Journals 14.3. This is a continuation of my article about Travels on the Continent and in England, by August Hermann Niemeyer, which details the German writer’s 1819 visit to the country he had always wanted to experience: England. And he wanted to experience all aspects of the country, “to come into contact with persons of different and manifold dispositions and employments”. He visited the “poor miserable districts… where the lowest classes dwell” but also “the most sumptuous quarters, the abode of affluence”. So what differences did Niemeyer observe between the different classes of people? Certainly not clothing choices:
It is, however, certainly more difficult in England, than in other countries, to ascertain this difference from external appearances. This arises from the manner of dress. The men’s costume displays the greatest simplicity. The quality of the articles worn is, indeed, various; but, whatever meets the eye, whether in the street, or in company, whether worn by the minister of state, the opulent lord, the merchant, the wealthy mechanic, the clerk in the counting-house, is, throughout, the same; and, in the usual intercourse of social life, the court gala alone excepted, no exception is made therein. In the most populous streets I have never noticed any person who was to be distinguished by any external mark, particular uniform, the decoration of an order, or anything similar. What in Germany becomes a kind of duty to wear, would here create surprize (sic), and, probably, would expose the wearer only to the insults and ridicule of the populace.
So much for the men. But surely women’s clothing would clearly display their level of wealth?
It is in no respect different with regard to the dress of the women. The real worth and costliness of the articles, not the particular manner of dress, constitutes the difference. In certain parts of the town, I thought I perceived only persons of rank, however they may vary in situation of life and property, because, in ordinary life, the humblest chambermaid wears her hat and muslin dress, as well as the richest lady; and, upon occasions, only of court ceremony, sumptuous festivals, or upon her visits to the Italian Opera, does the latter display all the magnificence and expense of dress.
Did this lack of ostentation in choice of clothing reflect something in the character of the English man or woman? Niemeyer was fully aware of the English stereotype at the time: “coldness, reserve, and even pride of the English”, but did not find it to be “generally so”, beyond the occasional acquaintance on his travels “which left not the slightest wish in my mind to continue them”. However, one stereotype he found to be exactly right, was the “taciturnity” and “love of silence” of the English, particularly noticeable in the taverns, where…
…persons who have been long and intimately acquainted with each other, can sit for hours by the side of the fire without uttering one word; nay, they seem to wonder if, according to our German social manner which inclines so much to discourse, you endeavour to address it to them. In the domestic circles I found, particularly the younger unmarried ladies, for the most part very still, and always purposely shy. Persons, who have long lived amongst the English, assert also, that in family circles and friendly meetings it is not rarely the case, that a long pause follows after a long conversation. It remains to be decided therefore by the feelings of each individual, whether this has not more charms for the man who knows how to employ himself within the resources of his own mind, than an endless chatter about nothings, and the tiresome endeavours of many companions, male or female, never to let the conversation drop, and who, that they may only speak, are continually making the most common-place questions.
Niemeyer was impressed with the “great politeness” he encountered. The difference between England and Germany was a stark contrast. In Germany he was accustomed to find “outward politeness” only in the “society of the better-informed classes”, but “true politeness reigns in England”.
The hand is given to the person of the highest rank, as well as to the equal, and you are certain of a friendly return. The lord, as well as your friend, is saluted with a good morning, and leave taken of them, with a good evening, or a good night. Embracing and kissing, amongst men, appear to the English as unnatural, and the man would be exposed to insult even, should he be seen following the German custom in the street. This, indeed, may be carried too far; but we must still allow, that the fine token of love and inward friendship, is sacrificed by us too much to unnecessary ceremony; and we must rejoice rather, that what had become a frequently burthensome, and wherewithal a repugnant custom, is disappearing more and more from the circles of the men; for example, that of offering, after any great social entertainment, 30 or 40 embraces, twice or three times as many kisses, and, as formerly was the custom, of kissing the hand of every lady. Amongst the English women, I have never noticed this latter custom at coming and going, but frequently in families, amongst affectionate parents, children, brothers and sisters.
England in the early 19th Century was obviously a very different country to the one we know today, and there were great strides still to be made in terms of democracy and equality, but in comparison to Germany and other European countries Niemeyer found England not to be a classist society. He found this so unusual that he described it as “one of the finest peculiarities of British life”.
Every one feels in that country, that he is free born, that, by the constitution of the country, as well as by his natural liberty, he is a protected man, and that all, in the eye of the law, have an equal right. He knows that, either personally, or by his representative, he has a voice in the great concerns of the nation; that, if he commits a crime, his equals will judge him, that he is secured from the oppressions of overbearance, whether of the nobles, the military, or the clergy, so long as he confines himself only within the bounds of the laws. Attempts are not wanting, even in England, of individual members of these classes, to elevate themselves above the others. But as every house proprietor thinks his house is his castle, so every citizen of state considers the principles of the constitution as he bulwark of his liberty. Much of this, indeed, may consist in imagination, but this, of itself, frequently makes us contented and happy. This spirit is cherished from early youth; it grows up with the boy and the young man. Parents themselves treat their sons, sacred as the paternal power is, in this spirit; and the domestic education is, in the highest degree, liberal.
Next time we will look at Niemeyer’s opinions of some specific locations: how Westminster Abbey, for example, “might be kept cleaner”.
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