Friday, April 05, 2013
What’s a gentleman to do?
Doctor Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), defines a gentleman as ‘a man of birth, though not noble’. A gentleman had no need to work for a living.
In the Regency period, there were only three professions a gentleman could go into and remain a gentleman: the army, the navy or the church. Trade was out, or, more accurately, was only acceptable if done, in your name, by someone else. Sir Thomas Bertram, in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, owned a slave plantation in Jamaica, but an overseer ran it for him.
This creates a difficulty for novelists of Regency romances. You cannot have a hero who sits on his backside and does nothing. Three of Jane Austen’s heroes were in holy orders: Henry Tilney, Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram, but it’s not easy to have a clergyman hero nowadays. That leaves only the army and the navy, which creates problems of how and where can the hero and heroine can meet.
I was thinking of all this when visiting the splendid Linnaean Society, one of the ‘learned societies’ in Burlington House, Piccadilly, London. It was set up in 1788 as a major source of information on natural history, especially plant and animal classification, and named after the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus.
It was, in effect, a club for men who were seriously interested in the natural sciences. Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, was a member, as was Charles Darwin. It was, I thought, just the place for an intelligent gentleman of independent means; I could imagine him in the meeting room or library, planning his next plant collecting expedition.
Eminent 18th and 19th century men had a penchant for built splendid public buildings for various societies - with all the classical trimmings – but they were invariably off limits for women. So how could he meet her there?
Wandering round the Linnaean Society house, I was very taken by the small statue of Linnaeus with a bowl at the base for offerings. Traditionally, if you had a seed or flower you couldn’t identify, you placed it in the bowl, and, rather like sending a letter up the chimney to Father Christmas, Linnaeus magically identified it for you.
Perhaps, one day, a resourceful young woman placed a message in the bowl, tucked away inside a seed-case…
Top: The library, Linnaean Society
Middle: The staircase
Bottom: The offerings at the feet of Linnaeus' statue