decorated initial 'I'n one passage in Tom Brown's Schooldays Thomas Hughes berates undergraduates for going on foreign adventures instead of staying at home in the long vacation. What do they miss? Wood sorrel, bog bean and Civil War battlefields, among other things. Put like that it all sounds a bit bizarre but I'd like to try to offer an interpretation, perhaps even an explanation. And this matter has, in fact, been touched on before. The argument, to repeat it briefly, is that for the English (or some at least) their landscape and history could by themselves induce a spiritual experience which then became the bedrock of their being; a settled place at the centre of existence. It was never nationalism. Even patriotism doesn't describe the feeling: it was a kind of religious experience. Steeping yourself in woods and places where history was made then begins to make sense. It's like building a fortified base from which to venture out. There'd be time for other things later. Perhaps this is what Hughes was saying.

Hughes expanded the theme in his second novel, The Scouring of the White Horse. A young clerk from town is invited to the Vale of the White Horse to be introduced to country customs, but also — in this theory — to be shown his heritage; his country's long undisturbed history and her landscapes. The customs and ways of the country are unexceptional — rickyards, haystacks, scratching chickens, sleeping pigs, home made wine, rustic races with farm horses, cheese rolling, cheesecake, poetry and singing. Most of it wouldn't happened today, but to rural Victorians it would have been part of the year's cycle.

Yet all of it was overshadowed by the history and the landscape of the Vale. These are the two key factors which induce that sense of a spiritualised belonging that made England home to the people who lived there. The Vale is the valley of the River Ock, a tributary of the Thames. The chalk hills on either side are the Berkshire Downs, nowhere quite reaching nine hundred feet. The Vale is about eighteen miles long, five wide, and flat-bottomed. In Hughes's time it was dairy country — he mentions rickyards and the haystacks which were the winter fodder for the cattle. Back then it was still well wooded and with thick hedges; it's less so now, and disease has destroyed all the elm trees. Above the Vale is the Neolithic track called The Ridgeway, following the crest of the dry hills and so avoiding the wet, wooded valleys. It runs from Dorset to Lincolnshire and has been walked and ridden on for at least five thousand years.

Some of Hughes's history we now know was wrong — the White Horse wasn't a copy of the Saxon Standard; it's probably Bronze Age. The Horse itself is rather beautiful; nearly four hundred feet long, but carved in sinuous disconnected lines, an elongated outline of a galloping horse with one enormous eye in a head deftly suggested by a few simple strokes. Uffington Castle, nearby, is Iron Age but still a contender for the site of the Battle of Badon where King Arthur defeated the Saxons long before Alfred's time. On the Ridgeway above the Vale is a Neolithic burial chamber which the West Saxons called Wayland's Smithy. Wayland was the Saxon god of coppersmiths, bronze smiths and, above all, blacksmiths. He'll still shoe your horse for you if you leave it tethered nearby, with a silver coin for payment. Hughes must have stood many times up there by the oldest road in the Kingdom, looking down on modernity in the shape of the locos and rolling stock on the Great Western line running along the valley floor. He knew what he was about when he urged undergraduates to be absorbed into this — their —landscape.

History itself, on its own, could carry a similar charge. G K Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse is one of the last epic poems in English. In it he conflates two different places: the Vale of the White Horse and the battlefield of Ethandune, now Edington, in Wiltshire. The poem tells the story of King Alfred's battle against the Danes one day in May, 878. By then, Norsemen occupied most of England: only Wessex was in English hands. This was to be the final battle, the King's last chance to keep England at all English.

The Norse under King Guthrum held the high ground. They were professionals — if not professional soldiers then at least professional marauders; it was the way they made their living. The English were not soldiers at all; they were peasants called from fields and sheep pens armed with the tools of their trades. As you'd expect, the Norse were winning and should have won but thinking the battle was over they slackened. The English rallied and prevailed. Dr Arnold could have used it in a sermon (perhaps he did): keep faith, hold fast, never give in even at the moment of defeat.

If Alfred had failed that afternoon the whole world today would be very different. No English language as we know it. No Norman Conquest, no Shakespeare, Common Law, Enlightenment, (no USA), no Industrial Revolution. Scholars may dispute these things nowadays, and probably do (they dispute everything else), though the Butterfly Effect alone suggests everything would be vastly different. But that would still be beside the point: the Victorians believed it. Imagine a young Victorian on that hillside one summer's afternoon with a lark ascending from a distant wheat field. A thousand years earlier his fellow-countrymen had forever changed the fate of the world on this very hill by a single act of decision and valour. Space, time, and a sphere he can neither grasp nor analyse contracts in his mind to a single timeless point. Something of great importance has happened to him which he can barely put into words and never therefore clearly think about. It will sustain him for life. Was this something Hughes had at the back, if not the forefront, of his mind?

Chesterton began writing the Ballad in 1902. In 1894 he, too, had a mystical experience that changed his life. The Wild Knight, a book of poems written in the 1890s, record the outcome of this vision. He turned to Christianity only in 1896, impelled perhaps by human love after he met his wife. Not surprisingly, then, a more conventional spiritual faith is in the Ballad too. Before the battle, the King has a vision of the Virgin Mary. What will the outcome be? he asks her. Mary replies:

I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?

I was going to say the Victorians couldn't have put it better, but of course it was a Victorian who did put it (Chesterton was born in 1874). But isn't it Arnoldian as well?

After the battle, in the Ballad at least, Alfred ordered the scouring of the White Horse to let the chalk show more clearly through. A civilisation had been rescued and restored. Cleaning the chalk-white horse symbolised renewal. The renewing of civilisation can never stop, is the message; it needs constant care. In Chesterton's words:

And if skies alter and empires melt,
This word s hall still be true:
If we would have the horse of old,
Scour ye the horse anew.

At the end of the Ballad, Alfred prophesies that the barbarians will be back. We know them by the ruins of their thought, the decay of intellect and reason, the denial of sin. But Chesterton also tells us: "Every high civilisation decays by forgetting obvious things." Whether Hughes feared the collapse of his society I don't suppose we can ever know. But that is exactly what happened and we can date the collapse fairly accurately to a hundred years after he wrote The Scouring of the White Horse

Ruskin called the nineteenth century the Age of Umber and thought the darkness of the times was caused by a lack of faith. Where the Greeks saw gods in the woods, Victorians saw poachers. He also said that landscape itself can give a sense of sanctity. That beautiful things can, in some mystic way, lead to a meeting with the Divine. (He was not alone in this. Plato said something similar; mathematics, beauty, physical love can all introduce you to the real Reality beyond the reach of the senses.) He had at least two mystical experiences — one as a small child on a crag in Westmorland, the other as a young man in a storm in the Alps. Art, he taught us, tells the truth about religion, and the way we should live; it's the embodiment of a civilisation, showing how great or rotten it is; art leads us to God (or the Good, as Plato put it). But in 1862 in Unto These Last he turned to politics for salvation, laying out arguments and ideas which, forty five years after his death, were implemented in the Welfare State.

Five years later, in 1867, Karl Marx began writing Das Kapital in the British Museum. His ideas, of course, led in time to the Soviet Union, Communist China and all the other closed-society regimes from the Iron Curtain countries of Europe to Vietnam and North Korea. In England, as elsewhere, his ideology became one of the governing beliefs of very large numbers of intellectuals. Orwell, a man of the Left more Ruskinian than Marxist, wrote about them constantly in the 1940s when they were a small minority whose ideas were at odds with everybody else's. He couldn't quite find the right word for them but settled for 'nationalists' — they didn't belong to their own country but needed, like most people, to belong somewhere. They chose the Soviet Union as their fatherland, without ever going there. They didn't want Hitler to win, just the Anglo-American armies to be broken, with victory going to the Russians.

Their ideologies changed with the times until now a mutant strain is in the ascendancy. One outcome, to take just one example, has been multiculturalism, the doctrine that no culture is better than any other. Partly because of this, partly through the ideologues' hatred of the West, history is little taught these days and some very obvious things have been forgotten. For example that England was an empiricist country before the word was invented or the concept formulated. (Bertrand Russell said it was because England had never been subject to the Roman Empire, its laws or logic.) But continental Europe lives by Rationalist top-down ideas. The bottom-up concept of the Common Law is, in its country of origin, now subordinate to the top-down law making of the Rationalist states of the European Union. The obvious has been forgotten? The majority of laws no longer come from Parliament but from Brussels. It is, literally, a bureaucracy — rule by office-holder, or functionary. People have been jailed for selling greengroceries by the pound and the ounce instead of kilos as the new law demands.

Hughes, if this theory is in any way true, was therefore right. But a free society can change so radically only if the people agree. Since everything dies, perhaps the English just gave up the ghost? Chesterton also said: "Rome wasn't loved because she was great; she was great because she was loved." Too many people in England don't like their country any more. (I doubt they ever liked each other very much: it was always a land of strangers.) Whether it's right to think the old England was worth saving is of course another matter. And immaterial. The change has happened, the future is unknowable —, and nobody can tell us aught for our comfort.

What I'm proposing here is a strange concept. How many people felt this way is unknowable but it has certainly been my experience, while Roger Scruton's book, England: an Elegy, suggests it was more widespread than just one odd old Englishman. Even if it is only partly true, it is an important part, but so deeply hidden that nobody, as far as I know, has written up an explicit personal experience of it. Perhaps Victorianists should take it into account? Nobody born after 1942, I suspect, can have experienced the things we're talking about here (the discontinuity is very real and very deep) and it is therefore a knowledge that is rapidly leaving the world. It may be worth thinking about when judging the Victorians; that there was something deeper about them than many people want to believe — a disinterested love greater than self or even country, and that is rare, and no bad thing.

The Persistence of the Victorians: Things Remembered and Things Forgot


Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. Poems for All Purposes. London: Pimlico, 1994.

Hughes, Thomas. The Scouring of the White Horse

Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays. Electronic version from Project Gutenberg produced by Gil Jaysmith and David Widger.

Scruton, Roger. England: an Elegy. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000

Victorian Web/ Biography Victorian History

Last modified 17 September 2006