The English National Character

The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair

Peter Mandler

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November 27, 2018
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ISBN: 9780300246520
Paper

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What makes the English so English? Is there such a thing as an English national character?

What kind of people are “the English”? What characteristic traits and behavior (if any) distinguish them from other people? This highly original and wide-ranging book traces the surprisingly varied history of ideas among the English about their own “national character” over the past two centuries. Two hundred years ago, the very idea of a national character was novel and not very respectable. Today, it is again difficult for the many who think of themselves as unique individuals to imagine a “national character” that binds the English together in a national unit. But in between, as Britain became a democracy, “national character” became part of the national common sense, reflected in depictions of "John Bull" and his twentieth-century successor, the "Little Man," and in a set of stereotypes about English traits, follies, and foibles. Not at all shy to talk about themselves, the English have produced a vast outpouring of material on what it means to be English—material on which this book draws: lectures, sermons, political speeches, journalism, popular and scholarly books, poems and novels and films, satires and cartoons and caricatures, as well as up-to-the-minute social science and public opinion research. In this comprehensive and lucidly argued book, a leading historian of modern Britain challenges long-held assumptions and familiar stereotypes and proposes an entirely new perspective on what it means to think of oneself as being English.

Peter Mandler is reader in modern history, University of Cambridge, and fellow of Gonville and Caius College. He is the author of, among other books, The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home, published by Yale University Press.

"...tremendously rewarding and instructive..."---Dominic Sandbrook, The Daily Telegraph

"This is a fascinating book...a very impressive overview."---Noel Malcolm, The Sunday Telegraph

"Mandler has marshalled together an impressive panoply of writings on the nature of "Englishness", many of them fabulously contradictory...[one gains] a lively understanding of where a lot of sterotypes about "The English National Character" have come from."---Deborah Orr, The Independent

"...the best recent survey I have seen on the subject."---Jeremy Paxman, BBC History Magazine

"Not only has Mandler given us, as we would expect, a carefully researched and thought-provoking work on the idea of English national character, he has also given us something else. Clearly, courting controversy, his book offers us a new challenge as well as a new set of insights into how to proceed in a scholarship that Mandler deems has too frequently relied on ahistorical assumptions about English of British 'national identity.' . . . Convincingly executed."—Becky E. Conekin, American Historical Review

"A strong, revisionary narrative of the modern British discourse about national identification and its accessory terms, including not just character but race and culture. . . . Literary scholars as well as historians who are interested in the forms of national identification will find this book immensely useful."—Ian Duncan, Victorian Studies
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