The Romany Rye, by George Borrow

Appendix V

Subject of Gentility Continued

In the last chapter have been exhibited specimens of gentility, so considered by different classes; by one class, power, youth, and epaulets are considered the ne plus ultra of gentility; by another class, pride, stateliness, and title; by another, wealth and flaming tawdriness. But what constitutes a gentleman? It is easy to say at once what constitutes a gentleman, and there are no distinctions in what is gentlemanly, 195 as there are in what is genteel. The characteristics of a gentleman are high feeling, a determination never to take a cowardly advantage of another, a liberal education, absence of narrow views, generosity and courage, propriety of behaviour. Now a person may be genteel according to one or another of the three standards described above, and not possess one of the characteristics of a gentleman. Is the Emperor a gentleman, with spatters of blood on his clothes, scourged from the backs of noble Hungarian women? Are the aristocracy gentlefolks, who admire him? Is Mr. Flamson a gentleman, although he has a million pounds? No! cowardly miscreants, admirers of cowardly miscreants, and people who make a million pounds by means compared with which those employed to make fortunes by the getters-up of the South Sea Bubble might be called honest dealing, are decidedly not gentle-folks. Now, as it is clearly demonstrable that a person may be perfectly genteel according to some standard or other and yet be no gentleman, so is it demonstrable that a person may have no pretensions to gentility and yet be a gentleman. For example there is Lavengro! Would the admirers of the Emperor, or the admirers of those who admire the Emperor, or the admirers of Mr. Flamson, call him genteel? — and gentility with them is everything! Assuredly they would not; and assuredly they would consider him respectively as a being to be shunned, despised, or hooted. Genteel! Why, at one time he is a hack author — writes reviewals for eighteenpence a page — edits a Newgate chronicle. At another he wanders the country with a face grimy from occasionally mending kettles; and there is no evidence that his clothes are not seedy and torn, and his shoes down at the heel; but by what process of reasoning will they prove that he is no gentleman! Is he not learned? Has he not generosity and courage? Whilst a hack author does he pawn the books entrusted to him to review? Does he break his word to his publisher? Does he write begging letters? Does he get clothes or lodgings without paying for them? Again, whilst a wanderer, does he insult helpless women on the road with loose proposals or ribald discourse? Does he take what is not his own from the hedges? Does he play on the fiddle, or make faces in public-houses, in order to obtain pence or beer? or does he call for liquor, swallow it, and then say to a widowed landlady, ‘Mistress, I have no brass’? In a word, what vice and crime does he perpetrate — what low acts does he commit? Therefore, with his endowments, who will venture to say that he is no gentleman? — unless it be an admirer of Mr. Flamson — a clown — who will, perhaps, shout: ‘I say he is no gentleman; for who can be a gentleman who keeps no gig?’ 196

The indifference exhibited by Lavengro for what is merely genteel, compared with his solicitude never to infringe the strict laws of honour, should read a salutary lesson. The generality of his countrymen are far more careful not to transgress the customs of what they call gentility than to violate the laws of honour or morality. They will shrink from carrying their own carpet-bag, and from speaking to a person in seedy raiment, whilst to matters of much higher importance they are shamelessly indifferent. Not so Lavengro; he will do anything that he deems convenient, or which strikes his fancy, provided it does not outrage decency, or is unallied to profligacy; is not ashamed to speak to a beggar in rags, and will associate with anybody, provided he can gratify a laudable curiosity. He has no abstract love for what is low, or what the world calls low. He sees that many things which the world looks down upon are valuable, so he prizes much which the world contemns; he sees that many things which the world admires are contemptible, so he despises much which the world does not; but when the world prizes what is really excellent, he does not contemn it, because the world regards it. If he learns Irish, which all the world scoffs at, he likewise learns Italian, which all the world melts at. If he learns Gypsy, the language of the tattered tent, he likewise learns Greek, the language of the college hall. If he learns smithery, he also learns — ah! what does he learn to set against smithery? — the law? No; he does not learn the law, which, by the way, is not very genteel. Swimming! Yes, he learns to swim. Swimming, however, is not genteel; and the world — at least the genteel part of it — acts very wisely in setting its face against it; for to swim you must be naked, and how would many a genteel person look without his clothes? Come, he learns horsemanship; a very genteel accomplishment, which every genteel person would gladly possess, though not all genteel people do.

Again as to associates: if he holds communion when a boy with Murtagh, the scarecrow of an Irish academy, he associates in after life with Francis Ardry, a rich and talented young Irish gentleman about town. If he accepts an invitation from Mr. Petulengro to his tent, he has no objection to go home with a rich genius to dinner; who then will say that he prizes a thing or a person because they are ungenteel? That he is not ready to take up with everything that is ungenteel he gives a proof, when he refuses, though on the brink of starvation, to become bonnet to the thimble-man, an office which, though profitable, is positively ungenteel. Ah! but some sticker-up for gentility will exclaim, ‘The hero did not refuse this office from an insurmountable dislike to its ungentility, but merely from a feeling of principle.’ Well! the writer is not fond of argument, and he will admit that such was the case; he admits that it was a love of principle, rather than an over-regard for gentility, which prevented the hero from accepting, when on the brink of starvation, an ungenteel though lucrative office, an office which, the writer begs leave to observe, many a person with a great regard for gentility, and no particular regard for principle, would in a similar strait have accepted; for when did a mere love for gentility keep a person from being a dirty scoundrel, when the alternatives apparently were ‘either be a dirty scoundrel or starve’? One thing, however, is certain, which is, that Lavengro did not accept the office, which if a love for what is low had been his ruling passion he certainly would have done; consequently, he refuses to do one thing which no genteel person would willingly do, even as he does many things which every genteel person would gladly do, for example speaks Italian, rides on horseback, associates with a fashionable young man, dines with a rich genius, et cetera. Yet — and it cannot be minced — he and gentility with regard to many things are at strange divergency; he shrinks from many things at which gentility placidly hums a tune, or approvingly simpers, and does some things at which gentility positively sinks. He will not run into debt for clothes or lodgings, which he might do without any scandal to gentility; he will not receive money from Francis Ardry, and go to Brighton with the sister of Annette Le Noir, though there is nothing ungenteel in borrowing money from a friend, even when you never intend to repay him, and something poignantly genteel in going to a watering-place with a gay young Frenchwoman; but he has no objection, after raising twenty pounds by the sale of that extraordinary work ‘Joseph Sell,’ to set off into the country, mend kettles under hedgerows, and make pony and donkey shoes in a dingle. Here, perhaps, some plain, well-meaning person will cry — and with much apparent justice — how can the writer justify him in this act? What motive, save a love for what is low, could induce him to do such things? Would the writer have everybody who is in need of recreation go into the country, mend kettles under hedges, and make pony shoes in dingles? To such an observation the writer would answer that Lavengro had an excellent motive in doing what he did, but that the writer is not so unreasonable as to wish everybody to do the same. It is not everybody who can mend kettles. It is not everybody who is in similar circumstances to those in which Lavengro was. Lavengro flies from London and hack authorship, and takes to the roads from fear of consumption; it is expensive to put up at inns, and even at public-houses, and Lavengro has not much money; so he buys a tinker’s cart and apparatus, and sets up as tinker, and subsequently as blacksmith; a person living in a tent, or in anything else, must do something or go mad; Lavengro had a mind, as he himself well knew, with some slight tendency to madness, and had he not employed himself, he must have gone wild; so to employ himself he drew upon one of his resources, the only one available at the time. Authorship had nearly killed him, he was sick of reading, and had besides no books; but he possessed the rudiments of an art akin to tinkering; he knew something of smithery, having served a kind of apprenticeship in Ireland to a fairy smith; so he draws upon his smithery to enable him to acquire tinkering, and through the help which it affords him, owing to its connection with tinkering, he speedily acquires that craft, even as he had speedily acquired Welsh, owing to its connection with Irish, which language he possessed; and with tinkering he amuses himself until he lays it aside to resume smithery. A man who has any innocent resource, has quite as much right to draw upon it in need, as he has upon a banker in whose hands he has placed a sum; Lavengro turns to advantage, under particular circumstances, a certain resource which he has, but people who are not so forlorn as Lavengro, and have not served the same apprenticeship which he had, are not advised to follow his example. Surely he was better employed in plying the trades of tinker and smith than in having recourse to vice, in running after milk-maids for example. Running after milk-maids is by no means an ungenteel rural diversion; but let any one ask some respectable casuist (the Bishop of London for example), whether Lavengro was not far better employed, when in the country, at tinkering and smithery than he would have been in running after all the milkmaids in Cheshire, though tinkering is in general considered a very ungenteel employment, and smithery little better, notwithstanding that an Orcadian poet, who wrote in Norse about eight hundred years ago, reckons the latter amongst nine noble arts which he possessed, naming it along with playing at chess, on the harp, and ravelling runes, or as the original has it ‘treading runes’— that is compressing them into a small compass by mingling one letter with another, even as the Turkish caligraphists ravel the Arabic letters, more especially those who write talismans.

‘Nine arts have I, all noble;

I play at chess so free,

At ravelling runes I’m ready,

At books and smithery;

I’m skill’d o’er ice at skimming

On skates, I shoot and row,

And few at harping match me,

Or minstrelsy, I trow.’

But though Lavengro takes up smithery, which, though the Orcadian ranks it with chess-playing and harping, is certainly somewhat of a grimy art, there can be no doubt that, had he been wealthy and not so forlorn as he was, he would have turned to many things, honourable, of course, in preference. He has no objection to ride a fine horse when he has the opportunity: he has his day-dream of making a fortune of two hundred thousand pounds by becoming a merchant and doing business after the Armenian fashion; and there can be no doubt that he would have been glad to wear fine clothes, provided he had had sufficient funds to authorize him in wearing them. For the sake of wandering the country and plying the hammer and tongs he would not have refused a commission in the service of that illustrious monarch George the Fourth, provided he had thought that he could live on his pay, and not be forced to run in debt to tradesmen, without any hope of paying them, for clothes and luxuries, as many highly genteel officers in that honourable service were in the habit of doing. For the sake of tinkering he would certainly not have refused a secretaryship of an embassy to Persia, in which he might have turned his acquaintance with Persian, Arabic, and the Lord only knows what other languages, to account. He took to tinkering and smithery, because no better employments were at his command. No war is waged in the book against rank, wealth, fine clothes, or dignified employments; it is shown, however, that a person may be a gentleman and a scholar without them. Rank, wealth, fine clothes, and dignified employments, are no doubt very fine things, but they are merely externals, they do not make a gentleman, they add external grace and dignity to the gentleman and scholar, but they make neither; and is it not better to be a gentleman without them than not a gentleman with them? Is not Lavengro, when he leaves London on foot with twenty pounds in his pocket, entitled to more respect than Mr. Flamson flaming in his coach with a million? And is not even the honest jockey at Horncastle, who offers a fair price to Lavengro for his horse, entitled to more than the scoundrel lord, who attempts to cheat him of one-fourth of its value.

Millions, however, seem to think otherwise, by their servile adoration of people whom, without rank, wealth, and fine clothes, they would consider infamous; but whom, possessed of rank, wealth, and glittering habiliments, they seem to admire all the more for their profligacy and crimes. Does not a blood-spot or a lust-spot on the clothes of a blooming emperor give a kind of zest to the genteel young god? Do not the pride, superciliousness, and selfishness of a certain aristocracy make it all the more regarded by its worshippers? And do not the clownish and gutter-blood admirers of Mr. Flamson like him all the more because they are conscious that he is a knave? If such is the case — and, alas! is it not the case? — they cannot be too frequently told that fine clothes, wealth, and titles adorn a person in proportion as he adorns them; that if worn by the magnanimous and good they are ornaments indeed, but if by the vile and profligate they are merely san benitos, and only serve to make their infamy doubly apparent; and that a person in seedy raiment and tattered hat, possessed of courage, kindness, and virtue, is entitled to more respect from those to whom his virtues are manifested than any cruel profligate emperor, selfish aristocrat, or knavish millionaire in the world.

The writer has no intention of saying that all in England are affected with the absurd mania for gentility; nor is such a statement made in the book; it is shown therein that individuals of various classes can prize a gentleman, notwithstanding seedy raiment, dusty shoes, or tattered hat — for example, the young Irishman, the rich genius, the postillion, and his employer. Again, when the life of the hero is given to the world, amidst the howl about its lowness and vulgarity, raised by the servile crew whom its independence of sentiment has stung, more than one powerful voice has been heard testifying approbation of its learning and the purity of its morality. That there is some salt in England — minds not swayed by mere externals — he is fully convinced; if he were not, he would spare himself the trouble of writing; but to the fact that the generality of his countrymen are basely grovelling before the shrine of what they are pleased to call gentility he cannot shut his eyes.

Oh! what a clever person that Cockney was, who, travelling in the Aberdeen railroad carriage, after edifying the company with his remarks on various subjects, gave it as his opinion that Lieutenant P—— 197 would, in future, be shunned by all respectable society! And what a simple person that elderly gentleman was, who, abruptly starting, asked, in rather an authoritative voice, ‘And why should Lieutenant P—— be shunned by respectable society?’ and who, after entering into what was said to be a masterly analysis of the entire evidence of the case, concluded by stating, ‘that having been accustomed to all kinds of evidence all his life, he had never known a case in which the accused had obtained a more complete and triumphant justification than Lieutenant P—— had done in the late trial.’

Now, the Cockney, who is said to have been a very foppish Cockney, was perfectly right in what he said, and therein manifested a knowledge of the English mind and character, and likewise of the modern English language, to which his catechist, who, it seems, was a distinguished member of the Scottish Bar, could lay no pretensions. The Cockney knew what the Lord of Session knew not — that the British public is gentility crazy — and he knew, moreover, that gentility and respectability are synonymous. No one in England is genteel or respectable that is ‘looked at,’ who is the victim of oppression. He may be pitied for a time, but when did not pity terminate in contempt? A poor, harmless young officer! — but why enter into the details of the infamous case? They are but too well known, and if ever, cruelty, pride, and cowardice, and things much worse than even cruelty, cowardice, and pride, were brought to light, and at the same time countenanced, they were in that case. What availed the triumphant justification of the poor victim? There was at first a roar of indignation against his oppressors, but how long did it last? He had been turned out of the service, they remained in it with their red coats and epaulets; he was merely the son of a man who had rendered good service to his country, they were, for the most part, highly connected; they were in the extremest degree genteel, he quite the reverse. So the nation wavered, considered, thought the genteel side was the safest after all, and then, with the cry of, ‘Oh, there is nothing like gentility,’ ratted bodily. Newspaper and public turned against the victim, scouted him, apologized for the — what should they be called? — who were not only admitted into the most respectable society, but courted to come, the spots, not merely of wine, on their military clothes giving them a kind of poignancy. But there is a God in heaven; the British glories are tarnished — Providence has never smiled on British arms since that case — oh, Balaklava! thy name interpreted is net of fishes, and well dost thou deserve that name. How many a scarlet golden fish has of late perished in the mud amidst thee, cursing the genteel service and the genteel leader which brought him to such a doom!

Whether the rage for gentility is most prevalent amongst the upper, middle, or lower classes it is difficult to say; the priest, in the text, seems to think that it is exhibited in the most decided manner in the middle class; it is the writer’s opinion, however, that in no class is it more strongly developed than in the lower; what they call being well born goes a great way amongst them, but the possession of money much farther, whence Mr. Flamson’s influence over them. Their rage against, and scorn for, any person who by his courage and talents has advanced himself in life, and still remains poor, are indescribable: ‘He is no better than ourselves,’ they say; ‘why should he be above us?’ For they have no conception that anybody has a right to ascendancy over themselves except by birth or money. This feeling amongst the vulgar has been, to a certain extent, the bane of the two services, naval and military. The writer does not make this assertion rashly; he observed this feeling at work in the army when a child, and he has good reason for believing that it was as strongly at work in the navy at the same time, and is still as prevalent in both. Why are not brave men raised from the ranks? is frequently the cry; why are not brave sailors promoted? The Lord help brave soldiers and sailors who are promoted! They have less to undergo from the high airs of their brother-officers, and those are hard enough to endure, than from the insolence of the men. Soldiers and sailors promoted to command are said to be in general tyrants; in nine cases out of ten, when they are tyrants, they have been obliged to have recourse to extreme severity in order to protect themselves from the insolence and mutinous spirit of the men: ‘He is no better than ourselves; shoot him, bayonet him, or fling him overboard!’ they say of some obnoxious individual raised above them by his merit. Soldiers and sailors, in general, will bear any amount of tyranny from a lordly sot, or the son of a man who has ‘plenty of brass’— their own term — but will mutiny against the just orders of a skilful and brave officer who ‘is no better than themselves.’ There was the affair of the Bounty, for example: Bligh was one of the best seamen that ever trod deck, and one of the bravest of men; proofs of his seamanship he gave by steering, amidst dreadful weather, a deeply-laden boat for nearly four thousand miles over an almost unknown ocean; of his bravery at the fight of Copenhagen, one of the most desperate ever fought, of which, after Nelson, he was the hero; he was, moreover, not an unkind man; but the crew of the Bounty mutinied against him, and set him, half-naked, in an open boat, with certain of his men who remained faithful to him, and ran away with the ship. Their principal motive for doing so was an idea, whether true or groundless the writer cannot say, that Bligh was ‘no better than themselves’; he was certainly neither a lord’s illegitimate, nor possessed of twenty thousand pounds. The writer knows what he is writing about, having been acquainted in his early years with an individual who was turned adrift with Bligh, and who died about the year ‘22, a lieutenant in the navy, in a provincial town in which the writer was brought up. The ringleaders in the mutiny were two scoundrels, Christian and Young, who had great influence with the crew, because they were genteelly connected. Bligh, after leaving the Bounty, had considerable difficulty in managing the men who had shared his fate, because they considered themselves ‘as good men as he,’ notwithstanding that to his conduct and seamanship they had alone to look, under heaven, for salvation from the ghastly perils that surrounded them. Bligh himself, in his journal, alludes to this feeling. Once, when he and his companions landed on a desert island, one of them said, with a mutinous look, that he considered himself ‘as good a man as he’; Bligh, seizing a cutlass, called upon him to take another and defend himself, whereupon the man said that Bligh was going to kill him, and made all manner of concessions. Now, why did this fellow consider himself as good a man as Bligh? Was he as good a seaman? No, nor a tenth part as good. As brave a man? No, nor a tenth part as brave; and of these facts he was perfectly well aware, but bravery and seamanship stood for nothing with him, as they still stand with thousands of his class. Bligh was not genteel by birth or money, therefore Bligh was no better than himself. Had Bligh, before he sailed, got a twenty thousand pound prize in the lottery, he would have experienced no insolence from this fellow, for there would have been no mutiny in the Bounty. ‘He is our betters,’ the crew would have said, ‘and it is our duty to obey him.’

The wonderful power of gentility in England is exemplified in nothing more than in what it is producing amongst Jews, gypsies, and Quakers. It is breaking up their venerable communities. All the better, someone will say. Alas! alas! It is making the wealthy Jews forsake the synagogue for the opera-house, or the gentility chapel, in which a disciple of Mr. Platitude, in a white surplice, preaches a sermon at noon-day from a desk, on each side of which is a flaming taper. It is making them abandon their ancient literature, their ‘Mischna,’ their ‘Gemara,’ their ‘Zohar,’ for gentility novels, ‘The Young Duke,’ the most unexceptionably genteel book ever written, being the principal favourite. It makes the young Jew ashamed of the young Jewess; it makes her ashamed of the young Jew. The young Jew marries an opera dancer, or if the dancer will not have him, as is frequently the case, the cast-off Miss of the Honourable Spencer So-and-so. It makes the young Jewess accept the honourable offer of a cashiered lieutenant of the Bengal Native Infantry; or if such a person does not come forward, the dishonourable offer of a cornet of a regiment of crack hussars. It makes poor Jews, male and female, forsake the synagogue for the sixpenny theatre or penny hop; the Jew to take up with an Irish female of loose character, and the Jewess with a musician of the Guards, or the Tipperary servant of Captain Mulligan. With respect to the gypsies, it is making the women what they never were before — harlots; and the men what they never were before — careless fathers and husbands. It has made the daughter of Ursula the chaste take up with the base-drummer of a wild-beast show. It makes Gorgiko Brown, 198 the gypsy man, leave his tent and his old wife of an evening, and thrust himself into society which could well dispense with him. ‘Brother,’ said Mr. Petulengro the other day to the Romany Rye, after telling him many things connected with the decadence of gypsyism, ‘there is one Gorgiko Brown, who, with a face as black as a tea-kettle, wishes to be mistaken for a Christian tradesman; he goes into the parlour of a third-rate inn of an evening, calls for rum-and-water, and attempts to enter into conversation with the company about politics and business. The company flout him or give him the cold shoulder, or perhaps complain to the landlord, who comes and asks him what business he has in the parlour, telling him if he wants to drink to go into the tap-room, and perhaps collars him and kicks him out, provided he refuses to move.’ With respect to the Quakers, it makes the young people, like the young Jews, crazy after gentility diversions, worship, marriages, or connections, and makes old Pease do what it makes Gorgiko Brown do — thrust himself into society which could well dispense with him, and out of which he is not kicked, because, unlike the gypsy, he is not poor. The writer would say much more on these points, but want of room prevents him; he must therefore request the reader to have patience until he can lay before the world a pamphlet, which he has been long meditating, to be entitled ‘Remarks on the strikingly similar Effects which a Love for Gentility has produced, and is producing, amongst Jews, Gypsies, and Quakers.’

The Priest in the book has much to say on the subject of this gentility nonsense; no person can possibly despise it more thoroughly than that very remarkable individual seems to do, yet he hails its prevalence with pleasure, knowing the benefits which will result from it to the church of which he is the sneering slave. ‘The English are mad after gentility,’ says he; ‘well, all the better for us. Their religion for a long time past has been a plain and simple one, and consequently by no means genteel; they’ll quit it for ours, which is the perfection of what they admire; with which Templars, Hospitalers, mitred abbots, Gothic abbeys, long-drawn aisles, golden censers, incense, et cetera, are connected; nothing, or next to nothing, of Christ, it is true, but weighed in the balance against gentility, where will Christianity be? why, kicking against the beam — ho! ho!’ And in connection with the gentility nonsense he expatiates largely, and with much contempt, on a species of literature by which the interests of his church in England have been very much advanced — all genuine priests have a thorough contempt for everything which tends to advance the interests of their church — this literature is made up of pseudo-Jacobitism, Charlie o’er the waterism, or nonsense about Charlie o’er the water. And the writer will now take the liberty of saying a few words about it on his own account.

195 Gentle and gentlemanly may be derived from the same root as genteel; but nothing can be more distinct from the mere genteel, than the ideas which enlightened minds associate with these words. Gentle and gentlemanly mean something kind and genial; genteel, that which is glittering or gaudy. A person can be a gentleman in rags, but nobody can be genteel. (G.B.)

196 A favourite figure of Carlyle’s, but both he and Borrow took the mot from a report of Thurtell’s trial: Q. ‘What do you mean by respectable?’ A. ‘He kept a gig.’

197 Perry. (Kn.)

198 Gorgiko, ‘gentile,’ used here as a nickname.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:18