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Reviewed by:
  • Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837, and: Devolving English Literature
  • Trevor Lloyd
Linda Colley. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992. Pp. x + 430. $45.
Robert Crawford. Devolving English Literature. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. x + 320. $65.

Although the Bible had told everybody for a hundred years that James was King of Great Britain, the English and the Scots felt very little common nationality at the time of the Act of Union in 1707. Over the next hundred years they developed a British nationality that enabled them to work together and carried them through the wars against France. Linda Colley’s attractive and persuasive book picks out some of the forces driving in this direction: the people who were becoming “Britons” might not see themselves as united in religion but they were almost all Protestants—this is a book about Britain, not the British Isles, and Ireland is not included;—they expected to do well out of trade and industry; and by the second half of the century could hope to do well out of imperial expansion as well. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century the British were able to survive a difficult war against America, France, and Spain, and then a much longer war against revolutionary France. The larger part of the book is devoted to these decades of united struggle, showing how men and women became members of an active and self-conscious community. “Every state, in which all the inhabitants without distinction of property are roused to the exertion of a public spirit, is for the time a Jacobin state” (312) was the way Coleridge put it and, while “Jacobin” may no longer be the word to use, he was right that Britain had become a state of a modern type by the end of the long wars. Perhaps Colley overestimates the extent to which the change was caused by war; if people had not become very satisfied with their way of life during the thirty years of peace after Utrecht, they would probably not have produced the explosion of bellicose feeling and patriotic songs in the 1740s. It was in this period between the two Jacobite rebellions that the Act of Union became accepted as the natural way to do things, and it was in this period that the Lowland Scots became more anglicized and more determined to make themselves into citizens of the new state.

This is the foundation for the eighteenth-century portion of Crawford’s Devolution of English Literature, which is really a study of the strategies used by a few of the groups, down to present-day Irish authors like Seamus Heaney, who have to write in the English language without having an English national identity. The Lowland Scots after the Act of Union were one of the first groups in this position, and those who wanted to do well out of the Union responded by devoting themselves to learning, for public use, the English version of English with a professionalism the English had never needed. Scots universities taught people to write English by studying rhetoric and belles lettres; English universities assumed that anyone who had studied Latin and Greek would have learnt to write English along the way. While this account of part of the process of creating Britons is interesting, it is written from so determinedly Scottish nationalist a [End Page 118] point of view that parts of the story become distorted. It is odd simply to describe Defoe as a spy without saying how pro-Scottish an Englishman he was in his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–6), with comments like his opinion that the Royal Mile in Edinburgh was “perhaps the finest street not in Britain only but in the world.” It is worse than odd to discuss the serious study of English in the mid-eighteenth century without mentioning Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. It may be understandable for a nationalist to want to play down the deep division between Highlands and Lowlands in eighteenth-century Scotland, but it does lead Crawford to ignore the extent...

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