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England Is The Country: Modernization and the National Self-image

  • Martin J. Wiener


In the last hundred years the British initiators of the Industrial Revolution have fallen behind one after another of their imitators. As a consequence, the issue of “modernization” has moved to the head of the political agenda in a nation that was for the nineteenth century world the very model of “modernity.” Much of this change in world position was inevitable — yet not all of it. Why, historians have recently been asking, did Britain between 1870 and 1900 lose the economic dynamism that had been her hallmark? Why, further, did the British fail to recover this lost dynamism in the twentieth century?

The British experience ought to be of particular interest to Americans today, for recently we have become aware of the costs as well as the benefits of economic growth. Our faith in material progress is dimming. At the same time, our former economic dynamism seems now in question. Indeed, we may be repeating the experience of Britain.

To understand the change in British economic behavior, we must look at more than solely economic history. As Max Weber argued as far back as 1904, economic activity takes place in a wider social context. Attitudes and values play a vital role in shaping economic behavior. Development economists have discovered in the last two decades that economic change is not produced solely by economic means — by introducing technology and capital alone. To some degree at least, societies “choose” their economic futures by the values they hold. Because of this, intellectual and social history may tell us much about the difficulties of continuing modernization in twentieth century Britain.



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1 See Stearns, Peter, “Britain and the Spread of the Industrial Revolution”, in Bartlett, C. J., ed., Britain Pre-eminent (London, 1969).

2 Recent historians of the British economy have given an increasingly important place to the social context. See, for example, Landes, David, The Unbound Prometheus (Cambridge, 1969), Hobsbawm, E. J., Industry and Empire (London, 1968), Flinn, M. W., Origins of the Industrial Revolution (London, 1966) and Levine, A. L., Industrial Retardation in Britain 1880-1914 (New York, 1967). In a recently taped discussion, R. M. Hartwell and Peter Matthias, perhaps the two foremost British authorities on the Industrial Revolution, agreed that purely economic explanations for it were quite inadequate, and that economic historians ought to seek more aid from sociology. Sussex Tapes (Brighton, 1970).

3 National self-images have been valuably studied by American cultural historians and by political scientists interested in the developing nations. British history could benefit from contact with this literature. In American history, see the seminal work by Smith, Henry Nash, Virgin Land (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), and particularly relevant to the theme of this paper, Hartshorne, T. L., The Distorted Image (Cleveland, Ohio, 1968). The impact of industrialism upon the national self-image of American writers has been brilliantly analyzed in Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden (New York, 1964). In political science, see Pye, Lucian, Politics, Personality and Nation-Building: Burma's Search for Identity (New Haven, Conn., 1962), and Gordon, David C., Self-Determination and History in the Third World (Princeton, N. J., 1971).

4 See, for example, Hobsbawm's, E. J. observation, in Industry and Empire, 142. See also Chappie, J. A. V., Documentary and Imaginative Literature 1880-1920 (London, 1970), Chapter 3.

5 Keith, W. J., Richard Jefferies (Toronto, 1965), 54.

6 Country Books,” Cornhill, XXXXII (1880), 662.

7 Peter J. Schmitt has described a simliar development among the American urban middle class between 1900 and 1920. See Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America (New York, 1969).

8 Indeed, H. J. Dyos has observed, “the suggestion that some kind of retreat from the city was necessary — into the suburbs, the country, or abroad — was never made more often.” The Slums of Victorian London.” Victorian Studies, XI, (September 1967), 22.

9 Social Arrows (London, 1887), 51–2.

10 See Winsten, Stephen, Salt and his Circle (London, 1951), and Carpenter, Edward, My Days and Dreams (London, 1916). An interesting study of the use of the idea of “nature” in the revolt against Victorianism is Alcorn, John M., “Hardy to Lawrence: A Study in Naturism,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1966.

11 See Demos (London, 1886), ch. 36; The Nether World (London, 1889; New York, 1929), 10; In the Year of Jubilee (London, 1894; New York, 1895), 72-3, 98-9, 196–97.

12 See, for example, the varied activities of the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, who between 1889 and 1906 published many volumes of West Country folksongs and several works on “old country life” (the title of one of these) and customs. Another prolific recorder of traditional rural life was Walter Raymond: see his English Country Life (London, 1910), and other similar volumes.

13 See Keith, W. J., “Thomas Hardy and the Literary Pilgrims,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, XXIV, no. 1 (June 1969), 8092. Also, see Blunden, Edmund, Thomas Hardy (London, 1941), 61.

14 Jefferies', fullest portrait of English rural society, Hodge and His Masters (London, 1880), was originally entitled “The Heart of England.” In his plan for his work he stressed the rural foundations of England. See Looker, Samuel & Porteous, Crichton, Richard Jefferies: Man of the Fields (London, 1965), 235. One of Jefferies' chief concerns was the English character, particularly in its relation to country life. See Looker & Porteous, 133, and his essays in Looker, S. J., ed., The Old House at Coate (Cambridge, Mass., 1948).

15 See Hodge and His Masters, 132-34, 318; Round About a Great Estate (London, 1880); “The Wiltshire Labourer,” (1883), in The Hills and the Vale (London, 1909); The Dewy Morn (London, 1884).

16 See Morris, May, ed., William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist (Oxford, 1936), I, 140-41, 255; Mackail, J. W., Life of William Morris (London, 1899; New York, 1901), 302–3; and Morris', Dream of John Ball (London, 1887).

17 The Lesser Arts” (1877), Works, XXII, 17.

18 Oldershaw, Lucien, ed., England: A Nation (London, 1904), 99.

19 Ibid., 49.

20 By George Bartram.

21 The English Countryside (London, 1915), 23. See also Thomas, Edward, The Heart of England (London, 1906) and ed., This England (London, 1915?), and Hutton, Edward, England of My Heart (London, 1914), among others.

22 See Haddow, Elizabeth, “The Novel of English Country Life 1900-30,” M. A. Thesis, King's College, London, 1957.

23 Ibid., 325.

24 (London, 1903; New York, n.d.), 214-15.

25 Ibid., 217-18.

26 (London, 1910; New York, 1954), 15.

27 This view of London is given in ibid., 108, 261, and elsewhere through the novel.

28 Reflections on Contemporary Poetry,” The Egoht, IV, 8 (Sept. 1917), 118.

29 The difficulties of defining the term “Georgian” are discussed in John Press, A Map of Modern English Verse (London, 1969), ch. 7. The Georgians have recently been defended against the charge of vapid “pseudo-pastorailism” by Robert H. Ross, who finds the culprits to be “Neo-Georgian” latecomers. See The Georgian Revolt: Rise and Fall of a Poetic Ideal (Carbondale, Ill., 1965).

30 England,” in Georgian Poetry 1918-1919 (London, 1919), ed. Marsh, Edward, 35.

31 “Makeshift” (1894), in Morris, May ed., William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, II, 476, and “Art and the People,” (1883) also in May Morris, II, 401.

32 Bryce, James, Impressions of South Africa (London, 1897), 571.

33 See Masterman, C. F. G., essay in Oldershaw, , ed., England: A Nation, In Peril of Change (n.d., London, 1905?), and The Condition of England (London, 1908); Chesterton, G. K., What's Wrong with the World (New York, 1910); Belloc, Hilaire, The Servile State (London, 1912).

34 Hobson saw himself as a follower of John Ruskin and his repudiation of Victorian materialism. See Hobson's, John Ruskin, Social Reformer (London, 1898) and Porter, Bernard, Critics of Empire (London, 1968), 171172.

35 In Montague Fordham, , Mother Earth (London, 1908), 5.

36 Outspoken Essays (London, 1919), 101, 103.

37 “Brougham Villiers” [Shaw, Frederick J.], England and the New Era (London, 1920), 231232.

38 Whither England? The Letters of a Conservative (London, 1932), 140. The book has an admiring preface by Walter Elliott, who had just become Minister of Agriculture. See also the similar views of Philip Gibbs (later to be knighted), The Way of Escape (London, 1933).

39 Ibid., 211-212.

40 Interest in the English character was evidenced by a series of 23 B.B.C. talks on “The National Character”, published in The Listener, 4 Oct. 1933-4 April 1934. See also As Others See Us,” Contemporary Review, CXLIII (1933), 8593, discussing a group of seven books on England by foreigners. See also, among others, Hartley, Dorothy, Here's England (London, 1934), Cowles, Frederick I., Not Far From the Smoke (London, 1935), Gibbs, Philip, England Speaks (London, 1935), Blunden, Edmundet. al., The Legacy of England (London, 1935), and the best-known product of this mood of introspection, Priestley's, J. B.English Journey (London, 1934).

41 From Surtees to Sassoon (London, 1931), 209.

42 Ibid., 210-213.

43 “England” (1924), in On England (London, 1926), 6.

44 Middlemas, Keith and Barnes, John. Baldwin (London, 1969), 2.

45 See ibid., 1-3.

46 For his attitude towards his family firm, see Middlemas and Barnes, chs. 1 and 2; his distaste for “mechanization” can be seen in his speech, On the Strain of Modern Industry,” (1937), in Service of Our Lives (London, 1937), 106-117, especially pp. 108 and 116. Baldwin's distaste was shared by others high in his Governments. One of his closest friends, Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, agreed that the national character, grown out of country life, was gravely threatened by “the mechanical civilization of today” with its “vast aggregations of the population in industrial cities.” Foreword to Rogerson, Sidney, The Old Enchantment (London, 1938).

47 See Flee to the Fields (London, 1934), a symposium of the movement's leading writers.

48 Forgotten England (London, 1931), 215.

49 See Middlemas, and Barnes, , Baldwin, 2, 35.

50 Young, G. M., Baldwin (London, 1952), 25.

51 Middlemas, and Barnes, , Baldwin, 2, 35.

52 For evidence of his public image as the quintessence of “Englishness,” see Middlemas, and Barnes, , Baldwin, 170-171, 211, 506.

53 Young, G. M., Baldwin, 56.

54 Middlemas, and Barnes, , Baldwin, 171.

55 Our National Character,” in This Torch of Freedom (London, 1935), 14.

56 Ibid., 11-12.

57 “The Love of Country Things” (1931), ibid., 120.

58 “England”, in On England, 7.

59 “The Wealth and the Glory of England” (1928), ibid., 116.

60 Middlemas, and Barnes, , Baldwin, 1078.

61 Ibid., 1078.

62 The Glory of the Garden,” in Fletcher, C. R. L. and Kipling, Rudyard, A History of England (London, 1911), 249.

England Is The Country: Modernization and the National Self-image

  • Martin J. Wiener


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