Friday, December 20, 2019

'There Is a Love of Exerting Mischief!'

“Poor Enfield, that has been so peaceable hitherto, has caught the inflammatory fever; the tokens are upon her; and a great fire was blazing last night in the barns and haystacks of a farmer, about half a mile from us. Where will these things end?”

In a sense they never did, though the Reform Act of 1832 and the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 helped reduce the conflagration to glowing embers. Charles Lamb is writing to his friend George Dyer on this date, Dec. 20, in 1830, as a witness to the Swing Riots then sweeping southern and eastern England. Farm laborers angered by the ongoing mechanization of agricultural work destroyed threshing machines and burned down haystacks and barns. The disturbances were named for the fictional Captain Swing, who personified the disaffected farm workers as King Ludd had earlier represented the textile workers we know as Luddites. The government’s reaction to the vandalism was swift and harsh. More than 600 rioters were imprisoned, some 500 transported to Australia and 19 executed.

Lamb and his sister Mary had moved to Enfield, then a rural village, now part of London, in 1825, after his retirement from the East India Company. In his letter, Lamb sounds worried but treats the unrest with a characteristic mingling of sangfroid and comedy:

“There is no doubt of its being the work of some ill-disposed rustic, but how is he to be discovered? They go to work in the dark with strange chemical preparations unknown to our forefathers. There is not even a dark lantern to have a chance of detecting these Guy Fauxes. We are past the iron age, and are got into the fiery age, undream’d of by Ovid.”

Lamb is not sympathetic to the cause of the vandals and arsonists, regardless of the injustices they may have suffered and the raising of their “class consciousness”:

“It was never good times in England, since the poor began to speculate upon their condition. Formerly they jogged on with as little reflection as horses. The whistling plowman went cheek by jowl with his brother that neighed. Now the Biped carries a box of phosphorus in his leather breeches, and in the dead of night that half-illuminated Beast steals his magic potion into a cleft in a barn, and half a county is grinning with new fires.”

Lamb might be describing recent events in our own country:

“It is not always revenge that stimulates these kindlings. There is a love of exerting mischief!”

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