A Long Silence

David A. Bell

  • Englishness Identified: Manners and Character, 1650-1850 by Paul Langford
    Oxford, 389 pp, £25.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 19 820681 X

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.

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