Gentry then and now

Per my last blog post, i waltzed through Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion in a couple of weeks — pretty speedy by the standards of someone who does 95% of my reading on screen. But a chapter or two a day gets through the thing. At first it was like climbing a hill, frequently losing the sense of those long, wandering sentences, getting distracted, rereading. But as the story gathered momentum, and my literary perseverance developed, it became easier, and then a pleasure, to pick up the book. I even took to reading regularly in the evenings, something i rarely do.

It was also a vaguely disturbing book to read, in that pretty much the entire action is the British upper crust — landed gentry, with money and basically no useful function in society — struggling and scheming to occupy, amuse or advance themselves and their family, in fairly cut-throat fashion. Gossip and social machination are not just the order of the day, they’re all that’s available to fill the time … which makes for some dry reading, for those like me not much into the minutiae of human lives. Even the “good” characters, like Anne, the loose protagonist, spend much time and many, many pages thinking and rethinking everyone else’s intentions, motivations, affections, machinations, misapprehensions, malevolences.…

It’s like a multi-dimensional game of emotional chess, and it felt claustrophobic, even suffocating, just reading it, never mind imagining what it would be like to lead the life. That’s not a world i could live in … or so i thought.

But a week later i realized something: with the cresting demographic wave of retiring boomers now upon us, there’s a flood of people with money and free time and a generational sense of entitlement all around me (indeed, I’m one of them), that is a pretty close analogue to the British upper crust of the early 1800s.

Today’s gentry, many wealthy off lifelong careers and real estate booms, have more opportunities available to them in terms of travel, recreational pursuits and social freedoms, but they face the same yawning space of time as did the ladies and baronets of Austen’s day. Most of them are going to be retired for 10 or 20 or 30 years, and they have to fill that time with something. For now it seems to be playing out in self-indulgence. Hopefully some of the social activism that marked the generation’s youth will make a much-needed appearance too.

 

For the record: I’m not retired, though i am also not working at anything. After my four-year council term, immersed to the eyeballs in municipal politics and bureaucracy, ended last November, i’m taking what i call a sabbatical year, deliberately getting back into all those things that were pushed aside (or crushed) as a councillor: reading for pleasure, leisurely contemplation, a bit of unrushed, responsible travel, the occasional blog post.…

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