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Improvement

The notion of improvement became something of a thing for the Anglophone world during the seventeenth century. At that time, landlords and their capitalist tenants were just beginning to come to grips with nascent legal and social structures that severed the rent of a piece of land from a fixed, traditional amount, and allowed it to become fluid, increasing in rate. This meant, as Wood put it, that a ‘market in leases’ was opened up, and landlords could pick and choose amongst a group of tenants, all in economic competition with each other. Naturally, or, that is, accordingly, this meant that the landlord would choose the tenant who would pay the most rent. Through rough and ragged averaging, the ‘going rate’ of a piece of land would equilibriate around whatever the general practice of the tenants could produce.

Of course there is, in this system, always a compulsion to produce more: the landlord might feel compelled to suddenly increase rents for the next season, and the tenants must always struggle to keep up with the general practice — even beat it, if possible. So both sought to improve the land. Wood notes that the word pops up often in texts from the time, and she points out that the word itself derives from the old French pros, profit. This need for continual increase in profit, improvement, was built into the system relating landlords to tenants itself, and it became a sort of organizing mantra of English society. Books detailing specific methods of improvement, whether techniques such as crop rotation or laying fallow or the development of new technologies for harvest and processing, exploded at the time. And tenants and landlords not only say these things as opportunities, they were imperatives. In order to not be tossed into the growing number of propertyless wage-laborers, capitalist tenants had to constantly rework their farming methods; it order to maintain themselves as proper landlords, land owners had to constantly apply greater pressure on tenants. The vicious circle of improvement ensued.

The enclosures took place during the craze over improvement. Tenants and landlords eyed the world hungrily, looking for broader areas to improve — as they had to, to sustain themselves. And their eyes fell on the traditionally ‘open’ lands that peasants had used to pasture their livestock or gather firewood. These lands were bleeding potential profit away with their traditional uses, and had to be closed off and mastered. And so they were: but the significant thing is not that they were sealed but that the way of life, the patterns of subsistence, the means of production that they had once sustained were destroyed. With their destruction even more of people’s subsistence became subsumed into market relations, the stuff of potential improvement.

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  1. For fun, the self-image:

    Smollet, Humphrey Clinker:

    To Dr LEWIS.

    DEAR DICK,

    Since the last trouble I gave you, I have met with a variety of
    incidents, some of them of a singular nature, which I reserve as
    a fund for conversation; but there are others so interesting,
    that they will not keep in petto till meeting.

    Know then, it was a thousand pounds to a sixpence, that you
    should now be executing my will, instead of perusing my letter!
    Two days ago, our coach was overturned in the midst of a rapid
    river, where my life was saved with the utmost difficulty, by the
    courage, activity, and presence of mind of my servant Humphry
    Clinker — But this is not the most surprising circumstance of the
    adventure — The said Humphry Clinker proves to be Matthew Loyd,
    natural son of one Matthew Loyd of Glamorgan, if you know any
    such person — You see, Doctor, that notwithstanding all your
    philosophy, it is not without some reason that the Welchmen
    ascribe such energy to the force of blood — But we shall discuss
    this point on some future occasion.

    This is not the only discovery which I made in consequence of our
    disaster — We happened to be wrecked upon a friendly shore — The
    lord of the manor is no other than Charles Dennison, our fellow-rake
    at Oxford — We are now happily housed with that gentleman,
    who has really attained to that pitch of rural felicity, at which
    I have been aspiring these twenty years in vain. He is blessed
    with a consort, whose disposition is suited to his own in all
    respects; tender, generous, and benevolent — She, moreover,
    possesses an uncommon share of understanding, fortitude, and
    discretion, and is admirably qualified to be his companion,
    confidant, counsellor, and coadjutrix. These excellent persons
    have an only son, about nineteen years of age, just such a youth
    as they could have wished that Heaven would bestow to fill up the
    measure of their enjoyment — In a word, they know no other allay
    to their happiness, but their apprehension and anxiety about the
    life and concerns of this beloved object.

    Our old friend, who had the misfortune to be a second brother,
    was bred to the law, and even called to the bar; but he did not
    find himself qualified to shine in that province, and had very
    little inclination for his profession — He disobliged his father,
    by marrying for love, without any consideration of fortune; so
    that he had little or nothing to depend upon for some years but
    his practice, which afforded him a bare subsistence; and the
    prospect of an increasing family, began to give him disturbance
    and disquiet. In the mean time, his father dying, was succeeded
    by his elder brother, a fox-hunter and a sot, who neglected his
    affairs, insulted and oppressed his servants, and in a few years
    had well nigh ruined the estate, when he was happily carried off
    by a fever, the immediate consequence of a debauch. Charles, with
    the approbation of his wife, immediately determined to quit
    business, and retire into the country, although this resolution
    was strenuously and zealously opposed by every individual, whom
    he consulted on the subject. Those who had tried the experiment,
    assured him that he could not pretend to breathe in the country
    for less than the double of what his estate produced; that, in
    order to be upon the footing of a gentleman, he would be obliged
    to keep horses, hounds, carriages, with a suitable number of
    servants, and maintain an elegant table for the entertainment of
    his neighbours; that farming was a mystery, known only to those
    who had been bred up to it from the cradle, the success of it
    depending not only upon skill and industry, but also upon such
    attention and oeconomy as no gentleman could be supposed to give
    or practise; accordingly, every attempt made by gentlemen
    miscarried, and not a few had been ruined by their prosecution of
    agriculture — Nay, they affirmed that he would find it cheaper to
    buy hay and oats for his cattle, and to go to market for poultry,
    eggs, kitchen herbs, and roots, and every the most inconsiderable
    article of house-keeping, than to have those articles produced on
    his own ground.

    These objections did not deter Mr Dennison, because they were
    chiefly founded on the supposition, that he would be obliged to
    lead a life of extravagance and dissipation, which he and his
    consort equally detested, despised, and determined to avoid — The
    objects he had in view, were health of body, peace of mind, and
    the private satisfaction of domestic quiet, unallayed by actual
    want, and uninterrupted by the fears of indigence — He was very
    moderate in his estimate of the necessaries, and even of the
    comforts of life — He required nothing but wholesome air, pure
    water, agreeable exercise, plain diet, convenient lodging, and
    decent apparel. He reflected, that if a peasant without
    education, or any great share of natural sagacity, could maintain
    a large family, and even become opulent upon a farm, for which he
    payed an annual rent of two or three hundred pounds to the
    landlord, surely he himself might hope for some success from his
    industry, having no rent to pay, but, on the contrary, three or
    four hundred pounds a year to receive. He considered, that the
    earth was an indulgent mother, that yielded her fruits to all her
    children without distinction. He had studied the theory of
    agriculture with a degree of eagerness and delight; and he could
    not conceive there was any mystery in the practice, but what he
    should be able to disclose by dint of care and application. With
    respect to houshold expence, he entered into a minute detail and
    investigation, by which he perceived the assertions of his
    friends were altogether erroneous — He found he should save sixty
    pounds a year in the single article of house-rent, and as much
    more in pocket-money and contingencies; that even butcher’s-meat
    was twenty per cent cheaper in the country than in London; but
    that poultry, and almost every other circumstance of house-keeping,
    might be had for less than one-half of
    what they cost in town; besides, a considerable saving on the
    side of dress, in being delivered from the oppressive imposition
    of ridiculous modes, invented by ignorance, and adopted by folly.

    As to the danger of vying with the rich in pomp and equipage, it
    never gave him the least disturbance. He was now turned of forty,
    and, having lived half that time in the busy scenes of life, was
    well skilled in the science of mankind. There cannot be in nature
    a more contemptible figure than that of a man, who, with five
    hundred a year, presumes to rival in expence a neighbour who
    possesses five times that income — His ostentation, far from
    concealing, serves only to discover his indigence, and render his
    vanity the more shocking; for it attracts the eyes of censure,
    and excites the spirit of inquiry. There is not a family in the
    county nor a servant in his own house, nor a farmer in the
    parish, but what knows the utmost farthing that his lands
    produce, and all these behold him with scorn or compassion. I am
    surprised that these reflections do not occur to persons in this
    unhappy dilemma, and produce a salutary effect; but the truth is,
    of all the passions incident to human nature, vanity is that
    which most effectually perverts the faculties of the
    understanding; nay, it sometimes becomes so incredibly depraved,
    as to aspire at infamy, and find pleasure in bearing the stigmas
    of reproach.

    I have now given you a sketch of the character and situation of
    Mr Dennison, when he came down to take possession of this estate;
    but as the messenger, who carries the letters to the next town,
    is just setting off, I shall reserve what further I have to say
    on this subject, till the next post, when you shall certainly
    hear from

    Yours always,
    MATT. BRAMBLE
    Oct. 8.

    To Dr LEWIS.

    Once more, dear doctor, I resume the pen for your amusement. It
    was on the morning after our arrival that, walking out with my
    friend, Mr Dennison, I could not help breaking forth into the
    warmest expressions of applause at the beauty of the scene, which
    is really inchanting; and I signified, in particular, how much I
    was pleased with the disposition of some detached groves, that
    afforded at once shelter and ornament to his habitation.

    When I took possession of these lands, about two and twenty
    years ago (said he), there was not a tree standing within a mile
    of the house, except those of an old neglected orchard, which
    produced nothing but leaves and moss. — It was in the gloomy month
    of November, when I arrived, and found the house in such a
    condition, that it might have been justly stiled the tower of
    desolation. — The court-yard was covered with nettles and docks ,
    and the garden exhibited such a rank plantation of weeds as I had
    never seen before; — the window-shutters were falling in pieces, — 
    the sashes broken; — and owls and jack-daws had taken possession
    of the chimnies. — The prospect within was still more dreary — All
    was dark, and damp, and dirty beyond description; — the rain
    penetrated in several parts of the roof; — in some apartments the
    very floors had given way; — the hangings were parted from the
    walls, and shaking in mouldy remnants; the glasses were dropping
    out of their frames; — the family-pictures were covered with dust.
    and all the chairs and tables worm-eaten and crazy. — There was
    not a bed in the house that could be used, except one old-fashioned
    machine, with a high gilt tester and fringed curtains
    of yellow mohair, which had been, for aught I know, two centuries
    in the family. — In short, there was no furniture but the utensils
    of the kitchen; and the cellar afforded nothing but a few empty
    butts and barrels, that stunk so abominably, that I would not
    suffer any body to enter it until I had flashed a considerable
    quantity of gunpowder to qualify the foul air within.

    An old cottager and his wife, who were hired to lie in the
    house, had left it with precipitation, alledging, among other
    causes of retreat, that they could not sleep for frightful
    noises, and that my poor brother certainly walked after his
    death. — In a word, the house appeared uninhabitable; the barn,
    stable, and outhouses were in ruins; all the fences broken down,
    and the fields lying waste.

    The farmer who kept the key never dreamed I had any intention to
    live upon the spot — He rented a farm of sixty pounds, and his
    lease was just expiring. — He had formed a scheme of being
    appointed bailiff to the estate, and of converting the house and
    the adjacent grounds to his own use. — A hint of his intention I
    received from the curate at my first arrival; I therefore did not
    pay much regard to what he said by way of discouraging me from
    coming to settle in the country; but I was a little startled
    when he gave me warning that he should quit the farm at the
    expiration of his lease, unless I could abate considerably in the
     rent.

    At this period I accidentally became acquainted with a person,
    whose friendship laid the foundation of all my prosperity. In the
    next market-town I chanced to dine at an inn with a Mr Wilson,
    who was lately come to settle in the neighbourhood. — He had been
    lieutenant of a man of war, but quitted the sea in some disgust,
    and married the only daughter of farmer Bland, who lives in this
    parish, and has acquired a good fortune in the way of husbandry. — 
    Wilson is one of the best natured men I ever knew; brave, frank,
    obliging, and ingenuous — He liked my conversation, I was charmed
    with his liberal manner; and acquaintance immediately commenced,
    and this was soon improved into a friendship without reserve. — 
    There are characters which, like similar particles of matter,
    strongly attract each other. — He forthwith introduced me to his
    father-in-law, farmer Bland, who was well acquainted with every
    acre of my estate, of consequence well qualified to advise me on
    this occasion. — Finding I was inclined to embrace a country life,
    and even to amuse myself with the occupation of farming, he
    approved of my design — He gave me to understand that all my farms
    were underlett; that the estate was capable of great improvement;
    that there was plenty of chalk in the neighbourhood; and that my
    own ground produced excellent marle for manure. — With respect to
    the farm, which was like to fall into my hands, he said he would
    willingly take it at the present rent; but at the same time
    owned, that if I would expend two hundred pounds in enclosure, it
    would be worth more than double the sum.

    Thus encouraged, I began the execution of my scheme without
    further delay, and plunged into a sea of expence, though I had no
    fund in reserve, and the whole produce of the estate did not
    exceed three hundred pounds a year — In one week, my house was
    made weather-tight, and thoroughly cleansed from top to bottom;
    then it was well ventilated by throwing all the doors and windows
    open, and making blazing fires of wood in every chimney from the
    kitchen to the garrets. The floors were repaired, the sashes new
    glazed, and out of the old furniture of the whole house, I made
    shift to fit up a parlour and three chambers in a plain yet
    decent manner. — The court-yard was cleared of weeds and rubbish,
    and my friend Wilson charged himself with the dressing of the
    garden; bricklayers were set at work upon the barn and stable;
    and labourers engaged to restore the fences, and begin the work
    of hedging and ditching, under the direction of farmer Bland, at
    whose recommendation I hired a careful hind to lie in the house,
    and keep constant fires in the apartments.

    Having taken these measures, I returned to London, where I
    forthwith sold off my household-furniture, and, in three weeks
    from my first visit, brought my wife hither to keep her
    Christmas. — Considering the gloomy season of the year, the
    dreariness of the place, and the decayed aspect of our
    habitation, I was afraid that her resolution would sink under the
    sudden transition from a town life to such a melancholy state of
    rustication; but I was agreeably disappointed. — She found the
    reality less uncomfortable than the picture I had drawn. — By this
    time indeed, things were mended in appearance — The out-houses had
    risen out of their ruins; the pigeon-house was rebuilt, and
    replenished by Wilson, who also put my garden in decent order,
    and provided a good stock of poultry, which made an agreeable
    figure in my yard; and the house, on the whole, looked like the
    habitation of human creatures. — Farmer Bland spared me a milch
    cow for my family, and an ordinary saddle-horse for my servant to
    go to market at the next town. — I hired a country lad for a
    footman, the hind’s daughter was my house-maid, and my wife had
    brought a cook-maid from London.

    Such was my family when I began house-keeping in this place,
    with three hundred pounds in my pocket, raised from the sale of
    my superfluous furniture. — I knew we should find occupation
    enough through the day to employ our time; but I dreaded the long
    winter evenings; yet, for those too we found a remedy: The
    curate, who was a single man, soon became so naturalized to the
    family, that he generally lay in the house; and his company was
    equally agreeable and useful. He was a modest man, a good
    scholar, and perfectly well qualified to instruct me in such
    country matters as I wanted to know. — Mr Wilson brought his wife
    to see us, and she became so fond of Mrs Dennison, that she said
    she was never so happy as when she enjoyed the benefit of her
    conversation. — She was then a fine buxom country lass,
    exceedingly docile, and as good-natured as her husband Jack
    Wilson; so that a friendship ensued among the women, which hath
    continued to this day.

    As for Jack, he hath been my constant companion, counsellor, and
    commissary. — I would not for a hundred pounds you should leave my
    house without seeing him. — Jack is an universal genius — his
    talents are really astonishing: — He is an excellent carpenter,
    joiner, and turner, and a cunning artist in iron and brass. — He
    not only superintended my oeconomy, but also presided over my
    pastimes — He taught me to brew beer, to make cyder, perry, mead,
    usquebaugh, and plague-water; to cook several outlandish
    delicacies, such as ollas, pepper-pots, pillaws, corys, chabobs,
    and stufatas. — He understands all manner of games from chess down
    to chuck-farthing, sings a good song, plays upon the violin, and
    dances a hornpipe with surprising agility. — He and I walked, and
    rode, and hunted, and fished together, without minding the
    vicissitudes of the weather; and I am persuaded, that in a raw,
    moist climate, like this of England, continual exercise is as
    necessary as food to the preservation of the individual. — In the
    course of two and twenty years, there has not been one hour’s
    interruption or abatement in the friendship subsisting between
    Wilson’s family and mine; and, what is a rare instance of good
    fortune, that friendship is continued to our children. — His son
    and mine are nearly of the same age and the same disposition;
    they have been bred up together at the same school and college,
    and love each other with the warmest affection.

    By Wilson’s means, I likewise formed an acquaintance with a
    sensible physician, who lives in the next market-town; and his
    sister, an agreeable old maiden, passed the Christmas holidays at
    our house. Mean while I began my farming with great eagerness,
    and that very winter planted these groves that please you so
    much. — As for the neighbouring gentry, I had no trouble from that
    quarter during my first campaign; they were all gone to town
    before I settled in the country; and by the summer I had taken
    measures to defend myself from their attacks. — When a gay
    equipage came to my gates, I was never at home; those who visited
    me in a modest way, I received; and according to the remarks I
    made on their characters and conversation, either rejected their
    advances, or returned their civility — I was in general despised
    among the fashionable company, as a low fellow, both in breeding
    and circumstances; nevertheless, I found a few individuals of
    moderate fortune, who gladly adopted my stile of living; and many
    others would have acceded to our society, had they not been
    prevented by the pride, envy, and ambition of their wives and
    daughters. — Those, in times of luxury and dissipation, are the
    rocks upon which all the small estates in the country are
     wrecked.

    I reserved in my own hands, some acres of ground adjacent to the
    house, for making experiments in agriculture, according to the
    directions of Lyle, Tull, Hart, Duhamel, and others who have
    written on this subject; and qualified their theory with the
    practical observations of farmer Bland, who was my great master
    in the art of husbandry. — In short, I became enamoured of a
    country life; and my success greatly exceeded my expectation — I
    drained bogs, burned heath, grubbed up furze and fern; I planted
    copse and willows where nothing else would grow; I gradually
    inclosed all my farms, and made such improvements that my estate
    now yields me clear twelve hundred pounds a year — All this time
    my wife and I have enjoyed uninterrupted health, and a regular
    flow of spirits, except on a very few occasions, when our
    cheerfulness was invaded by such accidents as are inseparable
    from the condition of life.

  2. Finding I was inclined to embrace a country life,
    and even to amuse myself with the occupation of farming, he
    approved of my design — He gave me to understand that all my farms
    were underlett; that the estate was capable of great improvement;
    that there was plenty of chalk in the neighbourhood; and that my
    own ground produced excellent marle for manure. — With respect to
    the farm, which was like to fall into my hands, he said he would
    willingly take it at the present rent; but at the same time
    owned, that if I would expend two hundred pounds in enclosure, it
    would be worth more than double the sum…

    I reserved in my own hands, some acres of ground adjacent to the
    house, for making experiments in agriculture, according to the
    directions of Lyle, Tull, Hart, Duhamel, and others who have
    written on this subject; and qualified their theory with the
    practical observations of farmer Bland, who was my great master
    in the art of husbandry. — In short, I became enamoured of a
    country life; and my success greatly exceeded my expectation — I
    drained bogs, burned heath, grubbed up furze and fern; I planted
    copse and willows where nothing else would grow; I gradually
    inclosed all my farms, and made such improvements that my estate
    now yields me clear twelve hundred pounds a year ”

    Rather startling that. Thanks, Chabert. The disdain for ‘fashionable society’ exhibited here is also pretty intriguing, and the contempt for what is deemed a superfluous expense. Worshiping at the altar of Almighty Coin. Franklin’s a good example of this mindset, its pretensions, internalized and peddled as gospel:

    I began now gradually to pay off the debt I was under for the
    printing-house. In order to secure my credit and character as a
    tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and
    frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly;
    I was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went out a fishing
    or shooting; a book, indeed, sometimes debauch’d me from my work, but
    that was seldom, snug, and gave no scandal; and, to show that I was not
    above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchas’d at
    the stores thro’ the streets on a wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem’d an
    industrious, thriving young man, and paying duly for what I bought, the
    merchants who imported stationery solicited my custom”

  3. The disdain for ‘fashionable society’ exhibited here is also pretty intriguing, and the contempt for what is deemed a superfluous expense”

    yeah, no “vying with the rich in pomp and equipage” - its very frank about the class self-image - he’s not trying to join the landed aristocracy, nor to take the place of the feudal lord with all his retainers, expenditures and customary bonds. A very good example of the confidence of this capitalist gentry, this middle class, not urban merchant but landed, sure of its rationality, virtue, independence and self sufficiency.

    THERE is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labour. Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labour of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. Though the manufacturer has his wages advanced to him by his master, he, in reality, costs him no expense, the value of those wages being generally restored, together with a profit, in the improved value of the subject upon which his labour is bestowed. But the maintenance of a menial servant never is restored. A man grows rich by employing a multitude of manufacturers: he grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants. The labour of the latter, however, has its value, and deserves its reward as well as that of the former. But the labour of the manufacturer fixes and realizes itself in some particular subject or vendible commodity, which lasts for some time at least after that labour is past. It is, as it were, a certain quantity of labour stocked and stored up to be employed, if necessary, upon some other occasion. That subject, or what is the same thing, the price of that subject, can afterwards, if necessary, put into motion a quantity of labour equal to that which had originally produced it. The labour of the menial servant, on the contrary, does not fix or realize itself in any particular subject or vendible commodity. His services generally perish in the very instant of their performance, and seldom leave any trace or value behind them for which an equal quantity of service could afterwards be procured.

    The labour of some of the most respectable orders in the society is, like that of menial servants, unproductive of any value, and does not fix or realize itself in any permanent subject; or vendible commodity, which endures after that labour is past, and for which an equal quantity of labour could afterwards be procured. The sovereign, for example, with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him, the whole army and navy, are unproductive labourers.http://www.adamsmith.org/smith/won-b2-c3.htm

    chabert2 July, 2008 @ 6:57 amReply
  4. (Neeson covers the debates about improvement in the era of parliamentary enclosure, showing how there was a conscious determination to produce a proletariat, and how this was a significant element of what’s “improved” by improvement.)

    chabert2 July, 2008 @ 7:10 amReply
  5. John Clark had to justify the extinction of common right in Hertfordshire on the grounds that the county suffered a shortage of labour : the fit poor must work for wages even though ‘To deprive the poor of that benefit, which, in their present state, they derive from the waste land, must, no doubt, at first view sound harsh.’”

    - Neeson, Commoners

    chabert2 July, 2008 @ 7:14 amReply
  6. Thanks Chabert. The ideology in this stuff is so glaring, it’d be comical if it weren’t so abominable:

    Thus the labour of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labour of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing. Though the manufacturer has his wages advanced to him by his master, he, in reality, costs him no expense, the value of those wages being generally restored, together with a profit, in the improved value of the subject upon which his labour is bestowed. But the maintenance of a menial servant never is restored. A man grows rich by employing a multitude of manufacturers: he grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants.”

    There’s a certain cluelessness to it as well, a passivity, lack of reflection. Smith doesn’t seem to be interested in why it is possible for the manufacturer to add value but not the menial servant; he just states it as the way of things.

    I’ll have to look into Neeson when I am back in the realm of te academic library.



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Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] is of course only a more refined version of the orientation that underlied the desire to improve the land during the formative moments of capitalism. The basic rubric — the […]

  2. […] Recalling something from way back then, this: […]