The things not stated, and opaque to later readers

In the Journals of John Wesley, we find a couple of descriptive passages which must leave a careful non-English reader scratching his head in confusion.

The first of these, from 2nd July, 1745, reads as follows:

I was reading my text when a man came, raging as if just broke out of the tombs; and riding into the thickest of the people seized three or four one after another, none lifting up a hand against him A second (gentleman so called) soon came after, if possible more furious than he, and ordered his men to seize on some others, Mr Shepherd in particular. Most of the people however stood still as they were before and began singing an hymn. Upon this Mr B. lost all patience and cried out with all his might, “Seize him, seize him. I say, Seize the Preacher for his Majesty’s service.” But no one stirring he rode up and struck several of his attendants, cursing them bitterly for not doing as they were bid. Perceiving still that they would not move, he leaped off his horse, swore he would do it himself, and caught hold of my cassock, crying “I take you to serve his Majesty.” A servant taking his horse, he took me by the arm and we walked arm in arm for about three quarters of a mile. He entertained me all the time with the wickedness of the fellows belonging to the Society. When he was taking breath I said, “Sir, be they what they will, I apprehend it will not justify you in seizing me in this manner, and violently carrying me away, as you said, to serve his Majesty.” He replied, “I seize you! And violently carry you away” No, Sir, no. Nothing like it. I asked you to go with me to my house and you said you was willing; and if so you are welcome, and if not, you are welcome to go where you please.” I answered, “Sir, I know not if it would be safe for me to go back through this rabble.” “Sir, (said he) “I will go with you myself.” He then called for his horse, and another for me, and rode back with me to the place from whence he took me.

There is no indication in the text as to why Mr Borlase suddenly changed his tune.  He grabbed Wesley by the arm and frog-marched him away from the scene, ranting all the while; and then, when Wesley finally managed to say something, suddenly Borlase denied doing any such thing.

Another similar passage here:

As soon as I came within sight of Tolcarn, (in Wendron parish,) where I was to preach in the evening, I was met by many, running as it were for their lives, and begging me to go no further. I asked “Why not?” They said, “The churchwardens and constables, and all the heads of the parish, are waiting for you at the top of the hill, and are resolved to have you: they have a special warrant from the justices met at Helstone, who will stay there till you are brought. I rode directly up the hill, and observing four or five horsemen, well dressed, went straight to them and said, “Gentlemen has any of you any thing to say to me? – I am John Wesley.” One of them appeared extremely angry at this, that I should presume to say I was Mr John Wesley. And I know not how I might have fared for advancing so bold an assertion, but that Mr Collins the minister of Redruth, (accidentally as he said,) came by. Upon his accosting me and saying he knew me at Oxford, my first antagonist was silent, and a dispute of another kind began: whether this preaching had done any good.  I appealed to matter of fact. He allowed, (after many words), “People are the better for the present,” but added, “To be sure, by and by, they will be as bad if not worse than ever.”

Again we see the sudden change in attitude.  A group of the local gentry have assembled, determined to arrest John Wesley and convey him to the magistrates, who are waiting for his arrival – doubtless to treat him as innocent until proven guilty.  And what happens?  Wesley speaks a few words, and suddenly the mood has changed.

To anyone unfamiliar with English society, this material must seem very abrupt.  It is easy — perhaps too easy — to imagine some dull source-critical academic, of the kind that is laughed at today, pronouncing these passages fictional; or interpolated; and using the awkwardness of the narrative as a reason.

But anyone who has been in England for five minutes knows the explanation.  In England, social status is reflected in the accent of the speaker.  The nobility and the labourer may speak the same language, but each will recognise the other simply by the way they speak.

We cannot hear the voice of John Wesley.  But we need not doubt that he spoke as a gentleman, in an Oxford accent, indeed. 

As soon as Mr Borlase heard him do so, and heard the educated words, he instantly realised that he was not dealing with a labourer, but with a man of property and standing who could, if he chose, prosecute him for assault and would be listened to by a judge.

Likewise the Cornish gentlemen had only to hear a few words, and observe his manner, to deduce instantly that their proposed actions were not possible or desirable to attempt on one of their own class, even before the identification by Mr Collins, the minister of Redruth.  It looks very much as if the luckless Collins had been brought along to identify their intended victim.  They had, perhaps, supposed that Wesley had been a poor bible scholar of Lincoln, rather than a gentleman.  A few words showed them otherwise.

It’s important to realise that all works are written in a kind of shorthand.  No literary text can explain every nuance to its readers, present and future.  There is an assumed commonality of understanding, impossible to avoid, between author and contemporary reader, which will not be the case a few centuries later.

Let us try to remember this, the next time some learned fool tries to argue from a presumed awkwardness in an ancient text.  The text may be interpolated.  But it may simply be that we don’t read it as a contemporary would have done.

6 Responses to “The things not stated, and opaque to later readers”

  1. sftommy

    Thank you, I’m not well read on Wesley but would have assumed there was text missing, and interpreted it that way (I might have spent 30 years looking for it). Context, context, context.


  2. Roger Pearse

    I’ve had the Everyman edition of his Journals all my adult life, and so I was familiar with the passages. But yes, that’s what we would all naturally think.

  3. Maureen

    Huh. I didn’t catch that at all. I just assumed that he spoke in a reasonable way, and that people felt ashamed of themselves. Whereas actually it was a sort of case where gentlemanly voice and behavior = civis Romanus sum.

    Which means that when someone in a novel goes all “My good man, what are you doing?”, he is giving the person a chance to hear his credentials. Huh.

  4. Roger Pearse

    Exactly. Interesting to learn that intelligent people really do not spot this even now.

    Had he spoken thusly: “‘Ere, wot you fink yore doin’, mate?” he would have never been heard of again.

  5. Maureen

    If they’d really handed him over to be pressed, that would have been a heck of an alternate history story.

  6. Roger Pearse

    True. But some of the Methodist preachers were press-ganged, even though they were not strictly liable, as Wesley’s journal makes plain. Evidently Wesley was evidently not a safe person to mess with.