The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft

Author: George Gissing


That a labourer in the fields should stand very much on the level of the beast that toils with him, can be neither desirable nor necessary. He does so, as a matter of fact, and one hears that only the dullest-witted peasant will nowadays consent to the peasant life; his children, taught to read the newspaper, make what haste they can to the land of promise—where newspapers are printed. That here is something altogether wrong it needs no evangelist to tell us; the remedy no prophet has as yet even indicated. Husbandry has in our time been glorified in eloquence which for the most part is vain, endeavouring, as it does, to prove a falsity—that the agricultural life is, in itself, favourable to gentle emotions, to sweet thoughtfulness, and to all the human virtues. Agriculture is one of the most exhausting forms of toil, and, in itself, by no means conducive to spiritual development; that it played a civilizing part in the history of the world is merely due to the fact that, by creating wealth, it freed a portion of mankind from the labour of the plough. Enthusiasts have tried the experiment of turning husbandman; one of them writes of his experience in notable phrase.

"Oh, labour is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it without becoming proportionately brutified. Is it a praiseworthy matter that I have spent five golden months in providing food for cows and horses? It is not so."

Thus Nathaniel Hawthorne, at Brook Farm. In the bitterness of his disillusion he went too far. Labour may be, and very often is, an accursed and a brutalizing thing, but assuredly, it is not the curse of the world; nay, it is the world’s supreme blessing. Hawthorne had committed a folly, and he paid for it in loss of mental balance. For him, plainly, it was no suitable task to feed cows and horses; yet many a man would perceive the nobler side of such occupation, for it signifies, of course, providing food for mankind. The interest of this quotation lies in the fact that, all unconsciously, so intelligent a man as Hawthorne had been reduced to the mental state of our agricultural labourers in revolt against the country life. Not only is his intellect in abeyance, but his emotions have ceased to be a true guide. The worst feature of the rustic mind in our day, is not its ignorance or grossness, but its rebellious discontent. Like all other evils, this is seen to be an inevitable outcome of the condition of things; one understands it only too well. The bucolic wants to "better" himself. He is sick of feeding cows and horses; he imagines that, on the pavement of London, he would walk with a manlier tread.

There is no help in visions of Arcadia; yet it is plain fact that in days gone by the peasantry found life more than endurable, and yet were more intelligent than our clod-hoppers who still hold by the plough. They had their folk-songs, now utterly forgotten. They had romances and fairy lore, which their descendants could no more appreciate than an idyll of Theocritus. Ah, but let it be remembered that they had also a HOME, and this is the illumining word. If your peasant love the fields which give him bread, he will not think it hard to labour in them; his toil will no longer be as that of the beast, but upward-looking and touched with a light from other than the visible heavens. No use to blink the hard and dull features of rustic existence; let them rather be insisted upon, that those who own and derive profit from the land may be constant in human care for the lives which make it fruitful. Such care may perchance avail, in some degree, to counteract the restless tendency of the time; the dweller in a pleasant cottage is not so likely to wish to wander from it as he who shelters himself in a hovel. Wellmeaning folk talk about reawakening love of the country by means of deliberate instruction. Lies any hope that way? Does it seem to promise a return of the time when the old English names of all our flowers were common on rustic lips—by which, indeed, they were first uttered? The fact that flowers and birds are well-nigh forgotten, together with the songs and the elves, shows how advanced is the process of rural degeneration. Most likely it is foolishness to hope for the revival of any bygone social virtue. The husbandman of the future will be, I daresay, a well-paid mechanic, of the engine-driver species; as he goes about his work he will sing the last refrain of the music-hall, and his oft-recurring holidays will be spent in the nearest great town. For him, I fancy, there will be little attraction in ever such melodious talk about "common objects of the country." Flowers, perhaps, at all events those of tilth and pasture, will have been all but improved away. And, as likely as not, the word Home will have only a special significance, indicating the common abode of retired labourers who are drawing old-age pensions.


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Chicago: George Gissing, "XVII," The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, trans. Evans, Sebastian in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft Original Sources, accessed June 5, 2023,

MLA: Gissing, George. "XVII." The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, Original Sources. 5 Jun. 2023.

Harvard: Gissing, G, 'XVII' in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, trans. . cited in , The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. Original Sources, retrieved 5 June 2023, from