The Americans have ‘American exceptionalism’. The French have ‘l’exception française’. The Germans have ‘der deutsche Sonderweg’. The English, on the other hand, have no equivalent catchphrase: it seems they take their exceptionality so much for granted that they don’t even bother putting a name to it. Does such a thing as ‘Englishness’ really exist? Most current thinking on national identities suggests that it doesn’t. Apparently innate and immutable national characteristics, the argument goes, are mere illusion and representation, a funhouse mirror which shows observers nothing but distorted images of their own desires, fears and preconceptions. To think of these characteristics as ‘real’ is to indulge in the deadliest of present-day academic sins, ‘essentialism’, patriarchal godfather to racism, sexism and all other noxious ‘isms’.
This view is easy to ridicule. Even the most sternly Post-Modern cultural studies professor is likely to lapse into essentialism when confronting a rude Parisian shopkeeper, or a lazy Italian bureaucrat. Yet however obvious national differences appear at first glance, attempting to document them usually ends up looking silly as well. Take the recent scientific study, summarised in the Independent, which attempted to rank nations as more or less neurotic by measuring rates of suicide, crime, divorce and the consumption of alcohol and caffeine. The UK came out as the world’s eighth most stable, extroverted nation (just ahead of Germany), while Hungary and France ranked as the most neurotic and introverted. The fact that the US came out as the nation in the best psychological health should perhaps have raised some doubts in the authors’ minds about their methods.
Given the empirical difficulty and political incorrectness involved in measuring national differences, it’s no surprise that most historians have long since turned to studying the representations and stereotypes themselves. On one level, these have served to demonise and dehumanise foreigners, and to exclude unwanted groups from the national community. On another, they have promoted national unity and pride. Instilling the people with properly national characteristics has been a central preoccupation for educators, artists and scholars.
There is a shoal of new cultural history books about such matters. They tend to proceed from the assumption that visions of national character are by nature multiple, variable and competing. Paul Langford begs to differ. In Englishness Identified, he admits that stereotypes of the English have often contradicted each other. The island race has been seen as alternately lazy and industrious, honest and hypocritical, polite and uncouth, taciturn and bombastic. He nonetheless insists that between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries, these characterisations fell into distinctive patterns. The themes he identifies are energy, candour, decency, taciturnity, reserve and, of course, eccentricity. He does not go so far as to say that the themes reflected actual traits present in the English population. Rather, ‘stereotypes resemble a kind of solera, to which each new pen adds but a drop.’ Observers saw, in other words, what they had been led to see, and helped others to see the same thing. The result was a recognisably English collection of traits.
Langford sets out to prove his case in a robust, no-nonsense, thoroughly empirical manner (typically English, one might almost say). He has assembled a large database of descriptions of the English, above all by foreigners, analysed it and found his six common themes. He has further divided each theme into four to seven sub-themes, so that candour, for instance, is broken down into plainness, openness, separateness, domesticity, honesty and humbug. He has written up chapters and sub-chapters with these headings, illustrated them with a thousand illustrative quotations and paraphrases, thrown in a brief introduction and conclusion, and voilà !
His focus on England and Englishness, as opposed to Britain and Britishness, is timely. Earlier this summer, a leader in the Times attacked Tom Nairn, Eric Hobsbawm and especially Linda Colley for supplying a tendentious, politicised justification for the break-up of Britain. Citing a recent article by J.C.D. Clark, the Times claimed that Britain and Britishness, far from being ‘forged’ largely in the 18th century as Colley claims, have deeper historical roots. Devolution, and the concurrent resurgence of ‘English’ nationalism are not therefore inevitable steps on the road to a decentralised, Europeanised Britain, but perverse attempts to cut against the grain of history. Langford’s evidence, however, shows that the undeniable success ‘Britain’ enjoyed as a political concept never carried over very strongly into the realm of ethnic and cultural identification. ‘It is difficult to discover any alleged British characteristic that does not in practice coincide with an alleged English characteristic,’ he observes, and adds that the word ‘Britishness’ did not appear until the late 19th century. The label ‘Britain’ applied to the state far more than it did to the people, who remained, for the most part, firmly Scots, Welsh, Irish or English. From this point of view, one of Colley’s central arguments seems correct: as the religious and imperial justifications for having a powerful British state have faded away, what more natural than for the component pieces of the UK to reassert their individual identity?
Langford has found some real gems in his vast mine of material. I learned, for example, that the word ‘eccentricity’ only entered into common circulation in the 1790s, and that ‘silence is golden,’ which I thought to be a quintessentially English proverb, is actually Swiss in origin (it was popularised in England by Carlyle). In 18th-century France, Langford has discovered, ‘une conversation à l’anglaise’ was slang for a long silence. He also tells the story of the poet Samuel Rogers who, in 1815, asked a passerby on the streets of Paris, ‘Are you an Englishman?’ and received the reply: ‘Thank God I am, Sir.’ He quotes Washington Irving’s wonderful description of the English traveller in Italy who had his servant prepare and serve his meals in his carriage: beefsteak, ‘ketchup and soy, and Cayenne pepper, and Harvey sauce, and a bottle of port wine, from that warehouse the carriage, in which his master seemed desirous of carrying England about the world with him.’ In the 18th century, typical English cooking did not involve conscientiously boiling something to remove all traces of taste, but rather over-spicing it. We learn, too, about the French traveller Joseph Fiévée, who thought English women hypocritical for not receiving visitors in their bedrooms in the name of modesty, while rushing to their windows without shame to watch half-naked boxers. And there is Lord Castlereagh’s reply to Mme de Staël’s complaint that the English language had no equivalent for the French word sentiment: ‘No, there is no English word, but the Irish have one that corresponds exactly – “blarney”.’ Langford himself has a pleasantly dry wit, as in this comment on the supposed English aversion to kissing: ‘Perhaps English men could sleep more secure in their beds when they were assured that the sexual sensibility of wives had not been precociously stimulated by frequent kissing in adolescence.’
Another favourite of mine is the story of the two Englishmen who, every day, at the same hour, adjourned to neighbouring ‘shades’, or stalls, alongside the Thames, to rest from their labours. For 27 years they did not exchange a single word. Then, one day, one of the men lifted his voice and said ‘Sir, you and I have sat here with a board between us now for 27 years. May I venture to ask your name?’ The reply from the other side of the board was: ‘Sir, you’re a very impertinent fellow.’
The ingredients are good enough, but the finished product puts one in mind of a tasty bread made without enough yeast. Langford’s style is fluid but all too unvarying. He tends to begin a paragraph by paraphrasing some commonly held view of the English: ‘Removing the lower-class Englishman from his own environment evidently had the effect of loosening his moral moorings’; ‘The English were proud of their lack of vindictiveness’; ‘For the English the most savage war seemed a kind of patriotic game’; ‘There was a sense in which the English did not seem neglectful of their past.’ He provides a short discussion, four or five quotations, and then moves on to the next point. ‘The majesty of English law also owed much to this sense of decency’; ‘English dress sense lacked flair and panache, but had a kind of solidity’; ‘The traditional image of the English was of excess and exhibitionism’; ‘The decency of Englishwomen had much to do with sexual mores.’ After a hundred pages or so of such relentless generalisation, the six themes flow into each other like watercolours under a shower (particularly taciturnity and reserve – half the quotations adduced for the one could serve the other equally well).
Langford doesn’t help matters by doing so little to put his source material in context. Joseph Fiévée, for instance, was a French hack journalist and intellectual, of elastic political loyalties, who might have walked out of the pages of Balzac’s Lost Illusions. Here, however, he’s left as a disembodied voice talking about the English, and Langford does the same with nearly all his other sources. It would no doubt have inflated the book beyond reasonable measure to deal adequately even with the French, and the rich brew of jealousy, admiration, distaste and resentment which fed into their collective attitudes towards England, to say nothing of their individual biases and passions. The French historian Edmond Dziembowski’s excellent monograph, Un nouveau patriotisme français (not cited by Langford) takes over five hundred pages to discuss French attitudes towards Britain during the period 1750-70 alone. But Langford hardly deals with his sources’ national contexts at all, and misses some of the best French material altogether (such as Robert Martin Lesuire’s corrosively funny 1760 novel Les Sauvages de l’Europe, a virtual catalogue of anti-English stereotypes). And without contextualisation, the observers, like the observed, blend together into a homogeneous mass.
This problem undermines Langford’s general conclusions. He has worked hard to uncover the broad outlines of ‘Englishness’, but at the expense of identifying the changes which, in the end, are of greatest interest. At the start, he suggests a general shift in a typical Englishman from barbaric fanatic at the time of Charles I’s execution to vigorous, civilised entrepreneur two hundred years later. He also makes the (not entirely surprising) assertion that images of the English as lazy became less frequent during the Industrial Revolution. Yet he never follows up on these remarks in any systematic manner, and undercuts them by juxtaposing quotations from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In the end, ‘Englishness’ emerges from the book as curiously static, despite the fact that between 1650 and 1850 England changed from a predominantly rural, isolated, heavily religious country dominated by the aristocracy into a quasi-democratic, increasingly urban and secular industrial society, and the centre of a worldwide empire. Langford has little to say about these transformations, especially the last. His European and American sources have observed the English in their native habitat, and as tourists abroad, but not as soldiers, sailors and imperial bureaucrats, the capacities in which most of the world knew them.
Similarly, Langford has relatively little to say about disagreements over Englishness, and what was at stake in them. He says he prefers to quote foreigners because of ‘the likelihood that if their testimony is not objective, it is at least disengaged’. But it is hard to think of French observers, for example, as particularly disengaged, given how much of the period they spent at war with Britain. Even in peacetime, memories of multiple defeats and other aspects of the perennial rivalry indelibly coloured their perceptions. But Langford deals as little with international conflict as he does with empire. Otherwise he might have remarked that the exchange ‘Are you an Englishman?’ – ‘Thank God, I am, Sir!’ would have been more telling had it taken place in Copenhagen in 1820, rather than in Paris in the year of Waterloo. His preference for amusing and quotable observations, as opposed to angry or ideological ones, obscures the extent to which Englishness was a contested terrain. Many foreigners – the Highlanders after Culloden, or the Mahrattas after Assaye, for example – did not actually perceive the English as attractively John Mortimerish compounds of energy, candour and decency, but as something altogether less benign.
It is instructive to compare Englishness Identified with Ian Buruma’s recent book, Voltaire’s Coconuts, to which an American publisher has given the more bland but descriptive title Anglomania. Buruma did only a small fraction of Langford’s research and his impressionistic, personal survey of admiring attitudes towards England, from Voltaire’s France to Major’s England, lacks Langford’s scholarly rigour. But he has a keen eye for the sort of anecdote which reveals more than a long page of quotations and he gives a strong, clear sense of his sources’ backgrounds and outlook. Most important, he evokes how these men and women, including his own parents’ Dutch and Jewish families, responded to England as a model and as a refuge. He also provides a savage account of the ‘young fogies’ who gathered around Charles Moore’s Spectator in the 1980s, trying and succeeding to become walking parodies of the most blimpishly insular sort of Englishman. I can think of few better illustrations of the way national stereotypes are shaped and reinforced.