Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Pg. 69: "The English National Character"

Today's feature at the Page 69 Test: Peter Mandler's The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair.

About the book, from the publisher:
What kind of people are “the English”? What characteristic traits and behavior (if any) distinguish them from other people? This highly original and wide-ranging book traces the surprisingly varied history of ideas among the English about their own “national character” over the past two centuries.

Two hundred years ago, the very idea of a national character was novel and not very respectable. Today, it is again difficult for the many who think of themselves as unique individuals to imagine a “national character” that binds the English together in a national unit. But in between, as Britain became a democracy, “national character” became part of the national common sense, reflected in depictions of "John Bull" and his twentieth-century successor, the "Little Man," and in a set of stereotypes about English traits, follies, and foibles. Not at all shy to talk about themselves, the English have produced a vast outpouring of material on what it means to be English — material on which this book draws: lectures, sermons, political speeches, journalism, popular and scholarly books, poems and novels and films, satires and cartoons and caricatures, as well as up-to-the-minute social science and public opinion research.

In this comprehensive and lucidly argued book, a leading historian of modern Britain challenges long-held assumptions and familiar stereotypes and proposes an entirely new perspective on what it means to think of oneself as being English.
Among the reviews for The English National Character:
"...tremendously rewarding and instructive..."
--Dominic Sandbrook, The Daily Telegraph

"This is a fascinating book ... a very impressive overview."
--Noel Malcolm, The Sunday Telegraph

"Mandler has marshalled together an impressive panoply of writings on the nature of 'Englishness', many of them fabulously contradictory ... [one gains] a lively understanding of where a lot of sterotypes about 'the English National character' have come from."
--Deborah Orr, The Independent

"...the best recent survey I have seen on the subject."
--Jeremy Paxman, BBC History Magazine

"Mandler's argument is smart and clear and appears to be sound. There is absolutely no doubting his exceptional ability in collating and correlating vast amounts of data and information (the bibliography runs to 30 tinily typeset pages). The thesis is basically this: taking the 19th century as his starting point, he argues that conceptions of English national identity during the period were largely influenced by a fascination with England's Anglo-Saxon roots, what Mandler - echoing Matthew Arnold - calls "Teutomania". This then gave rise to the idea of the "great Briton", the John Bull stereotype, which the Boer war and then the first world war soon put paid to, John Bull diminishing in stature and size in the popular imagination to the figure of the "little man" epitomised, according to Mandler, by Sidney Strube's usefully titled cartoon "Little Man", which ran in the Daily Express between 1920 and 1947. Since the end of the second world war, the idea of a coherent national identity has collapsed."

"The only thing ... myths of Englishness have in common is the premise that there is such a thing as the English character — an enduring national essence that separates the people of the sceptred isle, for good or ill, from their fellow men. But for Peter Mandler, Englishness is less an essence than a mirror, in which observers of every stripe see their own images. In "The English National Character," Mr. Mandler is not out to define that elusive concept, but to see how generations of English and foreign writers have defined it, argued about it, and finally, perhaps, discredited it. In the process, his densely informative work offers a superb example of how to write, in the words of his subtitle, 'the history of an idea.'"
--New York Sun
Peter Mandler is reader in modern history, University of Cambridge, and fellow of Gonville and Caius College. His many other scholarly publications include The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home.

Read more about The English National Character at the Yale University Press website, and visit Peter Mandler's faculty webpage at the Cambridge University website.

The Page 69 Test: The English National Character.

--Marshal Zeringue