“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L. P. Hartley.
I was reminded of this by a sentence in the new volume of Arnold Bennett’s Uncollected Short Stories, which I mentioned yesterday.
The sentence comes in “The Great Fire at Santa Claus’ House” a confection for children first published in December 1898. Like many of the tales in this collection, it is not a literary masterpiece, but is surreal and action-packed, and definitely an effective contribution to what Bennett famously called “the great cause of cheering us all up.” If you know any seven-year-olds, I bet they’d enjoy it if you read them this story on Christmas Eve.
In the tale, some children are on a magical bus-ride through the night-time streets of London, and they notice the thousands of people still milling about after dark. Then comes this sentence:
The boys noticed that the men flourished sticks and smoked, and the girls noticed that the women carried purses in their hands and wore veils.
Only 112 years ago, but a different country. When did men stop carrying canes when out in the street? It was still common during the Great War; I’ve been reading Henry Williamson’s The Golden Virgin, which contains a rather objectionable character called Wagg, who reckons that his whangee cane is a pretty good aid to making him irresistible to women. Maybe canes continued to be commonplace until the thirties. By the forties, a poser like Julian Maclaren-Ross would sport a distinctive walking-stick, but that contributed to his reputation for eccentricity. These days sticks are reserved for the old and arthritic. Anyone swinging a whangee cane flamboyantly along the street would run the risk of arrest for being in possession of an offensive weapon.
Then there is smoking (a practice unmentionable in a children’s story today, except in terms of strictest condemnation). The swaggering smoker is much rarer than he used to be, except among fourteen-year-olds. Smokers now are the little crowds huddled in the cold outside buildings, usually looking a bit dismal and resentful.
But the greatest difference is those veils. A century ago it was very common, and in some sections of society more or less compulsory, for women to be veiled in public thoroughfares. Some veils were full, some half. Some were fluffs of grey netting, some were sequined and alluring, others were impermeable black mourning veils. As with most cultural phenomena, there was probably a conglomeration of reasons for wearing a veil – modesty, privacy, a desire to be mysterious, a desire to protect one’s face from the elements, and doubtless more.
Yet the culture seems to have lost all memory of British veil-wearing, since when Moslem women veil themselves they are decried by some as un-English. In France, the full veil may soon be legally banned as against all the traditions of France. And yet a hundred years ago veils were as common in Paris as in London.
Our culture has such a short memory. We tend to assume that the way of life and standards of the past twenty years or so have some permanent validity; the past of human civilisation is vast, varied and intricate. To assume that only our present local values have validity is to be like a dim provincial who cannot understand that in the great wide world there are other cultures whose manners and morals may be different from his own, but are not necessarily worse.
In a century’s time, which of our own everyday habits and customs will seem unutterably foreign and strange, or even wicked?