A bad morning. David Brooks’s column in this morning’s Times is sinking in.
At these moments, tough guys do well. Cooperative skills are less valued while confrontational skills are more valued. Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election in Israel. The pugnacious Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, is staging a comeback in France. Putin is in his element.
Barack Obama started out as a hope-and-change idealist, but he has had to toughen to fit the times. Angela Merkel is the paradigmatic leader of the age: shrewd, unemotional, nonidealistic, austere and interested in power. As the former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum told George Packer of The New Yorker: “If you cross her you end up dead. … There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.”
In these moments, right-leaning parties tend to do well and have a stronger story to tell on national security. They speak the language of nationalism and cultural cohesion. People who are economically insecure (and more likely to lean left) drop out of the political process.
When Brooks goes on to speak of good times for Chris Christie and Scott Walker, all I can think of is Virginia Woolf, at about this time of year, in 1941. Nothing degrades humanity faster than fear, and life in a climate of fear is, as Hobbes put it, nasty and brutish. Short begins to look like a plus.
I’ve been reading about confrontational times of long ago, Hobbes’s day, in fact: the crisis of 1637-41 that led up to the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. This is not a particularly favorite period of mine, but Ray Soleil brought back a book from his trip to England last summer that I fell into reading despite my own better judgment. (I mentioned it the other day.) Eventually, I couldn’t stand any more, and had to turn to my bookshelves for CV Wedgwood’s account of the same period, The King’s Peace: 1637-1641 (Oxford, 1956). I read it as an undergraduate, without any real understanding, and no sense whatever of Wedgwood’s artistry, but I managed to hold onto the edition, a now-battered first.
Wedgwood (1910-1997) was the great-great-great granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood. She earned a First at Lady Margaret College, Oxford, and in no time at all presented the world with the richly comprehensive Thirty Years War. It’s probably not irrelevant to note that her mother was also a writer. The King’s Peace begins with a brief acknowledgment of thanks to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which enabled her, she says, to write it sooner than she had expected.
The King’s Peace is divided into three sections, the first of which provides the background to the crisis. This background is very spacious. We are taken on a survey of the dominions under Charles’s rule — industry, resources; courtly life and the arts; and so on — that would not seem underdeveloped as an introduction to the history of the Seventeenth Century overall; as the prelude to four turbulent years, it risks seeming overkill. But it establishes a pace of fine-grained scrutiny that the interested reader will find reassuring: Wedgwood has an almost uncanny sense of detail that prevents her ever being tedious. There is, therefore, no impatience for her to begin. The Queen does not appear until the seventy-third page, and almost at once this opening section comes to a close.
The second section of the background report is entitled “Faith and Foreign Politics.” It runs from page 76 to page 133. The hinge between the two subject issues is so quietly clever — for now I was paying as much attention to Wedgwood’s craftsmanship as I was to her story — that I memorized the page number: 110. Having covered the irreconcilable differences between the Arminian clergymen of the Church of England and their Calvinist opponents, Wedgwood wraps up with a few cases of High Commission sanctions against men who would later be known as Dissenters. One of these was a brash young man called Thomas Shepard. Effectively defrocked, Shepard lost an appeal. “Uprooted, Shepherd fled to Yorkshire where he took refuge in a private household, but his retreat was discovered and he sailed for the wider freedom of New England.” We have arrived at Foreign Policy.
The North American colonies do not long detain Wedgwood; it’s enough to know that the king seriously considered outlawing further emigration. Foreign policy began very much at home, with a Catholic queen whose marriage treaty guaranteed her right to worship as she saw fit, and whose husband, initially chilly but later enthralled, confused making her life agreeable with appearing to tolerate not only Catholics but their priests.
The popular argument was ignorant, incorrect, but deadly: if the King, the head of the Anglican Church, persecuted honest Protestants and smiled upon the Papists, it followed that the Church itself was being led back to Rome. The King’s indiscreet and harmless relations with his wife’s friends made his, and Laud’s, religious policy suspect, not only to extremists and fanatics, but to the substantial majority of his Protestant subjects.
This is the best kind of writing: it presents a thorny complication (the king’s confusion) in an agreeably comprehensible manner. (“Smiles” is particularly fine.) But there is something else, something peculiar to this moment in my reading.
Once, he had been in love. At least, he had wanted desperately to go to bed with the girl and thought continuously of her, which fitted descriptions of the state. Mercifully, he discovered that there was already another man before he exposed himself to the humiliation of rejection. Now, he couldn’t remember what she looked like.
He wished, sometimes, that he had married. Sex he would have enjoyed, and a wife would have been armour against the more aggressive female parishioners. He stood in the aisle, still holding the red glove, and pictured the wife he did not have; she swam into the rose window above the west door, a realistic figure, nothing like Mrs Paling, but dumpy and rather plain, wearing a brown raincoat and carrying a pile of organ music, not an arousing figure but a reassuring one. (96)
That’s from Judgment Day. Penelope Lively (born 1933) read history at St Anne’s College, Oxford, graduating with honors. It is not necessary for her undergraduate path to have crossed Wedgwood’s to make out, if not a connection, then a relatedness. Both women write with the same muted geniality.
If Monday comes and goes without an entry’s appearing here, and Tuesday does the same, and so with the rest of the week, that will probably be because I will be taking a break in Palo Alto. Kathleen will be participating in an event at Stanford, and of course I must take the opportunity to visit my daughter and her family in San Francisco. (Although at the moment I’m very tempted to hide under the bed.) I hope to return to weather more springlike, and less punishing, than what afflicts us now.
In the current issue of The New Yorker, a gentleman of my age shares his experiences as a picker-upper of coins in the street. He claims that his haul has swollen since the spread of smartphones.
Bon weekend à tous!