Tuesday, August 30, 2016

John Bull

Our national nickname is perhaps more widely identified with the English people than any of the other manifestations of our character, unless, indeed, it be our national oath. Not only is it true that to Frenchmen, Germans, and Americans the people of England are collectively known as John Bull, but the name is felt to give a real insight into the character of those whom it is intended to describe. Nicknames, like caricatures, are worthless unless they are humorous; but, if they are humorous, their value is out of all proportion to their ostensible importance. Under certain limitations, it is perfectly true to say that the most elaborate treatise teaches us less than a really good nickname or caricature. Indeed, one of the most popular of contemporary writers—Mr. Carlyle—has constructed an entire theory of literature upon this principle. His habit of insisting upon the necessity of having an eye instead of mere spectacles—of "looking into the soul" of things and men, and of painting his characters instead of describing them—are all ways of indicating that real knowledge of mankind is derived rather from the imagination than from the understanding. That this habit gives wonderful life and power to his writings is unquestionable. Robespierre and Danton, Johnson, Walter Scott, Frederick the Great, and his father, are all represented by him in a pictorial manner, and each portrait seems to live and move; but the question always remains whether the picture is as like the original as it is like some original— whether the person produced, who is unquestionably a real, living man, is the same person who originally passed under his name. That a real Mirabeau did actually live and die in the latter part of the last century in France, is undoubtedly true. That there is in Mr. Carlyle's writings a real living Mirabeau, claiming to be the same person, is equally true; but whether that claim is well-founded, is quite a different question. Sculptors sometimes say that they find their statues in the block, and they certainly do find something; but they do not always find the particular thing for which they look. It is the same hi ihe case of popular nicknames. They embody a vivid conception of the persons to whom they are applied; but it is not always a true, and seldom or never a complete one. Sydney Smith's controversy with the late Bishop of Gloucester fixed upon that respectable prelate the name of "Simon;" and though the name itself is not only inoffensive, but apostolic, it does convey a sort of image of the man toiviiom.it was applied which gives a pungent notion of him even to those who never saw him. It would, however, be a great mistake to suppose that Dr. Monk had not more in him than a fitness for the name of Simon, or even that there were not elements in his character which were in no way related to that name.

Such being the strength and the weakness of nicknames, what are the limitations under which the name of John Bull may be taken as an account of the English people? Every one knows what John Bull is, and at the present day, at all events, every print-shop will afford abundant evidence upon the subject. John Bull is a huge, thick-set yeoman, dressed in a cut-away coat and leather breeches, and a pair of top-boots. Beef and beer are his diet, he carries a cudgel in his hand, and an enormous bull-dog follows at his heels. All this is a humorous way of expressing the sentiment that we Englishmen are a straightforward, hearty race, paying our way and caring for nobody—that we are the most determined and strong-willed of mankind—that we love substance, and suspect, and even dislike, external show—that we please ourselves, with perfect indifference to the opinions of others — and that we habitually regard the world in which we live with hearty, but surly, geniality and good humour. That there is a certain rollicking resemblance to English society in this portrait is no doubt true; indeed, the strongest lines of the English national character are so broad and plain that it would be almost impossible for any hand, however unskilful or inexperienced, to fail entirely to reproduce them. But it is impossible to sum up in any single ideal personage so large a matter as the character of a great nation; and though the conventional John Bull is a person whom most Englishmen would like, and whom a large number of us would resemble in several points, there is a vast deal more to be said of the country than is expressed in those emphatic monosyllables.

The principal points of resemblance between the caricature and the original are the determination, the force, and the dogged resolution (in relation to which bull must be interpreted to mean bull-dog) which the caricature reflects, and which the nation unquestionably possesses; and these are just the sort of broad characteristics which it is impossible to overlook.

On the other hand, the independence of mind which is implied in the idea of John Bull is found in the generality of Englishmen, only sub modo. The geniality—to use a distasteful word not easily paraphrased or replaced—is by no means universal amongst us, and there are a variety of other important features of the national character respecting which the caricature is entirely silent. The John Bull view of the English character assumes, like all other nicknames, that the groundwork of the character is given. The typical person is supposed to have chosen and entered on his path in life. He is no longer young, in mind or body, but has fixed principles upon the subjects which come in his way, and is occupied in reducing them to practice. This excludes at least one important part of a man's life. The determination, conscious or unconscious, of the objects for which, and of the principles on which, we are to live, is perhaps the weightiest problem which we ever have to entertain. A man fairly launched on the affairs of the world may be as (See Essay IX., p. 89, post.) determined and decisive as possible, and yet, in the matter of forming his general conception of life and adopting the principles by which it is to be worked out, he may be the most puny, commonplace, and gregarious of mankind. In order to decide whether the English nation really possesses that sturdy independence which is usually ascribed to it, it is necessary to keep this distinction in view; and though there can be no doubt of the fact that Englishmen fairly embarked on almost any pursuit usually act with vigour on their own judgment, and exercise that judgment with spirit, it is to be feared that we are far from being equally independent and original in the formation of our characters and in the adoption of our principles. The great energy of the national character in the one direction contributes powerfully to enfeeble it in the other. The foundation of originality and independence of mind on the large scale must be laid in the early stages of life; and it requires a training which parents are not likely to give, if their own minds are absorbed in the energetic prosecution of the common affairs of life. With rare exceptions, such occupations are not only inconsistent with leisure and reflectiveness, but are, in a sense, adverse to them. A busy, active man of business likes to see his boy work while he works and play while he plays, but he cannot bear to see him think, or, as such parents often call it, dream and loiter. Yet meditation, solitude, and reflection are absolutely indispensable, not only to richness and beauty of character, but to energy in all the higher spheres of action; and there seems to be some reason to fear that the minority of really thoughtful persons, whose minds are habitually turned to the higher regions of reflection and feeling, is in the present state of society smaller than usual. If this is so, it is a great deduction from the general sturdiness and independence of the national character, for it shows that those qualities are characteristic only of its lower functions.

The conception of John Bull entirely omits one very important feature of English thought closely related to its alleged independence. The suggestion of the caricature is that speculation and theory are nonsense, and that John Bull is a man of action who despises such things. If it were possible to tie a shoe or to add up a butcher's bill without thought and without theory, there might be something in this; but as Englishmen in general are not absolute idiots, it is a mistake to suppose that, as a nation, we reject the use of our reason, and confine ourselves to the indulgence of our passions. The truth is, that inasmuch as we live in an old and complicated state of society, and inasmuch as the most intelligent part of the community receives an education which, with all its defects, is, as far as it goes, perhaps the most searching and thorough in the world, educated Englishmen have an exceedingly high standard of the kind and degree of proof by which their assent is to be commanded. The energy of character which belongs to almost all of us in one form or another, fastens the attention of those who think at all to the great subjects of speculation— to theology, to politics, and to science, but especially to the two first* It follows from the combination of a determination to think upon these subjects, with the habit of requiring proof of a substantial and convincing kind as a condition of assent to what is said about them, that there is amongst the educated classes of this country an amount of doubt, of suspension of opinion, of dissatisfaction with every sort of established creed—and, above all, of aversion to every opinion which sets up for being better or newer than its neighbours—which would immeasurably surprise those who are acquainted only with the calm indifference of manner which fits every educated Englishman like his skin. To men of active habits this state of mind is not agreeable. It irritates them to see persons of inferior attainments proceeding on their course of life with confidence, whilst steady and consistent conduct is made greatly more difficult for themselves by their sense of the insecurity of the foundations of many of the opinions on which they are compelled habitually to act. The combination of these feelings gives rise to an orthodox scepticism, which, though most characteristic of Englishmen, is certainly not included in the conception of John Bull. With a strong sense of the difficulties of their own position, and a determination at least equally strong to avoid being thrown out of the management of common affairs, educated Englishmen are much in the habit of adopting for practical purposes principles to which they only half assent; and of acting on them with a vigour which proceeds quite as much from resentment against their own doubts as from conviction of the truth of their own premisses. This can be reconciled with the popular view of John Bull only by the unpleasant assumption that his sturdiness and decision are not altogether unaffected.

What is called geniality is a prominent feature in the ordinary conception of John Bull's character. The word is a new and an unlucky one; but it may be taken to point to that good humour and power of enjoyment which is always asserted to exist alongside of the external bluffness and coldness of English manners. English manners, it is admitted, are dry and cold. English habits are by no means remarkably social, but nowhere, it is asserted, will you find more sincerity, more warmth and depth of feeling, or stronger family affections. There is a completeness about this representation which is in itself suspicious. Nothing is more common than to assert the existence of an agreeable concealed quality, because, if it existed, it would present an effective contrast to a disagreeable apparent one. In novels this practice is so common that when a person is introduced who behaves with extreme brutality, it is morally certain that, a little further on, he will be found to act with romantic generosity. In real life people are not made on this plan. Manner, as far as it is any evidence of character, is evidence of a character corresponding with itself. Whatever may be the case in novels, a harsh and rough manner in real life raises a presumption of a harsh and rough disposition; and a cold, severe manner is generally associated with a cold and severe disposition. This being so, it is hardly conceivable that any one should seriously maintain that the English are a joyous people. That we have a passion for success—that is, for producing the results (principally external and visible results) towards which our ordinary occupations are directed—is true, and it is also true that our views of religion and morality not only justify this temper of mind, but make a virtue of it; but this is the character of an ambitious rather than of a joyous people. To an Englishman's mind the choice of Hercules is a choice between idleness and energy—between putting out the talents to usury and squandering them or hiding them in a napkin. With others the choice is between pleasure and ascetic piety. The world is either to be enjoyed or to be renounced. We never think of renouncing, and seldom try to enjoy it.

Even with respect to family life, which is usually spoken of as the strongest justification of the theory that the English character is genial, much is to be said which is generally left unnoticed. Affection, in the sense of an intense interest in the welfare of friends and relations, is a universal characteristic of all the great modern nations, and its existence here cannot be looked upon as specially characteristic of this country; but if by affection is meant positive pleasure in the society of friends and relations, it may be questioned whether we are more affectionate than our neighbours. It is true that the heads of families in the upper and middle classes of society spend their evenings at home instead of going to the theatre or visiting their friends; but the lower classes have a passion for public-houses, and a certain sluggishness which often accompanies energy has quite as much to do with the domestic habits of their social superiors as warmth of family affection. Many men pass their evenings with their wives and daughters, not from any sentimental reason, but substantially because they prefer reading the newspaper drowsily before the fire to taking the trouble of going out to gossip. The choice may be reasonable enough, but it proves little as to affection.

In some respects we are a less domestic people than either Frenchmen or Germans. In this country two families never live in one house, nor is it possible to conceive a greater readiness than all of us show to give up home, country, friends and relations for any enterprise which promises excitement or advancement in life. A French family will hang about its native place for generations, putting up with almost any inconvenience for the sake of doing so. But when the sons and daughters grow up, the members of an English family scatter like a shell when it bursts, and though they may retain a hearty mutual good will, and a thorough readiness to make sacrifices if necessary for each other's service, they seem to think it a matter of course to go to opposite ends of the earth on a moment's notice. All these points are modifications of the geniality and warmth of heart which John Bull's external bluffness is meant to suggest . It should be fully understood that the bluffness and gravity are real, and not merely external, and that the English conception of social relations, though not unkind and very strong, is very grave and not particularly sweet .

Some of the most important features in the character of the largest class of Englishmen are entirely wanting in John Bull. He is always depicted as a yeoman, and he is, in fact, the representative of the well-to-do, independent part of the population. He gives but an inadequate notion of the character of the mass of the people. In the lower, as well as in the middle and higher, classes of Englishmen, there is abundance of determination and energy, and the keenest possible sense of personal dignity, except, indeed, where vice or extreme poverty has impaired it; but day-labourers and mechanics are extremely gregarious, and have as little desire as they have at present aptitude for the exercise of any considerable degree of independence, either of mind or of conduct. They are, also, a much more sensitive and thinskinned race than a superficial observer would suppose. There is no class of men in the world more keenly alive to ridicule or contempt . They are, also, more excitable than the wealthier classes; and as soon as they begin to acquire the rudiments of education, they display a rhetorical habit of mind, which is very unlike the conventional conception of John Bull. Nothing can less resemble that well-known figure than the temper of a set of mechanics collected to discuss trade or politics, or to listen to some popular preacher. The audience on such occasions always displays the passion which is characteristic of uninstructed minds for rhetorical fervour combined with verbal logic. The relish for shrewd mother wit, plain language, and homely experience, is the characteristic of a highly-cultivated understanding, and, though claimed for the mass of Englishmen by the John-Bull view of our national character, does not really belong to them.

Saturday Review, November 26, 1859.

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