Visions of England, by Roy Strong. London: Bodley Head, 2011, viii + 229, illustrated, £17.99 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-847-92160-4
Reviewed by Mark Storey, University of Nottingham
Among the many figures, institutions and traditions admitted to Roy Strong’s pantheon in Visions of England, one surprising omission is Philip Larkin. He would seem at first glance a perfect candidate: the pastoral impulse which Strong locates as the binding force throughout English cultural history finds a distinctly twentieth-century articulation in much of Larkin’s suburban lyricism, whilst in keeping with Strong’s palpable distaste for cosmopolitanism is the fact that Larkin himself was hardly an internationalist. We get closest to the main historical focus of Visions of England in Larkin’s ‘MCMXIV’ (1964), where queues of young men in villages across the country waiting to enlist for war provides the starting point for a poem that floats over a landscape of prelapsarian Edwardian innocence: “The place names all hazed over / With flowering grasses, and fields / Showing Domesday lines / Under wheat’s restless silence.” It is the green and pleasant land of an unchanging agricultural England that somehow distils all that is worth saving – or fighting for.
Except, for all of Larkin’s faults – his posthumous reputation continues to lurch somewhere between Bagpuss and Oswald Mosley – he was aware that such nationalistic mythologising could also be an act of coercive political storytelling. The final stanza begins with the studiedly ambiguous lines “Never such innocence / Never before or since,” almost putting the skids under the nostalgic reverie of what’s come before and at the very least introducing a note of knowing irony. It was partly the fabrication of rural England’s essential innocence that the ruling classes relied on in order to marshal the rest behind symbols of Volkish unity. ‘MCMXIV’ both participates in and then questions this process of mythologising: don’t buy the rapturous pastoralism I’ve just described, the poem is saying – rolling hills and church spires do not make for pro patria mori.
Roy Strong’s latest paean to England shares no such self-awareness. It is, in its own words, a “little book,” but one that has some quite big things to say about the role of culture and history in current conceptions of English nationalism. In fact the claims of diminution are one of Strong’s favourite ways of deflecting attention from the deeply political content of his work: he’s previously published A Little History of the English Country Church (2007), and the paperback edition of Visions of England, due to be released later this year, carries the newly-appended subtitle A Little History of Our National Imagination. It’s a classic case of disingenuous modesty, of course; one might even be tempted to say that it’s very English of him. What the book does offer is an account of the “iconography and mythology of England which continue[s] to underwrite our national life in the twenty-first century” (8, his emphasis), a task it tackles by presenting an informed, sometimes elegant, and rarely original survey of English cultural history from the late 1500s to the First World War. Within this ambitious sweep, the late Victorian years in particular are highlighted as a seminal moment in our current conceptions of English national identity: the establishment of English language and literature as a central discipline in the education system and a widespread flourishing of interest in English folklore and history make it a key moment in Strong’s wider argument about national identity.
The longer history the book takes in is at least filled with interesting examples. Strong’s knowledge of Elizabeth I is difficult to beat, if absurdly hagiographic, and the account of the “cartographic discovery” (35) of England during her reign is neatly done. We then proceed swiftly through four hundred years of history, dealing triumphantly with the Spanish Armada and skipping through the usual patriotic pot pourri of Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer, Edmund Spenser, the “ancient Universities,” Wordsworth, the English country garden, Trollope, Country Life magazine, Elgar, the Oxford English Dictionary, and many others in between. Uniting all these touchstones of Englishness – and here is Strong’s central point – is a persistent and ever-renewing faith in the Arcadian wholesomeness of England’s rural life. The essence of Englishness is fundamentally centred on an attachment to place, and specifically the timeless, peaceful, honest communities of England’s broad sunlit uplands. It may only be a myth, but it is a myth that has woven together the national character for centuries.
One might excuse this Romantic Toryism if it remained an idiosyncratic indulgence, and the frequent biographical diversions do signal that this is a deeply personal book for Strong. The problems start, however, when Strong extrapolates his own preferences into a vision he believes will unite the nation as a whole. Even if we just consider his treatment of Victorian culture, there is most obviously the curious airbrushing of urban and industrial life from the scene. It’s perhaps enough to point out that Dickens, a man hardly low down on lists of National Treasures nowadays, warrants only the most passing of references, but other writers equally concerned with urban life – George Gissing and Wilkie Collins, for instance – are also absent, and would have at the very least complicated Strong’s claims. The romantically-tinged portraits of Victorian London that Whistler and Monet produced surely evoke a metropolitan version of ‘Englishness’ just as much as the pastoralism of Constable has come to signify another version of the nation? One wonders, as well, where George Stephenson or Isambard Kingdom Brunel might fit into most people’s understanding of the national character. It’s wrong to suggest that English culture so consistently finds its self-definition in a veneration of the countryside – especially when even those that are associated with representing the rural, such as Hardy, offer far more ambivalent accounts than Strong suggests. “[U]rban life forms no part of the iconography of England” he provocatively states in the introduction, just after he’s claimed that English soldiers were fighting for “the likes of Chipping Campden and Lavenham” in the two world wars rather than “Manchester or Birmingham” (10). Even aside from the implication that everyone north of Coventry went off on their merry way to war in order that Suffolk housewives might eat bananas again, it’s hard to see where the basis for this peculiar assertion finds its footing. An aversion to urban life is one thing, but to suggest that no one found something worth defending in their sense of civic pride does a great deal of people a serious disservice. He might try sitting in the stands at Elland Road or St. James’ Park one Saturday afternoon and contemplating just how uniting a city can be.
The constant reiteration of anti-urbanism throughout the book – cities are habitually caricatured, usually as the sites of “squalor and human degradation” – suggests that it might be Strong’s own preference for the less threateningly protean countryside that is clouding his historian’s judgement. Such a preference is what Raymond Williams discusses in this book’s most obvious counterpoint, The Country and the City (1973) (conspicuous by its absence in Strong’s ‘Select Bibliography’), when he identifies the ideological implications of a certain kind of rural idealisation. Delight in “trees and flowers and birds” is fine in itself, Williams suggests, but venerating the countryside as the sole depository of national identity can lead to an “unconscious extension to the values and attachments of an unjust and arbitrary society” (237-8). Strong’s advocacy for the pastoral as the quintessence of Englishness frequently feels like it is masking a sepia-tinted view of England’s traditional hierarchies and privileges. Anti-urbanism has always had its political dimensions, of course, mainly because it has historically been in cities – from the Bastille to Tahrir Square – that the democratic will of ordinary people has literally spilled into the streets. Strong’s tacit defence of the settled orders of Old England is only the latest expression of anxious distrust towards the untameable populations of metropolitan life.
Neither is ever made clear who exactly this ‘shared’ rural past is supposed to energise: the green thread of England the book unpicks and presents as the full tapestry doesn’t seem to have much to do with Brixton or Bradford. Strong’s fiercely isolationist and Christian Englishness is certainly one available version of the nation, and it’s a version that includes much to admire and preserve, but it need not fear some irrevocable dissolution if others choose to align themselves with quite different iconographies and mythologies. And it is fear, in the end, that seems to animate Strong’s sense that we are losing touch with a truly English past. The final chapter, ‘England Redefined?’, takes on the teaching of History in schools in such a hackneyed way that it seems at times to be a crude parody of Michael Gove. The constellation of writers, artists, and institutions Strong has revered over the preceding pages, he concludes, are the shared heritage we must rediscover if we are to understand where England is now and where it is headed in the future. Insisting that true Englishness belongs to the settled class hierarchies of a rural, patrician past would have seemed a bit out of touch in the 1950s; to believe it now, in a multicultural nation ever more bound up in global networks of exchange and responsibility, seems culturally naive.
Notes on Contributors
Mark Storey is Associate Lecturer in American Literature at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of the forthcoming Rural Fictions, Urban Realities: A Geography of Postbellum American Literature and his general research interests lay in nineteenth-century literature, cultural geography, and national identity.