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Kindly, Modest and Loveable

Michael D Langan

The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair, by Peter Mandler, Yale University Press, 360 pp, $35, ISBN: 978-300120523

The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837, by Ben Wilson, The Penguin Press, 464 pp, $27.95, ISBN: 978-1594201161


“What kind of people are the English? What characteristic traits and behavior distinguish them from other people?” Peter Mandler, who teaches modern British history at Cambridge University, asks these and other questions in his scholarly study of the history of the idea of “Englishness”. I use the word scholarly in its old-fashioned sense – stating a hypothesis, reviewing the literature, gathering evidence, analysing it and drawing conclusions. Professor Mandler has produced a work of high quality, insightful, enlightening and somewhat overpowering in its detail.

Notwithstanding its jaunty sketches of Noel Coward and cartoonist Sydney Strube’s “Little Man” on the cover and John Bull on the overleaf, the book is no easy read. It has more than a hundred pages of notes, bibliography and index. Mandler has scoured the English countryside, its leas, lanes and libraries for, among other things,

... histories, politicians’ speeches, clerics’ sermons, leaders in major newspapers, travelogues, auto-ethnographies, polls and surveys, national inquests at moments of crisis, poetry, novels, films, and television programmes.

More than that, outsiders’ views, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s English Traits (1837) and the analyses of continental liberals during the 1920s and 1930s, about which the English themselves were obsessed, are noted.

Using this system of English self-portrait analysis, that is, interpreting how they see themselves, is like using a fine strainer: it catches everything. Not surprisingly, given this broad methodological approach, Mandler tells us that he is out to strike the middle ground in approaching his subject. He has chosen, he says, to view “one strand of thinking about the English nation” over a long period. It must, however, be said that this “one strand” is made up of many micro-fibres, each of which has its own historical essence. If one looks at these complicated, interrelated historical events “under a microscope” the “simple” things accumulate and cohere as a Weltanschauung, thus eventually achieving the comprehensive meaning that Mandler is searching for.

Why this approach? Mandler tells us he wants to make clear how national character accords with, or takes leave of, “other forms and symbols of national consciousness”. This particular approach is new. There have been studies dealing with periods of English history or with particular people, helpful in themselves but fragmentary. It would be good to know what “strands” of thinking he has rejected as not worth pursuing, as well as the norms he has chosen to determine whether his findings “fit” with other modes of thinking or not.

Mandler’s conclusions are various. Different answers emerge as to what kind of people the English are, depending on when in the last 200 years the question was asked. Some findings seem to conflict with others. The apparent contradictions are a reflex of the passage of time and the confluence of varying points of view held by groups in philosophical opposition to one another. Measuring the outcomes of historical research surely is similar to questioning jurors concerning the facts of a legal case. Perceptions vary.

What did Mandler find out about the English? In general, he tells us:

People continue to display a commitment to certain values – individuality, diversity, tolerance, fair play, the rule of law – that have in the past been coded as ‘English’ or ‘British’.

At the same time, the author cautions, “any honest estimate of the English national character has to admit at least the possibility that in some periods it may not even have existed ...”. Moreover, we are told that values earlier recognised as universal “may now be re-emerging in that form”. It is scarcely strange that people should identify virtues and attribute them to themselves as representative of the group in its finest moments. One can easily imagine Croats, Hindustanis – even Irish – coming to the same conclusions after examining elements of their national pasts. It is also true that as the world becomes smaller and more intimate by way of globalisation and the Internet, values such as honesty and forthrightness are recognised as being part of the makeup of men and women universally, although being virtuous in some benighted societies is more difficult than in others.

Of course none of this intellectual slicing and dicing stops the English from trying to define what makes their character the way that it seems to be at any given moment. Those anxious for a fixed answer to the idea of Englishness, the “yoking together a people from dukes to dustmen”, a concept numbingly dumb but understandable, usually stress a particular historical time to illustrate their point. A frequent choice of English character at its best, the Churchillian “finest hour”, is found during the national experience of World War II.

At this point it may be useful to rehearse a little history. Its recollection is germane to Mandler’s argument – that of a moveable feast of perceptions about character - and he enjoys telling us England’s story. For brevity, the fifteenth century is a good place to start. It ushered in what was called the personification of the ruler – a process which began in England under the Anglo-Saxon kings and developed more fully after the Norman Conquest. The ruling dynasty had been anglicised by “a specially English kind of Protestantism” and the granting of the Magna Carta had helped establish English law. However, it was not for another hundred years, when English (replacing French) became the written vernacular, that English people became conscious of their national character in a significant way.

The Elizabethan period consolidated English Protestantism and the monarchy. One remembers Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt glorifying “this royal throne of kings”, “this sceptr’d isle”, as verbal markers in the development of Englishness. In 1580, Edmund Spenser asked rhetorically: “Why in God’s name may not we, as else the Greeks, have the kingdom in our own language?” However, nothing is static. A short time later, “because of power struggles in the middle third of the seventeenth century”, popular sentiment shifted away from the monarchy. In the early seventeenth century, Mandler tells us, the dominant view “was keener to consolidate patriotic feeling than consensus about ‘national character’”.

In the early seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke did his seminal work in laying out the principles of English common law. The author punctuates the importance of Coke’s contribution by noting that “the law would function, at least until the early twentieth century, as a principal support of the very idea of an English national character ...” Emphasis was given to the “Gothic” origins of the English, that is, to the dominant tribe of northern Europe, which participated in the destruction of the Roman Empire. Beyond this, there was an extreme version of the Gothic theory called Teutonism, or Saxonism, which traced the law back to the sixth century and supported what it considered a prior and more important totem than the common law, “the ancient constitution” of the Saxons.

There continued a “range of competing views of who the English were” – Britons, Romans, Saxons, Danes, Normans – varying in their strengths according to which political powers and their agendas were in the ascendancy. The author relates that, with the restoration of the monarchy following the revolutionary events of the 1640s and 1650s, the Stuarts did their best to reconnect “with Continental ideas of monarchical and religious authority”. It was certainly in their interest to do so, but the dynasty lasted only until 1689, when the Catholic James II was replaced by the Protestant William III.

Daniel Defoe’s poem “The True-Born Englishman” (1700) spoke of “That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman …”. Defoe summarised what he saw as the various attributes of English character in the poem, when he wrote of

fierceness from the Britons, bravery from the Romans, sourness from the Picts, moroseness from the Danes, falseness from both Scots and Normans, honesty from the Saxons.

The throne, constitution and parliament were by now well established, although there was still a view held by some “oppositionist” forces who felt themselves oppressed by “patriotic taxes” that “national uniformity was an alien, despotic concept”.

By the eighteenth century, the twin idealisations of “succour and hope” were coin of the realm, elicited by the monarchy to help in the wars against France and requiring citizens to defend their country. It was the time of slogans – “Rule Britannia”, “God Save the King” and a “taxing and fighting state”. The British began to see themselves as British, whether they were in India, the West Indies or the American colonies. This was a reason why the European Enlightenment, in the form it arrived in Britain, “failed to embrace the ‘nation’ as a fundamental category of analysis in the way that it did in France or the German states because of their feudal histories”.

Instead, a particularly British Enlightenment relied heavily on the Scots. The author makes clear that the Act of Union gave Scottish intellectuals the opportunity to develop a line of thinking that explained in a positive way how the English diverged from their European counterparts with their burden of feudalism. David Hume, Adam Smith and John Millar, Scots all, contended that recent events, such as incipient rebellions, argued more forcefully for individual liberties than any “ancient constitution”. The Act also encouraged progress in developing individual liberties and consensual governmental institutions at home. The English did however pick up on continental notions when they were compatible with their own views. Montesquieu’s theory, in his Spirit of the Laws of 1748, that climate and landscape helped determine the character of a people, found a receptive audience. Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck’s later argument, that “the inheritance of acquired characteristics gave a biological fixity to national differentiation”, also proved agreeable.

Yet another Enlightenment idea, the “ladder” metaphor of human development, “chimed in neatly, and not accidentally, with the British elite’s preferences. A hierarchy of nations, based on different stages of development towards ‘civilization’, was an ideal vision for an expanding British Empire.” Yet there was still no consensus about what constituted Englishness. Many ideas acquired currency throughout this period. Some writers viewed the Gothic heritage, non-ethnic and spread throughout Europe, as paramount, others “education and good government that permitted peoples to advance”. The Scot John Millar argued that it was from the “distribution of property” that the British characteristics of “courage, fortitude, sobriety, temperance, justice and generosity” emanated.

Mandler credits the Irishman Edmund Burke, born in Dublin in 1729, as laying the groundwork for English nationality. His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) made the case for emphasising “institutions maintaining order and improvement rather than on the people or folk culture ... His usage of ‘national character’, like many such late eighteenth-century references, referred to the character of the nation ...” Burke had little interest in “exciting the mass of the people”. Rather, he took an interest in illustrating “the slow, gradual, halting, fallible process of improvement”. It was left to nineteenth century thinkers to consider the concept of a nation as a psychologically homogeneous unit. In fact, the nineteenth century, with its new generation of post-Napoleonic, more democratic thinkers, was the nonpareil in terms of national character-building.

John Stuart Mill’s concept of “consensus”, developed in his System of Logic (1843), is at the origin of the distinction between British and English. “The British” – previously a term of empire – began to think of themselves as “the English”. Mill’s achievement took place “in a context of post-1832 intellectual radicalism that encouraged him to think about human diversity in national as well as emotional and aesthetic terms”. Basically, “... a newer stereotype formed: the British people as a whole were mongrels ...” (Mill’s formulation drew its inspiration from Defoe.) The definition remains apt today – although concern for people’s feelings rules out mentioning mongrels in polite circles. But then there are not so many polite circles any more.

The caricature “John Bull” stood as the prototype of all that was English in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Before Mill’s clarification, the figure was endowed with civic as well as martial virtues, mobilised for war in defence of his rights, and later used “as a symbol of the long-suffering wartime taxpayer”. The English, though a patient people, eventually grew tired of the political manipulations of the Bull symbol – once a much-loved character – whose virtues seemed to change with the views of those in power.

In the twentieth century, a new symbol of the English was Sydney Strube’s “Little Man” cartoon, which featured in the Daily Express between 1920 and 1947. “Little Man” was an

imaginative compound of the City gent and the “man in the street”, dressed in bow tie and bowler hat and armed with tightly furled umbrella ... described by Harold Nicholson as “small, kindly, bewildered, modest, obstinate, and very lovable”.

Mandler’s study offers a broad overview of concepts about the idea of English national character and a key to their interpretation, even up to the present. Of particular contemporary interest perhaps are his comments on Tony Blair, who is mentioned as having tried to develop a new British identity, different from Margaret Thatcher’s earlier, strong line in this direction. Blair’s favourite word, Mandler points out, is “modern”, by which he means the yoking of “entrepreneurialism and creativity more closely to specific trends in popular culture”. Regrettably, the retiring prime minister’s support for the Iraq war, admired by some in the US but found repulsive at home, may compromise his achievements in the field of social progress.

English character, perceived at its sweetest, is perhaps to be found in George Santayana’s Soliloquies (1922), a description of “the English gentleman” that owed much to the ninetheenth century literary giants Matthew Arnold and Cardinal John Henry Newman. Santayana wrote:

There is, or was, a beautifully healthy England hidden from most foreigners; the England of the countryside and of the poets, domestic, sporting, gallant, boyish, of a sure and delicate heart.

If one wished to summon up a particularly attractive version of the traditional vision of England’s character, it might well be this evocation of an ideal bygone time – though it presents itself to the mind more as a rotogravure picture than a scene from real life.

Ben Wilson’s book The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837, isan excellent study of the conflicting pulls of “decency and dissent” in pre-Victorian England. Its subject matter could be considered a subset within Mandler’s outline of how the English developed their national character. This would be an accurate classification but unfair, since Wilson’s book is essentially a cultural history.

The author begins by describing the attitudes of the parents – who lived on into the 1830s and 1840s - of those who would become, a generation or two later, the Victorians. It seems that the parents of these Victorians enjoyed life a good deal more than would their children. Pre-Victorians worked hard, boozed things up on “Plough Monday” in the country or “St Monday” in towns. They considered virginity a waste and, in general, tested the boundaries of the liberty that Byron, Shelley and the Romantics had conferred upon them.

Clearly, they were not as rigid as their progeny about morality. They lived through revolutions and threats of war, economic depression, food scarcity and riot, as well as experiencing anxiety and moral panic dispensed by their leaders in parliament and pulpit. Figures like Patrick Colquhoun, a wealthy Scottish magistrate who saw immorality in every hayloft, frightened them. They were also hypochondriacs, who followed the adventures of Timothy Testy and Sam Sensitive in a book called The Miseries of Human Life by an Oxford academic, James Beresford. They gobbled up the anonymously written Aristotle’s Compleat Master Piece, an early sex education book, and devoured Dr Samuel Solomon’s quack medicine the Cordial Balm of Gilead, which was largely alcohol. They loved to hear and see their aristocrats embroiled in adulteries and enjoyed gabbling at the theatre.

In short, theirs seems a world quite like our own. Our twenty-first century has roared in with tumult, tyranny and terrorism. Sad-sack citizens savour the tawdry lives of those who pass for celebrities. A pessimist might think that we are witnessing the beginning of a well-merited decline in the Western democracies. A large number of Americans are in rough shape, physically and emotionally. More than six out of ten of are overweight. Thousands of household mortgages are forfeited. Estimates of illegal aliens vary from 8.5 to 13 million people. Americans own more than 200 million guns and billions of rounds of ammunition. Amidst this detritus of liberty gone mad, citizens sit at home with their doors locked, watching 24-hour news programmes chronicling crime and wondering why they feel besieged.

This may seem a digression, but it is not. The present context butts in continually as one absorbs the intricacies of Ben Wilson’s argument. The author is a Cambridge graduate in his twenties, whose writing is clean and sharp. He aims to make readers think clearly about how Victorian values developed and – without explicit commentary – to direct attention to similar problems in the twenty-first century. His conclusions are largely accurate, if, on occasion, overstated. Writing of the habits of the lower classes in the 1780s and 1790s, he remarks:

But, as some tried to remind the moralizing writers, sensual relaxation was absolutely indispensable for anyone who worked; this need seemed to have been forgotten in the scientific analysis of mankind.

Really? One is tempted to ask if all virtue had abandoned the age. In fact, this seems to be Wilson’s argument. Of the women of the period he writes:

No one expected them to be virgins when they got married, and their youthful experiences did not affect their future happiness or morality ... Their early “vices” were teenage high spirits, which did not warp their souls ... Poverty and chastity are incompatible.”

This seems unjustifiably definitive. It is true that poverty makes virtue more difficult, but surely not impossible. If Wilson seems unwilling to give those who exercise virtue sufficient credit this may be because documenting it can be like watching paint dry. But this need not always be so. Dorothea Brooke in Eliot’s Middlemarch comes to mind. She is a fiction, of course, yet her life and admirable qualities jump off the page. Closer to the age of the parents of Victorian times, there is Austen’s Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, to whose lack of (sexual) virtue her creator adds the qualities of stupidity, selfishness and absence of insight into self or others. Perhaps, if imaginative literature is any guide, there have been people of virtue, and without virtue, in every age.

In the main, however, Wilson is a masterful writer. He collects evidence and is a hard arguer, difficult to refute. He adopts, consciously or not, a “Thomistic” approach to the way in which he develops his material. That is, he first lays out the strongest, most persuasive arguments for readers to accept. These are the positions that in due course he will demolish. It is a vigorous and effective writing strategy. Particularly persuasive is his demonstration of the Victorians’ folly in attempting moral reformation by force. The Society for the Suppression of Vice, for example, a bunch of do-gooders, made enemies of everyone. “The extent of their persecutory spite,” he writes, “was matched only by the uselessness of the campaign, which seemed designed to trumpet their moral probity more than [being] a genuine effort to actually reform a single man, woman or child.” The Rev Sydney Smith put it best.

You may drag men into a church by main force, and prosecute them for buying a pot of beer, and cut them off from the enjoyment of a leg of mutton; and you may do all this till you make the common people hate Sunday, and the clergy, and religion, and everything which relates to such subjects.

Wilson’s thesis is that an alliance of evangelicals and secular utilitarians eventually changed the complexion of politics and social policy by the “adroit use of philanthropy, politics, police, economics and journalism ... and profoundly affected the character of nineteenth-century Britain – its moral, complexion, its politics and its social policy”. Some critics may discern a close parallel to what the religious right in America has done along these same lines in the six-plus years of the Bush administration in the United States, where Newt Gingrich and Gertrude Himmelfarb, a US politician (with an exquisite theoretical understanding of morality if not its practice) and an American historian respectively, have made the case for a return to a “firm sense of right and wrong” that seemed to be the norm in Victorian England.

The author counters this general perception of the pre-Victorian era as one “with universal values that were held to be sacred”. Instead, he sees the pressure for moral reform to be a “defense mechanism for a people haunted by apocalyptic nightmares”. England had become too successful too fast, he argues, and its people were up against it with a case of what everyone called “the nerves”, a description that covered every conceivable disease. Many in the world continue to have this disease; it crops up now as it did in the nineteenth century. John Bowles, a physician of that earlier time, referred to the condition by stating: “What had made the middle classes fat and nervous had made the poor depraved.”

Wilsoncites an admonition from one of London’s favourite citizens, Dr Samuel Johnson, (1709-1784), to use as a rubric in sorting through the “reign of humbug” of the period:

My dear friend, clear your mind of cant ... you may talk in this manner; it is the mode of talking in society; but don’t think foolishly.

What was meant by “cant” in Victorian England? “Byron,” writes Wilson, “called it ‘the age of cant’ – a time of false values backed by meaningless platitudes that papered over a void of real virtue in society and for individuals.” One is tempted to consider the source of the name-calling here, as Byron, great literary figure that he was, had himself been censured for his moral lapses. He shot back at the people, and the society, that accused him. We refer to this activity as “the pot calling the kettle black”.

The Making of Victorian Values reprises the way most people see Victorian values. Wilson writes: “If we think of Victorian values today, two things come to mind. First, the queen herself, Queen Victoria, who ruled from 1837-1901”, and second, what he refers to as markers of the age, “sexual repression, Dickensian workhouses, stuffy manners and imperial zeal”.

Wilson, however, has more admiration for those those other Victorians, like John Stuart Mill, who made the case for the underdog, the renegade who goes against the grain of the common view:

There needs protection ... against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.

Sorting out the deluded from the inspired continues to pose a problem for societies today, where mass murderers blend into the crowd of those who pass for ordinary people. In pre-Victorian times it was little different. Hazlitt must have had this discordance in mind when he wrote: “If liberty produces ill-manners and want of taste, she is a very excellent parent with two very disagreeable daughters.” The aggravating daughters are with us still. This aspect of the era is well summed up in the dustjacket art for The Making of Victorian Values, in a sketch by James Gilray (1757-1815) which suggests the subjugation of women and the privileges of male rank (or rank males). It is entitled “Fashionable Contrasts, or The Duchess’s Little Shoe Yielding to the Magnitude of the Duke’s Foot”.

Michael D Langan is a retired US Treasury Department official.  He was a Senior Expert with the United Nations Taliban and al-Qaeda Monitoring Group. He writes book reviews for the Boston Globe and has had fiction produced by the BBC.