First it was Thomas Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge with its intense opening scene of a drunken field hand selling his wife to the highest bidder and its later relentless Hardian march to gloom.
Right now we are reading Dickens's Great Expectations, a darling of a book which, fortuitously, Echosquirrel has never read (nor has she seen any of the movies) giving that opening scene of young Pip going down to the marshes to bring food and file to an escaped convict all the mystery and weighted meaning it deserves.
In between those books we read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the only one of the three I hadn't as yet read. Well, in truth, we were only able to get about halfway through before we tired of Twain's blowhard Yankee and his ridiculous knight-errantry. The story just didn't have the crispness or moral weight or seriousness of a Hardy. I'm guessing we shouldn't have dropped so far down the scale from seriousness to comedy in our choice. That if we pick it back up later after something lighter we may be able to appreciate it more.
Still, I was fascinated by Twain's thought experiment of taking a character from his own region and era and depositing him squarely into the middle ages in England, six hundred years in the past. A sort of Rip Van Winkle in reverse where the character has all of the power of hindsight at his disposal.
So he looks around him at the institutions and, of course, finds them wanting. He has been plopped into a feudal system where an hereditary King with his handful of assorted important others rule the land.
Of course I couldn't help but be struck how much like our present unfortunate rule in America by plutocracy was Twain's description of this feudal England:
And now here I was, in a country where a right to say how the country should be governed was restricted to six persons in each thousand of its population. For the nine hundred and ninety-four to express dissatisfaction with the regnant system and propose to change it, would have made the whole six shudder as one man, it would have been so disloyal, so dishonorable, such putrid black treason. So to speak, I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all of the dividends.
Twain knew, or the narrator knew, that the only way to upend this dire situation would be to rise up in rebellion, a rebellion that would in the best case, morph into a revolution. He specifically mentions the French Revolution as "the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal-wave of blood....a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the weary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell."
The hope now, just as the hope was in Twain's day, is that the citizens, understanding that they are free and do in fact, hold political power, agitate for the common wealth. Twain sites the Connecticut constitution which he says declares "that all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have at all times an undeniable and indefeasible right to alter their form of government in such a manner as they may think expedient."
But I think very few people think of altering the form of government. Usually we think of switching out an elect with someone maybe a little less self-serving and mendacious. Twain goes so far as calling a citizen a traitor who sees the commonwealth's political decay and does not agitate for reform.
I think it entirely possible that we could slip — if we aren't slipping already — into a new middle or dark age where the 994 slave for the 6, where the loyalest citizen gets branded a traitor, because, well you know, revolutions, even the thought of them, are never nice.