December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
A few fighting words were issued in the general direction of American antiquarians the other day, from a fairly expert transatlantic source. The speaker was John F. W. Rathbone, who as an official of Britain’s National Trust knows a good deal about preserving and restoring historic sites. After visiting a number of restorations in this country, and after complimenting us on our growing enthusiasm for history, he leveled at his target.
“If you would forgive me for presuming to advise,” he said, “I would say don’t over-restore, don’t be corny about it—bogus, as we say in England. For example, at Cooperstown, New York, I visited a beautifully preserved doctor’s house of the Eighteenth Century. But inside the house, I found a caretaker dressed in Eighteenth-Century costume pretending to dispense Eighteenth-Century medicine.
“Now, in England, we have hundreds of beautiful old country homes which have been continuously occupied by the same family for hundreds of years. They are open to the public, while the descendants of the founders go on living there. You can look into a sitting room of a duchess, say, and see how she lives today, with electric light and a television set amid pictures, draperies, and furniture 300 years old.”
We can take a duchess at her television set or leave her alone; otherwise there seems to be little doubt that Mr. Rathbone has scored a pretty fair hit. A kind of pseudo contemporary cuteness, or creeping costumization, seems to be overtaking a good many of our restorations. The historically-minded can only rejoice when the final faded brick is in place and the last termite routed; but they shudder when, almost at the same instant, the knee breeches and three-cornered hats appear and a local teen-ager in a farthingale begins to thwack a lute. Like as not, she will be chewing gum.
Mr. Rathbone’s remarks put us in mind of the business of “U and Non-U” stirred up by the English novelist Nancy Mitford and Professor Alan Ross of Birmingham University in a new book called Noblesse Oblige. Their contention is that, since the upper classes in England can no longer be distinguished by being any cleaner, richer, or better educated than anyone else, they can only be recognized by certain subtleties in speech and choice of words. U (or upper class) speakers say napkin, never serviette; rich, not wealthy; false teeth, not dentures. Non-U’s (the vast congeries of other ranks) eat dinner in the middle of the day, say interésting instead of in’tresting, and are given to murmurs of “cheersl” before drinking (the U-speaker says nothing). No matter how vast a heap of living, as Edgar A. Guest, a Non-U writer, puts it, has gone into one’s residence, and this among the U’s may run to several centuries, the old pile remains a house and not a home.
Miss Mitford’s tests will hardly apply in less stratified America, a pretty Non-U place in her opinion, but it does seem possible to apply a roughly similar sort of test to the business of preserving history. Let us call it “H and Non-H.” In England, for example, the Coronation or the British Museum would be H and Madame Tussaud’s waxworks Non-H. Beacon Hill in Boston, especially Louisbourg Square, is very H. The presence there of an authentic Boston literary figure, Mark Antony De Wolfe Howe, aged 92, only adds to the H-ness, while the occasional business of dressing up someone as Paul Revere on April 19, of course, is quite Non-H. Independence Hall in Philadelphia is as H as the nearby Betsy Ross House, the overwhelmingly cute site of an unverified incident, is Non-H.
The most notable Non-H activities, of course, emanate from Hollywood where history consists of Shirley Temple’s footsteps in cement; the ordinary movie costume drama, or epic, with its actors who really do not look like Washington and Lincoln, and never will, makes the H flesh creep. Television is not immune to this infection, yet the Ford Foundation program, Omnibus, for example, has displayed a very H approach in presenting in a kind of impressionistic way the story of the Constitution, and the saga of the Adams family.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure the H-oriented historian knows is a triumph, however petty, over the Non-H. One such concerns a man who, fresh from a trip to England, with a pocketful of English small change, happened into a famous American restoration and retired for refreshment to its Olde Inné, where an artful old-style menu, redolent of “toafted cheefe,” “nut browne ale,” and the like was thrust before him. As an added touch, each item was priced in shillings and pence—at Eighteenth-Century levels. The prices were, to be sure, given again in Twentieth-Century dollars and cents on the other side of the menu, and the check came to $7. All this he ignored, however, simply paying the waitress the required sum of one fhilling, threepence (with a generous American tip). Even though the headwaiter, the management, and finally a lawyer were summoned, plain Englifhe nevertheless triumphed. The ancient prices have been removed.
All the H crowd demands is a chance to take their history straight.