Wednesday, June 06, 2018

'A Sad Heart and a Gay Temper'

We dive into the work of some writers like skinny-dipping teenagers in June. Others we approach cautiously, toe first, testing the waters. Agnes Repplier (1855-1950) is among the latter. I like her defiant spirit and scorn for the merely fashionable. Less appealing is an occasional late-Victorian fuddy-duddyism. I find her best read in small doses, so I’m reading the fittingly titled Points of Friction (Houghton Mifflin, 1920) one essay per night. Take this from “Consolations of the Conservative,” which presciently echoes Michael Oakeshott’s “On Being Conservative”:

“Stupidity is not the prerogative of any one class or creed. It is Heaven's free gift to men of all kinds, and conditions, and civilizations. A practical man, said Disraeli, is one who perpetuates the blunders of his predecessor instead of striking out into blunders of his own. Temperamental conservatism is the dower (not to be coveted) of men in whom delight and doubt—I had almost said delight and despair—contend for mastery; whose enjoyment of colour, light, atmosphere, tradition, language and literature is balanced by chilling apprehensiveness; whose easily won pardon for the shameless revelations of an historic past brings with it no healing belief in the triumphant virtues of the future.”

That’s Repplier at her best – piquant, witty, cant-free. She’s a fine model for essayists, a free-flowing aphorist:

“Progressives have branded temperamental conservatism as distrust of the unknown,—a mental attitude which is the antithesis of love of adventure. But distrust of the unknown is a thin and fleeting emotion compared with distrust of human nature, which is perfectly well known. To know it is not necessarily to quarrel with it. It is merely to take it into account.”

Repplier always takes into account human nature, which is “perfectly well known” and frequently unattractive. Watch the way she paces her thoughts, arranging her sentences like a masterful joke-teller or a good lawyer addressing the jury: “Civilization and culture are very old and very beautiful. [A conventional thought, stated matter-of-factly.] They imply refinement of humour, a disciplined taste, sensitiveness to noble impressions, and a wise acceptance of the laws of evidence. [Evidence delivered like muted pistols shots.] These things are not less valuable for being undervalued. [The punch line.]”

Chief among the virtues Repplier values are courage and cheerfulness, qualities linked in her mind. In another essay in Points of Friction, “The Cheerful Clan,” she finds them  among the essayists who are her forebears: 

“This is a call for courage, for the courage that lay as deep as pain in the souls of Stevenson, and Johnson, and Lamb. The combination of a sad heart and a gay temper, which is the most charming and the most lovable thing the world has got to show, gave to these men their hold upon the friends who knew them in life, and still wins for them the personal regard of readers. Lamb, the saddest and the gayest of the three, cultivated sedulously the little arts of happiness. He opened all the avenues of approach. He valued at their worth a good play, a good book, a good talk, and a good dinner. He lived in days when occasional drunkenness failed to stagger humanity, and when roast pig was within the income of an East India clerk. He had a gift, subtle rather than robust, for enjoyment, and a sincere accessibility to pain. His words were unsparing, his actions kind. He binds us to him by his petulance as well as by his patience, by his entirely human revolt from dull people and tiresome happenings.”

[I’ve written before about Repplier here and here.]

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