Monday 27 July 2020

A life of Canon Barnett and Draft No.4 by John McPhee

Canon Barnett: His Life, Work, and Friends, by his Wife (‘cheaper edition’, 1921).

This is a picturesque, very Victorian, and surely exhaustive(!) account of the life and work of the Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife, Henrietta, who lived and worked among the poor of Whitechapel in the late nineteenth century.  They are an inspiring pair – no matter what one thinks of their particular ideas, they devoted their entire married lives to trying to help people. They set up their university settlement, Toynbee Hall, to encourage men of education to live and work with the poor.  Samuel Barnett eventually became a canon of Westminster Abbey.  Henrietta (‘Yetta’), following a fundraising campaign, signed the deeds for the purchase of hundreds of acres of land for the extension of Hamstead Heath.

The ‘particular ideas’ referred to above, were those relating to their belief that giving money to the poor was harmful.  Barnett believed that no-strings monetary relief made the poor greedy.  He preferred that it should be offered on condition that the male head of the family went into the workhouse.  The fact that most declined this arrangement he took as proof of their greed – that they were just looking for handouts.  Given what we know about workhouses now, how they were harsh places of the very last resort, his view seems unfair.  Furthermore, many of his ideas for addressing poverty seemed to involve locking up men in labour camps of one sort or another.  Even from such good-hearted people as the Barnetts, this sounds distressingly totalitarian.

Early on, the Barnetts were associated with the Charity Organization Society – which aimed to stop indiscriminate giving.  The COS explicitly divided the poor into the deserving and undeserving, but as Beatrice Webb recognised, they tended to ascribe poverty primarily to poor individual choices, and ignore other factors.  According to Webb, the Barnett’s views did alter over time, and they gradually moved apart from the COS, but this is not made particularly clear in this book.  Henrietta Barnett, despite her husband’s apparent humility, produces an account which omits any concession of error – which is slightly irritating, and must have been so at the time, given that the Canon was always keen to point out where other people were going wrong!

To Canon Barnett, the way to help poor people was to try to improve their minds, introduce them to beauty, increase their aspirations.  It sounds patronizing, but in the Victorian era, it led to some good things.  For example, he and his wife were instrumental in the establishment of the free library and the Whitechapel art gallery, where major works were donated on loan.  She tells one, slightly cringy story, where she goes to see some rich art collector, whose wife shows her the paintings they want to lend the Gallery.  Her response went something like, ‘thank you, you’re very kind, but we can’t accept them’
‘Not accept them?  Why ever not?’
‘Because they’re not your best, and we must have the best for the poor.’

They were also in favour of green spaces open to all, although they wanted people to sit down and appreciate the beauty and were most perturbed when people turned up wanting to dance.

One of the things I was hoping for, in reading the book, was an insight into Victorian marriage.  It doesn’t contain much detail in that regard, but you do get a strong sense of their relationship.  For a start, his love letters – at the beginning of the book, before they were married – are lovely.  Henrietta seems to have been confident, sociable, and a capable organizer.  There are many gentle illusions in his letters to her criticism of his sermons and ‘the look’ she gives him at certain social moments.  At one point, she appears to defer to her husband’s judgment on the question of whether to respond to attacks in the press (he was against it) (687), but later notes that ‘it had always been the practice of both of us, if we did not agree, to abstain from action until we saw eye to eye,’ (706) which puts a different complexion on the matter.

Although it may not have been the cause she gave her life to, she clearly was quite concertedly feminist.  According to Beatrice Webb, she got very frustrated at the way men would speak to women.  She refers to a conversation with the politician, John Burns: ‘”Woman!” he said, turning on me furiously when I once tried to bring home a flaw in his Department, “when will you learn to mind your own business?”’ (643)  By this, she seems amused rather than embarrassed.  A few paragraphs later, she refers to the local authority discussions of one of her husband’s schemes and writes, ‘for their sakes it is to be hoped that there will be no paralyzing conflict… “Woman! when will you,” etc., etc., I seem to hear again, and so forbear.’ (645)

Occasionally, her husband would – for one reason or another – exclude women from his debates, and in describing these occasions, she subtly switches from talking about what ‘we’ did, to what ‘he’ did. (470).

There are two particular respects in which Henrietta did seem to fit the Victorian mould.  One is her ill health – mostly connected to exhaustion, which isn’t altogether surprising given the level of work she kept up – and her husband’s attitude to it.  ‘During our early married life,’ she says, ‘I was made to feel I was naughty if I had a cold, and had annoyed him if feminine fatigue prevented plans being carried out.’ (68)  Secondly, there are several instances where both of them refer to the public nature of the work she carries out.  ‘You see what a public wife I have’ the Canon writes, not unhappily. (584)

There was an understanding at the time that there was a distinction between the public and the private, or domestic, sphere – the former supposedly being reserved for men, and the latter for women – and it’s hard to believe that Henrietta’s activities did not contravene that understanding of women’s proper role, although it is true that a woman’s dominance in the ‘private sphere’ was often stretched to include public activity for the protection of children, which is how Mrs Barnett’s work was often categorized.  Both of them show an awareness of the boundary between public and private, and the way she often flouted it, although neither seemed particularly worried.

Finally – because I’m writing about books – I’m going to quote something the Canon said when opening the Whitechapel Public Library.  ‘The best books,’ he says, ‘like the best people, needed to be introduced – their exterior was not always attractive.  There were books which needed no introduction – pleasing books which made good company for the idle hour; but those books which stood by a man in his hour of trouble and helped him in times of difficulty and sorrow were friends who very often needed an introduction.’ (398)

I like the idea that difficult books, and difficult people, need an introduction.  Unfortunately, having said that, I’m not sure this is going to be it.  There were good things about this book – as I said, the Barnetts were an inspiring couple – but essentially it seemed to me that Henrietta Barnett is here setting out in great detail their case for a place in the history books.  It could definitely be shorter, and it would have been more interesting if she had engaged with the bad things as well as the good.

Draft No.4: On the Writing Process, by John McPhee.

As with the last time I wrote about books, I have somehow managed to put all my energies into examining one book and give the rest short shrift.  But whilst I’m not sure I would recommend the Canon Barnett biography, I would recommend this.

It is much, much shorter (I am trying to love big books but, with the exception of Hilary Mantel, I still much prefer those you can read in a couple of days, max).  It comes at it’s subject almost tangentially.  McPhee has been a writer for American magazines like Time and The New Yorker, and he discusses writing through the medium of his varied journalistic subjects – environmentalism, long-distance trucking, Sophia Loren, etc.  There is also a lot about the mechanics of magazine journalism: fact-checkers, the use of swear words, frames of reference, interviewing people.  He comes across as a nerdy, funny writer, interested in everything, with a real itch to establish how things work and a knack for rendering them clear and interesting to the rest of us.

My favourite chapter was ‘Draft No.4’ (although even that diverts off into a discussion of The New Yorker’s copy editor), which actually covers the process of writing – rather than the miscellaneous skills that surround it.  On writer’s block, for example, he says you should try starting your piece with ‘Dear Mother,’ and follow this with much complaining, whinging, etc, about how you’re struggling to write about a grizzly bear.  ‘You whine.  You whimper.  You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around… And you go on like that as long as you can.  And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.’ [157-8]

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