You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 4

Feudal Strain?

“EARNING a living.” That phrase began to have a dim menace for him some time before his mother died.

“You’ll have to earn your living, you know, when I’m gone,” his mother would say when he was getting her to do his homework for him. Mixing up the idea of lessons, sufficiently disagreeable in themselves when you still had mother to help you, with earning a living when her help would be no longer available, didn’t make the prospect more palatable. He averted his attention from it as long as he could.

George Orwell, an English Trotskyist writer with enormous feet, who fought very valiantly in Spain, recently made a study of the literature consumed by the English and American young at the close of their tadpole days. He produced generalisations about it, which I have partially forgotten, and so I do not think it is any breach of the undertaking I have made to keep ideas completely out of this book, if I refer to one observation of his that has stuck in my mind, because it will be very helpful in framing the adolescence of Edward Albert in its proper setting,

His point was that, by the showing of this literature, in matters of sex and business alike, either the young American is precocious or the young Briton is retarded. That retardation is not altogether disadvantageous. Because of the postponement of those adult preoccupations the British boys and girls get on with their school work with easier minds, and are found to be sounder and further advanced in their schooling than Americans of the same age. This cannot be due to any profound difference in race. The blood of the American population is hardly more mongrelised than the British. Then why?

I was reflecting on this problem; albeit sternly resolved to put nothing about it into this story, but just for my own amusement, when it dawned upon me that though Edward Albert was born in the back streets of Camden Town in that melting-pot of humanity called London, both his mother and his father had lived, they and their progenitors, in a feudal world, in a feudal world from whose remote interferences the thirteen colonies escaped, finally and emphatically, a century and a half ago. What would seem strange about him to an American reader is just that difference. Feudal! I had the clue. Generalisations evaporate at this word and fact resumes its sway.

Mrs Tewler’s mother was born in the shires, under the shadow of a lord of the manor, and she was brought up, so to speak, bone-feudal. The Baptist connection was due to the fact that Dickybird was a Backslider from the Particular Baptists of Camden Town. His grandfather had found religion there, but Dickybird had never become a hall member by immersion, and the couple would probably have drifted back to the Anglican Communion if it had not been for his conspicuous inability to “find his place” in his prayer book. She was ashamed of him. The Baptists were easier.

Except for that one touch of dissent, Richard Tewler’s tradition was just as feudal as his wife’s. He was a Cockney craftsman of the fourth generation, and his Firm had been Royal Warrant Holders since Royal Warrant Holding began. The Royal Arms and “By Appointment to his Majesty,” headed their bills. His grandfather and his father had both been with Colebrook and Mahogany all their lives, and they would as soon have thought of leaving the Firm, as the Firm would have thought of dismissing them. Colebrook and Mahogany pensioned off their old hands, helped them with their domestic difficulties, took an interest in their children, as a matter of course.

Now this feudalism which ramifies to this day through the British social structure and gives its literature and social habits and distinctions that peculiar affectation of high unspoken values which so baffles and irritates Americans, was the underlying cause why our hero, instead of rushing forward, like a young American or a young Jew or a young barbarian, to embrace and wallow in his adolescence, advanced upon it, so to speak back foremost, pretending as far as possible to himself and the world at large that it really wasn’t there, and that it was not of the slightest consequence even if it was.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30