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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: Talk of the village

17 August 2014

8:00 AM

17 August 2014

8:00 AM

‘War and the village wives’, from The Spectator, 15 August 1914:

The men and women of the village are talking unceasingly about the war. The whole aspect of the place is changed. The English silence is broken. Even on Sunday no one lolls and smokes in speechless reflection. All the men read the newspapers; none read less than the whole of one paper every day. The women, however, do not read them, and though they talk as much, they know far less than their husbands. Indeed, if one may judge by a good many chance conversations, they may be said to know nothing at all. It is the question of alliances which has confused these goodwives. A war should be between two countries, they think. Many more than two are, they know, engaged in this war, and they are not altogether sure who is against whom. One fact stands out as a certainty – Germany our enemy, and Germany is to blame. Of this salient point they have all taken hold. After all, it is the most important point at the moment. Belgium the present writer has heard variously alluded to as “those who will give us the most trouble”, and “a little country that can’t defend itself, through which the Germans are working round to get at England”. Oddly enough, France seems to play little part in the drama. “No doubt the German Emperor would like the throne of France,” the present writer heard admitted, “but what he really wants is England. I have felt afraid of him,” the speaker went on, “ever since Queen Victoria died, for I heard it said then that he though he should have had the English Throne, being the eldest son of her eldest daughter.” The present wave of feminism is felt even in back-waters! The abrogation of the Salic law does not, we believe, make part of the suffragists’ programme, but one never knows what they may want next. One woman in the village has burned a large coloured portrait of the German Emperor which till this week adorned her parlour walls. The Empress has been turned face to the wall, but not destroyed. “I thought I might keep the lady back,” said the rather wistful owner of the pair of pictures, adding sadly: “He is very handsome, though my son-in-law (a soldier) tells me he is very bloodthirsty.” She feels she has done right to make the sacrifice, but it is a grief to her that the picture-frame has left a mark. After all, small matters still affect our minds, however serious the condition of the country. She is a very shrewd woman, this, though she has not the faintest conception of the map of Europe.  “It’s funny how willing for it all the men are, though prices are so much gone up,” she says thoughtfully, adding after a pause: “It’s funny what a lot of money there still is for drink, with food so high!”

The loyalty to the Crown of the women of the village can only be called religious in its enthusiasm. It expresses itself according to the character of the speaker; but, whether expressed in plain or sentimental language, it is enthusiastic. “If ever there lived nice people, it is them,” said one woman, alluding to their Majesties. “I feel I could go on my knees to them,” was a more florid expression of the same sentiment spoken in the same room. “There is very little that any one can do for the Queen,” said another enthusiast.  “I named my last baby after her. I’m glad I did that.” There is a certain naïveté in this mingled, or, rather, confused, feeling of loyalty and maternal pride which is pleasing. A curious allusion to the Constitutional nature of the British Throne was made in the hearing of the present writer. A woman who was heaping up truisms to the effect that Royalty felt towards their children exactly as ordinary people did towards theirs stuck is as a parenthesis: “And our Royalty are not like foreign Royalty: they cannot do everything that they like.” This as an extra bond of sympathy, a touch of nature, as it were.

Poor people are very brave.  The rich people in the village have grumbled about the financial situation far more than the poor. One would think, to hear them, that they were going to starve instead of to dismiss the second gardener. The only thing that seems to rouse any feeling of apprehension or anger among the poor is the rise in the price of sugar. The village we are writing of is not a model one. It bears a name for roughness in the villages round about, and it has not yet sent as many men to join the colours as most of its wellwishers hoped it might. The mothers of the young men who have enlisted talk about them in a very matter-of-fact way. “You see, I feel that even if he is in danger we must have some defence,” said one mother of five boys, only one of whom has enlisted. “The foreigners handle the sword from the cradle, as you may say. I wish our boys were taught the same, for, even if the foreigners were to win this time, we may be quite sure they will never sit down satisfied.” One woman who has one son a Territorial and another who has enlisted in the Regulars described at length the different feelings of the two. The second boy, she said, was “simply wild to go.” For such as he, for “them that really like it, the Regulars is the best place.” The other son had said very little, she explained. He had “undertaken to do it, so he is going to do it,” she concluded. One wonders which will make the better soldier. The second point of view, if not romantic, is not un-English in its cheerful acceptance of necessity and duty.

It is considered a little unpatriotic and a little “cold-watery” nowadays in the village not to believe the latest war rumours. Tales of tremendous victories which are without confirmation should, of course, be tenderly received by loyal persons, but it is hard to be regarded as a little wanting in right feeling because one discredits a story that the Germans have poisoned the Epsom wells. A laughing rejoinder that such news does indeed lend a new terror to Epsom salts was not well received. The appetite for atrocities is keen at the moment. Perhaps it is not wonderful. We can by rejoice in the justice of our cause, and these tales are only an expression of that rejoicing, and have no malignant meaning. Also it is human nature to become drunk upon news, to become more and more thirsty for it when it is plentiful, and to make it up when it fails.

A rather curious light is thrown upon the relations of village husbands and wives by the undoubted fact that the women know nothing about public affairs. “I don’t study the newspaper,” is what they all say. One devout person assured the present writer that she believed that “all about this war” was written “in the Book of Revelation, if any one had the time to find it.” Plainly their husbands do not discuss public matters with them. They discuss them over their work or at the public house. There is at present far more camaraderie among the educated than the uneducated. Would it be possible or wort while for some educated women in English villages to call meetings of their less educated sisters and make an attempt to explain the present situation in regard to the war? Would they come? They would if they were given tea and the meetings were made attractive. It seems a pity that a part of the community which is called upon to give and to forgo so much should have so little definite notion of the state of things which necessitates the sacrifice. Could the European crisis be simply explained? The sight of a large map of Europe might clear their ideas. On the other hand, maps are not easily understood by those not accustomed to them. A comparison might be drawn by a clever lecturer between the known and the unknown. Europe might be likened to a village consisting of large houses and small’ of friends and enemies; of allied friends and allied enemies; of friendships strengthened by blood and religious opinion, by common interests and natural affinities; of enmities dating back to the far past. It would need something like genius to make the situation plain, and only a few would listen. Village women do not care about instruction. Considering how little they like it, it is almost miraculous that their intuitions are as trustworthy as they appear to be.

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