THE RETURN TO CAMELOT: Chivalry and the English Gentleman by Mark Girouard

THE RETURN TO CAMELOT: Chivalry and the English Gentleman

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A sweeping, reverberating exploration of the critical part played by the concept of chivalry in forming the English gentleman's character from the period of the French Revolution through the heyday of imperial expansion and the rude awakening of World War I. Though Girouard (Life in the English Country House) tends to see history as the sum of particles of experience (visible particles largely), his wide-angle vision leads him to marshal an extraordinary diversity of evidence, including: the highly stylized sex lives of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, the curious revival of Gothic castle architecture, the commercial success of inspirational novels (Tom Brown's Schooldays, et al.), and the radical conservatism of Thomas Carlyle and the Christian Socialists. But only toward the close--after keeping the reader suspended, if absorbed--does Girouard produce his central thesis: the complimentary relationship between the image of the gentleman and the exigencies of 19th-century ruling-class life. ""The changing image of the gentleman had obvious attractions to those born into the ruling class,"" he writes. ""It meant that, at a time when inherited privilege was increasingly under attack, they were presented with a powerful weapon with which to overcome criticism and keep their position."" That ""changing image"" served--we recognize throughout--to disguise a multitude of often questionable social and political attitudes: rabid anti-intellectualism, hostility toward the middle class, fanatic devotion to physical fitness, and a political vision dominated by both nostalgia for the feudal past and unquestioned faith in the imperial future. Girouard's inquiry also accommodates many a fanciful diversion--as when he suggests that the high-chivalric Englinton Tournament, a jousting event which drew upwards of 100,000 spectators and participants, may have originated in seven-year-old Charles Lamb's fascination with pet guinea pigs. . . which he transformed by the hundreds ""into knights, counts and dukes"" (garbed and housed to suit). The book really hits its stride, however, in the final chapters, particularly the three devoted to public school athletics, the Boy Scouts, and the development of British imperial policy. Telling points are made here too by the panoply of illustrations, a Girouard trademark. (See the early Rugby footballers in velvet caps and patterned jerseys--forerunner of the modern football jersey?--or the book cover featuring St. George with the Boy Scout fleur-de-lis on his shield.) With apposite literary excerpts as well, a contribution to the history of ideas that will especially appeal to those who fancy the tangible.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press