Book Review from the September 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Pheasants and Men.” By “Medicus.” Old Royalty Book Publishers. Price, 3s. 6d. 255 pages.
“Medicus ” is evidently a doctor in a rural area—“ Clayshire ”—which bears a marked resemblance to Lincolnshire. His aim in writing the book is to portray the mastery which the landowners exercise over the lives of all who live by the land. He knows his types and introduces a number of incidents which make interesting reading. It must, however, be confessed that the love episodes, dragged in to please the reader of modern romantic fiction, are too slight and are not handled with sufficient skill to make a very effective novel.
The story shows how an agricultural labourer holding ideas that are against the economic interests of his employer, the landed gentry, is hounded down and becomes a marked man, his means of livelihood gone. Louth, the man in the story, assaults one of his master’s foremen for an unjust accusation of theft made against him and having previously been suspected of rebellious ideas, he is prosecuted and heavily fined. His master dismisses him and he is unable to get further employment. The tenant farmers fear the wrath of their land lords, the “gentry,” and the owner farmers are hand-in-glove with them, so that Louth is refused everywhere.
The justices who try Louth are all the landed gentry from the immediate neighbourhood, and agree that Louth’s behaviour is a direct menace to their interests as a class, and he must be suppressed. They systematically hound the man from that time forth. Louth’s master, although a thoroughly gross and uncouth individual, is regarded as of the same class as the gentry because of his position as owner farmer and possessing great wealth. Lord Prentice, a good-natured, inept kind of man, secretly pays Louth's fine and gets him a job on the road. The rest of the gentry are upset at this, but cannot find out who did it. They succeed in getting Louth's wages cut down and nip in the bud the endeavours of his sons to obtain employment. Louth’s daughter Mary is taken on as a maid in Lord Prentice’s service and meets her affinity in Lord Prentice’s son John. This love affair is the “ thread of romance” described as* runntng through the tale. The cover itself, by a faintly suggestive picture, gives the book all the appearance of a novel by Victoria Cross, but the “affair” is quite decorous. The lady in her capacity as maid takes John his morning tea to his bedroom, sits upon the bed and feeds him with bread and butter, both murmuring sweet nothings the while. The “romance” finishes by Lord John marrying good little Mary in the approved Peg's Paper style.
Louth is left a legacy of three hundred pounds and rents some land from one of the gentry who let it to him with the express idea of watching this smallholding idea fail. Contrary to expectations, instead of Louth being once more humiliated, with the help of manures, etc., he enriches his poor land, keeps poultry, and he and his sons begin to make money. Then the landowner puts more pressure on him. He raises his rent and gets the assessment committee to raise his rateable value. This enrages Louth, and at the election Louth opposes Lord Prentice’s son John, and had it not rained would have won the day. The brain of the gentry, Scutton Mamby, goes mad, and as he was the magistrate who could always find a way to convict the most innocent of victims, the stuffing seems to drop out of the gentry and the story finishes by Mary being introduced by Lord Prentice’s plebian mother (she had been an actress) to her friends and assuring Mary that old Louth’s future was now assured.
The author, although no doubt possessing sympathy with the agricultural workers, does not clearly appreciate their social subjection. He points out that the people who make the laws also punish those who offend against them, and that it is the people who possess who make the laws. Thus Lord John enters Parliament as a property-owner and his father acts as magistrate to enforce the laws his son helps to make.
These facts, however, are very well realised by those who dwell in rural districts and the position is much the same in the towns, although perhaps not so apparent. Most labourers in the country realise that it it hopeless to take any troubles with their master to court. They know that the owner or tenant farmers are backed up by the magistrates on all occasions. It is not only, however, the gentry who are magistrates. The farmers themselves, especially when retiring, are often made J.P.’s and are worse tyrants than the former. They are more feared because, having been in personal contact with the labourer, they know just how to terrorise their victims. The labourers certainly do not, as the book suggests, go in such fear of the gentry as they do the farmers. So long as they keep out of court they rarely meet. The gentry to them are like their god, living behind iron gates instead of gold. The parson acts as high priest and intermediary between them. The author also gives one the impression that the farmers rather fraternise with the gentry, but this is hardly true. The farmers,, schoolmasters, publicans and tradespeople, usually have their own Buff lodges and hunting clubs, and their social activities, fetes and flower shows, etc., are sometimes graciously patronised by the gentry, who will deign to open any charitable show that is going to help the poor and take them off of their own doorstep; and then as graciously fade away again. The doctor and God’s servant are accepted as runners-up to them.
Louth, in the story, is supposed to possess more than the average intelligence of his mates. He, however, utters no revolutionary or enlightening speeches and really acts rather stupidly in not clearing out. when he came into his money and getting away from the people who had personal animosity towards him.
The only real points of interest to a Socialist are the facts which show how the laws are framed and administered in the interests of the possessing class. The book shows the severity of the game laws even on trifling thefts, but does not try to show that all the “Thou shalt not steal ” laws are based upon a society which allows one section of the community to possess and not produce,, and the other, the vast majority, to produce and possess nothing, eking out a miserable existence on an insufficient wage that makes stealing almost a necessity.