What’s In A Brit?

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God save the Queen/The fascist regime/It made you a moron/Potential H-bomb.

(Sex Pistols, God Save The Queen)

National identity has always been a crucial element in the personal and public identity geographies. History has recorded two main trends in this respect. One is the absolutization of the national spirit leading to generalization and disregard of difference. The changes in society and ideas brought about in the post-modern area, have affected the way the nation and nationality are viewed, namely in eliminating the Enlightenment dichotomous way of perceiving reality. The global world promotes a new opening towards difference and periphery, cultural pluralism and decentering of the Great Western discourses regarding identity (national, ethnic, gender, etc.). Historical metanarrations were promoting the national, ethnic and cultural absolutism. The traditional dichotomies centered on subject-object, center-periphery or reason-imagination relations, all implied in fact power hierarchies between the observer and the observed, between the West and the Est or between Great Britain and the Continent.

Richard Ingrams’ selection of imagological texts in The English Character, can be divided into self and foreign representations. Self representations belong mostly to the end of the Victorian age and early 29th Century and reflect in their critical attitude the dissatisfaction related to the fall of the Imperial Greatness followed by the affirmation of mediocrity and common way of life. The texts speak for themselves, without the author’s involvement. They are the substance for an analysis of national representations.

On the other hand, the foreign representations belonging to Continental writers are very critical as always. Given the traditional Central European traditional self-centered way of perceiving the other, the English especially, the resulting portrait is full of prejudice, stereotypes and cliches. Interestingly enough, Ingrams was also considerate enough to include marginal observers as well, but only from within the British Isles, with a discourse reflecting the periphery-center relation.

Inside observers are usually ironic (using typically British sarcasm), usually accentuating the negative traits, even though many English (especially in Victorian times) see the Empire as the peak of civilization and treat it accordingly, others victimize and culpabilize it motivating the wrongs and seeking redemption. Unfortunately, Ingram’s compilation only includes excerpts mocking  Englishness. George Orwell perceives England as seen by an unbiased foreign observer “able because of his work to keep in touch with ordinary, useful, unspectacular people.” (71). He also underlines the salient character of the English common people. One of the most notable characteristic is their artistic insensibility. The English also grant a lot of credit to gentleness, Orwell noting “the orderly behavior of English crowds, the lack of pushing an quarreling, the willingness to form queues, the good temper of harassed, overworked people like bus conductors “(71) with one exception: the working class people who are “not as graceful in manners, but they are extremely considerate .“(71)

In a similar manner, according D. H. Lawrence, the English are the nicest people in the world. In any case, they not exceedingly nice, “but nice enough, just nice enough”(80) so that they would make the other(s) feel they could be nicer. Horace Walpole adds a pathological valence to the English personality portrait stating that nobody is as mad as the English: “In England, tempers vary so excessively, that almost everyone’s faults are peculiar to himself. “(80). He blames this British diversity to the climate which is changeable and makes them queer and to the government permitting this queerness to operate without restriction. Due to this, the uninfected will find life in England continually amusing.

On the other hand, George Gissing talks about the vulgarity of the people in holiday times: crowds that gather in public places engaging in drinking and loud quarreling, leading to a total chaos in which children will be scolded because they are loud, not considering that the parents are louder than their sons and daughters. William Makepeace Thackeray states that the English are the best at cheating, with its best products in infinite supplies, soldiers, sailors, razors, tailors, brewers, hatters and rogues, surpassing even the Russian, their greatest rival. Also, Gissing adds the seaside as a favorite destination in times of idleness.

Claud Cockburn also describes the English people’s will for idleness, comparing the British (What about Wednesday Week?) with the Spanish (maňana, maňana). (see 87) Gissing agrees that there is a constant necessity for leisure time:

Work in itself is not an end; only a means; but we nowadays make it an end, and three-fourths of the world cannot understand anything else. (75)

Orwell considers that the English also take good care of those in need, that is, foreigners and blind people can walk everywhere in London with ease. From an outsider’s point of view, the English may seem impossible to impress, even when something highly dramatic occurs: “nothing will wake those people up .”(71) Nevertheless, Orwell reaches the conclusion that they are not idle or uninterested with current affairs, but they are more reserved, in any case completely free to be so no matter what the context:

The amount of liberty, intellectual or other, that we enjoy in England ought not be exaggerated, but the fact that it did not markedly diminish in nearly six years of desperate war is a hopeful symptom. (72)

Alfred Tennyson notes this freedom of opinion as well, even though he sees the English as very stupid and heavy. Sir Thomas Beecham disses the musical sensibility of the English people, stating that they “may not like music; but they absolutely love the noise it makes.” (72).

Edward Burne-Jones sees a limited amount of hope of an Englishman, that is, (referring strictly to the English male) he would give up anything from his political to his religious convictions, except his frock coat. In other words, it is what makes him British: “the way he must put on a coat over all the rest of his clothes to go out for a walk on a Sunday is inborn in him.” (73)

E. M. Delafield denounces the replacement of thoughts with traditions. Such traditions could include the idea of “Home,” a word that is ‘unalterably English in origin” (73), as Delafield states, even in such complex and historic languages as French, it is untranslatable and referred only as le home. This tradition also has a couple of rules to not to ever be breached: one is removing the children by sending them to boarding-schools and beyond) or avoiding proximity in family relations. According to Delafield, the English love the idea of “Home Sweet Home” only on a superficial level, as a tradition which once established, there is nothing more to be done or said.

Thackeray also complains about the education, namely the system called “the education of a gentleman” which he sees as accursed for eliminating any form of affection: Alas! what natural tenderness and kindly clinging filial affection is he taught to trample on and despise!. (81) George Bernard Shaw adds that the English have to be insistingly and incessantly coached for years in order to know that to think “in the proper and becoming opinion.” (81) George Gissing underlines the British impatience of detail.

The English are also very devoted to (some of) their animals: they treat them better than their relatives and friends. But this devotion is not generalized: while they love their dogs and horses, they abhor the fox, the deer, the badger, the otter or pheasant. One exception is the cat, seen as an inferior dog, “its sole virtue being that it will – like its owners – kill other, smaller animals.” (73) Interestingly, Delafield says, the English believe they are the only nation in the world to be kind to animals.

Also, one crucial element of the English character is the power of self-delusion, which is not the product of imagination because the English lack any trace of it. Stevie Smith also notices their narrow-mindedness, as they are “eminently sane, reasonable, fair-minded inability to conceive any viewpoint save their own can possibly have the slightest merit.” (82-3) They prefer to follow a schoolboy type of thinking, which is “Believing what you know to be untrue.” (74): all good women are naturally frigid; any change in the British Constitution is to the worse; England is going to rack and ruin; England is finest country in the world; all foreigners are slightly mad; anybody who disagrees with these beliefs should be shot; Englishwomen are confined to the more domestic problems of life; all men are just like children; dowdy is good, smart is bad; listening to the radio is meritorious, reading a novel is waste of time; a sale means that you buy products with less money than what they are worth; children are blessing for the parents. In conclusion, the English are “agreeably inconsistent.” (74) According to Elizabeth Barret Browning, the greatest malady the English suffer of is self love. D.H. Lawrence adds to the self-love and narrow-minded character, the so-called “oxford voice,” and its dilettante counterpart, “the would-be oxford voice” with its seductive illusion of superiority.

Another key element in British identity is the silence and avoidance of any type of conversation. Hugh Walpole sees this as life spent in tomb-like silence (see 77). Sydney Smith views the pleasure of sulkiness (not hearing a word from anybody and consequently, no need for replying) as the greatest joy of the English, making them “the most disagreeable of all the nations in Europe.” (82) adding to their many positive traits, obviously.

Hugh Kingsmill answers the question “Why the English are so tongue-tied?” saying that “he ought to be a poet, but has enough sense to know he isn’t one.” (87) In any case, some do find they own vocal chords in situations where the receiver or the audience is in some way impaired and cannot hear nor respond (telephone bots, after-dinner speeches).

Lytton Stratchey uses the description of Lord Hartington to create a general portrait of the British people. Hartington would be asked to solve any dispute about cards in a club, his qualities appreciated by the high-class society were honesty, impartiality, solidity, common sense, love for field sports (proving his allegiance to security, certainty), casualness, hatred of fine sentiments, all in all, he was rather dull with “a large, long, bearded, impressionable face:”

It was the greatest comfort – with Lord Harrington they could always be absolutely certain that he would never, in any circumstances, be either brilliant, or subtle, or surprising, or impassioned, or profound. (77)

Adding to this idea, William Blake describes a good man from the British point of view: a passive, polite, virtuous, obedient to Noblemen’s opinions in Art and Science gentleman and anybody else (who does not fit in this category) must be starved (see 83).

John Ruskin writes about a sign found in Continental Europe, with the inscription “To let, a Genteel House, up this road.” (78), adding that nobody knows what genteel means, except the English, advising us to “consider a little all the meanness that there is in that epithet.”(78) The English also created an art of complaining, which is now vital for their very existence, as William Hazlitt states.

Briain’s rivals (usually the Continental great powers, and later the USA) generally underline the negative traits which give them the advantage of superiority. Richard Wagner objects to the authentic Englishman, which he describes as a sheep relying on instinct to sniff out the food, but missing the larger picture. (see 72) Hippolyte Taine also notices the sub-human character of the English society: “beyond the human head and the splendid torso, I find myself aware of the bestial and muck-fouled hind-quarters.” (72) Henrich Heine also shares this German-nationalistic superiority concept. As anti-Semitic Christians would see Jesus as being Jew a terrible notion to accept, Heine deplores Shakespeare’s being born amongst “the most repulsive set of people that God in His anger ever created .”(84) He also describes them as being starched, commonplace, selfish, narrow, just English:

A people which is a grizzly yawning monster, which breathes nothing but poisonous vapor and deadly spleen, and which in the end will certainly hang itself with a colossal ship’s cable. (84)

Nathaniel Hawthorne compares the English running to The Times with their little grievances to a child running to his mother (see 74). Ivan Turgenev sees life in England as lacking cheerfulness, but nevertheless interesting. According to Ogden Nash the English consider their main asset their own language (the right English), a language not mastered correctly by anybody except themselves. Also, “when they pause to consider themselves they et all reticently thrilled and tinglish.” (76) Like local observers, the outsiders also notice the lack of the will to make conversation. André Maurois notes that letting a conversation drop is considered rude in France, but it is rash to keep it up in England. (see 78)

Emile Cammaerts uses a thread of words and ideas to describe the English people as a whole:

Mist, lumber rooms, country houses, sheep, mist, after-dinner speeches, freedom, dole: mist, Round Table, social ladder, Olympus, mist, Robinson Crusoe, autograph-albums, mist, Pegasus, castles-in-the-air. (82)

Charles Astor Bristed notices that most working women at the time (shop-girls, work-women, domestic servants, etc.) are only designed for amusing the gentlemen, who may or may not admit that. Also, Odette Keun talks about the English, both male and female, as being sexually repressed. They also enjoy inflicting physical pain by clinging to the barbaric practices of flogging children or criminals in public institutions. The men are not good lovers because of the women being so willing to engage in intimate intercourse, that they consider seduction unnecessary and obsolete, which also makes them terrible husbands:

Judging from what I have seen in English parks and the countryside, this must be true, for both sexes resort to a mutual and public masturbation. Since I am a Latin, the demi-vierge is anathema to me. You surrender everything normally, or you stay inviolably chaste. (85)

The marginal other (in this text represented only by Irish and Scottish observers) usually sees the British Empire as an oppressor subject only to critique and resentment. William Trevor describes England as a contradictory land: first, there is the postcard image of Britain as a bucolic, quiet country; on the other hand, the real England is inhabited by snooty and snobby people similar to the Alice in Wonderland characters, “fascinating in their social stances, often as cold as crystal.” (76) They are very weary of outsiders, but if they learn to adapt to the rules and taboos “to be taught to animal and stranger” (76), they will become (very) friendly in time. Another Irish critique comes from Oscar Wilde who defines the “sound English commonsense” as the race’s stupidity being genetically transmitted (see 76). James Boswell, like many other observers, notes the “obstinate silence” (82) in which the English engage to avoid conversation.

The above mentioned self and foreign representations were chosen from the critics of the British Empire inside and outside is borders. These images were meant to paint a negative portrait of the British character. If we took into account only this kind of perception, we would fall again into the trap of absolutization and generalization. This is why I consider necessary to widen the scope to include examples from all types of descriptions, be they positive, negative, central or peripheral (perhaps also from other colonial annexes than Ireland and Scotland). Of course, humor is always savory when augmenting negative traits, and hopefully, this was the intention of the author.

Works Cited

  • Ingrams, Richard. “The English Character.” England. an Anthology. London: Fontana, 1990. 71-87.
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