uring the course of The Scouring of the White Horse, Dick Easy, the protagonist and narrator of Thomas Hughes's novel-cum-travelogue, gains both a wife and a sense of being an Englishman that comes from his new knowledge of the distant past. Hughes make clear that is not all that his young clerk gains from his holiday in Berkshire, for his first-hand experience of a country squire in action leads to a new political understanding. Dick admits that he "had a great prejudice against" such people before his visit for two reasons, the first of which is that he "had never been farther from town that Twickenham (except by boat to Margate)" (38-39). More important, when he left school he joined a left-wing debating society that subscribed to "three liberal papers" and whose members "used to have a regular go in about once a quarter at the unpaid magistracy. How we did give it them! They were bloated aristocrats, who by the time they were thirty had drunk out all the little brains they ever had, and spent their time in preserving and killing game and foxes at the expense of the farmers, and sending every good man in their villages either to the Bastille (as we called the workhouse), as a pauper, or to the county jail as a poacher" (39)
He and his friend Joe, a prosperous farmer, "very nearly quarrelled over one of those debates to which I took him, like a great gaby as I was, when he came up to see me at the time of a cattle-show" when he became angry at the ignorance of the speakers about the realities of country life and work and began to insult Dick's friends. "And I couldn't stand that, so I began at the landed interest, and said all the bad of them I could think of, about the Poor-Laws, game preserving, and the Corn-laws. Joe was very near going oft' in a huff, but we shook hands over it at last, and agreed that we neither of us knew much about the sort of life the other led, and so had better not talk about it as if we did" (39).
When Joe prevails on his city friend to spend his holidays with him at his farm so he can take observe the scouring of the White Horse — the rare restoration of that "rude colossal figure cut out in the turf, [that gives] the name to a whole district" — and enjoy the associated country fair, Dick takes the train to Berkshire. On his first day when his friend takes him to see local sights like Dragon's Hill and the White Horse itself, he catches sight of his first real country squire when the local landowner and Joe have a long conversation. The sight of the man comes as a political and social revelation. "Well, this was the first squire I had ever seen," Dick tells us,
so I looked at him with all my eyes; and if all squires were like him, I don't wonder at Joe's getting in a passion at our talk in Farringdon-market. I should think he must be about forty-five years old, and stands not far short of six feet high; for when he came to stand by Joe, I could see he was the taller of the two; but he didn't look so tall quite when he stood by himself — I suppose because his figure was all good. For you never saw such a clean made man; he was for all the world like a well-rounded wedge from his shoulders down, and his neck and head put on like a statue. He looked just as if he could have jumped the highest five-barred gate in the Vale, and then have carried it off on his shoulders, and run up the hill with it. And his face, — which was well browned, was so manly and frank, and his voice so cheery, and he looked you so straight in the face, that you felt he wasn't ashamed of any thing, or afraid of anybody; and so you looked him back and spoke out, and were twice as good a man at once yourself while you were talking to him. [39-40]
Parts of this passage sound very much like Carlyle: certainly, the charge that landowners "spent their time in preserving and killing game and foxes at the expense of the farmers" comes from Past and Present and so does the representation of the unnamed squire as something of the kind of man whom one could easily follow. He strikes one as honest and true. Similarly, he sounds much like Roger Carbury, the principled conservative landowner from The Way We Live Now — a novel written more than a decade after The Scouring of the White Horse.
At first glance, this positive representation of a Victorian landowner might strike the reader as odd, given that Hughes was probably the only Rugby graduate to sympathize with the Chartists, advocate for the Reform Acts, and work for the rights to unionize. This was, after all, one of the founders of the Working Men's College and later its Principal! But Hughes was a true liberal, someone who could see both sides of an issue, and while he worked tirelessly for the rights and advancement of the working classes, he saw the great harm that would come to British society — and some would claim actually did — when people on opposite sides of a question become polarized and demonize one another.
[Hughes, Thomas.] The Scouring of the White Horse; or, the Long Vacation Ramble of a London Clerk. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1859.
Last modified 13 July 2006