English Butter

David Trotter

  • Englishness: Politics and Culture 1880-1920 edited by Robert Colls and Philip Dodd
    Croom Helm, 378 pp, £25.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 7099 0849 0
  • The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement by Michael Rosenthal
    Collins, 335 pp, £15.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 00 217604 1
  • Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? by Richard Symonds
    Macmillan, 366 pp, £29.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 333 40206 5

‘It angers me to pass a grocer’s shop,’ declares the impeccably fogeyish hero of Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), ‘and see in the window a display of foreign butter. This is the kind of thing that makes one gloom over the prospects of England. The deterioration of English butter is one of the worst signs of the moral state of our people.’ Eighty years on, the prospects of England continue to be gloomed over. The evidence of deterioration mounts: not just butter now, but apples, cars, furniture. As for the moral state of the people ‘driving’ the cars and beating each other over the head with bits of the furniture ... don’t even ask. Ryecroft’s hatred of a world in which an honest chap can no longer secure an ‘honest chop’ still plays its part in the politics of decline.

Continuities such as this tempt one to trace the politics of decline back to the time when passing the corner store first became a trial to the spirit. Many of Ryecroft’s contemporaries certainly feared the worst, and it wasn’t just the groceries they had to worry about. America and Germany were challenging the industrial supremacy of Britain, while the inexhaustible Russian masses pressed in on her most valued possession, India. ‘Now,’ Lord Salisbury said in 1898, ‘with the whole earth occupied and the movements of expansion continuing, she will have to fight to the death against successive rivals.’ Fighting to the death can’t have seemed a very attractive option, if you believed what people were saying about the physical and moral degeneracy of the British, most of whom could barely be trusted to get themselves out of bed in the morning. Bad habits and bad butter would sap the nation from within, making life easy for an invader.

Decline had set in, or so it seemed. The danger was met, we are told, not so much by the development of new values and skills as by the reassertion of old ones: a pre-industrial landscape, a primitive hardiness, an archaic chivalry. There were campaigns for ‘national efficiency’. But what was to be made efficient – adapted for the fight to the death – was an original and essential Englishness, an inherent superiority. So emphatic was this reassertion, the argument goes, that it still colours the way we think of ourselves, and still prevents us from accepting our diminished status. It seems to be taking the blame for a whole variety of evils, from the decline of the entrepreneurial spirit to the rise of literary criticism.

And yet it sounds so curious. We may worry about imports, like Henry Ryecroft, but we don’t infer morality from butter. We may worry about war, like Lord Salisbury, but we don’t infer rivalry between nations from a Darwinian rivalry between species. Those inferences have a history, which is not necessarily our history. They were mobilised, at the turn of the century, by factions and pressure-groups whose effect has not yet been measured. An emphasis on the continuity of Englishness can obscure the specificity of the terms in which it was reasserted.

The editors of Englishness: Politics and Culture 1880-1920 emphasise continuity: ‘it is within the shadow of that period, and its meanings, that we still live.’ They choose as their epigraph Richard Shannon’s claim that ‘the characteristic “Englishness” of English culture was made then very much what it is now.’ The essays they have collected aim to describe the institutions, policies and symbols by and through which that characteristic Englishness was made; or, as they put it, to ‘map’ the ‘areas’ of political culture and cultural politics. The topics covered include the discovery of rural England, the rise of English studies, patriotic music and literature, the propaganda directed at marginal or subordinate groups, and the uses made of nationalism by the main political parties.

The metaphor of mapping will bear some inspection. It carries a hint of trackless wastes and forbidden cities which the editors cannot quite resist. They claim that their subject remains ‘unexamined – some would say wilfully so’. Some would say that the claim itself is a little wilful, since Englishness has always been a focus of political debate, and since all the contributors are able to draw upon a fairly extensive secondary literature.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in