Marie-Antoinette, Mrs. Jellyby, and Self-Importance

November 10, 2020 Updated: November 17, 2020


From time to time Google invites or enjoins me to “celebrate” the 159th, the 118th, or some such birthday, usually of a person I have never heard of, and often selected (so it seems to me) as much for some demographic characteristic as for actual achievement.

Since I have reached an age at which I hardly celebrate my own birthday, this appeal to my festive spirit fails; indeed, it rather irritates me, inasmuch as I suspect that I am being subjected to insidious propaganda.

But if I were given the task of selecting two women (one of the endangered species that Google appears to be trying to protect) for celebration on the grounds of their profound influence on the modern world, I think I would choose one historical figure and one fictional, namely Marie-Antoinette, deposed and executed Queen of France, and Mrs. Jellyby, an important character in Charles Dickens’ novel “Bleak House.”

Queen as Shepherdess

First, Marie-Antoinette. She it was who in the days before the Revolution liked from time to time play at being shepherdess, no doubt to escape the stultifying protocol of the court and the rococo intrigues that constantly swirled around her.

Oh, for the happy, idyllic, simple rural life of the shepherdess or the milkmaid! Of course, before many hours or days were up she returned to what she was trying, at least partially, to escape: she was no more a shepherdess or milkmaid in reality than is an actor playing Hamlet the actual Crown Prince of Denmark.

Marie-Antoinette—albeit that she was executed in a horribly humiliating way—has obviously been an inspiration to many a stupendously wealthy young chief executive of a corporation that is economically the size of Africa, if not larger.

Such chief executives appear on platforms before the public in T-shirt and jeans, looking cool and casual, no different from millions of young, or youngish, men of their age. Their costume is a disguise for their ambition, lust for power, determination to shape the world, enormous wealth, self-righteousness and competitiveness.

These qualities have always existed, of course, and have by no means always been bad in their effects, but this is the first era of what might be called T-shirt populism, in which the so-called masters of the universe affect a mode of dress indistinguishable from that of the kind of people who can afford no other.

The coolness and casualness is a pose just as much as was Marie-Antoinette’s shepherdessing; and just as she had no intention of remaining a shepherdess, with all the poverty and discomfort that such a role in life implied, so the cool and casual chief executive has no intention of sharing the kind of life led by his underlings.

A Form of Egotism

Casualness of dress in public is not admirable. I have changed my opinion on this question. When I was young I thought that appearance did not matter, and even (somewhat contradictorily) that a degree of dishevelment was, or could be, a sign of laudable otherworldliness. I still accept that there are indeed people who are unselfconsciously untidy in their dress because their minds are always on a higher plane, but they are few; and in any case their dishevelment is rather different in quality from modern casualness.

Most people who dress casually in a public forum do so with deliberation rather than spontaneously. They are casual for two reasons: first, they reject visible signs of social class and second, they are implicitly making a statement of their own importance vis-à-vis everyone else, that is to say, that no one is more important than I.

As we have seen, they reject the outward or visible signs of class distinction, but not the substance of class distinction. They reject the outward or visible signs of class distinction either from fear of class hatred, or from a misplaced sense of guilt which, however, they have no intention of assuaging by any actual relinquishment of their position.

They assume a bogus outer egalitarianism, which they maintain for even shorter periods than did Marie-Antoinette keep up her charade of being a milkmaid or a shepherdess.

Casualness of dress in public is a form of egotism. Of course, it is true that an excessive attention to dress is vanity: every virtue carried to extreme becomes vice. But the T-shirt-jeans type of casualness—in public, I mean—is a statement that the person who adopts it is not going to make an effort just to please the eye of others, and that others must accept him exactly as he is, that is to say as he fell out of bed this morning into the first, most easily donned clothes that he has.

But to dress smartly is not vanity; rather it is a decent respect for the opinion of mankind. Few people, however, now care for that opinion, so dazzled are they by the magnificence and importance of their own person.

This attitude has the advantage that it obviates the need for any effort. The determination to be casual extends nowadays even to funerals: why dress up for them, when the person is dead and cannot appreciate the effort? It is what is within that counts, and what has mode of dress to do with that?

Mrs. Jellyby

The second female character after Marie Antoinette who has been greatly influential on modern life is Mrs. Jellyby, who—readers of Dickens will remember—was extremely concerned for the welfare of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, in the left bank of the Niger, while she scandalously neglected the condition of her own children in her immediate vicinity in London.

She was a pioneer of the moral life in which one’s locus of moral concern increases as the square of the distance of the problem from oneself. The less individual control you have over something, the more you feel responsible for it.

This is profoundly liberating, in the worst possible way. You can behave badly in your own little sphere and yet feel that you are a good person because you have the right attitude to or opinion about a distant problem.

I therefore look forward in the near future to being invited by Google to “celebrate” Marie-Antoinette and Mrs. Jellyby, who have exerted such a profound, but hitherto unacknowledged, influence on modern life.

Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor. He is contributing editor of the City Journal of New York and the author of 30 books, including “Life at the Bottom.” His latest book is “Embargo and Other Stories.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.