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Gie fools their silk, and knaves their wine

Jane Austen begins her novel Persuasion, published posthumously in 1817, with an account of the character of her heroine’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, memorably played in an excellent film version of 1995 by the late Corin Redgrave.

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did; nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.

It would be a little bit of a stretch to regard Jane Austen as a political radical. Nevertheless, the greatest villains and fools in her novels are those who are afflicted by excessive pride of ancestry (or too much regard for money), Sir Walter Elliot and his snooty daughter Elizabeth, Mrs Ferrars and Lady Middleton in Sense and Sensibility, Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet tells Darcy that as the daughter of a gentleman she has nothing to be ashamed of. A gentleman in Austen’s world was, more or less, a person who didn’t have to work for a living. Mind you, Austen’s heroines, unlike other characters in the novels, have no horror of those who do work – in London in trade, a word usually pronounced by those who like to trace their families back to “the Conqueror” with a sharp rising inflexion. And rather unusually for fiction of the period Austen does not indulges in mockery of the poor or the uneducated.



Austen certainly sniffed it out that the upper classes properly speaking were, as often as not, fools and also, perhaps that they might to some degree be on the way out. Nevertheless she was not the radical that her slightly older contemporary Robert Burns, who was born on this day in 1759, was. Burns indeed was a fairly frank sympathiser, until he became a little scared, of the French revolutionary forces whom Austen’s brothers were at sea fighting (and doing very well on it too). Burn’s great anthem of the democratic spirit, A Man’s A Man For A’ That, still has the power to stir. “Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord, / Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that; / Tho' hundreds worship at his word, / He's but a coof for a' that.” A coof is a fool, a nincompoop, like Sir Walter Elliot, the handsome, unpleasant and empty-headed baronet of Kellynch-hall in Somerset.

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hodden grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

This fine song is, in my view, best suited to a woman’s voice. Well worth listening to is this version by Emily Smith with Jamie McClennan.

25/1/2015