There is a great gentlemanly tradition of killing things for fun. Few people do it now, and even in the heyday of foxhunting, few men would have admitted that they liked it purely for the spectacle of death. To seek brutal death – to chase death down for its own sake – is the purview of the few. Loathe foxhunting as indeed many people do, we have nevertheless had cause in the past to be thankful for the few. This is not by way of a justification, but for a couple of hundred years at least it was thought that one could tell a good military leader, or a good soldier, by his prowess in the field. But the truth of foxhunting, not often told, is that while most men proclaimed how much they would dearly have loved to be in at the death, precious few ever really experienced it. And perhaps it is just as well, for the chasing pack may have been given to lose their hunting breakfasts in the least dignified manner. If there was no chance of seeing the end of the fox, you might at least break your own leg.
In what then, lay hunting’s manly virtues? In courageous riding: to go full tilt at a hedge with ditch of unknown width and depth on the other side was not for the faint hearted. In its rituals of language, procedure, and blood: young initiates had their faces anointed with fox blood, and the fox’s ‘brush’ was bestowed upon the most valiant. In its display, ocular, aural and olfactory: fine figures in cutaway pinks and shiny tops, horns and hunting parlance, hounds – the emblems of human ingenuity in breeding and analogues of aristocracy – scenting sagaciously. In its fair play, for a fighting chance was part of the ethos: death was the end in mind, but woe betide the man who caused the fox to be ‘chopped in covert’. Hunting also had a sociology of its own, based on skill primarily, but not without representing traditional ideals of social cohesion in the bonds between manorial lords, yeoman farmers, the clergy, and tenant farmers. Hunting men knew their respective places. For some, a hunt gathering was an arena for the manly arts; a place to exhibit the masculine equivalent of feminine accomplishments: conversation, politics, lore and friendship. All these were things, according to Anthony Trollope, quæ possunt esse homini polito delectatio.
A life of refined pleasures, indeed, with rough and tumble and a cracking pace for good measure. As early as 1870, MacMillan’s Magazine predicted that foxhunting would soon become ‘a problem for moral archaeologists’; that tally-ho ‘may only live in the pages of some historian of old enthusiasms’. In some ways I regret being that historian, fulfilling a remarkably prescient prophesy. In other ways, I see that it is fitting, modern sensibilities being what they are. That said, the modern debate bores me a great deal. Neither side has been given to tell the truth, and that bleak observation trumps any of the other virtues of their respective positions. It leads me to conclude that the manly foxhunter was an historical figure long before foxhunting’s actual demise. And if that is the case, there is certainly little left to say for it.
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