The British General Election of 1906 had some interesting similarities to our present election. There was the fear (and the eventual reality) that the liberals would defeat the conservatives. (They did by a landslide). There was a contention over a trade bill causing concern among the general worker population that jobs would be in jeopardy. (The liberals believed it would lower prices for everyone ) There was a concern about the feminist element and its effect on the results of the election. And there was an undercurrent of growing unrest about the deplorable poverty that was being ignored. Bold assertions were being claimed from both sides. Things that have an eerie (or at least a repetitious) similarity to our upcoming election.
G. K. Chesterton wrote an essay examining the election of 1906 through the lens of those he considered had misunderstood Jane Austen and specifically had misunderstood the political lessons to be learned from the character of Mr. Wickham from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s Wickham is a charismatic personality, charming and well-spoken, but he uses it to insinuate himself into the lives of others he hopes to benefit from and manipulate with half-truths.
Five years ago and we might have feared them,
Been drubbed by the coward and taught by the dunce;
Truth may endure and be told and re-echoed,
But a lie can never be young but once.
Five years ago and we might have feared them;
Now, when they lift the laurelled brow,
There shall naught go up from our hosts assembled
But a laugh like thunder. We know them now.
-G K Chesterton, Election Echo, 1906
“Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth. He did not merely swagger or sentimentalize or strike attitudes; he simply told the girl, as if reluctantly, that he had been promised a living in the Church by old Mr. Darcy, and that young Mr. Darcy had not carried out the scheme. This was true as far as it went; anybody might have believed it; most people would have believed it, if it were told with modesty and restraint. Mr. Wickham could be trusted to tell it with modesty and restraint. What Mr. Wickham could not be trusted to do was to tell the rest of the story; which made it a very different story. He did not think it necessary to mention that he had misbehaved himself in so flagrant a fashion that no responsible squire could possibly make him a parson; so that the squire had compensated him and he had become an officer in a fashionable regiment instead. Now that is a very quiet, commonplace, everyday sort of incident, and the sort of incident that does really occur. It is a perfectly sound and realistic example of the way in which quite sensible people can be deceived by quite unreliable people. And the novelist knew her business much too well to make the unreliable person obviously unreliable. That sort of quiet and plausible liar does exist; I certainly see no reason to think he has ceased to exist. I think Jane Austen was right in supposing that Elizabeth Bennett might have believed him. I think Jane Austen herself might have believed him. And I am quite certain that the Modern Girl might believe him any day.
But the rather queer application of all this to the case of the General Election is not without a moral, after nil. The optimistic journalist, who gloried in the infallible intuition of the Flappers’ Vote, those a very unlucky example for his own purpose when he chose the ingenious Mr. Wickham. For Mr. Wickham was, or is, exactly the sort of man who does make a success of political elections. Sometimes he is just a little too successful to succeed. Sometimes he is actually found out, by some accident, doing very dexterous things in the art of finance; and he disappears suddenly, but even then silently. But in the main he is made for Parliamentary life. And he owes his success to two qualities, both exhibited in the novel in which he figures. First, the talent for telling a lie by telling half of the truth. And second, the art of telling a lie not loudly and offensively, but with an appearance of gentlemanly and graceful regret. It was a very fortunate day for professional politicians when some reactionaries began to accuse them of being demagogues. The truth is that they seldom dare to be demagogues; and their greatest success is when they talk with delicacy and reserve like diplomatists. A dictator has to be a demagogue; a man like Mussolini cannot be ashamed to shout. He cannot afford to be a mere gentleman. His whole power depends on convincing the populace that he knows what he wants, and wants it badly. But a politician will be much wiser if he disguises himself as a gentleman. His power consists very largely in getting people to take things lightly. It is in getting them to be content with his sketchy and superficial version of the real state of things. Nothing tends more happily to this result than the shining qualities of Mr. Wickham; good manners and good nature and a light touch. All sorts of answers are given by Ministers to questions asked in Parliament, which could only be delivered in this way. If such palpable nonsense were thundered by an orator, or shouted by a demagogue, or in any way made striking and decisive, even the House of Commons would rise in riot or roar with laughter. Nonsense so nonsensical as that can only be uttered in the tones of a sensible man.
So vividly do I see Mr. Wickham as a politician that I feel inclined to rewrite the whole of Pride and Prejudice to suit the politics of to-day. It would be amusing to send the Bennett girls rushing round to canvass: Elizabeth with amusement, and Jane with dignified reluctance. As for Lydia, she would be a great success in modern politics. But her husband would be the greatest success of all; and he might become a Cabinet Minister while poor old Darcy was sulking in the provinces, a decent, truthful, honourable Diehard, cursing the taxes and swearing the country was going to the dogs and especially to the puppies.”
-G. K. Chesterton, On Jane Austen in the General Elections, Come To Think Of It, 1930
Read More: On Jane Austen in the General Election