Polymaths, or dilettantes?

It is intriguing that in his memoir Sturge Moore should refer to George only as a ‘scholar’ (see yesterday’s post). They had both written plays, George rather more successfully than Moore, and they had both been active in 1910 in trying to reform the Stage Society, which in George’s opinion was ‘deceived by bad stuff and faded progressiveness’. Moore was very appreciative of Calderon’s translations of Chekhov’s plays.

After my phrase ‘Edwardian in his polymathy’ yesterday, I had intended to write ‘or as some would say dilettantism’, but forgot. I am sure this was a ‘Freudian slip’ caused by the fact that the subject is so tricky! The polymathy/amateurism/dilettantism of the Edwardians is a major theme of my biography of George Calderon, but it is a quagmire of a subject. It seems profoundly unfashionable today, of course. Why did the Edwardians believe in it? Why do they appear to have spread themselves so thinly?

Briefly, as I see it there has never been a period in the life of Britain when democracy, pluralism, polyphony, were so vibrant, individualistic and out on the street as 1901-14. They nearly blew the country apart. The Edwardians’ belief in versatility was a correlative to this. It often took the form of polymathy, but their real belief was that one should pursue interests not for money (‘professionally’) but for the sheer love of them (‘amateurly’). Unfortunately, given the level of affluence among the upper classes, this often appeared to mean merely for pleasure/leisure.

But central to their amateurism was the notion of ‘play’, rather in the sense expressed by Friedrich Schiller: ‘The only time people are entirely free is when they are playing.’ The polymathic, ‘amateurly’ credo of a George Calderon, C.B. Fry or Robert Falcon Scott was a belief in their freedom as individuals, in self-fulfilment. As Moore so rightly put it, Calderon had ‘a zest for play’.

Until quite recently, one-occupation ‘professionalism’ has ruled the roost. You were a ‘serious professional’ at one thing and the rest of your interests were ‘hobbies’. Perhaps, though, with our multi-tasking and ‘portfolio careers’, we can appreciate better today why the Edwardians thought as they did; why being an ‘all-rounder’ was their ideal.

Next entry: 22 November 1914

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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