weather. This day, however, was so unusually severe that the old man began to feel incapable of continuing his toil. The son bore it better; but whenever a cold rush of stormy rain came over them, both were compelled to stand with their sides against it, and their heads turned, so as that the ear almost rested back upon the shoulder, in order to throw the rain off their faces. Of each, however, that cheek which was exposed to the rain and storm was beaten into a red hue; whilst the other part of their faces was both pale and hungerpinched. The father paused to take breath, and, supported by his spade, looked down upon the sheltered inland which, inhabited chiefly by Protestants and Presbyterians, lay rich and warm looking under him. ‘Why thin’, he exclaimed to the son – a lad of about fifteen, – ‘sure I know well I oughtn’t to curse yez, anyway, you black set! an’ yit, the Lord forgive me my sins, I’m almost tempted to give yez a volley, an’ that from my heart out! Look at thim, Jimmy agrah – only look at the black thieves how warm an’ wealthy they sit there in our own ould possessions, an’ here we must toil till our fingers are worn to the stumps, upon this thievin’ bent. The curse of Cromwell on it! – You might as well ax the divil for a blessin’, an’ expect anything like a dacent crop out of it. – Look at thim two ridges! – such a poor
sthring o’ praties is in it! – one here an’ one there – an’ yit we must turn up the whole ridge for that same! Well, God sind the time soon, when the right will take place, Jimmy agrah!’ The story itself makes little enough of the note of vengeance, and when the old man particularises he distinguishes carefully between good and bad Protestant landlords, however unjust the origin of their wealth. Jack Stuart deserves a cool corner in hell (to which as a Protestant, he is inevitably bound), but although Hellward he must go ‘Kind, neighbourly, and friendly, is he an’ all belongin’ to him: an’ I wouldn’t be where a hard word ‘ud be spoken of him, nor a dog in connexion with the family ill thrated.’ Jack Taylor laughs at the priests but treats them to good dinners. Yellow Sam evicted their own family when the wife and mother was recovering from fever, and gave their farm ‘to his bastard son, a purple Orangeman!’. The story itself portrays the short life and struggles of the boy and salutes his ultimate ordination as priest, a startling generosity from Carleton, from his evangelical sponsor the Rev. Caesar Otway, and his devout Protestant publisher. Yet The Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry included alongside it the horrific and Gothic ‘Wildgoose Lodge’, the burning alive of a family named Lynch in north county Louth, owing to their falling foul of the local agrarian society. Land, in fact, is murderous, especially when it survives simply as a memory of deprivation, and the memory subjected to the wars of its own shadows. It wasn’t the Lynches who evicted anyone. The father-son harmony in dispossession is equally intrinsic to possession, although frequently less harmonious, and less harmonious still when the succession to the land looks like going to unwanted cousins. The Duchess of Marlborough writhed at the thought of her beloved estate falling into the hands of cousin Winston: fortunately, whatever else the main line of the family might be unable to do, it could breed. Even when it could not, the resources of civilisation were not exhausted. The Irish Catholic peasantry, very privately, would tell of how Lady X, finding her husband incapable of providing an heir, arranged with or without his agreement to have the local blacksmith do the needful, with the proviso that the real father
would then be provided for in a substantially funded emigration to North America. D.H. Lawrence got halfway there in assuming the disabled husband might like to have his wife consoled carnally by an alternative, but that the gamekeeper is, so to say, the trespasser to be prosecuted. But in Ireland they would send for Mellors before anyone else. If it came to succession of land, you couldn’t trust your equals in the landowning class. People tattled, for want of anything better to do with their time, and the unwanted cousin might try a nasty legal suit. You wouldn’t want that: it might invite insolence from the peasantry. The peasantry would not, of course, be insolent about your recruitment of them for purpose of procreation. Being good Catholics they knew the Catholics didn’t commit sexual sins, therefore whatever happened, hadn’t happened. But if it gets into a court of law, people might think it did. Law pursued land like a Fury after a matricide, and when in eighteenth-century Ireland good-natured Protestants tried to cover for Catholics still holding on to ancestral land confiscated from them under law, there were many ‘discoverers’ who enriched themselves by informing on the protector and the protected. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent is actually talking about that in lampooning the ex-Catholic Sir Murtagh now busily trying to add to his own land by going to law against his neighbours. When Catholics came into their own in the nineteenth century and set up for rackrenting landlords in their own turn, they availed themselves as readily as their predecessors in the game of looting the law. It did not involve respect for law; any more than one has respect for a lottery. And it had the advantage that Catholic landlords who wanted to pass for gentry indistinguishable from their Protestant exemplars, could profit by the charitable readiness to assume that all brutal landlords were Protestants and hence alien. The Scottish experience of eviction by one’s own clan chieftain and kinsfolk was assumed not to apply to Ireland. It hardly followed. Did the O’Conor Don or
the MacMurrough Kavanagh, landlords of eminence on the eve of the land war, never evict a tenant of their own name? As Trollope shows in his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, the Catholic landlord who conscientiously sought to fulfil his duty to his ‘people’ found himself beggared with none so sympathetic as the tenants whose failure to pay hammered the final nails into his economic coffin. But there were many who took the simple way out of that trap, by democratically evicting all defaulting tenants regardless of kinship. Family could come into it unpleasantly in many ways. Lord Leitrim, assassinated in the late 1870s, was so heartily disliked by tenantry and family that nobody was ever certain into which category his murderer came – possibly the result of collaboration, each helping each, as in the business of procreation to keep the distant cousin distant. Enid Blyton took up the question of family mutual hostilities over land in Five on a Treasure Island, where the girl George has been given an island formerly the property of her mother, which her father then proposes to sell. Apart from the point of the story, which is that the children know that the island, if left in their hands, looks like producing monetary returns – but since they do not trust him, they cannot tell him – the hard facts are that the island is not George’s father’s to sell. George gave a curious choke. Her eyes burned as if they were on fire. ‘Mother! You can’t sell my island! You can’t sell my castle! I won’t let them be sold!’ Her father frowned. ‘Don’t be silly, Georgina’ he said. ‘It isn’t really yours. You know that it belongs to your mother, and naturally she would like to sell it if she could. We need the money very badly. You will be able to have a great many nice things once we sell the island.’ ‘I don’t want nice things!’ cried poor George ‘My castle and my island are the nicest things I could ever have. Mother! Mother! You know you said I could have them. You know you did! I believed you.’... ‘That’s enough, Georgina’, said her father, angrily. ‘Your mother is guided by me. You’re only a child. Your mother didn’t really mean what she said – it was only to please you. But you know well enough you will share in the money we get and have anything you want.’ ‘I won’t touch a penny!’ said George, in a choking voice. ‘You’ll be sorry you sold it.’ In part it picks up on the ancient Jewish tradition that one lives as long as one’s name survives, and land ownership is the means of its survival. But Blyton manages to convey something beyond that, and of course beyond land use: the Native American determinant of possession. George with her barren
island and its ancient ruin holds the luxury of land ownership, plus the useful reminder that land ownership, however bloody in its historical associations, has at its heart the child’s greed in possession; and the family’s readiness to doublecross one another in the manipulative games land wealth, however imaginary, stimulates. Land is above all snobbish, thus aiding agrarian capitalism to cling on to governmental power decades after finance and industrial capitalism had far outstripped it in economic significance. It might be felt that George (whose love for her island is quite independent of this possible treasure) recognises this and seeks the aristocratic status with no more interest in any attendant finery than we would expect from Fielding’s Squire Western. Like Flurrv Knox in Somerville and Ross’s Irish R.M. stories, she is (given her gender identification) a stable-boy among gentlemen, but (emphatically) a gentleman among stable-boys. She gets on all right with fisher-boys but (unlike Blyton’s Adventurous Four of the same time, 1941-42) not on terms of equality. She is ‘Master George’ to them, inviting their hidden grins at her eccentricity but adopting that so long as she gets the deference she requires as well as the form she requires. The landless labourer was traditionally the despised of all classes, with much more tolerance from landed aristocracy than from newly-rich owners or from tenant-farmers. The Britain of World War II threw the old hatreds into a new context, when the need for male cannon-fodder sent women into the Land Army. Richmal Crompton, who found male authority to wartime volunteers thoroughly obnoxious in her own auxiliary fire-fighting service, had a look at the Land Army in William Carries On: ... Farmer Jenks ... was in these days in particularly difficult humour. His only capable labourer had been ‘called up’ and he was forced to employ a land girl. He hated girls – land or otherwise – so he took it out on everyone around him, particularly the land girl. She was a small slight girl called Katie, with red-gold curls and a friendly smile. When Hubert Lane steals a digging fork from her, she knows what she faces: ‘The old horror’s not found out about it yet,’ she told the Outlaws mournfully. ‘He checks up the tools on Saturday. He’ll be livid when he does. He’ll stop it out of my wages – and I shan’t be able to go home for the weekend. It’s sickening, because I’d made a very special date.’ It was a small window on the exploitation of the lowest figure on the economic ladder, although Katie was better protected than her male predecessors, many of whom in times past had been children sold into ‘apprenticeship’ by their parents and left at the mercy of farmers and landlords from their eighth or ninth year.
The landlord was certainly a horrific figure in times of famine, where some might die to rescue their tenants, but many others ruthlessly applied Darwinian principles. But they did not necessarily fool all the people all the time. George Orwell’s essay on ‘Boys’ Weeklies’ accused the Greyfriars school stories of inducing acquiescence in the existing class structure. This is how the Magnet under Frank Richards’s authorship wrote of the local magnate, Sir Hilton Popper, Bart., on 9 February l9l8: ‘This island is his property – or he makes out that it is. The Greyfriars fellows maintain that it’s public land. He’s a landhog, so the fellows say,’ said Clavering, his lip curling. ‘I know his father fenced in half the village at Friardale, and he sticks to it, because there’s nobody to go to law with him about it.’ The episode ends with a soldier horse-whipping the baronet, who has tried to horse-whip him, the author making the thoughtful comment: It was the first time in his life that Sir Hilton Popper had received a horse-whipping, though doubtless not the first time that he had deserved one. The great thing about land is that it can make revolutionaries out of the most surprising people.