GeRtrude himmelfarb and victorians I knew and loved

Mary Munro (nee Sweeney) March 17,1915 for the baptism of my father Thomas Munro, Jr. At the time her husband was serving in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front with her nephews, brothers and brother in law. When my father was born, March 10 1915, my grandfather was listed Missing in Action. As the story goes my grandmother prayed every day and soon she had a telegram that her husband had been rescued by his good friend Johnny Robertson and handful of “Dins”. My grandparents were forever grateful to the Indian soldiers of the Raj.

My godmother Kitty Tracy (nee Scally) and my father’s sister Helene (Nelsie) Munro
To the right, Thomas Munro, Sr while serving with the 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to the left is his nephew Jimmy Quiqley (his mother was my grandmother’s sister) Both men emigrated to America in the 1920’s and never returned to Scotland.

A very warm eulogy to Himmelfarb the scholar and author and Bea Kristol the wife, companion, friend and woman. I have read many of her books and have never ceased to be impressed by her learning and analysis. The Victorian age is not that far away from me. My grandparents were born in the Victorian Age. My grandfather told me about the The 1897 Diamond Jubilee; he was a boy apprentice in the Merchant Marine and saw some of the celebrations in India and China. He remembered her death in 1901. He told me that Queen Victoria was almost universally loved and admired especially in Scotland. Soldiers loved Queen Victoria because she honored them and the bravest among them with the Victoria Cross. She symbolized the motherland.When I think of my parents and grandparents I think of people who took responsibility for their lives. They were not wealthy or even middle-class but they worked hard to be RESPECTABLE lower upper working class even if that mean long stints at sea and working as birds of passage in Latin America, Canada and the United States. I never once heard my grandparents curse or use foul language. And to them the family was indeed, as Himmelfarb wrote, a :”sacred place”. My grandparents had little formal education; they could not read or write their native language but were reasonably literate in English. They were, by today’s standards, good readers. Both my grandmothers studied the Bible or Missal assiduously. My grandfather quoted Burns and Kipling freely. They were country folk by birth and so there were no doubts in their generation as to belief in God, his Commandments and heaven. They were tempted by Socialist and Marxist ideas in their youth but disagreed fundamentally with Socialism on issues like patriotism, the Empire and Christianity (all of which my grandparents were sure were benevolent and good). Both my grandfathers were heavy drinkers -when they got the chance- but their wives were completely teetotal.

It was the practice for the men not to drink heavily except Saturday nights. They routinely turned over all their wages to their wives (so did the children) and the wives handed out money for some amusement such as picnics, attendance at the movies, concerts or ball games. My paternal grandfather was proud of the history of his Regiment and showed me in the atlas they many places they fought and who among kinsmen and friends won decorations especially the Victoria Cross. They emulated and admired middle-class ethics and values. Courage, politeness, civility , graciousness, generosity and integrity were bywords for Victorians like my grandparents. The highest compliment was to be considered lady-like and for a man to a “a Highland gentleman.” So Himmelfarb was exactly right that the Balmoralism of the Queen and the Victorian values she represented were emulated by working class people.

I know they were all united by their love of the monarchy, the flag, the Empire and Commonwealth. My grandparents were separated only by war and be death. To them marriage vows were sacrosanct. I remember one of the worst things my grandfather would say of a man was “he has naepoosh” (no push/no ambition). The highest honor was to be a “leal n’ true mon.” (what Bea Kristol would probably call a “mensch”. It is not an exaggeration to say they probably attended church or religious gatherings over 200 times a year. My grandfathers were avid readers of newspapers and enjoyed military bands, concerts and recordings of famous artists like Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser, Caruso, Rachmaninoff or John McCormack. They were very proud to be British in origin (they became naturalized Americans) and very proud to have served as soldiers of the Queen in many famous Regiments (most now disbanded and with Yesterday’s Seven Thousand Years). When King and Country needed them in 1914 they answered the call (An Gairm) from far off India, Australia, America, Canada and so in Glasgow alone 200,000 men volunteered for service. A large percentage were men who were Canadian citizens or USA citizens who returned for what they considered “the cause of True honour” -defending the motherland.

They did not have much education but they valued education opportunities for their children and grandchildren. Thanks to my grandparents (maternal and paternal) my father was the first in his family to graduate from high school and then go to college (Brooklyn College as the fates would have it). My mother was the first in her family ever to graduate from high school and she went on to become a RN. My parents succeeded in life and their children and grandchildren too in part because of the values that were passed on.

Himmelfarb is right that poverty is “a matter of mind and spirit as of the pocket.” My father’s mother scrubbed and washed the steps of her tenement regularly. Her home was always immaculate. She made sure her husband and children had clean clothes to wear especially on a Sunday. She had to do all the washing by hand with a washboard and usually with cold water. She was proud that she always gave something at church. She and her generation sacrificed to send money to help build the Oban Cathedral (finished in 1959). Most of the money came from overseas Gaels. Wherever they went they help build churches and communities.

And yet these were people who suffered cold and real hunger many days of their lives. It was very common, at the end of the month or in a bad season, not to eat at all for days or merely eating turnips and porridge and hot tea without sugar. When my grandmother came to America by steamer everyone survived on crackers, butter, marmalade and hot tea, two or three times a day. But she never complained and always said grace at meals. One of the virtues she taught us was to HAVE GRATITUDE. Americans today could learn much by studying the lives and morals of Victorians and the works of Gertrude Himmelfarb. Victorians were brave, hard-working, tough, generous, noble, loyal, loving and ambitious. Even their failings leaned towards virtue’s side. They were not great, prosperous and free by accident. Himmelfarb recognized that the key to their greatness was moral principles and moral character which informed their lives and actions.