Introduction to William Cobbett's "Cottage Economy"

by G.K. Chesterton.

William Cobbett is the noblest English example of the noble calling of the agitator. The term has come to have a bad sense by a continual reference to cases, some of them true but more of them mythical, in which it has been connected with artificial programmes and private aims. The truer element refers to a few quacks who have flourished nostrums with which were merely novelties. The false is part of a snobbish fairy tale, by which a demagogue was needed to tell a starving man that hunger hurt him, and another to explain to some prostrate person that a policeman had knocked him down. But Cobbett had two clear grounds of defence against the charge of cheap tub-thumping, in those days when he sent a fiery cross through South England, which is perhaps the next thing to setting the Thames on fire. His first defence is that his type of demagogy had all the dangers of isolation. He was far too popular to be fashionable. He spoke for those innumerable who are also inarticulate; and those he sought to help were impotent to help him. He was not paid by the poor to champion their cause: for it is a singular fact, undiscovered by most of our doctors of sociology, that wealth is to be obtained from the wealthy.

The second fact that cleared Cobbett of the charge of quackery was that his nostrums mere not novelties, but very much the reverse. To use the language of a religious world which he furiously detested, he was a revivalist. Despite the other connections of the phrase, the real agitator has to be a revivalist: he has to appeal to what remains of a memory, or at least of a legend. What Cobbett attempted to revive was something which almost all political schools in his time especially despised. That is especially misunderstood: it was really medieval England. For the more immediate purpose of politics, it was rural England. But it was not a Bryonic repose in a rural barbarism; it was the quite business-like belief in the possibility, or rather the necessity, of a rural civilization. He believed that agricultural labour could pay; he even entertained the Quixotic fancy that it might pay the agricultural labourer. But that this might come about, he felt it as a primary necessity that the labourer should not be a serf, and even as little as possible a mere tenant. For the purposes of the present introduction, the most important fact is that he saw the cottager as master of his cottage; and had the historical instinct to grasp the great virtues that go with a small estate. Through all his days he thirsted after freedom. And he understood something that can only accompany freedom--property; and something that can only come with property--thrift.

What distinguishes Cobbett from most rural idealists, such as Ruskin, is that he was a realist as well. Like Ruskin, and long before Ruskin, he denounced the eating up of England by factories and industrial towns. He must have the credit because he had not, like Ruskin, the advantage of living when the terrible transformation was almost complete; when it was well within sight of its present congestion and collapse. He defied Industrialism when it was, if not exactly young and beautiful, at least young and hopeful. But what distinguishes him, as I say, is the practical upshot of his Arcadianism. This can be seen if we compare him with Ruskin even upon Ruskin's own most sacred ground. With no aesthetic culture and nothing of what men would now call a mystical temper, he nevertheless, by his own independent imagination, realised as fully as Ruskin did the overpowering historic importance of the old churches of England. But even here he shows that note of practicality which is also the note of hope. While Ruskin considered how many carvings might be found in a church, Cobbett always considered how many people could be seated in it. An unamiable critic might say that Ruskin knew everything about the building of a church except what it was built for. This would be exaggerative; but it is really relevant to note that Cobbett, in that utterly un-Christian epoch, did understand what it was built for; for it is the same pointed and fruitful attitude that he occupies towards other things, especially towards that thrift of the cottager which is the matter of this book. Ruskin could be trusted to tell his pupils how they should labour with paint or pencil to reproduce every vein and tint upon a cabbage leaf. But few would have trusted Ruskin with the cooking of the cabbage.

Cottage economy is a book which belongs entirely to this practical and even materialistic side of Cobbett's campaign. Its value, though of the most valid kind, is not the sort of which it is possible to plead in pen and ink. A cookery book can scarcely be a basis of controversy, though it may be of combat; and the proof of the pudding is in the eating. This is merely the commissariat of his revolutionary army; and, like a good general, he paid a great deal of attention to it. But scattered even through these pages, as through all the pages he wrote upon any subject, there are numerous lively passages which give us glimpses of his philosophy. It can hardly be missed in the case of those two grand survivals of a more Christian England, bacon and beer; but it is quiet equally apparent in the study of so small a matter as mustard. I do not profess to know by what process Cobbett discovered that the mustard bought in shops is adulterated, or even relatively poisonous. But it is a perfectly sound criticism on the anonymous tyrannies of trade that we have no possible means of knowing that it is not. The mustard seed that Cobbett advised the cottager to grow in his cottage garden is in this matter as symbolical as the similar seed in the parable. Such seed if grown by the genuine English peasant may yet grow into a great tree; and if we had faith as a grain of mustard seed we could indeed cast all our mountains of oppression into the sea. For a hundred years after Cobbett's forlorn hope we are confronted again by Cobbett's question. We must go back to freedom or forward to slavery. The free man of England, where he still exists, will doubtless find it a colossal enterprise to unwind the coil of three centuries. It is very right that he should consider the danger and pain and heart-rending complication involved in unwinding that coil. But it is also proper that he should consider the alternative; and the alternative is being strangled.

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Last modified: 6th April, 2018
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