1810 was not quite the blackest period, from the British point of view, of the Napoleonic War, but it was nearly the blackest. It perhaps corresponded to 1941 in the present war. Britain was completely isolated, its commerce barred from every European port by the Berlin decrees. Italy, Spain, Prussia, Denmark, Switzerland and the Low Countries had all been subjugated. Austria was in alliance with France. Russia was also in an uneasy agreement with France, but it was known that Napoleon intended to invade Russia shortly. The United States, though not yet in the war, was openly hostile to Britain. There was no visible cause for hope, except the revolt in Spain, which had once again given Britain a foothold on the continent and opened the South American countries to British trade. It is therefore interesting to observe the tone of voice in which the Quarterly Review—a conservative paper which emphatically supported the war—speaks about France and about Napoleon at this desperate moment.
Here is the Quarterly on the alleged war-making propensities of the French people. It is reviewing a pamphlet by a Mr Walsh, an American who had just returned from France:
|We doubt the continued action of those military propensities which Mr Walsh ascribes to the French people. Without at all questioning the lively picture which he has drawn of the exultation excited amongst the squalid and famished inhabitants of Paris at the intelligence of every fresh triumph of their armies, we may venture to observe that such exultation is, everywhere, the usual concomitant of such events; that the gratification of national vanity is something, and that the festivities which victory brings with it may afford a pleasing dissipation to wretches who are perfectly free from any feelings of ambition. Our belief indeed is, that those feelings are, at present, nearly confined to the breast of the great conqueror; and that amongst his subjects, we may almost say among his officers and armies, the universal wish is for PEACE.|
Compare this with the utterances of Lord Vansittart, or, indeed, of the great part of the press. The same article contains several tributes to the military genius of Napoleon. But the thing I find most impressive is that this year’s issue of the Quarterly contains numerous reviews of recently published French books—and they are careful, serious reviews, not different in tone from the rest of its articles. There is, for instance, an article of about 9,000 words on the publication of the French scientific body known as the Société d’Arcueil. The French scientists, Gay-Lussac, Laplace and the rest of them, are treated with the utmost respect, and given their ‘Monsieur’ every time. From reading this article it would be impossible to discover that there was a war on.
Can you imagine current German books being reviewed in the British press during the present war? No, I don’t think you can. I do not, indeed, remember hearing the name of a single book published in Germany throughout the war. And if a contemporary German book did get mentioned in the press, it would almost certainly be misrepresented in some way. Looking through the reviews of French books in the Quarterly, I note that only when they are on directly political subjects does any propaganda creep in, and even then it is extremely mild by our standards. As for art, literature and science, their international character is taken for granted. And yet, I suppose, Britain was fighting for existence in the Napoleonic War just as surely as in this one, and relative to the populations involved the war was not much less bloody or exhausting.
The tone of the book is sufficiently indicated by the sentence: ‘Papa,’ said Lucy (Lucy was aged nine, by the way), ‘may we say some verses about mankind having bad hearts?’ And, of course, Papa is only too willing, and out come the verses, all correctly memorized. Or here is Mrs Fairchild, telling the children how when she herself was a child she disobeyed orders by picking cherries in company with the servant girl:
Nanny was given up to her mother to be flogged; and I was shut up in the dark room, where I was to be kept several days upon bread and water. At the end of three days my aunts sent for me, and talked to me for a long time.
‘You broke the Fourth Commandment,’ said my Aunt Penelope, ‘which is, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”: and you broke the Fifth, which is, “Honour your parents”. . . . You broke the Eighth, too, which is, “Thou shalt not steal”.’ ‘Besides,’ said my Aunt Grace, ‘the shame and disgrace of climbing trees in such low company, after all the care and pains we have taken with you, and the delicate manner in which we have reared you.’
The whole book is in this vein, with a long prayer at the end of every chapter, and innumerable hymns and verses from the Bible interspersed through the text. But its chief feature is the fearful visitations from Heaven which fall upon the children whenever they misbehave themselves. If they swing in the swing without leave they fall out and break several teeth: if they forget to say their prayers they fall into the trough of pig-swill; the theft of a few damsons is punished by an attack of pneumonia and narrow escape from death. On one occasion Mr Fairchild catches his children quarrelling. After the usual flogging, he takes them for a long walk to see the rotting body of a murderer hanging on a gibbet—the result, as he points out, of a quarrel between two brothers.
A curious and interesting feature of the book is that the Fairchild children, reared upon these stern principles, seem to be rather exceptionally untrustworthy. As soon as their parents’ backs are turned they invariably misbehave themselves, which suggests that flogging and bread and water are not a very satisfactory treatment after all. It is worth recording, by the way, that the author, Mrs Sherwood, brought up several children, and at any rate they did not actually die under her ministrations.