Since Roger Langdon’s work lingers for nearly half of the length of his writings on his home life and childhood, I think it only fair that we explore it in more detail. Since performing the last of my blogs, I noticed something interesting; although Roger Langdon’s writings omitted the name of his hometown, his daughter Ellen, upon publishing the work, clarified the place of his birth through the appendicies; showing the Parish Clerks of Chisleborough as copied from the Register, and saying in no uncertain terms that Edward Langdon was Roger Langdon’s father; unintentionally or not, this clarifies Roger’s hometown. And what a small place it is. Chisleborough is a town in South Somerset with a whopping population of 275 people. A quiet place, relatively isolated from the rest of the world even today, and more so back then, when it had “no electric telegram”.
Roger Langdon speaks plainly about the best and worst sides of both rural and urban life in the 1800s, and Reverend John Eddowes perhaps best muses on how the disparity between the two environments was not as vast as many modern works claim; “We hear a great deal now and then of the wickedness that abounds in manufacturing localities; however it may be pretty safely affirmed that those demoralizing practices for which our land is unhappily notorious, abound to a greater extend in country places than in crowded towns… the lot of the village laborer is very different. His work is in the fields or the farm all day long: it is laborious, and often performed in solitude or silence. He is not educated: he cannot enjoy the most interesting book, or even the newspaper: village politics are the only politics he cares to discuss: of the great questions which agitate out nation, he knows literally nothing.”
This sense of isolation from the rest of the world is perhaps best exemplified in Roger Langdon’s recollection of his village’s first contact with vaccination. Roger tells stories of being “knockle-headed”, which is a crude form of vaccination practiced by the village before that time, involving having a penny-sized chunk of your flesh removed and being intentionally infected beneath, before the removed flesh was plastered back on. Roger Langdon’s mother was taught that small-pox was unavoidable, and he recalls his mother saying “all these evil things are the ‘Lord’s’ will, so who can hinder it?”. Knockle-heading was presented as a traumatic and life-threatening experience, one which killed Louisa, a friend of Roger’s.
However, when presented with the opportunity to travel to another village, Martock, to receive inoculation, she agreed straight away and she says that “I am only sorry that I did not know of vaccination sooner, so that I could have had all my children vaccinated.”. So on the one hand, this positive interaction shows how those from the “country places” are indeed willing to try new things and advance themselves, without breaking their faith or struggling with it whatsoever. However, the bitter judgement and cruelty of Old Nanny Holland upon her discovery of this vaccination also shows that some isolated villagers are dead-set in their ways, uninterested in the wider world, and judgmental of any who break their borders. As always, Roger presents us, between his mother and Nanny Holland, a balanced view.
Roger was the youngest child of his family, including seven brothers, and every member of his family up to and including him were expected to work as soon as they were able. It was simply accepted as part of the village life. He was sent to work at the farm “at the tender age of eight”. He describes his working conditions as very harsh: “For the princely sum of one shilling a week I had to mind sheep and pull up turnips in all winds and weathers, starting at six o’clock in the morning. Very often I was out in the pouring rain all day and would go home very wet” But while the classic stories of the difficulty of the work are indeed present, Roger does not dwell on it for long; whenever he mentions hard work in this autobiography, he mentions it with a puritan spirit, an attitude of pride in its challenge and completion. No, the true difficulty in his work came with the abuse he suffered at the hands of Jim.
With Jim, Roger regales the reader with countless examples of absolutely vile behavior, cruelty, torturous mistreatment, threat, silencing and even attempted murder. Through Jim, Roger draws a connection to things such as the revelation of slavery in America, by showing that yes, people can indeed be this pointlessly cruel: “Not many years ago Mrs. Beecher Stowe shocked the refined feelings of the civilized world with her graphic account of the sufferings of the negro slaves in the United States of America… Some people, those who have passed smoothly through their childhood, and have scarcely known sorrow, may ask whether it is possible that such things could have been done in England? My answer to this is, yes. It was not the parents, but the age that was to blame…” Roger’s quiet, meek, religious demeanor could easily have been mistaken for a lack of thought or personality, where he not to have told us this story through his eyes. The idea that the village laborer was unintelligent for being uninformed about matters others consider important, as Eddowes claims, is a patronizing perspective. To this, I say only thus: do not ascribe your meaning to match that which others ascribe your meaning to. Even thus far into the story, Roger Langdon’s dialogue has shown me the breadth of his maturity as an experienced and complete person, long before his departure into the city of Jersey, or to the railway in Silverton, Devon, where he would eventually pass away. And it is this maturity that gives his later encounters with the city a more thoughtful countenance.
1:420 LANGDON, Roger, The Life of Roger Langdon, told by Himself. With Additions by his Daughter Ellen, with a preface by H. Clifton Lambert (Elliot Stock, London, ), pp. 104 [55pp. of autobiography, 20pp. written by daughter, 18pp. of appendices, 1.0420
Eddowes, John, The Agricultural Labourer as He Really Is; Or, Village Morals in 1854, etc., The British Library: James C. Blaketon, 1854. Digitised 13 Aug 2014