Looking along my bookshelves last night, looking for a non-pharmeceutical distraction from one of my occasional (and mercifully now much less frequent) bouts of pain (it didn’t work, but I carried on reading it anyway) I picked out J. Fennimore Cooper’s last novel.
Why I have The Ways of the Hour, or how long I’ve had it, I can’t think; I have never read, nor really ever had any interest in even The Last of the Mohicans, though I suspect I was supposed to have read that in my last year of Junior School, along with others on a long list like Lorna Doone which I vaguely recall attempting and abandoning after half a dozen pages and near terminal boredom. Ditto anything by Walter Scott. Why books like those were supposed to have been a good literary preparation for an 10-11 year-old heading for Grammar School, god only knows.
Anyway, I came across this quite early on:
“Far more of the grave crimes of this country have, within the period named, been certainly committed by immigrants from Germany; whether the cause be in the reason given or in national character. This is not according to ancient opinion, but we believe it to be strictly according to fact.The Irish are clannish, turbulent and much disposed to knock each other on the head; but it is not to rob or pilfer but to quarrel. The Englishman will pick your pocket, or commit burglary, when inclined to roguery, and frequently has a way of extorting, in the way of vails*. The Frenchmen may well boast of their freedom from wrongs done to persons or property in this country; no class of immigrants furnishing to the prisons, comparatively, fewer criminals. The natives, out of all proportion, are freest from crime, if the blacks be excepted . . .”
It’s a peculiar novel, technically a murder mystery, but packed with aspersions on the right of women to be anything other than a subject chattel to the male—to the extent even that a central female character, with money in plenty of her own, a strong streak of individualism, cleverness, and an aversion to a bad marriage, is, at the end, dismissed as simply having inherited madness, to which an education in Europe is supposed to have strongly contributed—and the evils of elective office under the influence of an ill-educated mass. (Fennimore Cooper seems to have believed that the Anti-Rent Wars marked the end of the kind of a true Republic as it showed signs of becoming—oh horror!—something like a democracy.) Even criticism of journalism that merely seeks sensation regardless of truth and a stock market entirely motivated by greed. . . .
This was 1850, by the way.
- A word I’d never come across. Apparently it’s an obsolete word for gratuities given to servants.