‘Englishness Identified: Manners and Character 1650-1850’ by Paul Langford

2000,  320p & notes

It seems that much ink has been spilled in Australia trying to define Australianness, and I had always assumed that this was a form of nationalistic adolescence that we would eventually outgrow.  Just as it’s hard to imagine your own parents as teenagers, it hadn’t occurred to me that the Mother Country herself might have undergone the same soul-searching.  But clearly the debate over Britishness and Englishness is a lively one. I’m aware of, but to my embarrassment have not read Linda Colley’s Britons, even though it sits on the shelf waiting to be read. However this book distances itself from the endeavour of explaining the distinction between Britishness and Englishness, and does not enter into the debate over the process by which the two concepts were developed.  Instead, Langford looks at “the things identified rather than the process of identification” (p. 2)  In particular he focuses on manners and character.

Langford argues that until about 1650, the English were viewed as Europe’s mavericks- capable occasionally of spasmodic splendour, but also prone to bouts of violence, turbulence and instability.  If pressed to nominate the point at which there was acceptance of the possibility of English pre-eminence, it probably came somewhere around the 1760s.   From the eighteenth-century on, there was increasing interest in England and its people from Continental travellers and an period of outright Anglo-mania, particularly on the part of the French, between the 1730s and 1780.  Langford draws on the travel writings of these visitors as his primary sources, much of which was written with the droll superciliousness not unknown to travel documentaries today.

He has divided his book into six main chapters: Energy, Candour, Decency, Taciturnity, Reserve and Eccentricity and these in turn are divided into subsections likewise headed by nouns- barbarity, domesticity, clubbability etc.  At times the distinctions are not clear-cut.  For example, the coverage of Liberty  under “Eccentricity” is not intuitive;  or the inclusion of Conversation, Oratory and Clubbability under “Taciturnity” undercuts the chapter heading somewhat. But as he says, “feelings are hard to distinguish from thoughts” (p.251), and hard to distinguish from actions as well.  They’re slippery things, feelings, and don’t always fit neatly under a heading.

The chapter structure of the book reflects the emphasis on affective concepts, as suggested by the title.  There is an underlying chronological thread to the argument as well, though, and it is not served well by the overarching structure.  He argues, as did Marjorie Morgan, that the Evangelicalism of the late 18th century gave rise to new ideals of behaviour, and he begins his two-century examination of the change in Englishness from the middle of the 17th century.  He notes that there is an evolution over time, but he does not give the chronological factor much prominence.  This a-chronological (if there is any such word) approach is underscored by the formatting of his  footnoting, where a primary source is dated on its first appearance, but not in subsequent citations.  Because there is no bibliography, it is nigh on impossible to locate a reference amongst his detailed footnotes to ascertain whether it is an observation made in the late seventeenth or mid-nineteenth century.  The footnoting format could well have been imposed by the publishers- although it would be a pity to learn that a University publisher was stepping back from academic conventions in this way- but it does not serve the book well.

Although not engaging at a theoretical level with the Britishness/Englishness identity debate, the foreign travellers that Langford cites can clearly differentiate between the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh in their observations.  Because he is drawing on such a large dragnet of observations, there are often inconsistencies between them, especially when closely related traits are discussed in separate sections of the book.  However this did not detract from his argument: instead it served to underline that character is just as much in the eye of the beholder as in the image that the subject wants to project, and just how complex, baffling and nuanced a ‘national character’ can be once you try to move beyond the stereotype.

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2 responses to “‘Englishness Identified: Manners and Character 1650-1850’ by Paul Langford

  1. Frustrating re the footnotes. I have also found it frustrating locating the full citation for a reference in articles that are profusely referenced. Our geography lecturer also commented on the difficulty in locating references in articles without bibliographies.

    Just to complicate things – I have been looking at gender identity in the nineteenth century. Does Paul Langford note the gender dimensions of the national characteristics that he discusses? I have been reading about the ‘manliness’ of the ideal Victorian male and the ‘maternalism’ that the ideal late 19thC/early 20thC woman demonstrated. Just thinking about considering the ‘typical’ national characteristics of people together with their gender ideals makes me feel overwhelmed.

    • The book very much concentrates on EnglishMEN, and he makes no mention of his decision to do this- it’s as if it has been taken for granted. Under its broad structure, the subheadings of “Propriety” and “Modesty” in the “Decency” chapter deal most with women- in particular the influence of Evangelicalism on moral character. There are women throughout the book, but the larger argument deals with masculinity and national character. It certainly would be a huge endeavour to combine two such big questions- national character and gender.

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