Thursday, August 30, 2007
Casanova on highway robbery
I've been rereading Casanova's memoirs about his visit to England in the 1760s, and is so often the case, it gives a picture of the time that's hard for our modern mind to really understand. Take this, for example.
"What do you think of highway robbers, then?"(he asks Sir Augustus Hervey, who may be this one, much later in life as Earl of Bristol.)
"I detest them as wretches dangerous to society, but I pity them when
I reflect that they are always riding towards the gallows. You go
out in a coach to pay a visit to a friend three or four miles out of
London. A determined and agile-looking fellow springs upon you with
his pistol in his hand, and says, 'Your money or your life.' What
would you do in such a case?"
"If I had a pistol handy I would blow out his brains, and if not I
would give him my purse and call him a scoundrelly assassin."
"You would be wrong in both cases. If you killed him, you would be
hanged, for you have no right to take the law into your own hands;
and if you called him an assassin, he would tell you that he was no
assassin as he attacked you openly and gave you a free choice. Nay,
he is generous, for he might kill you and take your money as well.
You might, indeed, tell him he has an evil trade, and he would tell
you that you were right, and that he would try to avoid the gallows
as long as possible. He would then thank you and advise you never to
drive out of London without being accompanied by a mounted servant,
as then no robber would dare to attack you. We English always carry
two purses on our journeys; a small one for the robbers and a large
one for ourselves."
What answer could I make to such arguments, based as they were on the
national manners? England is a rich sea, but strewn with reefs, and
those who voyage there would do well to take precautions. Sir
Augustus Hervey's discourse gave me great pleasure."
I could paraphrase that. The past is a rich sea, but strewn with reefs, and
those who write there would do well to be very wary.