Ancestral Houses

Foreword: Time's Last Gift
Michael Wood


In the second chapter of this remarkable book, Sonya Rudikoff asks a delicate, loaded question. "Toward the end of her life," Rudikoff says, Virginia Woolf "expressed her weariness with the intellectual figures associated with her maturity, and instead longed for ancient, historic, and well-landed coronets. It was a light-hearted pretense at snobbery. But was that all?"

It was not all, and this book beautifully brings out everything else it was. Rudikoff's language itself sets off a train of associations, and leads us directly into the social world which is her subject. "Kind hearts are more than coronets," Tennyson wrote in "Lady Clara Vere de Vere," "and simple faith than Norman blood." An easy sentiment, we may feel, and the lines, once proverbial, now seem very faded. Who is arguing? Does anyone, even in old England, still care about titles and lineage? The straight answer of course is that many people do care, in England and everywhere else, although we like to imagine that no one does-that wishful act of the democratic imagination is also part of an interesting cultural and political history. And a more complicated answer would remind us that even when Tennyson's lines were much quoted and taken to say something urgent, they can't simply have meant what they seemed to say. Many snobs might agree that kindness is more important than rank, if that is all we are talking about. What they, and many others, could not accept is the implied argument for a natural aristocracy of virtue, where kind hearts and simple faith represent a sort of moral upper class, and evil aristocrats go to the bottom of the pile. The line which comes just before the famous lines is "'Tis only noble to be good." And what this argument in turn suggests-in the poem a virtuous young yeoman is resisting the allure of the flirtatious and lethal Lady Clara-is that deep anxieties can hide even in the expression of an admirable moral principle. There is no escape from class, least of all in the denial of its importance. Kind hearts are more than coronets, but there is a romance even in the refusal of the romance of the aristocracy. Woolf too, Rudikoff says, "could affirm the beauty of classlessness and still exhibit in her own story the class hostilities, prejudices, divisions, and distortions from which the [middle] class and indeed the entire nation suffered."

"The romance of the aristocracy" is Rudikoff's fine phrase, but her sense of Woolf's imaginative entanglement in the titled world is only the beginning of an extraordinary recreation of a lost social universe-what Rudikoff herself calls "a social system" and "a complex social structure." England from the end of the Victorian age to the beginning of World War II-and it is England rather than the British Isles we are talking about, and a relatively closely mapped portion of southern England at that-was a place full of turmoil and crisis, and, with hindsight, can be seen to have radically abandoned most of its manners and many of its beliefs. But it was also a place ruled by a sturdy, self-confident, and adaptable upper class, and its very cracks and fissures were covered over by convincing performances of continuity. Woolf is often compared to Proust, but not for her social portraiture; and as far as I know, no one is in the habit of comparing her to Anthony Powell. Rightly so, because Woolf's fictional England is full of memories and sensibilities rather than flighty duchesses and eccentric earls headed for Bohemia. The world Woolf herself lived in was rather different, though, and closer to those of the other two novelists than her fiction was. It was not as grand as the one Proust hovered around; not quite as raffish as the one Powell evokes. But it was a densely social world, and this is what Rudikoff brings so richly to life for us.

"Woolf's response to spirit," Rudikoff writes, "her intensity and delicacy of perception, and her famous obsession with time all were manifested in highly specific circumstances: in a room, a house, a garden, in a village or town, near a field or farm or river." These circumstances had histories and contexts; the rooms and gardens and farms had owners, and their owners had lives and relatives and friends and connections. Rudikoff describes homes and properties for us, as her title suggests she will, but she also does much more. She reconstructs in marvellous detail the families who inhabited and inherited these lands, she connects the families to each other, and to the English institutions they dominated: the church, the professions, government, the great schools and universities. There is a "pervasive overlapping," Rudikoff suggests, of the old aristocracy and the old upper-middle classes. This is not our familiar idea of one-way social mobility, with the middle classes eternally rising on the long road to the fabled end of history. It is a curious class amalgam, for which most of our images are quite inadequate. We might think of it, borrowing Noel Coward's wonderful gag, as the recipe by which the upper classes still kept the upper hand, but "upper" and "lower" are not quite the right words here. It was a ruling class, but it did all kinds of other things as well as rule. It was, let's say, a largely imaginary country which took itself, and persuaded others to take it, at least until 1939, for a historical realm. "What is so compelling about this web of associations and histories," Rudikoff writes, "is not only the texture of English life that it demonstrates, but the intimate size and scale of the world so comfortably comprehended." The comfort was in one sense illusory, or extremely fragile, since it rested on a massive ignorance of what it excluded. In another sense it was entirely real, since whatever and whoever were known, were known intimately. This is what Rudikoff nicely calls "the working of these social worlds through time."

"It is fascinating," Rudikoff writes, "to see Woolf, thirty-odd years into the twentieth century, still framing social questions in terms that would not have surprised Thackeray." It is fascinating too, and in a dimension which, thanks to Rudikoff, we can see as something more than gossip and petite histoire, that Woolf's father should have been Thackeray's son-in-law. Simple faith may be more than Norman blood, but is it better than literary ancestry? Woolf, like Thackeray, like Proust, regards snobbery as a moral failing which is also a devious commitment to history, and even, however disagreeable many of its manifestations may be, a vivid if perverse form of imaginative life. In this context, it is moving to be reminded that "Woolf's life was lived entirely in houses with whose history she had no connection, although they were not without history." She may have made some history in the houses she rented or borrowed, but not nearly as much as she found there.

This is what makes her connection to Yeats, marked by the two poems cited as epigraphs, so poignant and revealing. In "Ancestral Houses," Yeats imagines a life of aristocratic ease, where wealth and abundance mean freedom from the dictates of others, and there is no mistaking the appeal of "the glory of escutcheoned doors." But the founder of the ancestral house is called a "violent bitter man," and the poem slips away into a series of brilliant, unanswerable, perhaps not fully comprehensible questions. What does "take our greatness" mean? Take away? Take on? Take up? Take in? Take our greatness the way we take our punishment or our medicine? Take our greatness the way death takes the dying? In "Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation," Yeats similarly evokes the freedom of "sweet laughing eagle thoughts," but then speaks repeatedly of "luck," and even as he conjures up "high laughter, loveliness and ease," reminds us that such speech is both "written" and "wrought"-someone is working here, even if the aristocrats are not.

For both Yeats and Woolf, the old social order is a thing of precarious beauty and privilege. It is history itself, the work of time. But it is not their history, and they believe in the dream or the memory of it more than they believe in its humdrum or ruined reality. It is, as Rudikoff says, "both strange and fascinating . . . that an avant-garde writer should have been so imaginatively entangled with the aristocracy at the moment of its decline," and of course Woolf's politics were quite different from those of Yeats. But by the time we reach of the end of Rudikoff's meticulous exploration of Woolf's world, what is strange and fascinating also makes perfect sense. "Time's last gift" is not given to the old possessors of great houses or to the unlucky dwellers in the new mean streets. It is given, if at all, to the writer, the artisan of words, the person who can make use of both figurative and literal ancestry, and who is willing to labour in order to achieve unlaboured art, the miracle of apparent ease which both hides and acknowledges how hard things have always been for those without coronets, and for many of those with them.

Michael Wood
March 1999

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