Well, eons ago I promised to do a few proper book reviews and I find myself with a spare hour (before my mum comes around for a cuppa) so I thought I'd introduce you to the wonderful world of "home tracts". Now, if you've been reading this blog for a while and fancy starting a little collection of antique and vintage homemaking books, start with home tracts. First, because they're much, much, cheaper than cookbooks and housekeeping manuals, in fact I've never paid for than £3 for a tract. Secondly, many of the tracts are written with the working classes in mind, and unfortunately you get very little insight into the lives of working men and women from 19th century cookbooks, even Soyer's Shilling Cookery, which was intended as a manual for the working classes, contained recipes far out of their price range. Thirdly, they are often narrative based, modern day parables of thrift, cleanliness and prudence and the efficacy of white wash and home-grown parsley, and as such are very entertaining. However, I should warn you that this post is not merely a book review, but gets a little impassioned an political towards the end.
Many tracts were either given away or sold cheaply by non-conformist chapels and are very much a product of the Evangelical Revival. What we must remember about this time in Britain's religious history is that the non-conformists were responsible for the vast majority of 19th century social reform, they simply took the Christian notion of equality and brotherhood of man with much more seriousness than the established church, and the established political parties, and therefore were quite a radical bunch of old dears. Indeed, Roy Hattersley says that the fundamental norms and values of the Labour movement were built firmly on Methodist ideals and not socialist ideals, and I tend to agree with Roy, as he's a nice chap and a good social historian. So when we read these home tracts we see the writer giving a dignity and a sense of pride and equality to the working poor in the narrative. We also get the idea of former sins forgiven, a new life encouraged, ways of self improvement suggested: reading them is a little like reading simplified snippets of a Mrs Gaskell novel, therefore.
But before I rattle on any further, here's a snippet from the first story in Home Happiness, which I imagine was first published in the mid-19th century and is an absolute smasher of a tract. In it a good working man's housewife teaches her slatternly neighbour how to run a house.
Above everything, pray don't have a mess when Eben comes home. It's shameful how some women drive their husbands to the public house, as one may say, by having the place all dirt and litter and confusion, when a man comes home tired, of an evening, wanting a little comfort. Such women have a small right to complain of drunken husbands, seems to me.
Well, you could deconstruct this bit until the cows come home, couldn't you? I detect a waft of the temperance movement, which is as it should be. I'm reminded of the bit in George Eliot's Amos Barton where she describes the miners of North Warwickshire as being better paid than the poor curate but spending their money almost entirely on drink. Indeed, one or two Methodist factory and mine owners in my town formed social clubs, libraries and so on for their workers specifying sobriety as a form of membership to such clubs. What interests me most is that on both sides of my family my great-grandfathers were miners, and indeed alcoholics, and my maternal grandmother, and paternal grandfather told stories of real hardship, poverty and deprivation. However, the question we have to ask ourselves is this. Is it an act of empowerment to say to the woman that she could keep her husband away from the beer simply by keeping a tidy home? Or, is the tract blaming the slatternly wife for driving her husband towards the drink? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter, deconstruct away, gentle reader!
Now, most of the stories in the book have an urban setting. (Is it me or have the urban poor in this country been seen as "problem " for nearly 200 years now? If so it's about time we got sorted out.) However, there is one tale in the book which has a country setting, and as such is a good read for any fan of Larkrise to Candleford, as it acts as a mirror to the scenes of country poverty and resilience in Flora Thompson's great book. In it we again read a story of a rather exemplary country couple and their imprudent and weak-willed neighbours.
"I've a good deal of binding that must be done this week, Lucy; can't you do some?" asked James, one morning a short time after they were married. "not to-day; 'tis Hilton Fair, you know, and Jane Richards and I are going. You'll come too won't you?" "I can't spare the time - I'm all behind now; we were out so much last week - I think, Lucy, you might as well stay home. Ain't you going to make bread? We've had none but baker's loaves ever since we married, and I don't like that at all." "Nonsense, you are always bothering about the bread. Besides, if we go to the fair, we shan't want any bread in the house," said Lucy, laughing; "so, come along; the shoes will keep to tomorrow." Poor James stood shilly-shally. He knew he ought to stay at home. and do the work her had promised to finish; but Lucy pulled him by his curly hair, and told him that he looked so handsome that she should be quite proud of going to Hilton Fair with him; and just then Jane Richards, with her smart beau came up; and he was afraid of being laughed at, and being called a grubbing cobbler (his wife called hime so once, when he hestitated about going to a tea party at a public house); so he put away his tools, and dressed himself in his Sunday clothes, to go to the fair.
Oh dear, poor imprudent James talked into downing tools by his pleasure-seeking wife. Well, you'll not be surprised to know that no good comes from going to Hilton Fair. Jane Richards gets drunk and finds herself pregnant by her smart beau (a soldier who hot-foots it away once he's done the dirty deed) , James loses business, after getting a reputation for idleness, the family falls into poverty and "after six years, no-one could have believed that the squalid, ragged-looking Mrs Elliot, with her four dirty little children, was the smart pretty Lucy who boasted of her many sweethearts." The sensible, frugal couple meanwhile had "children who regularly attended Sunday-school. The eldest son and daughter had become teachers...The girls had all been taught useful sewing; and could cut out a shirt, or even a pair of trowsers..." and all the children were taught that "honest working people, with the fear of God in their eyes, are often better off than some of those above them in the world."
Of course, fifty years later Maud Pember Reeves would debate the fact that all the working poor needed to improve their lot was an ability to keep house and keep sober. In Round About a Pound a Week (not a religious tract, but a Fabian society report), she details that despite frugality, cleanliness and sobriety the labouring London poor (the lower working classes) were still unable to afford to buy very little but bread and jam to eat, and the health of their children showed the lack of meat, dairy and vegetables in their diets. Her work, and the fact that the majority of drafted soldiers in the first world war were under-height) forced the government of the 1920s into giving schoolchildren free milk. What interests me, of course, is how far Pember Reeves ideal of "the state as co-parent" has morphed into the state as rich uncle. Labour's attempts at curing social deprivation and child poverty have been solely monetary based, we throw money at the urban poor, but we forget that the deprivation they face is cultural and curing that cultural deprivation is going to cost more money than giving out benefits. The state wanders into our lives and hopes we're not naughty with the money, and hopes we don't become too bothersome, and doesn't tell us how to use it, because we're all individuals and the state doesn't want to impose moral values on its nieces and nephews.
But it's no surprise to me that Labour has forgotten its roots, it's rather afraid of the people of whom it was formed to serve, it cannot converse with them without moralising to them, and Labour doesn't want to moralise because y'know that's not what liberals do, good liberals just throw money at any given situation and don't ask questions, of either bankers or part-time drug dealers on sink estates. So it simply doesn't moralise at all, it prefers its (politically safe) giddy rich uncle status. However, we must see a clear vision from our government on what a good life, a good community is and should be. The post-war Labour government managed this, it wasn't afraid to talk about equality, morality and community and it put it's money where its mouth was, it had a clear vision of post-war Britian and it acted on that vision. The early social reformers, Evangelical tract writers and trade unionists had a clear vision of the capabilities and needs of the people they served, they moralised a-plenty and knew what a good life was and offered a firm choice to their intended membership/readership. This is what we so desperately need now, a clear, from the ground-up, vision of British community life, and how the individual is responsible for their part in forming a civil society. And to do this we have to learn from our social history, learn from the likes of the tract writers and Pember Reeves. We need to empower our populace through moral education. We need a moral New Deal because without it those last vestiges of British community life we love and value will begin to crumble.
Gentle reader forgive me, but this is my post has been my online response to the Fiona Pilkington case. Barwell is on my doorstep and I know it quite well and I can tell you it's not that rough. It's just a bit rough and quite ordinary. It's not a Leicester sink estate, let alone a London sink estate, yet a group of local youth in Barwell bullied a mother and her learning disabled daughter so viciously that the mother set fire to herself and her child in a local lay-by. Asbos and handouts did not help Ms Pilkington and they did not help the children who caused her death, but instruction on how we are meant to behave as individuals, family members, and community members would have. By all means give benefits to those in real and desperate need, but please shirk no longer on expressing moral ideals. We need our bread, but we need our roses too.