“Such idleness, mingled with such insipidity! I should far rather face a volley of rifle-fire than endure many more nights of like company.”
– Captain Elizabeth Bennet, Dragons and Decorum
from Golden Age and Other Stories, by Naomi Novik
To put this entirely in context, Dragons and Decorum is a short story that reimagines Pride and Prejudice if the characters were to be found in the England of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, which features dragon riders amid the Napoleonic Wars. It’s a bit of a convoluted premise, but I found it much easier to read than Jane Austen. For one thing, it does not beat around the bush in showing how stinking stupid all the uptight, self-superior classism of the day was, and still is today.
Picture this: you hail from a family of wealth and privilege, with lands and businesses aplenty to your name. As such a prominent, successful figure within your own country, you are able to wield a surprising influence across the entire world, in places filled with people who know very little of you and your culture, yet are eager to do business with you. You have a promising future, with many prospects for pretty much everything you may wish to obtain. All you need do is not louse it up, and you may live in relative ease and comfort for your entire life.
All of this because of the security of your nation, including its military prowess.
So, obviously, one would think that such a figure, who has so much and owes so much of it to the regular serving man in uniform, would be quite appreciative of and respectful towards the common soldier and sailor who daily risk their life providing the security which promotes such prosperity.
Alas, ’tis not so!
In reflection of the attitudes of the time, both Austen’s work and Novik’s homage to such portray the rank stupidity of the self-entitled upper class in their treatment of the military. Indeed, they are severely lacking in the treatment of others in general. They snidely judge and gossip, taking the slightest of evidences and warping it into scandals of epic proportions. They dress so fancily and observe every minutest degree of etiquette while looking down their noses at anything which can be deemed “improper,” which seems to include most anything and everything which can be seen, just so they can congratulate themselves on being so much better. And they take the people who honestly put their lives on the line, who provide them with security, who build their mansions and fashion their jewelry and sew their clothes, and hold themselves as somehow better than such, all behind polite smiles and sweet words.
Compared to spending night after night in the “refined” company of people who contribute very little besides cold cash and vicious mockeries, wearing thin masks of civility as they deride honest people who spend their own blood keeping nations safe, sitting in comfort and complaining about things which they possess no understanding of – since what they “understand” begins and ends with their own importance – I can certainly see the appeal in facing rifle-fire instead.
At least in open warfare there is no convoluted pretense at being civil, or at being anything that one is not. There is only the cold, clear truth of one’s comrades beside you and one’s enemies before you. No one who sits idly will last long on a battlefield, and no one who acts halfheartedly will prosper for very long. One is what one is, and one cannot put on airs of being better, yet one may find the virtues of honor and mercy within oneself as well as within one’s enemies. It is no coincidence, I think, that the single worst sin in war is to be a false comrade, a false friend. It is a brutal, honest competition, hellish in its degree, as it brings out the best and worst of those caught within it.
Against all of that, the refined etiquette of two-faced jackals as they revel in the luxuries and freedoms that better men provide them is certainly the inferior choice.
I will take brutal sincerity over that entitled, egotistical crap any time.
Give me people who see clearly and speak plainly what they mean, people who look past their own noses and not down them, people who are willing to work with their own hands to build something better than we have, rather than tear down the very same structure which supports us all.
That, I believe, is true class: to be sincere and mature, rather than to be refined.