It’s one of those concepts which often seems to belong wholly to the past, isn’t it?
And yet, without a better understanding of it, much of early 19th century history must remain an wholly closed world to us, because it will have coloured and tinged almost every aspect of their daily lives.
Over the past few days, I’ve been reading a tremendous book, Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807-1814 by Dominic Lieven.
“Honour, publicly displayed courage, and loyalty to regiment and fellow-officers all mattered greatly. So too did living up to one’s status and rank. The battlefield, like the duel, allowed honour to be publicly displayed and defended. In some respects the ‘field of honour’ – in other words the battlefield – was also the ancestor of today’s sporting match. ‘Winning’ meant holding one’s ground and capturing trophies such as cannon and standards. These male warrior values appear not just archaic [today] but also sometimes childish: nevertheless they mattered greatly because they affected morale and kept officers steadfast in the face of death and mutilation.”
I could not, not in one hundred years, say it better than has Professor Lieven in the above-quoted passage.
And whether one takes this enhanced understanding of honour into the reading of Patrick O’Brian’s work, or uses it to better appreciate Jane Austen’s portrayal of men in society, either way, it must deepen our perception of the motives and characters of those who lived two hundred years ago.
Equally, because I am so greatly impressed by this work of Professor Lieven’s, I hope to give a greater overview of its many fine points later, when I’ve finished it and am able to analyse coherently – as opposed to my current panygeric-prone state.
Back to the book…