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  • The Wake of Wellington: Englishness in 1852
  • Allyson N. May
Peter W. Sinnema . The Wake of Wellington: Englishness in 1852. Ohio University Press. xxx, 166. US $42.95

The Wake of Wellington takes as its subject not Wellington the man, but the way in which the Iron Duke was used, represented, and mythologized after his death. Three meanings of wake are invoked – vigil and requiem, the track left by someone's passing, and the act of awakening – as Sinnema explores Wellington's treatment in genres spanning novels, biography, memoirs, and the newspaper press; the duke's participation in the Great Exhibition of 1851; the immediate reaction to his death in 1852; the public spectacle of his funeral; and his 'posthumous commodification.' He reflects on the Irish reaction (Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, was born in Dublin) and concludes with a chapter on the fate of Matthew CotesWyatt's equestrian statue of the hero of Waterloo. The question considered is thus not, who was Wellington? but, what purposes did Wellington serve? More specifically, how did his cultural afterlife contribute to the 'self-imagining' of mid-Victorian England? How were his life and death configured as part of a nation's attempt to define itself?

In arguing for Wellington's 'posthumous symbolization as a rallying sign for the English nation' Sinnema's study falls within the broader literature devoted to English character and identity. As Paul Langford reminds us (in Englishness Identified: Manners and Character 1650–1850 [2000]), Englishness is a relatively modern concept. The word does not appear to have been used before 1805, and judging by Langford's sources, until the nineteenth century, attempts at defining English characteristics tended to be made by foreigners rather than the English themselves. Domestic reflection on national identity, according to Peter Mandler (in The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair [2006]), dates from the early Victorian decades and is linked to the stirrings of democracy. Although Mandler himself scarcely mentions Wellington, his study establishes that by the time of the duke's death the English had spent roughly two decades reflecting on their character, and it is thus not surprising that the passing of a military hero would be drawn into that discourse. This case study of Wellington, seen through 'the lens of death,' reveals the way in which his story was moulded and cast in accordance with mid-Victorian conceptions of the English people and nation.

Sinnema provides fascinating insight into the process by which an Anglo-Irishman assumed Englishness and was appropriated (with some [End Page 265] whitewashing of his personal life, and despite his political reputation) as a quintessential Englishman, the embodiment of the English traits of 'simplicity of character, common sense, and the veneration of duty,' whose 'death celebrations staged Englishness, London, and the [English] nation.' The chapter devoted to Ireland's 'narrative binary,' in which Wellington was denounced and reviled as English by some and claimed as an Irish hero by others, is also compelling. Oddly absent from this study, however, is any overt discussion of the relationship between Englishness and Britishness. While English is by far the more frequently used term throughout the book, British is sometimes substituted, implying, even if inadvertently, that the two terms are interchangeable. They may indeed have been used as such at the time of Wellington's death: Mandler comments that by the mid-Victorian decades the English were prone to define Britain as England. The non-English components of Great Britain, however, were unlikely to have made the same equation, while Sinnema's own research indicates that the Scots distanced themselves from the English cult ofWellington. And even if the mid-Victorian English were inclined to conflate the two terms, this practice cannot today be reproduced or followed without comment. That English and British are once again being distinguished, however, only demonstrates that Englishness, as Sinnema notes, is not a fixed identity but 'a site of contestation,' and a 'historically contingent' site at that.

Allyson N. May
Department of History, University of Western Ontario


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