A Week in the Future, by Catherine Helen Spence

Chapter vii


Literature and Art; Music; the Drama and Sport

How fast my week passed away. I rubbed my eyes at the sound of the awakening bell, and felt a new pang at the thought that this was my penultimate “Day in the Future.” I had tried to follow some method in my researches. To-day I was not to travel much, but was to see the National Gallery, both of ancient and modern works of art, and the British Museum, and I was to try to form some estimate of the literature of the 20th century. The National Gallery, I found, had been enlarged enormously, and admirably classified and arranged, so that one could see as much or as little as one pleased. There were in it, stationed at various points, persons of both sexes who were thoroughly well informed as to the pictures and statues in their departments, who could give much fuller information than any catalogue. The light was well distributed. New modes of cleaning pictures had been adopted, and I could see that the old works of art were well preserved, and fairly appreciated. My attention, however, was mainly directed towards the later schools, and I was a little puzzled to know whether I preferred them to the more familiar styles of my own or of previous days. There were some striking pictures of the transition period between the age of competition and accumulation, and the communistic régime now established. There was not such savagery in the expression of the surging crowds who wrought this revolution as we were used to see in the pictures of the French Revolutionary period, but there was great intensity. A gallery of portraits of the leaders in the industrial reorganisation was interesting. I was delighted to know the names of many, some of my own day, and the sons and daughters of others whom I knew by reputation. There was a gallery of historical pictures connected with the cessation of war and of royalty all over Europe. These were fine; I thought, however, the later pictures were tame, except the landscape and sea-pieces, which were lovely in their fidelity to Nature, and yet you felt that Nature was seen through sympathetic human eyes. Photography — though it had made great progress — had not extinguished or even diminished artistic work, either in portraiture or in natural scenery. There was some good new sculpture, but Mr. Oliphant told me it was now impossible to get life models on hire. One might induce a friend to sit to him, but that was all. I was surprised at the progression of works of art of all kinds, especially as I heard that all considerable provincial towns had galleries of their own.

“How is it that so many devote themselves to art when your public are not rich enough to give their value for them?”

“Those who follow art for a livelihood are but few. Our artistic work is chiefly done in the leisure which everyone has, and these galleries are filled mainly with the gifts of the people to the people.”

“That is, in one way, a pity, for art has always been understood to demand the strenuous study of a life-time. It is also the better for foreign travel, and for opportunities of seeing various styles.”

“I do not know that we have the highest possible art; our connoisseurs point back to the old masters as unapproached by us, but we have an art that our people understand and appreciate. Our children, as you have seen, are early taught to observe form and color, light and shade, likeness and unlikeness, and to use the pencil and the brush; and if they have any talent, it shows itself. Our associated life allows the younger to obtain hints and corrections from the older. At our Owen Home there are many young people who work for hours every day in the art room. Of course, the best work is done in summer with the longer light. This gallery is open to students every day, and all day long.”

“Dr. Johnson used to say of the Scotch that ‘Every one had a mouthful of learning, but nobody had more’,” said I.

“And you think it may be the same with our art? but the mouthful makes us happy, and I believe, makes us morally better than a perfect art, only understood by an upper ten thousand.”

The British Museum had been also enlarged beyond all my expectations. There was nothing approaching to it in the Commonwealth or on the Continent of Europe for its comprehensiveness. The number of new books which had been published since I knew the world, was enormous. There were many readers in the museum — more than in my recollection of old times, though London was less populous. The Natural History and geological and other scientific collections were extensive and admirably arranged — with specialists able and willing to give information. The visitors were not the gaping crowds who knew nothing before and learned nothing then, but intelligent people who added to or fixed their previous acquisitions by what they saw and heard.

“I think I could read here,” I said to Mr. Oliphant, as I sat down where I had sat more than a hundred and twenty years before, “nothing solid or demanding close attention, but let me see the sort of pabulum your young folks are nourished on — poetry and fiction.”

“Here,” said Mr. Oliphant, “are poems which I like, and which Florrie and her lover have read together in their brief courtship, and thought exquisite. It was Fred’s gift-book to her; and here is a novel, or rather a novelette, of the day, very popular with the young. I shall go to my office and leave you here for two hours. I know you think our newspapers very inferior to the encyclopedian Times and the philosophical Spectator of your own day; and as you avoid the serious literature, you cannot see how the omissions of the daily and weekly press are supplied by books; but I may as well tell you that authorship, as a profession, is as rare as art. Our books are the product of our leisure, and rarely remunerate the writer. A very small royalty is all that the author claims, and no books are published at a high price. I do not dream of getting any profit by the book which I have had in hand for three years. Authorship is so delightful a thing that every one rushes into print who fancies he or she has anything to say. You note that we do not review books in the newspapers, and that they do not advertise with us; the task would be too great for us, the expense too great for the publishers.”

When left alone I sat down and tried to do justice to the poems which were written by one who had been before the world for fifteen years. The verses were graceful and thoughtful, but I was in no way carried out of myself by them. It was easier for me to enter into the new life of the future, and to appreciate all the social arrangements by which life was made pleasanter, its sweetness and candor, its brightness and sympathy, than to be interested and amused by what delighted those around me. If the poems felt the touch of the level hand, how would the novel of contemporary life fare?

I think even worse. As early marriage was so easily entered into, the love embroglios (sic) were chiefly after marriage, and had much to do with divorce. The custody of children was a point settled by arbitration of friends, but the party who appeared most to blame in the separation had the worse position, and often this led to reconciliation. I really could not keep my attention closely fixed on the loves of Nigel and Elaine, interrupted by a twentieth century villain, but all brought to a happy conclusion, but I could see that the little boy had a great deal to do with it.

I was told by my friends that there was another school of fiction resembling the historical romance which was very popular, and another purely ideal, in which spirits and fairies and supernatural beings, the belief in whom had quite died out, were called out to paint a moral and adorn a tale. The metrical tale was very popular, as also the ballad to be read or to be sung. There were some magazines, both of light and serious literature, but not so many as I left in the world. The cessation of advertisements had probably killed many of them. The newspapers confined themselves to their own department, and did not publish serial stories to induce a large circulation. If people wanted stories and poetry they had to buy them in books, but the writers had increased in a larger proportion than the buyers, because the Homes and the syndicates of Homes made one copy of a book do more duty than the old circulating libraries.

I saw some athletic sports and games of various kinds that Saturday afternoon to show me how the young people took their out-door amusements. Admission to cricket and such matches was free.

“You have as yet seen none of our public entertainments,” said Mrs. Oliphant to me. “What would you prefer, the theatre, the concert room, or the opera?”

“Have you actually an opera? I should have thought that was a luxury only possible where there was a wealthy community. If there is really opera, I should prefer that, and if possible, in old Covent Garden.”

“That is our Opera House, and there is a new and, I hear, a fine piece in representation there at present. As for opera being unsuited to our condition of social equality, almost everyone is musical enough to appreciate it, and as the stars do not now swallow up half the profits, we have very even talent all round, and the entertainment is not costly.”

We did not get the best seats, because these were obtained by prior engagement, and our minds were made up too late for that, but we did not get the worst because we were at the doors early. Italian opera at one shilling and one and sixpence could not be called dear, and before I had heard a quarter of the overture I felt satisfied it would be in no way inferior. The libretto, which I glanced over in advance, seemed better than I recollected reading in old days. The scene of the opera was laid in the time of revolution and reconstruction, and Mrs. Oliphant told me it was as true to history as so artificial a thing as opera could be made. The title was “The last of the Czars,” and it showed how the absolute autocrat was driven to abdication by the pressure of his rebellious subjects. There were mobs and barricades, armies and battles; the disused arms I had seen and others invented after my day were brought forward to show what life had been. The sycophants, the parasites, and the spies who flattered the monarch up to the turn of fortune, and then deserted and betrayed him, were shown up, and what was, perhaps, more difficult, the more honest but equally mischievous blood and thunder veterans who accounted that the end — the preservation of the empire — justified all means of repression and cruelty to individuals and classes. On the other hand were the prophets and apostles, the workers and the fighters in the cause of freedom and progress, animating peasants to action, and undermining the plots of the powerful. The returned exiles from Siberia who took such a prominent part in the revolution, were wild and haggard and neglected in their attire, but full of passionate eloquence. The Russian national airs, with their pathetic music, were introduced with excellent effect. I was as thoroughly carried away with the drama of the future as I had been when I heard Ristori and her company act Marie Antoinette. I was living in the story and I lost myself in the music.

During the intervals I looked at the audience. The electric light showed tier on tier of interested and intelligent spectators. There was no dress circle — in fact, there was no such thing as full dress in twentieth century society. People went in their ordinary clothes — their better clothes, no doubt — with a little show of ribbons on the part of the women and natural flowers worn by both sexes. There was no crowd of carriages at the door of the Opera House. Only a few of such vehicles as belonged to the Owen Home for the older and more infirm who wanted to be present. Although the audience was most appreciative, there were no encores. The opera, indeed, was a long one, but I understood from Mrs. Oliphant that encores were out of fashion. There was no calling before the curtain till the close of the performance, when the performers received a shower of flowers. The dresses of the company were tasteful, but not costly, that of the peasants and the exiles and refugees most satisfactory in their appropriateness. Close behind us, there sat a Russian gentleman, known to Mr. Oliphant, who came from a backward province in Siberia, and who had come to spend a year in England to study agriculture. He was deeply interested in this national drama that he had just missed hearing in St. Petersburg.

“I fear you must always go backward to find material for anything like a plot,” said I. “Your present times are too level and too prosperous for picturesque artistic treatment.”

“True, for the sensational and exciting we must go back, but we have a domestic drama that interests us. So long as people differ in character and temper, so long will their story present something for genius to take hold of. But no doubt genius is very glad of the varied resources of the past.”

“Is your opera a co-operative affair, like so many other concerns now-a-days? Or is it as it used to be with us — the speculation of an impresario who engaged his troupe and made the profit, or submitted to the loss of the season?”

“It is so far co-operative that everyone, down to the most insignificant chorus-singer and scene-shifter, has a share in the receipts, but there is a head who conducts all the business, and a joint stock company who furnish the capital. London has this company for four months in the year. They travel through the provinces for the rest of the year, often dividing into two bands, where the houses are too small for the whole strength of the company. There is an oratorio company who devote themselves in the same way to sacred compositions.”

“Your London population is so small now, it is little larger than the London of Johnson and Garrick, when Drury Lane and Covent Garden supplied all the legitimate drama.”

“The population, though comparatively small, is much more stationary than the well-to-do used to be, and all our people are more pleasure-loving than the average Englishman of old times.”

“It used to be the visitors — the country cousins — who kept up the theatres in London, and in Paris, too. You have not got so many visitors now.”

“We have more than you fancy, but not at harvest time — the busiest time of the year in the country. The balance now is against London, for many are on their country holiday. But our people are all fond of music and the drama. Everyone has some spare money and a good deal of spare time. Even the constant amateur performances which we have in our Homes increase our taste for them, and make us desire to see the same thing done better so that we may obtain valuable hints. The next act, Miss Bethel, opens with a dance. I am glad that it will give you an idea of our ballet-dancing.”

It was lovely — the very poetry of motion with nothing of the objectionable features of nineteenth century stage-dancing. I have before said that the dress in the future was not rigorously of one mode. The young and active wore shorter skirts than the older, and many preferred a modification of the Bloomer costume — the belted tunic and full drawers. This last was the favorite dress of the ballet-dancers, and their sleeves were worn half-long. If paint and pearl powder was still used on the stage, it was used judiciously, but, probably, the full glare of the electric light required some make-up in this way. The audience, I felt sure, had only their natural complexions.

It is rather hard work to take stock of everything seen and heard during each day of my week every night, and I think I feel more puzzled to appraise the literature than anything else. I fancy one must have lived up to the times to enjoy their literary flavor. It is far easier to go back, for we have, through our ancestors, through our traditions, through our historical studies, learned in a measure to throw off the present, and thus we can enter, in imagination, into a world where the railway, the telegraph, the penny post, and the household franchise, were unknown and undreamed of. One can sit down with Samuel Johnson, or with Addison, or with Milton, and feel in what a world they lived and worked.

We can go back further still, to the troubled life of Dante or the cloister of St. Bernard, or even to the classic times of Greece or Rome. But in the hundred years that had elapsed since I had known the world, first had come a cataclysm sweeping away the old foundations and much that had been reared on them, and from these had gradually emerged a new society which I had been only a week engaged in studying. No longer were the prizes of life held by the few through inheritance, or snatched by energy, by business talent, by unscrupulous rapacity, or by subtle craft. No more startling rises and falls in social position, no more apparently respectable people drifting into crime, on the pressure of fierce temptation arising from opportunities which no longer were given, and the precariousness of a position which seemed to depend entirely on money. Mr. Oliphant reminded me that a crusader of the twelfth century, a feudal lord of the thirteenth, a border raider of the fifteenth, and a buccaneer of the sixteenth, would have thought our nineteenth century tame and uneventful, for in it law was mightier than the sword, and violence was put down by the stronger hand of the policeman. To ourselves our own times will always be interesting, and to photograph ourselves in our habit as we live must always be a pleasing spectacle to the living generation. So far, however, as I am able to judge, and I do not pretend to be anything but an amateur, or a dillitante (sic), or any other word that connotes my insufficient knowledge of art, I thought the nineteenth century newspapers, poetry and novels, were better and, to me, more interesting than those of the future. Mr. Oliphant regretted I had not time to study history and science, which he said I should find had made great advances. He also felt now that if I lived longer with the post-nati, I should like the other outcomes of their spirit, better too. I completely gave in as to music. I was not so sure as to painting. Humor I thought was much less developed than in my own time. There were far fewer absurd people in the world, and there was not the same ridiculous difference between our aims and our accomplishments, between a man’s estimate of himself, and that which other people form of him that amuses lookers-on now-a-days. There was, of course, the thoughtless laughter of children in abundance, and the high spirits of youth, but that subtle quality of humor, that consoling spirit that has softened the disparities of life, has soothed the sorrows and the disillusions of the nineteenth century was very slightly apparent in such intercourse as I had with my successors. Some of the best people of the world in all ages have had little or no sense of humor. I think I was especially drawn to Mr. Oliphant because with him it was stronger than with others whom I met.

And how did my new friends look on me? Kindly enough, but with some pity that I had been placed in such a barbarous age. Yet this barbarous age contained in it the germs of all that had been accomplished afterwards. It was the beginning of the age of conscious evolution. Before my day the race had stumbled forward, fighting blindly, struggling manfully for life. In common with thousands, nay with tens-of-thousands, I had entered the epoch of consciousness, the open-eyed, dignified manhood of humanity. We had power and passion, we only paused for knowledge, so as to apply these to the good and happiness of all. I looked back, and I saw the beginning of much that had been evolved in my own mind, and in the minds of others. I, myself, had done something, not much, but still somewhat towards those changes that others had worked more efficiently under more favorable circumstances to bring about.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30