Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Raymond Williams: The Country and the City

Because I wanted to read again what he had to say about Richard Jefferies, I ordered a secondhand copy of Raymond Williams's book The Country and the City.

It arrived the other day with no index and an introduction by Tristram Hunt. We live in barbarous times.

Williams's treatment of Jefferies is as good as I remembered and still the best I have come across. I have also rediscovered his exposure of the way that "traditional country values" recede further into the past the more you try to pin them down. His excoriation of great English country house is a pleasure yet to come.

A recent article on Williams in Dissent describes the book well:

The Country and the City, which appeared in 1973, brings Williams’s critical acuity to the idea and reality of farm and village life, holding in a single vision the literary traditions of pastoral and counter-pastoral, the political inheritance of country radicalism, the material history of grinding exploitation, and the inhabited feelings of love, grief, hope, and defeat of the often invisible rural poor who were his people. 

His critical eye spares nothing, yet the book is animated by charitable, patient attention. A landscape, he showed, was “not a kind of nature but a kind of man,” a way of living on and seeing a region and terrain. He invited his readers to see the great country houses, in so many minds the defining features of rural England (just think of Downton Abbey), as monuments to the labour that was stolen to build them—not gracious ornaments on the land, but “barbarous” in their “disproportion of scale” to the lives that surrounded them. 

Living on land, in place, fulfilled a deep human appetite, but the ordinary condition of that appetite was to be denied satisfaction—dispossessed by enclosure, uprooted by new technology and new markets. Adding insult to injury, there were always rural squires willing to appoint themselves the voices of country virtues, praising the candor and integrity of the village against London cheats. Their conceits, however, rested on “the brief and aching lives of the permanently cheated,” who worked their lands and never saw London unless they’d come as refugees.

Williams declined to see the tradition of rural radicalism as a true alternative. Too often it was just sentimental longing for an intact world that might never have existed, and in any case had no future. In writing of the sweet and good countryside that had been stolen, “a human instinct was separate from the society . . . turning protest into retrospect, until we die of time.” 

The more properly political radicalism of land reformers, critics of enclosure, and opponents of industrialization struck him as poignant and sincere (unlike the landlords’ moralizing) but trapped in its own paradoxes. People who had managed to live decent lives within a temporary order for a generation or two tried desperately to make it permanent, usually by picking and choosing bits of feudal order and bits of liberal freedom. 

Most rural radicalism was “an idealization, based on a temporary situation and a deep desire for stability,” and “served to cover and evade the actual and bitter contradictions of the time.” By refusing to look clearly at their past or their present, nostalgic populists kept themselves from working toward a viable future.

The video above is of a programme based on the book that Williams made in 1979, six years after its publication. And this is his own recording of it off air, which is somehow wonderful.

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