Saturday, August 8, 2009

True Blue

We Australians have held onto the concept of “true blue” with such tenacity that it is now commonly applied to the national identity, or, more accurately, those who are, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “faithful, staunch and unwavering (in one’s faith, principles, etc.): sterling, genuine, real.”

However, “true blue” is a survival of our British heritage, and an ancient one. In its current sense the phrase probably descends from seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterians, “the Covenanters having adopted blue as their color in contradistinction to the royal red.” It seems that Covenanters wore blue scarves, and bunches of blue ribbons fastened to their bonnets, no doubt fortified retrospectively by gloomy divines, citing the precept of Mosaic law (Numbers 25: 38). Of one such person it was written in 1663 that “For his Religion it was fit To match his Learning and his Wit; ’Twas Presbyterian true Blew.” Certainly this is the sense in which Jonathan Swift applied the same phrase to the Whig opponents of Queen Anne’s first Tory ministry.

However, there are indications that some notional link between “blue” and “true” has existed at least since Chaucer, because in the “Squiere’s Tale” we read “And by hire bedde’s hed she made a mew, / And covered it with velouettes blew, / In signe of trouthe that is in woman sene,” and again in Court of Love, “Lo yonder folke (quod she) that knele in blew, / They were the colour ay and ever shal, / In signe they were and ever wil be true, / Withoutin change.” There is a slightly wobbly tradition, as persistent as it is misguided, that regards blue as the fastest dye, and this seems to have stemmed from the apparent immutability of the colors of the sky, and of the ocean.

Through the eighteenth century, as British two-party politics gradually solidified, the distinction “true blue” began to be claimed by both sides for its staunchest adherents. The True Blue Club was founded at Gloucester in 1790, to celebrate in perpetuity (with an annual dinner) an election victory won in the previous year by the narrowest possible majority of one vote. The Tory John Pitt was the “True Blue” candidate. Meanwhile, “buff-and-blue” or “blue-and-buff” were equally distinctive signature colors embraced by Charles James Fox and the Whigs.

You always know you have uncovered a deep vein of linguistic continuity when a vast array of cheerfully conflicting etymologies opens up among nineteenth-century antiquarians. That the question arose again and again in the pages of Notes and Queries without satisfactory resolution points to the happy coexistence of many sources, and not one only. Yet the variety is fascinating, and trickles all the way down to that nutty but lovable minor royal Princess Marie Louise, who thought “true blue” originated when the color of the ribbon of the Order of the Garter was altered from light to dark or royal blue at the time of the Hanoverian succession. According to Her Highness,

This change was considered advisable, as well as necessary, to show that if the exiled Stuarts conferred the Garter with the light-blue ribbon it was not the genuine order. Only dark-blue was judged correct, and from this came the expression, “true blue.”

The shrewdness of the later Stuarts is amply documented, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that, as a measure to guard against the creation of bogus knights companion of the Order of the Garter, a not particularly subtle change to the color of the ribbon from which they might suspend their Great and Lesser Georges is not by any means reliable, so one must assume therefore that the Hanoverians were comparatively slow on the uptake. On the other hand, Princess Marie Louise may have latched onto something, because we find in John Dryden’s “The Flower and the Leaf; or, The Lady in the Arbour, A Visionthe following couplet referring explicitly to Knights of the Garter: “…Unchang’d by fortune, to their sovereign true, / For which their manly legs are bound with blue…” (lines 550–551, Works, Vol. 11, p. 392). Sweet, really.

Curiously, on three separate occasions, first G. J. De Wilde (1853), then W. Brailsford of Kensington (1887) and J. Ardagh of Dublin (1915), successively alerted readers of Notes and Queries to the existence of “a substantially built brick tomb, with table top of stone, in the well-preserved churchyard of Little Brickhill, in Buckinghamshire. On the side facing the chief entrance to the church are the following two inscriptions: ‘Here lyeth the body / of True Blue / Who departed this life / January ye 17th 1724-5, / ageed 57.’ and ‘Also ye body / of Eleanor ye wife / of True Blue / who departed this life / January ye 27 1722-3 / ageed 50’” (Brailsford). However, no further explanation of the identity of these intriguing persons emerged from a careful examination of the register of burials in the church vestry (a document which commenced, incidentally, in 1559).

Some thirty years after the death of Mr. and Mrs. True Blue, “a certain poor woman from Marston, Oxford, was unexpectedly delivered of a child, ‘which was sent by the sureties on the same day to the Foundling Hospital, under the mark of True Blew (sic)’” (Notes and Queries, 7th. series, Vol. 3, June 18, 1887, p. 503).

According to R. W. Hackwood, meanwhile, writing in September 1858, “Mr. B. Webster, in his address to the audience on the closing night of the old Adelphi Theatre [the previous June 2], in giving a sketch of the history of the theatre, spoke as follows:—‘How it became a theatre is equally singular. It was consequent upon True Blue in the year 1802, through a dye of that name having been invented by a Mr. Scott, or True Blue Scott as he was familiarly called, which gave such a delicious tint to the peculiarly delicious habiliments of the fair sex that a rapid fortune was the consequence.’” Evidently through the eighteenth century there was a trend toward employing the term true blue as a bona fide name for male persons.

Still more correspondents insisted (1) that “true blue” had always been the Tory color in Suffolk, and that an old lady who used to say “Whenever I die, I shall die ‘Church and King,’ ‘King and Church,’ wonderful!” and was duly buried in a coffin lined with “true blue”; (2) that “true blue” was the Whig color in Lincolnshire in the days of agitation preceding the passage of the first Reform Bill (1832), “and continued so long afterwards”; and (3) that “true blue” was even mentioned by Thomas Cranmer “(vol. ii, p. 394).”

Intriguingly, according to the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser on Friday, October 12, 1827, p. 4 (citing Brady’s Varieties of Literature and thence Ray’s Proverbs, 1737), “Coventry had formerly the reputation for dyeing blues; insomuch that true blue came to be a proverb, to signify one who was always the same, and like himself.” 

And in his early, weird political satire, The Voyage of Captain Popanilla (1827), the future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli referred to England as “Vraibleusia.”

All of which suggests that if we Australians continue to lay particular claim to the expression “true blue,” and the qualities attaching to it—as, for example, in Peter Goldsworthys recent anthology True Blue? On Being Australian (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2008)—we had better be prepared to tolerate a little condescension, not to say snickering, in the lobby of the House of Commons, at the Athenaeum, and Lord’s Cricket Ground.

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