P.N. Furbank

  • The English World: History, Character and People edited by Robert Blake
    Thames and Hudson, 268 pp, £14.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 500 25083 9
  • The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal by Philip Mason
    Deutsch, 240 pp, £9.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 233 97489 X

Can it be doubted that to write about ‘the English Spirit’ (or L’Ame Française or ‘the Spanish Soul’) is intellectually disreputable? Plainly, there are no such entities, nor does anyone at heart believe there are. The motives for invoking them are various: vote-getting is one; also the need to find something to say at a school speech-day. Then again, flirtatiousness. Intense are the flirtations that have sprung up between English writers (like Gerald Brenan) and Spain, between old-fashioned American scholars and the French poets, and between flattering Frenchmen (like André Maurois) and the bluff English. I revere Nikolaus Pevsner, but he will have to forgive me if I detect a touch of flirtatiousness in The Englishness of Art. One could labour the point, and offer reasons why no such concept could be valid, but I hardly think it is necessary. It is recognised when such talk begins that one is meant to relax, as at a kind of tea-break in the intellectual working day.

An objection suggests itself, which is that George Orwell wrote about the ‘English national character’, and Orwell was not a man to write to no purpose. But consider what he wrote – viz. that ‘a profound, almost unconscious patriotism and an inability to think logically are the abiding features of the English character, traceable in English literature from Shakespeare downwards.’ The profound patriotism of Shelley and Byron, the inability to think logically of John Stuart Mill and Cardinal Newman and Lewis Carroll? No, it won’t do, and Orwell, for once, was talking through his hat – perhaps relaxing in what he considered an ‘English’ manner.

It really seems, then, not quite proper that distinguished experts should have contributed to a volume entitled The English World, for all its slap-up production, its William Morris end-papers and no end of gorgeous illustrations. For a start, could you have a more catchpenny title? The word ‘world’ here means everything and nothing, and it is left entirely to the reader to give it definition. I am being unfair, for many of the essays in the volume – on the development of Parliament (Robert Blake), ‘War and Peace with Wales, Scotland and Ireland’ (Hugh Trevor-Roper), art and popular taste (Quentin Bell), the evolution of the English landscape (Richard Muir) – are excellent and briskly-written popularising surveys. But the whole enterprise, I do think, is compromised by those gestures towards ‘the English Spirit’, ‘the making of a tradition’ etc. (They come thickest, it is true, in the unsigned prolegomena to sections and the captions to illustrations.)

I am less averse to reading about ‘the English Gentleman’, since this is a concept which has meant much to many people. That it has not always meant the same thing, that, indeed, no two people would apply it in quite the same way, is hardly to the point. People do not always mean the same thing by the terms ‘madness’ or ‘Conservatism’ or ‘pure English’, but we do not accuse them of talking about nothing. Discussion of ‘the English Gentleman’ has its dangers too, however, and one of them it shares with discussion of ‘the English Spirit’, which is to treat the concept of ‘the English Gentleman’ as if it were somehow eternal and ahistorical – a Platonic Idea, adopting different disguises over the centuries but essentially unchanging. ‘It is all there in Chaucer,’ is the common cry. We meet with it, though phrased a little ambiguously, in George Holmes’s ‘The Medieval Centuries’ in The English World. ‘Chaucer’s characters are types but they are presented with such a complex indication of the ironies of their social position that the nuances of English life spring suddenly into view. The Franklin, a rich farmer, sure of his material security but unsure when it comes to handling the courtly ethos which is natural to the knight and the squire, appears to us with scarcely less realism than the people of Henry Fielding and Jane Austen.’ Ostensibly Holmes is only comparing the art, the ‘realism’, of Chaucer with that of novelists four centuries later. But the implication is that ‘realism’ means writing about what Jane Austen would have written about – social embarrassments and the like. (According to this theory, Chaucer’s Knight, being presumably without social embarrassments, does not call for ‘realism’. He certainly doesn’t get it, at least not of the Jane Austen kind.) And somewhere there seems to whisper a further implication: that the ‘nuances of English life’ are, at bottom, always the same.

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