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An essay by Augustine Birrell

Arthur Young

Title:     Arthur Young
Author: Augustine Birrell [More Titles by Birrell]

The name of Arthur Young is a familiar one to all readers of that history which begins with the forebodings of the French Revolution. Thousands of us learnt to be interested in him as the 'good Arthur,' 'the excellent Arthur,' of Thomas Carlyle, a writer who had the art of making not only his own narrative, but the sources of it, attractive. Even 'Carrion-Heath,' in the famous introductory chapter to the Cromwell, is invested with a kind of charm, whilst in the stormy firmament of the French Revolution the star of Arthur Young twinkles with a mild effulgency. The autobiography of such a man could hardly fail to be interesting.[A] The 'good Arthur' was born in 1741, the younger son of a small 'squarson' who inherited from his father the manor of Bradfield Combust, in Suffolk, but held the living of Thames Ditton. Here he made the acquaintance of the Onslow family, and Speaker Onslow was one of Arthur's godfathers. The Rev. Dr. Young died in 1759, much in debt. The Bradfield property had been settled for life on his wife, who had brought her husband some fortune, and to the manor-house she retired to economize.

[Footnote A: The Autobiography of Arthur Young. Edited by M. Betham Edwards. Smith, Elder and Co.]
Arthur's education had been muddled; and an attempt to make a merchant of him having fallen through, he found himself, on his father's death, aged eighteen, 'without education, profession, or employment,' and his whole fortune, during his mother's life, consisting of a copyhold farm of 20 acres, producing as many pounds. In these circumstances, to think of literature was well-nigh inevitable, and, in 1762, the autobiography tells us:

'I set on foot a periodical publication, entitled the Universal Museum, which came out monthly, printed with glorious imprudence on my own account. I waited on Dr. Johnson, who was sitting by the fire so half-dressed and slovenly a figure as to make me stare at him. I stated my plan, and begged that he would favour me with a paper once a month, offering at the same time any remuneration that he might name.'

Here we see dimly prefigured a modern editor prematurely soliciting the support of Great Names. But the Cham of literature, himself the son of a bookseller, would have none of it.

'"No, sir," he replied; "such a work would be sure to fail if the booksellers have not the property, and you will lose a great deal of money by it."

'"Certainly, sir," I said, "if I am not fortunate enough to induce authors of real talent to contribute."

'"No, sir, you are mistaken; such authors will not support such a work, nor will you persuade them to write in it. You will purchase disappointment by the loss of your money, and I advise you by all means to give up the plan."

'Somebody was introduced, and I took my leave.'

The Universal Museum, none the less, appeared, but after five numbers Young 'procured a meeting of ten or a dozen booksellers, and had the luck and address to persuade them to take the whole scheme upon themselves.' He then calmly adds, 'I believe no success ever attended it.' It was, indeed, 100 years before its time. Literature abandoned, Young took one of his mother's farms. 'I had no more idea of farming than of physic or divinity,' nor did he, man of European reputation as a farmer though he soon became, ever make farming pay. He had an itching pen, and after four years' farming (1763-1766) he published the result of his experience. Never, surely, before has an author spoken of his first-born as in the autobiography Young speaks of this publication:

'And the circumstance which perhaps of all others in my life I most deeply regretted and considered as a sin of the blackest dye was the publishing of my experience during these four years, which, speaking as a farmer, was nothing but ignorance, folly, presumption, and rascality.'

None the less, it was writing this rascally book that seems to have given him the idea of those agricultural tours which were to make his name famous throughout the world. His Southern tour was in 1767, his Northern in 1768, and his Eastern in 1770. The subject he specially illuminated in these epoch-making books was the rotation of crops, though he occasionally diverged upon deep-ploughing and kindred themes. The tours excited, for the first time, the agricultural spirit of Great Britain, and their author almost at once became a celebrated man.

In 1765 Young married the wrong woman, and started upon a career of profound matrimonial discomfort, and even misery; a blunt, truthful writer, he makes no bones about it. It was an unhappy marriage from its beginning in 1765 to its end in 1815. Young himself, though by no means vivacious in this autobiography, where he frankly complains of himself as having no more wit than a fig, was a very popular person with all classes and both sexes. He was an enormous diner-out, and his authority as an agriculturist, united to his undeniable charm as a companion, threw open to him all the great places in the country. But his finances were a perpetual trouble. On carrot seeds and cabbages he was an authority, but from 1766-1775 his income never exceeded L300 a year. He had an excellent mother, whom he dearly loved, and who with the characteristic bluntness of the family bade him think less about carrots and more about his Creator. 'You may call all this rubbish if you please, but a time will come when you will be convinced whose notions are rubbish, yours or mine.' And the old lady was quite right, as mothers so frequently turn out to be. In 1778 Young went over to Ireland as agent to Lord Kingsborough. He got L500 down, and was to have an annual salary of L500 and a house. Young soon got to work, and became anxious to persuade his employer to let his lands direct to the occupying cottar, and so get rid of the middlemen. This did not suit a certain Major Thornhill, a relative and leaseholder, and thereupon a pretty plot was hatched. Lady K. had a Catholic governess, a Miss Crosby, upon whom it was thought my lord occasionally cast the eye of partiality, whilst Arthur himself got on very well with her ladyship, who was heard to pronounce him to be, as he was, 'one of the most lively, agreeable fellows.' Out of these materials the Major and his helpmeet concocted a double plot--namely, to make the lord jealous of the steward, and the lady jealous of the governess, and to cause both lord and lady respectively to believe that the steward was deeply engaged both in abetting the amour of the lord and the governess, and in prosecuting his own amour with the lady. The result was that both governess and steward got notice to quit; but--and this is very Irish--both went off with life annuities, the governess with one of L50 per annum, and the steward with one of L72, and, what is still more odd, we find Young at the end of his life in receipt of his annuity. They were an expensive couple, these two.

In 1780 Young published his Irish Tour, which was immediately successful and popular in both kingdoms. In it he attacked the bounty paid on the land-carriage of corn to Dublin. The bounty was, in the session of Parliament next after the publication of Young's book, reduced by one-half, and soon given up entirely. Young maintains that this saved Ireland L80,000 a year. Nobody seems to have said 'Thank you.'

In May, 1783, was born the child 'Bobbin,' whose death, fourteen years later, was to change the current of Young's life. The following year Arthur Young paid his first visit to France, confining himself, however, to Calais and its neighbourhood, and in the same year his mother died, and, by an arrangement with his eldest brother, 'this patch of landed property,' as Young calls Bradfield, descended upon him. His first famous journey in France was made between May and November, 1787, and cost the marvellously small sum of L118 15s. 2d. His second and third French journeys were made in July, 1788, and in June, 1789. The third was the longest, and extended into 1790. Three years later Young was appointed, by Pitt, Secretary of the then Board of Agriculture. A melancholy account is given by Young of a visit he paid Burke at Gregory's in 1796. Young drove there in the chariot of his fussy chief, Sir John Sinclair, to discover what Burke's intentions might be as to an intended publication of his relating to the price of labour. The account, which occupies four pages, is too long for quotation. It concludes thus:

'I am glad once more to have seen and conversed with the man who I hold to possess the greatest and most brilliant gifts of any penman of the age in which he lived. Whose conversation has often fascinated me, whose eloquence has charmed; whose writings have delighted and instructed the world; whose name will without question descend to the latest posterity. But to behold so great a genius, so deepened with melancholy, stooping with infirmity of body, feeling the anguish of a lacerated mind, and sinking to the grave under accumulated misery--to see all this in a character I venerate, and apparently without resource or comfort, wounded every feeling of my soul, and I left him the next day almost as low-spirited as himself.'

But Young himself was soon to pass into the same Valley of the Shadow, not so much of Death as of Joyless Life. His beloved and idolized Bobbin died on July 14, 1797. She seems to have been a wise little maiden, to whom her father wrote most affectionate letters, full of rather unsuitable details, political and financial and otherwise, and not scrupling to speak of the child's mother in a disagreeable manner. Bobbin replies with delightful composure to these worrying letters:

'I have just got six of the most beautiful little rabbits you ever saw; they skip about so prettily you can't think, and I shall have some more in a few weeks. Having had so much physic, I am right down tired of it. I take it still twice a day--my appetite is better. What can you mind politics so for? I don't think about them.--Well, good-bye, and believe me, dear papa, your dutiful Daughter.'

After poor little Bobbin's death, it happened to Arthur Young even as his mother foretold. Carrots and crops and farming tours hastily retreat, and we find the eminent agriculturist busying himself, with the same seriousness and good faith he had devoted to the rotation of the crops, with the sermons and treatises of Clarke and Jortin and Secker and Tillotson, etc., and all to discover what had become of his dear little Bobbin. His outlook upon the world was changed--the great parties at Petworth, at Euston, at Woburn struck him differently; the huge irreligion of the world filled him as for the first time with amazement and horror:

'How few years are passed since I should have pushed on eagerly to Woburn! This time twelve months I dined with the Duke on Sunday--the party not very numerous, but chiefly of rank--the entertainment more splendid than usual there. He expects me to-day, but I have more pleasure in resting, going twice to church, and eating a morsel of cold lamb at a very humble inn, than partaking of gaiety and dissipation at a great table which might as well be spread for a company of heathens as English lords and men of fashion.'

It is all mighty fine calling this religious hypochondria and depression of spirits. It is one of the facts of life. Young stuck to his post, and did his work, and quarrelled with his wife to the end, or nearly so. He cannot have been so lively and agreeable a companion as of old, for we find him in November, 1806, at Euston, endeavouring to impress on the Duke of Grafton that by his tenets he had placed himself entirely under the covenant of works, and that he must be tried for them, and that 'I would not be in such a situation for ten thousand worlds. He was mild and more patient than I expected.' Perhaps, after all, Carlyle was not so far wrong when he praised our aristocracy for their 'politeness.' In 1808 Young became blind. In 1815 his wife died. In 1820 he died himself, leaving behind him seven packets of manuscript and twelve folio volumes of correspondence.

Young's great work, Travels during the Years 1787, 1788, and 1789, undertaken more particularly with a View of Ascertaining the Cultivation, Wealth, Resources, and National Prosperity of the Kingdom of France, published in 1792, is one of those books which will always be a great favourite with somebody. It will outlive eloquence and outstay philosophy. It contains some famous passages.

[The end]
Augustine Birrell's essay: Arthur Young