The Secret of the English Character

An Explanation of Traits That Critics Hare Called Indifference and Slowness.

February 1 1917

The Secret of the English Character

An Explanation of Traits That Critics Hare Called Indifference and Slowness.

February 1 1917

The Secret of the English Character

An Explanation of Traits That Critics Hare Called Indifference and Slowness.

HISTORY shows, and our bitterest enemies admit, that the English people are, above all nations. stubborn in warfare and persistent in the face of difficulties. “England wins one battle only, bat that is the

last.” say the Italian papers. Our military history shows that British troops excel in defence against overwhelming odds. The sieges of Londonderry. Gibraltar. Lucknow, Ladysmith. Mafeking; the battles of Waterloo and Ypres; in all these conflicts the British soldier showed his supreme gift—that of “sticking it.” “Team-’em is a good dog, but Holdfast is a better”—the national proverb illustrates the national characteristics, love

of sport and tenitity. In an interesting sketch in the Contemporary Review, Cuthbert Spurling sums up some of the puzzling traits j of the British characters as follows:—

Our critics on the hearth in the daily press : roundly abuse us for “not taking the war | seriously.” Our Allies are reluctantly com¡ pelled to admit that there is a curiouslair of , detachment and frivolity in the presence of i imminent national danger. Our enemies foam i at us because we refuse to treat them with the j solemnity they consider their due. Reading i the German press, one would draw the concluj sion that if the English people would only ! cease to jeer at the “German wireless news,” 1 would give up talking of the war in terms of sport, would frankly confess to Germany “you are a very formidable nation and have done great things,” all our wickedness and hypoj crisy would be forgiven. Germany feels herj self like Thor in the hall of the giants. She strains her muscles and performs prodigious feats, but we stand round laughing. “All the giants laughed, and the noise of their “laughing was loud as the breaking of great waves on the shore.”

Frenchmen, whose whole soul is in the war, come over here and find us eagerly discussing ¡ Charlie Chaplin and the bubble blown by Professor Dewar. Our rulers find it neces| sary to correct these impressions by im¡ porting small bodies of delegates from the Allied nations. These representative men are personally conducted on a tour of inspection. “A visit to the Grand Fleet” has superseded “A tour round the Trossachs.” We show them our munition factories instead of our cathei drals.

All through our history, the tale has been the same. Apparent indifference, disregard of consequences, absence of forethought and organization—yet grim determination in the hours of trial. “A degenerate people, unable to retain what was won by its gallant ancestors!” Such has been the cry from age to age. and yet it has retained and has increased its conquests. “We seem to have conquered half of the world in a fit of absence of mind,” says Professor Seeley.

Hence our reputation for hypocrisy. John Bull, the next door neighbor of Herr Hans, is always lamenting the weakness of his defence against burglars. He has lost, he says, “that alacrity of spirit that he was wont to have,” his limbs are feeble, his eye is dim. His house is decaying; it is open to every bold invader. Meanwhile his quarrels with his wife and his sons are audible to every ear. “Hp! Ho!” thinks Hans. “He says that, does ne; and indeed I can tell the signs myself. But how rich he is, how undeservedly rich and clothed with the spoils of half the world! I will fall upon him suddenly and slay him and take from him all that he has. ‘England has everything and deserves nothing, Germany has nothing and deserves everything’.” But Hans gets no further than the threshold. John Bull exhibits an unexpected vigour. His wife and sons fly to his assistance. Quarrels in the household are forgotten in the presence of the common enemy. So, when Hans is thrown out at length and retreats growling and discomfited, he proclaims his grievance to the world. “They are hypocrites, these British; they tempted *me on to my ruin. Perfidious Albion—to pretend to be so weak and prove to be so strong!”

Yet there is a very simple solution to the apparent inconsistencies of the English character. England is the Peter Pan of the nations, the country which never grew ujS. It was once termed “the weary Titan,” a gross misnomer. Rather, it is a great, sprawling, overgrown schoolboy, half unconscious of his strength. There is a strong strain of boyishness in every normal mature Englishman. Combined in the race, this marks the character of the nation. With this clue at hand, let us see if we cannot explain much that is apparently contradictory. Lately we were taken to task by the Times because we showed more joy over one Zeppelin that did not return than over .the capture of Erzeroum. But what schoolboy would not have exhibited the same discrimination? A shot in the gross belly of a swanking, bullying Zeppelin—and down comes the monster, oozing gas at every pore Are we to blame that we all cheered?

No flags were flown in London for the victory 1 of the Marne. A battle on so vast a scale has not the touch of the human personal element which appeals to youth. But thousands of citizens thronged the bridges, to cheer the plucky little Wandte on its triumphal pro' gress up the river. Nelson, not Wellington, is « the national hero. Was not Nelson the ideal hero for a nation of boys? His empty sleeve, j his telescope to his blind eye his signal to the ! Fleet at Trafalgar, his glorious death in the hour of victory!

The Englishman’s weakness is his lack of foresight: his strength lies in his invincible j optimism. Both defect and virtue are due to I his boyish character. If a boy fights, will he fight solemnly with a great sense of responsibility, or will he fight joyously, gaily, as ¡ if fighting were a jest? We know the answer.

I Let us wonder then at the humor of the trenches, at the soldier’s apparent lightness f of heart, at his grim jokes in the very beard of Goodman Death.

Sir Thomas More was a great Englishman,

, but we have all read of his jokes on the scaffold. “Scandalous levity,” is the cry of the j unthinking. Be sure it was not so. More was ! typical of his nation. An Englishman finds ; it difficult to put into words the deeper thoughts of man. They become banal and pompous in the expression. So he fell back ; on his panoply of boyhood, that God-given boon bestowed on nearly every Englishman, and met his death with a jest on his lips.

All “human boys" are collectors. That great boy. John Bull, has colleced colonies. It is his hobby, and circumstances beyond his control are always adding to his collection. The love of exploration and the search for hidden treasure is inherent in the young. The Englishman. fortune natus, retains the taste to an age when he has the means to indulge in his propensity.

“Never was isle so little, never was sea so


But over the sand and the palm tree the

English flag was flown,” says Kipling. And again in the same poem: — “The lean white bear hath seen it in the long,

long Arctic night.

The musk ox knows the standard that flouts

the Northern light.”

The ubiquity of the Britain is one of his chief offences to a certain class of foreigner. Throughout the German novel, “His English Wife.” we detect an undercurrent of bitterness due to this cause. The German feels himself a provincial in the presence of a nation of globe-trotters. As a man grows old, he develops a cat-like affection for the locality in which he has resided for some years. If he can be induced to leave at all, it will be to remove to some other district where the same conditions prevail, and where he may expect to be equally comfortable. He will not give up a settled for an unsettled habitation. A boy has no such prejudices. He prefers a tent in the garden to the most luxurious of sittingrooms. He is ready at any moment to abandon the known and the secure in favor of adventure. The prospect of roughing it has no terrors for him. The emigrant from Germany and the emigrant from Great Britain exhibit the same differences of temperament. The German cannot be induced to seek his fortune in the immature German colonies; he will rather go to the United States, to the United Kingdom, or to some well-established British Colony. He will hunt for quarters of the world where the conventions of his home life do not apply. The English soldier whose prayer was ‘to be put somewhere’* east of Suez, where there ain’t no Ten Commandments,” was not really desirous of breaking the rules of the Decalogue. His sentiment was the same as that of the small boy who, to escape the constant “don’ts” of his elders, flees him to some deserted waste ground where he is monarch of all he surveys. Many things have gone to the foundation of the British Empire. The blood of innumerable sailors and soldiers, the wise forethought and sage diplomacy of statesmen, the energy of traders in search of new markets, the enterprise and vigour of youth. But the spirit of youth, above all.

The Englishman in love exhibits all the characteristics of the hobbledehoy. Just as the Scotchman, according to popular belief, “jokes wi’ deeficulty,’ so the Englishman is

not glib in his love-making. The yokel .lovers walk solemnly along the country lanes, arms around waists, with never a word between them. Lovers of a different class are depicted in Du Maurier’s dialogue between the young couple on the seat in the park. “Darling!” “Yes, darling?” “Nothing, darling; only darling, darling.” The recipe for a successful farce in this country is not a drama of intrigue, every man neighing after his neighbor’s wife, but a play like “Charley’s Aunt,” based on the practical joke of an undergraduate. ~ We may push the argument too far if we claim that English humor is that of the schoolroom—it is too rich and varied for that—but some forms of it, and those the most peculiar and characteristic, have the freshnes and originality of youth. The humor of Lewis Carroll and W. S. Gilbert is so racy of the soil that special words, “Carrollian, Gilbertian,” must needs be coined to describe it. “I played cricket oiice only,” observed Lewis Carroll in the Senior Common Room at Christ Church, “I bowled. The impire said “that if the ball had gone for enough, it would -have been a wide.” Most Englishmen appreciated the savor of that remark, but I doubt whether it would bear translation. Would “vice-versa” have gained its enormous success had it been first published in any other country but this?

A foreign observer is reputed to have said that the English take their pleasures sadly. Possibly “sadly” is a mistranslation for “seriously.” If so, the statement is illuminating. Englishmen take nothing seriously except their pleasures. Mark that bank manager of the grizzling locks; why sits he so mumehance at his meals? Whence comes the portentous gloom that overcasts his countenance? Has some enterprise of great pith and moment tqrned awry ? Are the pillars of Commerce rocking at their foundation? No; the city stands where it did, but the banker has not done himself justice in the spring handicap of his golf club. The Cabinet, we are told, keeps no minute book; but every club in this country dealing with any form of sport, however humble, has its minute book, its secretarv. its rules, its general meeting, its committees. and its sub-committees. If complaint is sometimes justly made against the House of Commons for its frivolity, no such charge can be brought against our meetings for purposes of sport. The solemnity and deadly seriousness of the croquet tournament must be experienced to be believed. , _

Now for the practical application of the thesis. You cannot put old heads on young shoulders. A nation of boys can never be drilled into Wiseacres. Every day a portion of the press scolds us because we will not imitate the Germans we are fighting. But, with that sure national instinct which has saved England in every past crisis of her historv. the average Englishman holds on his way deaf-eared to these appeals. He will fight in his own way, or not at all. He covets nothing of the German, nor his Gott nor his Kaiser, his soldier nor his sailor, his Kultur nor anything that is his.

If we have the defects of boys, have we not some of their notives—their uncanny swiftness in detecting insincerity, their hatred of the boaster? The charlatan in politics has rarelv attained to supreme office in this country. The type of statesman most successful has ever been the man who sticks sturdily to his own opinions, refuses to flatter his fellowcountrymen. and pursues his duty regardless of abuse. We are rather suspicious of “brilliant men.” Our distaste for brag and coastin tr amounts to an obsession; it has even an effect on our words of encomium. Our greatest praise for an achievement is the expression “not half bad.” corrupted by ti» vulgar into “not ’alf.” If we say of a man that his conduct has been “pretty decent,” we feel that we have erred on the side of exasperation. This habit of mind is one of the chief stumbling-blocks to the foreign observer. A nation, like an individual, is generally taken at his own (apparent) estimation. We have, in reality, an enormous pride in our race and our country, but because our pride is so great we are careful to conceal it. “He is the Gadarene swine.” muttered in disgust the boys in Kipling’s “Stalky and Co.,” when the flamboyant Member of Parliament unfurled the British flag on the platform, and waved it before their eyes to excite their enthusiasm.

To them that flag “was a matter shut up, sacred and apart.” Stalky’s name for its would-be exploiter was “a jelly-bellied flagflapper.”

Our reticence misleads both friend and foe. The great German plot of 1914 was complete in every detail to meet every event the German intelligence thought likely to occur. But it made no allowance for energy and enterprise on the part of the British Empire. That Great Britain would raise a huge army and manufacture enormous supplies of munitions; that hosts of armed men from the oversea i dominions of the Crown would flock to take ! part in the defence of European liberties-— these were possibilities not foreseen. That such things could occur would have been ; laughed at as the wildest of improbabilities. ' A study of our past history might have suggested caution. But every generation forj gets the lessons of its predecessors. Now, in the midst of the great war, we find the German people still hoping to frighten us by Zeppelins and submarines, still buoyed up to expectations that we shall tire of the struggle. It is rather pathetic. One pictures to oneself “a fat old man of forty” (to quote from a recent speech in the House of Commons) engaged in a strenuous race with a youth of eighteen, uttering guttural threats of vengeance as he runs, and fondly imagining that he will last out the better.