Michael Kenny's The Politics of English Nationhood
The Politics of English Nationhood Michael Kenny (Oxford University Press, 2014)
The Politics of English Nationhood by Michael Kenny is a masterful summing-up of the Englishness debate over the past ten years or so, and its appearance fortuitously coincides with our tenth anniversary.It is striking, and encouraging, how closely some of the book parallels our own preoccupations during the last decade, particularly in the chapter "The Cultural Politics of Englishness." We must also acknowledge that we were very pleased to find in the book a block quote from our own Steve Cox, but it was ultimately unnecessary to exercise caution about allowing this to prejudice us in the book's favour.In fact, the challenge in the initial drafts of this review was to avoid quoting the book at length.It is particularly interesting to review it now, just as Britishness has been pulled back from the brink by the No result in the Scottish independence referendum.
Here, Kenny succeeds in bringing clarity to a notoriously muddled and woolly area.His greatest achievement is his originality, his willingness to repeatedly question well-worn orthodoxies and demonstrate that viewpoints traditionally seen as antithetical need not be so.Most particularly, the whole narrative is underpinned by a conviction, unusual in the mainstream, that English identity is not doomed to be sinister.(In "Crisis Over Nationhood: The 1990s Reconsidered," he shows how that period generated "distorted and....hostile" depictions of contemporary Englishness). This liberates Kenny's investigation from the unhelpful polemics of left and right on this question, so that it unfolds within a rational and humane space.
The book is not only fascinating for specialists in the field, but can also be recommended to anyone who is new to the debate, because it does not assume prior knowledge.For example, the chapter "Interpreting Englishness" presents a concise and accurate survey of various theories of Englishness, from Bragg to Kumar to Scruton.In particular, Kenny's critique of Nairnite approaches is profoundly welcome and necessary, demonstrating the myopic nature of the prejudice generated by Nairn's negative analysis of Englishness focussed solely on London and the South East.This "has resulted in the significant neglect of other geographically and socially rooted forms of English identity," whch "had long represented alternatives to the leading images upon which Nairn focused his fire." Especially welcome is Kenny's Thompsonian insistence on "the lower orders" agency --"Nairn's historical account of the English trades upon a depiction of the lower orders as the conditioned objects of class forces and historical patterns, rather than .... actors who had both shaped their own sense of class consciousness and forced important concessions from the ruling class."
In a similar balanced mode, "Englishness as a Mass Phenomenon" assembles considerable evidence from poll data to call into question the idea that Englishness can only represent "the consciousness of the disaffected, white working class" and cannot accommodate other social groups. On an interesting side-note, he discovers that skilled manual workers are more likely to want an English parliament than "those at the top and bottom of the social scale."Kenny suggests that this result may indicate a greater affinity for nationalism on the part of this group, but it may in fact be an expression of artisans' traditional engagement with reform and radical movements generally, regardless of political affiliation.This slight bounce aside, however, Kenny diagnoses less of a difference between the middle and the working classes on such questions than contemporary discourse would suggest.Similarly, he undermines the idea that Englishness is a preoccupation more of the young than of the old. The position of ethnic minorities, previously assumed to identify with Britishness in preference to Englishness, is also far from straightforward.Mixed-race respondents prioritise Englishness over Britishness; when the question is rephrased as to whether the respondent is 'attached to England', an overwhelming majority of BME respondents answer positively, to the extent that there is practically no difference to other respondents; and there is evidence that younger members of BME communities may be growing more comfortable with Englishness than their parents ("a sense of the need and the right to make claims upon it in some minority communities was....palpable"), encouraged by the more frequent promotion in recent years of Englishness as an inclusive identity.Finally, Kenny also shines a welcome light on the persistence of English regionalism and forms of Englishness beyond "the dominant seam of Southern Arcadianism," with a focus on Northernness, civic identifications, and musical subcultures.While such forms may have been more robust in the pre-war era, when "Orwell and Priestley made journeys to the North in part to explore these different modes of Englishness," they remain far more important than is often acknowledged.
Kenny is particularly strong on the various manifestations of a self-conscious cultural Englishness in recent times, which has often gone unnoticed by elites. The chapter "The Cultural Politics of Englishness" covers, inter alia, the third folk revival, as well as the seismic impact of Jerusalem and its hero/anti-hero, the Traveller Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, with his umbilical connection to pre-Christian English myths and legends.(Indeed, Kenny identifies a renewal of interest in paganism, though he does not adequately analyse its implications. The social and political ramifications of English religious non-conformism, with all its reforming tendencies, would also have benefited from more analysis.) His decision to concentrate on one side of the folk movement--"the connections between folk music and the notion of an English heritage associated with the pre-industrial past"-- in preference to its associations "with the industrial working class and radical political protest during the mid-twentieth century" strikes this reviewer as questionable, and also gives unnecessarily short shrift to rural radical traditions. He mentions, briefly, the 'post-colonial' genre of English literature identified by Hywel Dix, but, again, does not devote as much attention to this idea as one would like.On the whole, this chapter, while rich and fascinating, attempts to cover too many subjects in too small a space.
In "Answering the English Question" Kenny looks at the more straightforwardly political aspects of the current situation, concluding that "None of the organizations and groups considered here have succeeded in galvanizing the consciousness of the English public about the national question on anything more than a fleeting basis," which suggests a greater interest on the part of the English in cultural rather than political expressions of identity (though this is not to suggest that politics and culture can be separated).The discussions of the West Lothian and the Barnett Formula in "Political Intimations of English Grievance" were written before the Scottish referendum, and it would be interesting to assess to what extent things have now changed: the initial upswing in English irritation during and immediately after the referendum seems now to have somewhat dissipated.
Kenny's own position is set out in the "Conclusion," in which he expresses optimism about the potential of a civic English identity embracing localism and uniting the best aspects of liberalism and conservatism to offer a shared space in which English institutions and communities can be renewed: "What England's modernist critics have tended to forget, but increasingly need to appreciate, is that a nation which possesses a past that has been so lengthy and prolific is very likely to have a future which is also replete with different cultural and political possibility." He notes, amusingly and acutely, that the development of a cosmopolitan Englishness was in itself deeply traditional. in that it "reprised older forms of national-liberal thinking which accorded to England the role of an exemplary liberal nation."For example, Ernest Barker in the twentieth century saw "England as the particular embodiment of a universal, civilizing ethical ideal," and believed that the balance between the "national principle" and "a modern civic order" could be achieved best by England, shaping "a character that transcended the limits of ethnicity, tradition, and communalism."Kenny's hopefulness is bracing, rational and extremely necessary.
Authorial asides, especially those which contain some glancing invective at another writer, can sometimes lead to unexpected discoveries. After all, if the object of contempt is worthy of even a brief mauling, surely he or she is also worth seeking out to see if it was deserved. Furthermore, as readers we have every right to insist that no matter how agreeable we may find the book before us, the author's foes are not necessarily ours.
About a year ago I was reading Pre-Raphaelite Twilight, by Helen Rossetti Angeli. This book, published in 1954, takes as its subject the somewhat arcane figure of Charles Augustus Howell. Ms Angeli was, as her full name suggests, the niece of the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As for the main character in her book and his role in the so-called Pre-Raphaelite twilight, Howell was a one-time secretary to John Ruskin, occasional art dealer on behalf of the Brotherhood, affable raconteur, and shady mystery man. Indeed, to this day there hangs a peculiarly Victorian miasma around some of Howell's tall tales and questionable business transactions which has never quite dissipated; a vapour which thickens in the (unreliable) reports of how this problematic character allegedly met his end - found one morning in 1890 outside a pub in Chelsea, throat cut and with a ten shilling piece wedged between his clenched teeth. Not an author prone to flights of fancy, Angeli gives this histrionic account of her subject's demise short shrift within the first few chapters and goes on to prove herself, in general, a cool-headed debunker of the prattle and eyewash which had accumulated around Howell. Her fastidious demeanour gives the reader a sense of being shepherded by the most scrupulous of guides through the various brocaded warrens of Pre-Raphaelitism.It comes, then, as something of a shock to discover that this prudent cicerone suddenly loses all sense of composure when it comes to a particular fellow writer - one Violet Hunt, or, as Angeli refers to her part way through the book, 'Violent Hunt' (which is most definitely not a misprint). Although --no doubt in order to safeguard her blood pressure-- Angeli's references to the said Ms. Hunt are kept to a minimum, when she does crop up the wrath is visceral. The trouble seems to have stemmed from Hunt's authorship of The Wife of Rossetti, a book published in 1932. It tells the story of Elizabeth Siddal, spouse of Dante Gabriel, who died of a laudanum overdose in 1862, only for the dependably mercurial Howell (acting on her husband's wishes) to arrange for the body's exhumation seven years later in order to retrieve some love poems for publication. The Wife of Rossetti seems to have incensed Angeli chiefly because of what she saw as a shamefully sensationalist depiction of her uncle by "an authoress who out-Howelled Howell in untruth" and, furthermore, "fastened her malicious lies haphazard on one or another person (safely deceased) as the whim or fancy urged her." Moreover, Hunt was someone with "an irresistible bent for malice" who had produced "some really noxious work" whilst also being "lurid" of pen and brain. Strong stuff coming from someone who might otherwise have been mistaken for a restrained, even fusty, old lady recalling characters from her nineteenth-century past. In view of such intriguing vilification, there seemed to be only one course of action. I had to seek out Ms. Violet (Violent) Hunt's disreputable book.
Long out of print but, through the marvels of the internet, freely accessible, The Wife of Rossetti is a wonderfully entertaining read. It was the last volume that Hunt produced, and rounded off a career in which she had served up novels, short stories and memoirs with dogged regularity. Like Angeli, in her account of Siddal's life and times Hunt could call upon her recollections of a childhood through which various Pre-Raphaelite protagonists had wandered, since her father, the landscape painter Alfred Hunt, had been on friendly terms with many of them. Hunt, for her part, was one of those young ladies admired by John Ruskin and, in the wider cultural sphere of late nineteenth century society, could boast of taking tea with Robert Browning and receiving a marriage proposal from Oscar Wilde (or so she would later claim).
Fortunately for the reader, Hunt manages to dig deep into the ambience of her upbringing and use it to invigorate her recollections of Victorian aesthetic life. True, she can be a gossip and does not flinch from leaving the odd highly incendiary remark trailing in her wake, but it is all carried off with a charmingly vivacious irreverence. Indeed, it is that irreverence which, to me, makes the book so pleasing, dispensing as it does with the weight of populist veneration under which the likes of Burne-Jones and William Morris are these days buried several fathoms deep. When Hunt wrote her book in the early 1930s the Pre-Raphaelites were artistically démodé, collectively representing one of the more stifling creeds from which their twentieth century successors were desperate to escape. So the author does not have to observe the protocols of a later age which has a tendency to romanticise the living daylights out of these artists and their circle, and produces instead an absorbing exercise in biography as scatter-shot monologue, delivered with a sprightly, mordant wit.
From the outset Hunt buttonholes the reader with aesthetically-burnished hints which lay the groundwork for what follows. She claims to have, for the first time, cleared away "the decent coverlet of leaves with which Rossetti's admirers have covered his reputation," in the process unearthing "much that is painful, wild and unexpected" - at which one can imagine the hairs on the back of Ms Angeli's neck already beginning to prickle. Even worse, Hunt goes on to assert that "like another Iphigenia, [Siddal] was sacrificed and slain that the P.R.B. might conquer and live." If the rest of book had continued in this vein we might have been left with only the grandiose ravings of a conspiracy theorist to sift through. Fortunately, as her account progresses, Hunt manages (more often than not) to rein herself in, summoning up instead a compacted, judiciously meted out ire which gives her prose its spiky force.
However, it is usually when the intermittent finger pointing abates for a while that the book delivers an intriguing account of interlaced lives. When she isn't assembling her case against Rossetti and the part that he played in driving his wife to suspected suicide, the author delights in weaving together stray oddments culled from memory or anecdote, delivered with ornate little turns of phrase and wickedly underplayed disparagement. We are introduced to Rossetti's fixatedly pious sisters, described as "obsessed all their lives long" with the idea of "moral salvage." Or take artist and Pre-Raphaelite associate, William Bell Scott, discovered changing his wigs monthly "to simulate growth." Then there's the looming, full throated Janey Morris, "like an overgrown schoolgirl," and poor old Ruskin, "pale, watery and friendless." Even if, with the spectre of Angeli wagging her finger at us, it has to be conceded that a veneer of haphazard malice can sometimes be detected glinting off such pronouncements, one never has the impression that Hunt is pausing to revel in her caricatures, occupied as she is with telling her tale. Elsewhere, for all her naturally acerbic manner, the author is also capable of presenting some poignant vignettes. Take, for instance, the death of Rossetti's father. Elderly Italian patriot Gabriele is described in his last hours, watched over by the family as he makes "odd gesticulations with his small hands tipped with bitten nails."This "arrant snuff taker" with a passion for English coal fires, "nearly blind and muttering low," imagines himself back with his fellow Italian Carbonari "in a gold-hung Neapolitan palace instead of a small dark house near Regent's Park." The end comes "when the ragged curtains of the dark, sheering off, showed the peep of a London day" whilst "quiet Mrs. Rossetti read aloud the Italian translation of the Liturgy and the old patriot died slowly and quietly of old age."
As for the book's eponymous subject, Hunt is careful not to make Siddal out to be some put-upon fairy tale princess snagged in the dark machinations of her husband's ego. Like several other Pre-Raphaelite 'stunners,' Lizzie was a working class girl who found herself elevated to mannequin-like status but who, rather than accept this objectification, displayed an aptitude for art and poetry in her own right, as well as formidable "white rages" in response to Rossetti's thoughtless ways. If Janey Morris was a dark emanation of hair, eyes and skin, Siddal's physical leitmotif was to be long of legs, fingers and throat, with "dullish, prominent eyes" and an air of sickliness wreathed around her. "We never do hear what exactly was the matter with Lizzy," is Hunt's summary of the various episodes in which doctors attended their closed book of a patient. "Her life was [..] her own, though death was implicit in it," the author, somewhat melodramatically, contends, before chronicling Siddal's descent into laudanum addiction. 'Guggums,' as Rossetti playfully nicknamed his wife, was, according to Hunt, rent with frustrations, the loss of her stillborn child adding a heavy layer of grief to her troubles. It seems that she seethed inwardly, brandishing a compensatory morbidity at those who came too near. In the end, whether by design or accident, she took just a little too much of the tincture which mollified, and was found dead in bed on a February morning in 1862.
To call The Wife of Rossetti a forgotten classic is, perhaps, overstating the case. It is, however, a book that undoubtedly deserves to be better known. If, as Angeli claimed, it presents a somewhat distorted account of her beloved uncle's marriage, than she had every right to be reportedly "at boiling point" when it first appeared. But distortion as a biographical flaw is not just the preserve of the muckraking opportunist, and given the many coatings of varnish which have subsequently been applied to the whole Pre-Raphaelite tableau, perhaps Hunt's work should be viewed as more purgative than tasteless pot-boiler. In any case, for me it is not so much the tale as her telling of it. There is something rather impressive about the way this "noxious," "lurid" (and singularly gifted) writer barges her way into the company of all these time-faded characters and raises them from the dead: an uninvited guest catching at half-truths and innuendoes like so many sunlit motes in a long gone Pre-Raphaelite drawing-room. --Mark Jones