31 May 2007

Modern ideology and A Little Princess

The system of interpretations and evaluations that forms the modern anti-individualistic ideology is now apparently universally understood and applied, so it may be difficult to realise that it is a quite recent development.

I was shocked by it when I first started to encounter it at 13 or 14. There was really no hint of it in what I had read up to that time. ‘Socialist’ writers such as H G Wells and Bernard Shaw took a pretty detached view of the goings-on of human society and suggestions that it might be nice if all people lived in larger, cleaner houses, or lived in a cleaner, healthier and more aesthetic way, did not draw attention to the erosion of liberty that would be necessary even to attempt to bring this about.

My ideas of human society were based primarily on books written in Victorian or Edwardian times, with a bit of influence from such things as cynical Aesop’s Fables. I always took note of ideas about motivation and reflected upon them.

Consider, for example, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The message of this book, to me at any rate, was that no one will do anything for anyone unless they are paid with money for doing so. In the story, Sara is left by her father at a select boarding-school. She is a parlour boarder and treated as a show pupil by the headmistress, who nevertheless resents her cleverness and self-possession, until her father dies and she is left penniless. Then she is made to sleep in an attic, where a scullery-maid also sleeps, and to work for her keep as a drudge and errand runner in all weathers, and assistant teacher of elementary French.

It is only if you have a parent who will pay for things for you that you have them, and what you have will be in accordance with how much the parent has to spend. Otherwise you will be reduced to the state of the servant girls and beggars in the streets.

Of course, people other than parents may give other people things; when Sara was well off she used to buy items of food for one of the scullery maids, and when she is poor she gives some buns to a starving beggar girl. This attracts the attention of the lady who runs the bun-shop, and she (the lady) takes in the beggar girl and feeds and clothes her from then on — in effect, adopts her, but without having to account for what she is doing to any agents of the collective.

In those days there was no compulsory education and adoption was a matter for individuals to undertake if they chose with no need to seek permission.

That was the way the world was; the way people treated you depended entirely on whether you could pay for what you wanted, or needed.

Eventually Sara is found and rescued by a wealthy friend of her father’s, who has been looking for her. While he is looking for her he is made aware of how many children are living in poverty. He is sorry for them, and harrowed to think that Sara may be in a similar state, but his friend tells him that his resources are limited. He could not provide for all the destitute children, but must concentrate on finding and helping Sara, whose father was his friend.

In the world as depicted in the books that I read there was no disapproval of ambition. The respectable bourgeois worked hard and rose in the world if he could; his children lived in well-built houses with a few servants and might have Mary Poppins as a nanny.

My father had been a very poor boy, and the great efforts he had made to rise in the world had not got him very far; he was headmaster of a primary school at the London docks. My parents were respectable but still very far from rich. Nevertheless, their efforts had resulted in their being able to give their child a better start in life than they had had themselves; they had delayed having me until they had saved enough money to be sure that they would be able to pay for a professional training for me.

When I came top of the grammar school scholarship exam at the age of ten, very soon after the 1945 Labour landslide election, egalitarian ideas were bubbling invisibly below the surface, but nothing I had read had prepared me for the idea that I should not want to take exams as fast and as hard as possible, and that I should be prevented from doing so because not everyone could. To take more exams than other people and at an earlier age was apparently viewed as reprehensible; it was an attempt to score off other people. Having social interactions with other people should be one’s sole aim in life. One should not want to do scientific research just because it was what one wanted to do and what would enable one to feel most alive. One should, apparently, only want to spend one’s life doing good to other people, in some shape or form, and interacting with them socially.

These ideas may not seem strange or surprising to a modern reader, but it was the first time I had encountered them and I found that they were being used to obstruct and hinder me.

By the time I was 13 my worldview was essentially formed; none of the books I had read had depicted, or appeared to advocate, an egalitarian society in the modern sense. Practically all societies of the past, as described, had contained some large households which provided a hotel environment for those living in them (sometimes even called ‘hotels’, at least in France and Italy), and it had never been regarded as reprehensible to attempt to rise in the world by any activities regarded as legal.

In retrospect, as a recipient of a grammar school scholarship, I was in the position of Sara in A Little Princess. With my fees not being paid by my father but by the state, I was exposed to the tender mercies of the local education authority and community generally, as Sara was exposed to those of Miss Minchin — who could no longer be bothered to provide her with a formal education, but allowed her to read the schoolbooks in the empty schoolroom when she had run her errands for the day. And she did this, not because she felt any concern for Sara’s need to rise in the world to a position that might suit her, but so that Sara might become useful to Miss Minchin as an inexpensive teacher when she was a few years older.

Similarly, my tormentors did not mind how seriously they blocked my attempts to establish my claim on the sort of university career I needed to have; my acquisition of skills and qualifications was reduced to a snail’s pace, but I was allowed to proceed with heavily handicapped supervised ‘courses’ which might eventually lead to my being useful, not to myself, but to society, in a lowly capacity as a teacher of maths.

Then I was thrown out into a society where all my efforts to recover from a bad position and regain an academic career of a suitable kind were blocked by the continued advance of the modern ideology, according to which, as I found, it is criminal to go on trying to get a career that society has shown it does not want one to have.