|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
A thesis presented to the London School of Economics, University of London,
The author is now Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at Kent University, England, and has given permission for this previously unpublished thesis to be published on the IVU website. The ownership and copyright remain hers and no part of this thesis may be used elsewhere without her express permission.
CHAPTER SIX: THE LATE NINETEENTH AND EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURIES.
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The simple life is a concept with a long and complex history, looking back as it does to classical times, and to the continuing influence through the centuries of the stoic and pastoral ideals. (1) The country had long been seen as the home of simple virtue and true values in contrast to the false glitter of the city and of society; and the stoic tradition has similarly long roots to the belief that true independence and freedom are to be achieved through reducing one's material wants. The stoic theme is certainly present in the earlier periods of nineteenth-century vegetarianism; and J.E.B. Mayor represents in the later the continuation of this older tradition of simplification. (2) The simple life is essentially a sophisticated concept that only emerges out of conditions of considerable elaboration and a self-conscious experience of society; and like the natural life, it depends upon the construction of a countervailing image whose perversion or loss explains the current unsatisfactory state. In the late nineteenth century, the idea of the simple life achieved a new potency, and it became particularly closely connected with the idealisation of nature.
'Simplify, simplify, simplify' had been Thoreau's cry, and the image of his simple and independent life at Walden Pond was to evoke a deep response in the period. Life seemed to be increasingly complicated and encumbered, in pursuit of ends that seemed artificial and out of touch with nature. The very oppression of material possessions and demands stifled the life of the spirit: 'The endless distraction of material cares, the endless temptation of material pleasures, inevitably has the effect of paralysing the great free life of the affections and of the soul'. (3) At the heart of this is a sense of civilisation or society as a burden, oppressing the natural man, denying the valuable parts of life, and imposing false needs. (4) Rix in an address delivered on a country excursion of the Fellowship castigated the 'rivalry of accumulation' and possessions that possess us. (5) Carpenter also had dreamed of a future time when man will be in a proper relationship to material possessions and will 'use them, instead of them using him’. (6) The cities seemed to close in with their dustiness and enervation:
The simple life could free people from this social servitude; and the literature is shot through with the language of release, of freedom, of throwing off. In Carpenter this is quite literally a throwing off of clothes and a throwing open of windows. Man should 'emerge from houses and all his other hiding places' (8) and follow instead 'the life of the open air, familiarity with wind and waves, clean and pure food, companionship with the animals'. (9) Jupp reiterates this theme of claustrophobia:
This sense of freedom found direct expression in their clothes and attitudes to the body, (11) and also in their buildings. There is an architecture of the simple life - usually of wooden construction, raised off the ground, with open-work doors and windows that allow a through draught, and with wide verandas sometimes used for open-air sleeping. Light, air and a sense of living in the open were the aims. (12) A gypsy imagery recurs, Semple lectured from a caravan; Rix speaks of how our childhood dreams of wandering the land in a gypsy van became impossible in adulthood because of the 'millstone of comfort'. (13) 'The wind on the heath' from Borrow's Lavengro, and Emerson’s 'hitch your wagon to a star' were favourite quotations.
The simple life was also seen to be a fairer and more decent one in that it avoided the exploitation of others, whether servants or more distant drudges. For socialists like the Salts this was an important aspect. Seed Time denounces the sweated labour and punishing shop hours that lay behind the provision of luxury goods. At a time when all middle-class and most lower-middle-class homes had servants, to perform domestic labour and do for oneself was a revolutionary act. Family friends were horrified when they heard of Kate Salt, the daughter of an Eton house master, living in a labourer's cottage and working with her hands to clean and cook. Under the influence of Ruskinian ideas, reinforced by Morris, manual labour came no longer to be regarded as degrading; and for middle-class intellectuals, doing for yourself represented real engagement with life and active participation, rather than endless thinking and talking.
Part of the appeal of the simple life was aesthetic. It was a reaction against the High Victorian interior, and what Edith Lees in Seed Time calls 'the curse of villadom' and the 'knick-knack house' whose only purpose seemed to be the necessity of the constant attention of servants. (14) The nineteenth century had seen an explosion in production, especially in cheap versions of luxury trade objects, epitomised in Birmingham ware, and the spread of such objects into the houses of the middle and lower-middle classes. From Morris onwards grows the aesthetic distaste for what was seen as the fussiness of such machine ornament, and a new aesthetic was proposed, one that found positive beauty in the simple and the utilitarian. With this went a hatred of the machine, both as the cause of the destruction of the simple traditional society that they believed had endured before greed and rapacity had produced the industrial age, and for its substitution of a hard mechanical surface and effulgence of ornament for the subtle surface and inherent 'rightness' of goods made by hand. This aesthetic ideal, exemplified most clearly in the Arts and Crafts movement, had an important moral dimension that relates directly to the simple life - though it also has another, slightly more independent, existence as a style in itself. Art and Crafts artefacts were frequently very expensive - Morris exemplifies this – calling into question claims to economic simplicity and subsistence.
This brings us to two questions concerning the simple life. The first is who was able to live it; and the second is the issue of asceticism. Those who actively lived the dream of the simple life rarely did so on the basis of self-sufficiency. Jupp was able to realise his dream of a wooden hut in the Surrey Hills through giving addresses and preaching. Carpenter came from a moneyed background, and could afford to travel to Italy and Ceylon. Salt in his Company I Have Kept frankly acknowledges the 'company that has kept me'. (15) Middle-class literary occupations - then as today - offered a convenient means of earning a living while living a rural existence. It was Shaw who, typically, pointed out that he had to marry money in order to live the simple life.
This should not lead us, however, to dismiss the popular impact of the appeal of the simple life. The vegetarians drew strikingly from the lower middle class, - clerks, shop assistants, teachers - a class placed in an ambivalent position, between the established middle class, for who they worked and whose manners and values they tried to follow, and the working class, from which many had only recently risen. The maintenance of proper middle-class standards and the fear of working-class contamination was a constant concern, and in this, style of life played an important part. Emphasis was placed on keeping up appearances and on the demands of respectability and of the neighbours. It was against these strains that the lower-middle-class simple-lifers, socialists and progressivists revolted. (16) Rather than accept the aspiration of integration into bourgeois capitalism, they rejected all of it, or as much as the need to earn a living allowed. For these groups it was a question of outings, reading, perhaps some arrangement of domestic life according to arts-and-crafts principles, or diet according to vegetarian ones. The simple life here offered a rival moral aesthetic that spoke to their condition. It helped sustain the deviant culture that supported socialism; it marked you apart and gave a dignity and significance to a narrow income and plainness of life.
This brings us to the second question, which is the vein of secular puritanism that runs through the simple life. On the issue of asceticism itself, the simple life is ambiguous. One conception is of ridding the self of the false clutter and ugliness of modern life so as to release oneself for real enjoyment, real beauty and the satisfaction of real needs. Semple believed that the elimination of non-essentials would leave life free for leisure, music, self-cultivation. (17) Similarly the simplified aesthetic of the arts and crafts movement aimed at a deeper and more lasting beauty that would embrace and illumine the experience of daily life. The impact of the beauty of the world and the delight in it are central, for example, to Redfern's and Jupp's response to the problem of meaning. Closely related, but subtly different, however, is the approach that seeks austerity in the simple life. Jupp describes Thoreau as one who 'reduced life to its lowest terms in things pertaining to the body, that he might raise it to its highest possibilities, in things of the mind and heart'. (18) The approach is perhaps more apparent in the voices of critics than overtly. Thus Rix repudiates the doctrine of a 'gaunt, unhallowed life', which incidentally, he attributes to Thoreau and Carpenter. (19) Salt was clearly aware of the unattractive aspect of this austerity and denied that the simple life or the vegetarianism that went with it involved any: 'niggardly parsimony or churlish asceticism. On the contrary, it is quite compatible with the most open minded liberality, and frankest cheerfulness'. (20) The strain however was clearly there, and also relates, as we shall see, to asceticism in other fields.
The idealisation of nature was a central element in the simple life. The topic of the changing perceptions of nature is a difficult one; like all studies of popular mentalities, its subject matter is elusive, indicated only episodically and too often slanted towards certain literary and self-conscious groups.
The greater leisure and the growth in public transport had made much wider access to the country possible, and the development of the bicycle brought a relatively cheap and independent form of transport within the reach of millions. Cycling in this period is particularly associated with freedom and with the exploration of the countryside.
The experience of urban life itself generated a different attitude to nature, (23) for the contrasting clarity with which nature now stood out endowed it with a special significance. It became the mirror image of all the hatred of city and industrial life. Both the simple life and back to nature movements are shot through with the sense of the shabbiness and meanness of urban life, and in this there is a particular loathing of the commercial spirit. (24) Many sought release from the claustrophobia, both physical and emotional, of urban life in the countryside. Redfern describes the misery of his life as a draper's assistant imprisoned in the shop for up to ten hours a day; rejecting orthodox religion, he spent his Sundays walking on the hills where: 'the larks rose from the gorse-bright heath'. (25) Through reading the Clarion he came into contact with the ideas of Morris and Richard Jeffries' The Story of My Heart made a great impact. Nature as a salve for the distortions and ugliness of industrial society was strongly felt among the vegetarian socialists, whose socialism always contained an anti-industrial bias: in this, of course, they draw on the older tradition of the moral, aesthetic and social criticism of industrialisation.
In the Clarion the love of nature is explicitly linked with social criticism, and the destruction of nature with wider capitalist exploitation. (26) Access to the country and to the mountains becomes part of a wider democratic appeal for access to things of real worth as against the right of property and of an exploiting class who lived off the truncated lives of the majority.
Contact with nature often involved a return to the land. The influence of Henry George and of land reform generally was widely felt in the period. (27) The idea of land reform was not exclusively socialist, and indeed many socialists saw it as retrogressive, leading to an entrenchment of private property; however, the return of the land to the people and the encouragement of small holdings and of self sufficiency did have a wide appeal in the context of the simple life. Schemes for the founding of vegetarian land colonies appear from the late 1870s onwards. (28)
The impact of Surrey on Londoner~ was particularly strong in this period. Now the most abused of counties, it was in the 1880s still rural and relatively impoverished, and on its neglected heathlands still quite wild. With the trains, there was easy access from London and for people like Jupp seeking contact with nature, (29) or for those on the Fellowship or Vegetarian Society rambles, the Surrey Hills offered relief from urban life. A cycling group reported in the Dietetic Reformer:
It was very much the world of Mr. Polly.
The return to nature could also be achieved by means of the country cottage. Prom the eighties and the nineties the idea particularly took root among intellectuals and a number in these radical circles took cottages as retreats. (31) In their idea of the cottage, they were influenced by the wider late- nineteenth century romanticisation of rural life. At its most romantic, with overhanging thatch, heavy with roses and with the lushness of surrounding greenery, it is found in countless late-nineteenth-century water colours, here the realities of life in a cottage, the damp, the stench, the poverty, were overlooked in favour of the cottage as glimpsed on a warm afternoon from the seat of a bicycle. Though they sought unspoilt nature and rural life, their arrival to take cottages or to seek out these qualities marks the beginnings of their decline into self-conscious preservation.
In this cult of nature a particular value was placed on the wilderness and on the sense of the last wild places. The wildness and freedom of the mountain landscape had particular power for this generation - and for subsequent ones - and walking and climbing grew in popular appeal. (32) Salt had little time for the athletic traditions of the rock climbers and some of the alpenists; what he found in mountain scenery was 'that intellectual sympathy with untamed and primitive Nature which our civilisation threatens to destroy. A mountain is something more than just a thing to climb'. (33) Contact with the mountains enriches human feelings and: 'if the mountains can teach us to feel more deeply, they can also help us more effectively to think'. (34) A day in the mountains and:
This understanding of nature had a strongly poetic element. With the rise of an increasingly scientific and professional approach to the study of nature, a separation occurred out of which developed an approach in which observation is infused with a deeper poetic understanding of the natural world. Salt, adopting a term used of Thoreau, called these writers the 'poet naturalists' of which the chief were Thoreau, Jeffries and Hudson, all popular writers of the period. (36) Salt saw the poet-naturalist as one who saw nature 'through the medium of human aspiration', (37) and the upsurge of concern with nature as a source of meaning in the eighties and particularly nineties represents the return of the themes of the first Romantic period, though this time in ways that reached much wider sections of society. The Lakeland poets, whose works have always been a reference point for such perceptions, enjoyed a resurgence of popularity; and in 1886 the Shelley Society was founded by, among others, F.J. Furnival (38) and with Shaw, Salt and Axon among its leading members. (39) It is symptomatic of the concerns of the period and their interrelationships that this new interest in Shelley should go with a repudiation of the 'ineffectual angel' image and an assertion instead of the central importance of his radicalism, feminism, egalitarianism - and, with them, his vegetarianism.