George Eliot on leisure and newfangled ways

My last Adam Bede post, amazing to get so much out of a book that I did not like — a tribute of a kind, I suppose, to George Eliot. Indeed, I quite loved this absurd and nostalgic and rather crochety rant on old ways and new. The most telling sentence out of the whole is

Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in.

God forbid eager thoughts.

But really, the whole should be read. It’s interesting, this looking back from 1859 to the glory days of a country village in 1799, how much of it echoes in tone with what we still hear when people talk about the slower pace of life in ‘the old days’. What I’m starting to feel maybe just a bit, as I get older. Slow down I say. Not that I will ever condemn amusement, excursion-trains, art museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels, scientific theorizing or cursory peeps through microscopes. Still, now more than ever I mean to finish Raymond Williams on the City and Country, because that chapter I used to teach was all about this. It’s quite hilarious though.

Surely all other leisure is hurry compared with a sunny walk through the fields from “afternoon church”–as such walks used to be in those old leisurely times, when the boat, gliding sleepily along the canal, was the newest locomotive wonder; when Sunday books had most of them old brown-leather covers, and opened with remarkable precision always in one place. Leisure is gone–gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow wagons, and the pedlars, who brought bargains to the door on sunny afternoons. Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager now–eager for amusement; prone to excursion-trains, art museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels; prone even to scientific theorizing and cursory peeps through microscopes. Old Leisure was quite a different personage. He only read one newspaper, innocent of leaders, and was free from that periodicity of sensations which we call post-time. He was a contemplative, rather stout gentleman, of excellent digestion; of quiet perceptions, undiseased by hypothesis; happy in his inability to know the causes of things, preferring the things themselves. He lived chiefly in the country, among pleasant seats and homesteads, and was fond of sauntering by the fruit-tree wall and scenting the apricots when they were warmed by the morning sunshine, or of sheltering himself under the orchard boughs at noon, when the summer pears were falling. He knew nothing of weekday services, and thought none the worse of the Sunday sermon if it allowed him to sleep from the text to the blessing; liking the afternoon service best, because the prayers were the shortest, and not ashamed to say so; for he had an easy, jolly conscience, broad-backed like himself, and able to carry a great deal of beer or port-wine, not being made squeamish by doubts and qualms and lofty aspirations. Life was not a task to him, but a sinecure. He fingered the guineas in his pocket, and ate his dinners, and slept the sleep of the irresponsible, for had he not kept up his character by going to church on the Sunday afternoons?

Fine old Leisure! Do not be severe upon him, and judge him by our modern standard. He never went to Exeter Hall, or heard a popular preacher, or read Tracts for the Times or Sartor Resartus.

May we all sleep the sleep of the irresponsible.

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