Dora B. Montefiore 1901
Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. V No. 11 November 1901, pp. 328-322;
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
HTML Markup: Brian Reid.
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The Daily News has lately opened its pages to a correspondence started in reply to some suggestive letters signed “Nym,” having for their title “About University Settlements. Do they make Headway?” The writer passes in review the various Settlements from Toynbee Hall to Canning Town, and while giving the dwellers in these Settlements every credit for the best intentions, and a real desire to study, and to help in the solving of our complex social problems, he shows that after all is done by those who have devoted themselves to the task of bringing sweetness and light to the dark places of our metropolis, scarcely a ripple can be detected on the surface of the thick stagnant pool of ignorance, hopelessness and helplessness in which our masses live and work and die. The reason of this, he considers, lies in the fact that “the settlers do not understand the nature of the work they have undertaken to do, or the people they wish to influence …. Moreover, the position taken up by the settler is generally that he with his scholastic traditions must be the guide, philosopher and friend of the people whose lives he wishes to brighten, whose conduct he wishes to improve.” “Nym” then goes on to show with perfect truth that “in all working-class districts there are always a number of men whom necessity and poverty have taught many a real lesson, and who are looked upon by their fellows as men of integrity and grit. These men, with their experience of the world, know more of the realities of life than all the knowledge that is bound up in the volumes of the Bodleian could have imparted to them …. These very men, however, are repelled by the methods of the Settlement. They can clearly see that no real effort is being made to break down class distinctions.” There is no doubt that this last sentence is the one in the whole indictment which carries the sting, and in “Nym’s” second letter he enlarges on the subject, and shows how rigidly class distinctions are upheld in the work of some, at least, of the Settlements. This is no doubt the weak point in all our educational and propagandist work, and the root of the evil lies in our hard-and-fast class distinctions made during the educational and impressionable years of life, distinctions which start each class totally ignorant of, and out of sympathy with, the lives, the work, the joys and sorrows of any other class. To explain exactly what I mean one has only to refer to a little book called “Heart,” translated from the Italian; it is the story of the life of an Italian schoolboy (the son of a leading barrister), who, with his younger brother, attends the public State school of the town in which they live. Delightfully human descriptions are given of the various boys attending the same school with whom the little Amicis associates in the comradeship of work and play which comes so easily and naturally at that age, but is so difficult in after life to attain, when habits have been formed and prejudices strengthened. The surroundings and homes of the engine-driver’s lad, of the bright little son of the wood and fuel merchant, who between the hours of study has to help in his father’s shop; and even of the convict’s son, who lives with his sorrowing mother a life of self-repression and of fear, are all faithfully and sympathetically described from boyish recollections, whilst we are shown how wise, large-hearted parents are able just through this very mixing of classes in ductile youth to develop and strengthen sympathy and, understanding between man and man in a way that would be impossible under any other circumstances.
Those schoolboys who had once sat on the same form, learnt the same lessons side by side, and had settled in play hours their schoolboy differences in summary schoolboy fashion, would never meet in after-life as utter strangers, having everything to learn about each other, as do the Board-school boy and the Public-school boy in England, although these possess, very likely, equal longings to understand and to help, and an equal sense of the hopelessness of finding a clue which will lead from surface differences to the underlying synthesis. The same rule applies to the Universities, which are democratic in their constitution on the Continent and aristocratic in England; and there is little doubt but that this narrow exclusiveness in matters educational and social impoverishes our literature, our art, and our drama, which in countries of wider sympathies, educational and traditional, are distinctly enriched by the inspiration and aspiration of Demos.
England is the land of patronage, of help offered by the “superior” to the “inferior,” but we find very little brotherhood, very little real sense of the smallness of the underlying differences which exist between man and man; but an overpowering, all-pervading sense of the immensity of the gulf which divides the so-called intellectual from the proletariat. “Nym” might have gone a step further in his description of those leading working men in every working-class district, with whom the Settlements must get in contact if they would make their movement a living growing force—he might have told how many of these men were the superiors in intellect and in brain power to their would-be teachers; though these latter have the advantage of intellectual training and of traditional culture from the fact that England denies an education, in any real sense of the word, to the great mass of unprivileged. He might have told of the libraries collected by many of these men out of scanty earnings and at a cost of incredible personal privation; of an amount of real, not affected, culture and appreciation for all that is best in art and in literature, which may be found amongst their ranks, but which is too often hidden from the ordinary bourgeois perceptions by the existence of the hidebound caste feeling with which the latter approaches any study of men and women outside his own “set.”
One could not help being struck at the Paris Exhibition last year with the understanding and the glorification of labour through art that showed itself on every hand. In the sections devoted to mining and smelting industries the slave of labour in some of its most strenuous and brutal forms was depicted, with real artistic and human feeling, in the various stages of his work, one could see the long strain on the muscles, the sweat dropping, from the bare skin, as the miner, stripped of all but trousers, worked with pick in the gloom and sweltering heat. One noticed the great swollen hands, the animal jaw, the heavy, awkward clogs of the puddler, as he sat, lax and inert after exhausting, devitalising toil. The dullest aristocrat, the most unimaginative bourgeois could not fail to be initiated through his sympathies into the long drawn-out horror of lives which are passed in wresting a bare living out of the demon forces of steam, and iron, and coal; of fighting and subduing, with vibrating and thrilling human muscles and nerves, the inexorable, half-tamed forces of electricity, dynamite and steam.
One asks oneself as one gazes at the bowed backs, the stiffened muscles, the hanging, wearied limbs, and in many cases the arrested brain development, what can we give these men and women to compensate them for such toil, which helps to make richer and fuller the lives of others, our own amongst them? And when we look into their lives for an answer to the question, we find that their share of life is a shelter, often much inferior to that of our domesticated animals; food that is always scanty and of the coarsest, and sometimes fails altogether; and an education for their children which ceases at twelve or thirteen, at an age when that of the privileged is barely beginning; whilst when old age is reached, and working days are over, the workhouse, which is a prison in all but name, and the taint of pauperism, which poisons and degrades the closing days of their lives, is all that awaits them. What a field of inspiration lies here for the artist who wishes to interpret truthfully and vigorously the realities of his own life and times. What a theme for the jaded playwright, or novelist in search of a subject to be treated “sur le vif”! And we have only to turn to continental art, literature and drama to see how they may be treated. Hauptmann and Sudermann in Germany have moved audiences with their plays inspired by the daily life and struggles of the people in a way that even “San Toy” or “Charley’s Aunt” fail to accomplish in England.
Octave Mirbeau in France scored a similar success at the Théàtre de la Renaissance when “Les manvais Bergers,” a play in which the life and death of the factory worker, with its endlessly long hours, its exhausting drudgery, its half successful strikes, crushed out by the military in blood and tears, were all too dramatically represented in 1897. The part of Madeleine, the heroic daughter of the people, who dies at the barricade at her lover’s side, was taken by Madame Sarah Bernhardt, and the interpretation of the play so worked on the emotions and passions of the audience that the Government decided to withdraw it, after it had run little more than a week. Though a false note is once or twice struck, it is, on the whole, a loyal attempt to represent the soul and body-destroying uncertainty, as to what the morrow may bring forth, in which the day labourer is habitually plunged; an accident, an illness, an incautious word or action which may offend the employer—and man, wife and children may be driven from their homes and become beggars in the land where they have a right to bread and work and liberty. A fine contrast is drawn in the second act between the appeal to the crowd of Jean Roule, the young and ardent working-man leader, and that of Madeleine, who has finally to defend him from the attacks of his starving fellow workmen. His appeal is to their reason—and fails; hers is to their emotions, their hearts—and succeeds. It is true to life, but none the less to be deplored; and it may be part of the secret of the slowness with which the emancipation of the masses is being carried forward.
Another remarkable play by Bjornsen, the Norwegian novelist, already well known through translations of his novels to the English public, has of late years been produced, and well received, both in Paris and in Brussels. “Above the Power of Human Strength” is the strange name it bears, and stranger still is the idea to a modern audience of a drama divided into two parts, to be played on two successive evenings. Both parts deal with the life of the people, but the second, more especially, with the struggle of the workmen against their employers for justice and for ordinary human treatment. The realism introduced is poignant and convincing to a point that one involuntarily shrinks back at certain situations, and asks oneself if one has the right to sit as one among an audience to whom these revealed miseries come more as a piquant curiosity than as a throbbing ache. The contrast of the thin-chested, hollow-eyed hunger-crushed workmen introduced as a deputation from the strike into the sumptuously-furnished study of their employer, who, master of the situation, answers briefly and cynically, whilst he leisurely smokes his cigar, and, with the biting insolence of one who feels he holds in his hand all the trump cards, gibes and flouts the half-desperate wretches, is painfully full of force. But this is only an introduction to a far more strenuous demand on the nerves and the sympathies of the audience. Maddened by weeks of slow hunger, and with a brain exalted by a mysticism, half religious, half revolutionary, a poor woman in the village has killed herself and her two children, saying to those who spoke for the last time with her, “Something dreadful must happen in order that attention should be called to their pitiful position, and that the public conscience might be aroused.” The martyr spirit is ever contagious, and a young man of means and position, Elie Sang, who has come under the influence of an ex-pastor, now turned Labour leader, named Bratt, after giving away his fortune to keep the strike going, determines that the sacrifice of the young mother and children shall not be unfruitful, and that his life also shall be given in the cause of the people’s struggle for freedom. In a marvellous parting scene with his sister, who foresees disaster, be sets forth his belief that all life must have its roots in death, that Christianity only took a living hold on men’s hearts because its reputed founder died for his faith; that in nature the same law holds, and that out of death and destruction blossom life and health. He takes advantage of a gathering of capitalists at Holger’s castle, which stands on a hill overlooking the village, to undermine the rooms where the meeting of employers is to be held, and, disguised as a servant, he, by locking the doors and throwing the key into the river, prevents all means of exit to the trapped and fear-maddened capitalists, whilst he perishes with them in a culminating horror of destruction, noise and smoke. The various ways in which the doomed men meet their fate is depicted with all the genius of the northern realist, showing us those same men, who an hour before had been almost facetiously clinching tighter the iron screws of supply and demand of labour, in order to rivet firmer the fetters of their economic slaves, now losing, when face to face with a swift but merciful death, all human dignity and self-control; one moment turning on their host Holger, the next, hunting each other down like wild beasts; some in their desperation offering prayers, others bribes of gold in exchange for their worthless lives; one in abject, uncontrollable terror jumping from the balcony of the locked room, and thus meeting his fate a few moments before the others. One could not help contrasting the naked, ungovernable fear in the moment of supreme peril of the men nurtured in luxury and ease with the fatalistic, calm self-sacrifice of the miner and of the day labourer when the hour of danger, which in the very nature of their work ever threatens, becomes a terrible reality.
To sum up, it would seem as if the, life, joys, sorrow, and labour of the people were the newly inspiring note of all that is most vital and promising at the present moment in Continental art and literature. Millet at Barbazon, an obscure little French village, painting wrinkled old peasant women, in whose patient, wearied, furrowed countenances we may read, as in an ancient chronicle, the story of the oppressors who have for generations ground the faces of the poor; Zola, in the really interesting part of “Travail” which describes present day conditions in and around an iron foundry; Gorki in Russia, interpreting for us, with exquisite human sympathy, the psychology of the dock labourer, the tramp, the prostitute, and the “lapsed: and lost;” all the crowd of young sculptors and artists, not yet arrivé in Continental studios—all their best work, all their most potent inspiration is based on the life of the masses, the people whose lives they have shared during their years of study and of art training. If the, too often, dilettante settler in the East End could be tempted in the same way to break down class distinctions, and enter more into the life of the people, not only might the East End become more receptive to culture and light, but the settlers’ own lives also, touched by the magic wand of a new-born faith and inspiration for which art, literature and life itself are waiting, would be enriched a thousandfold, whilst their interpretation of what has till now been too often looked upon as “common and unclean” would strengthen the bonds of human brotherhood, and hasten forward the “New Order” to which the “Old” is all too slowly giving place.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.