|The Dorset Farm Labourer Past and Present.|
'The Dorsetshire Labourer' is an essay by Thomas Hardy that first appeared in vol. II of Longman's Magazine, in July 1883 (the following volume of Longman's Magazine contained an article by Richard Jefferies - 'The Wiltshire Labourer', which may make for an interesting contrast). In 1884 it was published as 'The Dorset Farm Labourer Past and Present' by the Dorset Agricultural Workers' Union.
In the mid-19th Century agricultural workers made up approximately 20% of the labouring work force, however with the advancement of industrialisation this number dwindled, and by the turn of the 20th Century the number had halved. Dorset was then one of the poorest and least industrialised areas of England and the conditions in which workers lived and laboured were very poor. In 'The Dorsetshire Labourer' Hardy describes the reality of rural life towards the end of the 19th Century, as well as offering a defence of it's labourers. He begins by writing of the nickname agricultural workers were given - "Hodge", like that of "Paddy" for Irish men, or "Sambo" for plantation slaves in America. It was a derogatory nickname, which John Dent (in 'The present condition of the English agricultural labourer', 1871) defines as meaning,
... unimaginative, ill-clothed, ill-educated, ill-paid, ignorant of all that is taking place beyond his own village, dissatisfied with his position and yet without energy or effort to improve it.
Hardy writes on 'Hodge',
This supposed real but highly conventional Hodge is a degraded being of uncouth manner and aspect, stolid understanding, and snail-like movement. His speech is such a chaotic corruption of regular language that few persons of progressive aims consider it worth while to enquire what views, if any, of life, of nature, or of society, are conveyed in these utterances. Hodge hangs his head or looks sheepish when spoken to, and thinks Lunnon a place paved with gold. Misery and fever lurk in his cottage, while, to paraphrase the words of a recent writer on the labouring classes, in his future there are only the workhouse and the grave. He hardly dares to think at all. He has few thoughts of joy, and little hope of rest. His life slopes into a darkness not 'quieted by hope.'
Getting to really know 'Hodge', however, presents a different story: Hardy imagines a London gentlemen spending time with 'Hodge', up to six months in fact, and
Six months pass, and our gentleman leaves the cottage, bidding his friends good-bye with genuine regret. The great change in his perception is that Hodge, the dull, unvarying, joyless one, has ceased to exist for him. He has become disintegrated into a number of dissimilar fellow-creatures, men of many minds, infinite in difference; some happy, many serene, a few depressed; some clever, even to genius, some stupid, some wanton, some austere; some mutely Miltonic, some Cromwellian; into men who have private views of each other, as he has of his friends; who applaud or condemn each other; amuse or sadden themselves by the contemplation of each other's foibles or vices; and each of whom walks in his own way the road to dusty death. Dick the carter, Bob the shepherd, and Sam the ploughman, are, it is true, alike in the narrowness of their means and their general open-air life; but they cannot be rolled together again into such a Hodge as he dreamt of, by any possible enchantment. And should time and distance render an abstract being, representing the field labourer, possible again to the mind of the inquirer (a questionable possibility) he will find that the Hodge of current conception no longer sums up the capacities of the class so defined.
These ways of life, thought of often as harsh, are difficult to assess for the outsider: as Hardy notes,
The happiness of a class can rarely be estimated aright by philosophers who look down upon that class from the Olympian heights of society. Nothing, for instance, is more common than for some philanthropic lady to burst in upon a family, be struck by the apparent squalor of the scene, and to straightway mark down that household in her note-book as a frightful example of the misery of the labouring classes. There are two distinct probabilities of error in forming any such estimate. The first is that the apparent squalor is no squalor at all. I am credibly informed that the conclusion is nearly always based on colour. A cottage in which the walls, the furniture, and the dress of the inmates reflect the brighter rays of the solar spectrum is read by these amiable visitors as a cleanly, happy home while one whose prevailing hue happens to be dingy russet, or a quaint old leather tint, or any of the numerous varieties of mud colour, is thought necessarily the abode of filth and Giant Despair. 'I always kip a white apron behind the door to slip on when the gentlefolk knock, for if so be they see a white apron they think ye be dane,' said an honest woman one day, whose bedroom floors could have been scraped with as much advantage as a pigeon-loft; but who, by a judicious use of high lights, shone as a pattern of neatness in her patrons' eyes.
True poverty, he writes, is hard to detect as it "is constantly trying to be decent, and one of the clearest signs of deserving poverty is the effort it makes to appear otherwise by scrupulous neatness".
Hardy then goes on to describe the difficult conditions for the Dorsetshire farm labourer, especially when these labourers have been laid off (the descriptions hark back to Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, 1874, and the hash life of Gabriel Oak when he lost his flock).
To see the Dorset labourer at his worst and saddest time, he should be viewed when attending a wet hiring-fair at Candlemas, in search of a new master. His natural cheerfulness bravely struggles against the weather and the incertitude; but as the day passes on, and his clothes get wet through, and he is still unhired, there does appear a factitiousness in the smile which, with a self-repressing mannerliness hardly to be found among any other class, he yet has ready when he encounters and talks with friends who have been more fortunate. In youth and manhood, this disappointment occurs but seldom; but at threescore and over, it is frequently the lot of those who have no sons and daughters to fall back upon, or whose children are ingrates, or far away.
He writes on women's labour in the farms of Dorset too, and on how depopulation has begun to have an effect on the old ways of life:
The occupants who formed the back-bone of the village life have to seek refuge in the boroughs. This process, which is designated by statisticians as 'the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns,' is really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced. The poignant regret of those who are thus obliged to forsake the old nest can only be realised by people who have witnessed it -- concealed as it often is under a mask of indifference.Furthermore,
They have become shrewder and sharper men of the world, and have learnt how to hold their own with firmness and judgement. Whenever the habitually-removing man comes into contact with one of the old-fashioned stationary sort, who are still to be found, it is impossible not to perceive that the former is much more wide awake than his fellow-worker, astonishing him with stories of the wide world comprised in a twenty-mile radius from their homes. They are also losing their peculiarities as a class; hence the humorous simplicity which formerly characterised the men and the unsophisticated modesty of the women are rapidly disappearing or lessening, under the constant attrition of lives mildly approximating to those of workers in a manufacturing town. It is the common remark of villagers immediately above the labouring class, who know the latter well as personal acquaintances, that 'there are no nice homely workfolk now as there used to be.' There may be, and is, some exaggeration in this, but it is only natural that, now different districts of them are shaken together once a year and redistributed, like a shuffled pack of cards, they have ceased to be so local in feeling or manner as formerly, and have entered on the condition of inter-social citizens, 'whose city stretches the whole county over.Finally Hardy concludes,
A reason frequently advanced for dismissing these families from the villages where they have lived for centuries is that it is done in the interests of morality; and it is quite true that some of the 'liviers' (as these half-independent villagers used to be called) were not always shining examples of churchgoing, temperance, and quiet walking. But a natural tendency to evil, which develops to unlawful action when excited by contact with others like-minded, would often have remained latent amid the simple isolated experiences of a village life. The cause of morality cannot be served by compelling a population hitherto evenly distributed over the country to concentrate in a few towns, with the inevitable results of overcrowding and want of regular employment. But the question of the Dorset cottager here merges in that of all the houseless and landless poor, and the vast topic of the Rights of Man, to consider which is beyond the scope of a merely descriptive article.
The changes, Hardy argued, were inevitable:
It is only the old story that progress and picturesqueness do not harmonise. They are losing their individuality, but they are widening the range of their ideas, and gaining in freedom. It is too much to expect them to remain stagnant and old-fashioned for the pleasure of romantic spectators.
Nevertheless, this change brings about an alienation: "a result of this increasing nomadic habit of the labourer is naturally a less intimate and kindly relation with the land he tills than existed before enlightenment enabled him to rise above the condition of a serf who lived and died on a particular plot, like a tree." The old ways, in short, were dying out rapidly.
This essay makes for an interesting read as it provides Hardy's analysis of the Dorset he loved and portrayed in much of his fiction. Nevertheless, why exactly I don't know, I found it a rather punishing read. It is hard, it's easy (I thought) to stumble over it, and it could be at times a rather flat read (I had a similar experience in reading his 'Candour in English Literature'. Even so it will no doubt be one I will refer back to.
This was my 7th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week, another essay - 'A Rural Tyrant' by Samuel Johnson.