Englishness

An English country cottage

I have just added a list of novels featuring Englishness to my site. I have been considering this for a long time but have hesitated for a number of reasons. Firstly, it smacks of jingoism and excess nationalism, which I am not too keen on. Secondly, it all looks a bit nostalgic and hearkening back to an England that probably never existed, except in the minds of novelists, while avoiding the grim reality that many people have to face, which may represent the real England more than churches, cricket matches and tea with the vicar. Thirdly, it is difficult to say that this novel represents Englishness while this other one does not. Despite all that, I have gone ahead and done it, partially (though only partially) prompted by the Olympics enthusiasm, though I am sure many people will disagree with my choices.

Slums

Like, I suppose, many people, my idea of Englishness is coloured by the standard picture postcard of England – churches, meadows, teas on the lawn, pre-Raphaelite paintings and Downton Abbey. In short, the usual stereotypes. This is not the England that most people live in and while most people do not live in slums (as in the drawing on the right), they do not live in Downton Abbey or snow-covered country cottages either. But if Englishness is middle-class dreariness, semi-detacheds, Tescos, boring office jobs, watching the football on telly while eating crisps and takeaway curries, then my list would not be very interesting. Albion magazine has a view of Englishness which both covers the traditional view but also takes a certain detached approach. Isabel Taylor, for example, in the first of the series Exploring Englishness looks at the idea of the rural myth, which informs our traditional view of Englishness (churches, cricket matches and cream teas).

Frenchness?

Nonetheless, I have done my Englishness list and will stick with it for now. What about other -nesses? French has the concept of francité, the equivalent of Frenchness. So what goes there? The stereotypes of the Eiffel Tower (at left), Napoleon, French bread, an onion seller? And which authors? The Parisians like Proust, Colette, Cocteau and Gide or the rural ones like Bosco, Giono and Mauriac, who I have yet to put on my site? Is it the nouveau roman or the more conventional novel? And, as for Deutschtum, we foreigners are probably inclined to think of German military action and the Nazis as our stereotype which, I am sure, modern Germans would not welcome. WWAD (What Would Angela (Merkel) Do)? I have no idea. She has mentioned Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives) as one of her favourite books from childhood, and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as two of her favourite authors, neither very German. Apparently, when she went on holiday two years ago, she was going to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (a gift from Ulrich Wilhelm, the then Government spokesman). Apart from a certain fascination with Russia, this tells us nothing about Germanness. I would be hard put to suggest any book as representing Germanness. So I have done my Englishness list, albeit with some trepidation at wandering into the murky waters of stereotyping but I shall leave it at that and there will be no Frenchness or Germanness or anything else-ness.

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