This is the first in a series of articles in which we will be attempting to pin down and dissect various aspects of the English character.
In any assessment of Englishness it is always best to start here, at the heart of it. The rural myth, as it is called, is one of the most important emotional aspects of Englishness and the source from which many other English characteristics spring. It is a subject on which a whole book could comfortably be written, but I will attempt to give a basic overview of it in the space of this article.
The rural myth is, of course, a deep attachment to and longing for the English countryside, often present even in those whose families have lived in towns since the Industrial Revolution. In the minds of many it may be prettified and romanticised, but the need for it is strong notwithstanding. It has featured in or inspired much of English literature and film (think of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels and Powell and Pressburger’s film A Canterbury Tale, for example), and an amazing amount of English music, from various folk songs to the folk music-derived classical music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Benjamin Britten.
The longing for the countryside manifests itself in many different ways among the English people. Some satisfy it by making frequent trips to the countryside: it is estimated that a staggering 1.1 billion trips for pleasure are made to the English countryside every year. (Source: introduction by Bill Bryson to The English Landscape, Profile Books, 2000.) Others dream of retiring in a small village somewhere, while others read “rural” novels, such as those by Miss Read, and collect countryside related memorabilia, such as the little polyresin models of sheepdogs and other farm animals that seem to be so popular. Whichever way you look at it, the countryside has, and always has had, a powerful effect on English intellectual and emotional life and the way in which the English see themselves as a people. Many urbanites feel like displaced persons who ought instead to be living in a symbiotic relationship with the land, a relationship in which the land is shaped by human activity and in turn shapes the dispositions of those who live on it. This imagined reciprocity between the land and the people cannot be overstressed in any analysis of the English rural dream. A belief that the land is awake and aware and capable of emotional response is a characteristic of the more deep-rooted English literature on the subject: a belief that is certainly pre-Christian and has existed in tandem with Christian traditions, ultimately unbeaten by the Church's efforts to stamp out such pagan ideas.
What is truly amazing is how far back this awareness of connectedness to the land in the English consciousness seems to extend. Some time ago I read an astonishing medieval account of the Teutonic peoples who invaded England after the Roman defeat: “These settlers were lovers of the countryside whose hatred of the urban was such that they smashed whatever towns they came across.” It’s a good thing that this town-smashing behaviour has not lingered in the English (although it must be admitted that a general distrust of towns as drab, constricting, harsh places has; those “dark Satanic mills” of the unofficial national anthem come to mind), but it is certain that the love of the countryside has survived. The rural myth also turns up, of course, in Shakespeare. Falstaff, that symbol of ancient, pre-Tudor Englishness, makes a trip into deepest Gloucestershire to see Justice Shallow. The journey becomes a metaphor for an emotional as well as a physical journey into the heart of England (Source: Jonathan Bate’s introduction to the Folio Shakespeare, 1997). In Henry V, in a scene that was beautifully interpreted in Olivier’s film version of 1945, he dies “babbling of green fields”, according to Mistress Quickly, who also adds, “He’s gone to Arthur’s bosom, if any man ever did go to Arthur’s bosom.” The reference to Arthur, at that time thought to have been buried somewhere in that heart of England of which Falstaff babbled, makes the passage throb with an emotion that is difficult to define. Shakespeare knew his audience’s deepest sensibilities and was able to play upon them with great skill.
From Shakespeare on, Englishness has been defined in literature first and foremost in terms of this rural myth: while Britishness in literature may glow with an Imperial and industrial pride that in this latter day seems hollow and hubristic at best, Englishness quietly returns to the seat of all things loved and familiar: the English countryside. When Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch sought a psychological antidote to the impending threat of another war, he wrote: “O pastoral heart of England! Like a psalm/ Of green days telling with a quiet beat.” Green. Quiet. These two words summon up a whole feeling of connectedness to the landscape. H. V. Morton, a Londoner, created a bestseller when he wrote In Search of England, about a journey centred mainly in the English countryside. He wrote movingly in the first chapter of the book that, while ill in Palestine during the First World War, he thought about rural England and was heartsick to think that he might never see it again: “there rose up in my mind the picture of a village street at dusk with a smell of wood smoke lying in the still air….I remembered….how, at that time of year, the sun leaves a dull red bar low down in the west, and against it the elms grow blacker minute by minute….When you think like this, sitting alone in a foreign country, you know all there is to learn about heartache.” Nor was it strange, Morton adds, that an urbanite such as himself should have thought this way: “A little London factory hand whom I met during the war confessed to me that he visualised the England he was fighting for….as not London, but as Epping Forest, the green place where he had spent Bank Holidays….The village and the English countryside are the germs of all we are and all we have become: our manufacturing cities belong to the last century and a half; our villages stand with their roots in the Heptarchy.” (H. V. Morton, In Search of England, Methuen 1927.) The rural myth, more than any official faith, is in many respects a national religion.
There is no doubt, of course, that the myth in the minds of many people has taken on an idealised and stereotyped form, consisting mainly of images of thatched cottages with roses round the door, the sun always shining, birds trilling in the treetops, and everyone happy and healthy. But of course it very often wasn’t like that at all. The thatched cottages were usually intolerable slums when the poor inhabited them, and were only made liveable when the rich discovered the charm of a simple rustic habitation as an escape from the industrial urban environment. The living conditions were frequently cold and damp, so that disease abounded, and many farm workers were cruelly treated by the farmers they worked for and were undernourished (a very good description of which can be found in the chapter entitled “To Be a Farmer’s Boy?” in Ronald Blythe’s masterwork on rural life in East Anglia, Akenfield.)
Yet, somehow, in the final analysis none of this seems to matter much, at least not in psychological terms. In Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge Michael Henchard, who experienced rural suffering firsthand when he tramped from village to village looking for farm work in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, still professes a longing for the countryside instead of the town, in which, although successful, he is quite clearly a fish out of water. In a similar way this feeling is experienced by many contemporary townspeople, a feeling that something has gone wrong in the spiritual core of things that only a close proximity to the land can cure. Viewed from this perspective, the Industrial Revolution was an emotional disaster from which ordinary English people and culture have never fully recovered.
Of course, none of this is to say that there are not some English people as fully urbanised, and happy in their situation, as the most cosmopolitan European. However, English urban working-class culture is not as robust as it used to be, and in its place we now have a middle-class Western (but mainly Americanised) cultural homogeneity, focussed mainly on the latest international crazes, that is distressing to contemplate. It appears, therefore, that a deep attachment to and knowledge of English culture nowadays usually implies an appreciation of the countryside.
If we examine the folk culture, we find that an awareness of the natural environment crops up in an amazing number of English folk songs, with song after song extolling the beauties or the happiness implicit in country life, from The Banks of the Sweet Primeroses to the many songs lauding the life of a farm worker. Green fields, birds singing sweetly, willow trees, and so forth are mentioned incessantly. What is most interesting is that these songs themselves seem to be highly selective in terms of what the song makers chose to record; the sun always seems to be shining, despite our notoriously wet climate, and the majority of songs are set in the summer, or better yet in the spring (“O to be in England, now that April’s there”, as Robert Browning famously opined). It is extremely hard to find songs that detail actual rural hardship and suffering, although we know that this was widespread. By contrast, it is quite easy to find songs describing the misery of life in the towns, especially in the new “satanic mills”, in songs like Poverty, Poverty Knock (“poverty, poverty knock/ Me loom is a-sayin’ all day”, it begins). Even when English people were rural and when many of them were making the switch from being rural to the adaptation necessary for city life, they by and large chose to think of the countryside as a soft and amorous place rather than as a place of frequent sickness and oftentimes abuse at the hands of brutal farmers.
It seems, therefore, that the nostalgia and longing for the countryside typical of expressions of Englishness in twentieth-century poetry and music has its roots a long way back. Furthermore, it appears that a sense of deep connection, in terms of a pagan identification with the landscape, has persisted with amazing tenacity. In the BBC’s excellent A Sense of Place programme series, which examines the impact of place on people, the programme on the Shropshire Wrekin, “That Wrekin Feeling”, is particularly interesting. (The Wrekin, said to be the spiritual heart of Shropshire, is a large and unusually-shaped hill that rises out of the Shropshire plain.) “I know lots of people who look at the Wrekin every morning and say “Morning, Wrekin!” says one man. Others speak of carrying deep feelings to the Wrekin to confide in it, great joy or sorrow, expecting that they will be understood. In the same way, the poet Richard Aldington in the First World War spoke of the earth as “the cherishing mistress of bitter lovers” (“A Moment’s Interlude”), giving soldiers comfort in their misery. This sense of identification must be a strong feeling indeed if it can even be projected onto a foreign landscape, such as that of France, in a time of war. The idea of the land as comforter is also expressed in the work of A.E. Housman, particularly in the following extract from A Shropshire Lad:
“In my own shire, if I was sad, Homely comforters I had: The earth, because my heart was sore, Sorrowed for the son she bore; And standing hills, long to remain, Shared their short-lived comrade’s pain.”
It would seem that the sense of connection to the country that is strong in the English has survived both centuries of organised religion and a union with Scotland and Wales which encouraged a submergence of individual national characteristics in the interests of the British state, and it may become one of the things that will help to bind a diverse nation together in the coming decades. For one of its beauties is that it does not depend on shared ethnicity or religion or history, but rather on a sensitive frame of mind and responsiveness to natural beauty. An Englishwoman of Bangladeshi extraction recently said on a message board that I visited that when she was in Spain, she felt homesick for the green fields of England. If today’s generation of ethnically and culturally diverse English people can hold such attitudes and sensibilities in common, along with everything else that they share, there is indeed hope for the future.
I am not suggesting, of course, that a deep attachment to the natural environment is unique to the English, but it is certainly unusual in the industrialised world. One commentator has even remarked that he believes that a similar intensity of feeling for the environment can only be found amongst the aborigines of Australia. Whether or not this is true (and it would be a fascinating line of research), the English do seem to have a feeling for the countryside that is both intense and enduring. It is reflected in a host of books, television programmes, films, and lobbying campaigns to protect various areas of rural England. Anything and everything country-related sells, and in an increasingly market-driven world, I think we can take what sells as an indicator of what people are interested in.
It is comforting to reflect that, in an age filled with conflict and suspicion, much of it driven by religious tension, the English have an inner resource that is not closely allied to violence, but rather to quietude and an appreciation of things outside consumer culture. When so much else has recently changed, it is vastly reassuring to reflect that the instincts which led William Barnes to write a poem like Linden Lea and Vaughan Williams to set it to music, and which inspired some of Wordsworth’s finest nature poetry, should still be alive and well and living in Shropshire, even if expressed in most people’s lives most eloquently by hill-walking and mini-breaks. In an age in which most people in the West are driven almost solely by the urge to make more money, we should learn to encourage such tendencies. Such deep, strong, simple feelings about the natural world cannot help but be a source of strength to the English, both individually and as a nation, and there can be few national religions which are as innately peaceful, or as free of doctrinal tangle, as the rural myth. --Isabel Taylor