Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Swift’

Problems Only the Rich Have These Days

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Don’t we feel sorry for the poor troubled aristocratic family in Downton Abbey? Not so much, I think. Because even on their worst days, they never even have to think about taking out the trash or scrubbing crusted food off a dinner plate. They have servants to do those things for them.

Kate Dolan writes about problems with servants

Less than a hundred years ago, even families considered “poor” usually had at least some hired help living in or near the house and assisting with household duties. But today the price of labor has increased so much that it is a true luxury to have help around the house, especially on a full-time basis.

So now most of us can enjoy hearing about problems with servants since we can’t afford them anyway. Jonathan Swift, best known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, apparently had a great deal of trouble, either real or imagined, with his household staff. He wrote sarcastic “Directions to Servants” instructing them how to perform their duties as poorly as possible.

Here’s an example: “Masters and Ladies” he says, “are usually quarrelling with the Servants for not shutting the Doors after them: But neither Masters nor Ladies consider that those Doors must be open before they can be shut, and that the Labour is double to open and shut the Doors; therefore the best and shortest, and easiest Way is to do neither.”

Hey, makes sense to me. And it will keep down the heating bills.

I wonder if he had kids in mind when he wrote this next bit of advice, because modern parents can definitely relate. “Never come till you have been called three or four Times;” he advises, “for none but Dogs will come at the first Whistle: And when the Master calls (Who’s there?) no Servant is bound to come; for (Who’s there) is no Body’s Name.”

Another piece of advice that might also apply to teens is how to handle the situation when you’ve been out on an errand and stayed out a little too long (2,4, 6 or 8 hours). He offers a list of excuses such as (1)you had to say goodbye to a dear cousin who is about to be hanged next Saturday; (2) a fellow servant who owed you money was about to run off to Ireland so you had to track him down; (3) you were pressed into service in the navy and it took three hours explaining before the Justice of the Peace why you couldn’t go; (4) your dad gave you a cow to sell; (5) you were told your master was in a tavern so you had to search for him “in a hundred Taverns between Pall-mall and Temple-bar;”or my personal favorite, (6) “Some Nastiness was thrown on you out of a Garret Window, and you were ashamed to come Home before you were cleaned, and the Smell went off:”

While we might have to deal with some lame excuses from our children or employees these days, we do not generally have to worry about being hit with the contents of a chamber pot thrown out someone’s window. And for that, I am grateful, even if it means I live in a day and age where I can’t afford servants.

Lilliputian Parliament

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d pay homage to the “little people” who played a vital role in the development of the free press we enjoy today. Not leprechauns, but close. I’m referring to Lilliputians, created by Jonathan Swift in his most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels. (Swift was a gifted English writer but he lived most of his life in Ireland and that’s my only tie-in to the shamrock holiday).

Anyway, in the story published in 1726, Swift satirizes the politics of Britain with his description of the government of Lilliput, a land of people about six inches tall. At the time, it was illegal to print transcriptions of debates in the English Parliament. But the public thirst for knowledge was great enough to inspire some enterprising publishers to print them anyway. In 1738, Edward Cave, publisher of The Gentleman’s Magazine, was ordered to discontinue reporting on parliament. He evaded the problem with a little publishing subterfuge. He hired someone to hide within earshot of the debates and jot down rough notes about what was said. Then the notes were then written up and reported as the “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput.” Samuel Johnson eventually took over the writing of these reports, although historians doubt that he was ever actually present at a debate. Since he was working from another reporter’s sparse notes, Johnson had to imagine what the speakers actually said and fill in with political rhetoric he would have expected them to use. So the public was able to get a quasi-journalistic view of the debates.

Of course, to comply with legalities, the speakers in the debates were given Lilliputian names, but those familiar with the politics of the day would have easily been able to determine who he was referring to, especially since the Lilliputian names were often simple anagrams of the real political figures they represented. The Lilliputian debates were so successful they boosted the magazine’s circulation considerably. But after a few years, Johnson decided to stop writing the debates. He told his biographer that he had to quit as soon as he realized that people were mistaking his fictional speeches for the real thing. I guess this would have been sort of like the problem with the airing of The War of the Worlds, except that no one thought the Lilliputians were actually attacking. In any case, it seemed to take him an awfully long time to gauge public reaction. But he supposedly regretted his part as “an accessary[sic] to the propagation of falsehood” for the rest of his life.

Regardless of his regret, these half-fictional reports eventually paved the way for true parliamentary reporting in Britain, which was not officially legalized until 1771.

In a strange way, we seem to have come full circle in the media in recent years. We started with real reports pretending to be fictional. Johnson and his unknown reporter partner presented the substance of actual parliamentary debates under the guise of fiction. Today we have staged and contrived situations portrayed on television and reported in other media as “reality.”  And with the advent of cable television and internet blogs, journalistic reporting and commentary have so many voices spouting “truth” from so many different divergent viewpoints that it is hard to know who has been hiding in the shadows taking notes on what’s really going on.

I, for one, would love to read what Swift and Johnson would have to say about it.

Until next time…