Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 291-292
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Manners and Character, 1650-1850
Englishness Identified: Manners and Character, 1650-1850. By Paul Langford(New York, Oxford University Press, 2000) 389pp. $39.95
The construction of national identity is a hot topic. Langford's book is not so much about the ways in which the English viewed themselves, but about how Englishness was seen by others. By the eighteenth century, what came to be described as "national character" was what foreign travelers identified. Moreover, national character expressed itself "in what was called manners," a term that had much broader cultural meaning than it does today (7-8). To explain national manners was to range across questions of upbringing, education, physical environment, temperament, economic progress, and political institutions. At the outset, Langford carefully explains his use of the adjective "English" rather than "British," arguing that English character "was the dynamic force, squeezing out Celtic claims to determine what made Britain British" (14). Foreign travelers came prepared to see certain things and to confirm certain preconceived images, and what they came to see changed over time. From the 1760s, however, foreigners increasingly accepted English pre-eminence and were drawn to explaining why, as Giuseppe Baretti, an eighteenth-century traveler-writer, put it, the English "stand ... at the head of mankind."
Langford organizes his book around six major, supposed traits of Englishness: energy, candor, decency, taciturnity, reserve, and eccentricity. Most interesting, these categories were subject both to change and potentially to internal contradictions. Hence, although the English were not viewed as an industrious people, they appeared to be in constant motion. Restlessness was the partner to melancholy; the English were not so much bored, as mildly depressed. Coffeehouses, those famous centers of bourgeois sociability, impressed foreigners by their deep silence and lack of gaiety. An orderly, plain-speaking (indeed, foul-mouthed), free people, the English were practical rather than fun- loving. Their taciturnity might have been viewed as jeopardizing their capacity to participate in modern civilization since civility was linked to conversation. British reserve seems to have had a long history. Although the English were keen diners, Continental visitors thought them sadly deficient in the arts of conversation. In contrast, speaking in the House of Commons was dominated not by the oratorical brilliance of Charles [End Page 291] James Fox and Edmund Burke, but was based on conversational modes; members disavowed displays of stately eloquence in a favor of casual familiarity and business-like reasoning, as aristocratic tradition eventually gave way to a more utilitarian order by the 1830s.
Langford has written a thoroughly researched book that is largely untouched by methodological or interdisciplinary considerations. Those looking for the more fashionable moves of discourse analysis will be disappointed. Langford has assembled a rich medley of opinion, more anecdotal than analytical in style. In a sense, he conforms nicely to one of the prevailing stereotypes of modern "Englishness," a commonsensical disregard for theory.