by G. K. Chesterton

[From "The Empire Review", Vol XXXVIII, October 1923, No. 273. Reprinted in 1927.]

The English character has been wronged more by praise than by blame. It has been wronged most of all by accepting one sort of blame as if it were a sort of praise. The irony of such an incident is in itself rather curious and interesting. It is as if a man were wrongly accused of being a murderer, and was faintly flattered because the charge made: him look like a desperado. An entertaining little comedy might be written about such a respectable householder, who had a delicacy about entirely clearing his character, because he could not help hankering after the chance of looking as picturesque as a pirate. The comedy is common enough in real life, I imagine, in connection with the lighter vices of a man of the world. Many a young man has allowed himself to be thought immoral; and locked in his bosom the dark secret that he was perfectly moral. Now, the misunderstanding about the Englishman is of the same type but in the opposite direction. He has allowed himself to be considered much less gay and picturesque than he really is, because there was something more insidiously flattering in the way in which he was called grave and prosaic.

Continental criticism, broadly speaking, has made a mistake about England. It was a very natural mistake, founded on certain superficial truths, such as those which have so long hidden from England the thrift and the tenacity of France. It largely arose out of the religious quarrel and the rise of the Puritans. And the Puritan was the sort of solitary figure which, when it happens to appear in one particular country, frequently falsifies international impressions. Such a person is associated with such a place, not so much because he is often found there as because he is never found anywhere else. Foreign critics have presented the Englishman as a Puritan with a long face, very much as foreign caricaturists have presented the English soldier as a Scotchman with a short kilt. Most British soldiers are not Highland soldiers, but all Highland soldiers are British soldiers. Highlanders are not seen in any other army; and therefore nobody else except Highlanders are seen in that army. In the same way the Puritan is an exception in England; only he is more of an exception in Europe. Nowhere else has the Puritan been dominant as he was in this island; for his presence there was despotic rather than democratic. His original power was due to militarism. His more modern power is due to plutocracy. But the English populace has never been Puritan, even in the sense in which the Scotch populace has been Puritan; still less in the sense in which the Irish populace has been Catholic. Nobody who thinks in terms of real popularity, right or wrong, can have the smallest doubt about whether our democracy is normally on the march to Exeter Hall or to the Derby.

Along with this historical accident of the Puritan aristocracy went several other things equally accidental. A certain shyness and moody embarrassment that come from much more complex causes; the fact that like most northern peoples, including the northern French, we have not the rapid gestures of the South, an exaggerated reputation for roughness, curiously compounded of the legend of physical exercise and the legend that business is business, combined with the puzzle of Protestanism to create on the Continent an imaginary Englishman as stiff and stern as a Prussian. So far the mistake need not have troubled us very much. Nations normally do misunderstand each other; and it is not worse than the notion that the Frenchman is immoral or that the Irishman does not know what he wants. Unfortunately, this slander had in it something horribly like a compliment. Still more unfortunately, some Englishmen were so weak as to accept the compliment. They liked to be called stiff because they thought it meant that they were strong. They liked to be called solemn because they thought it meant that they were responsible. Vanity of this sort is not of course peculiar to them; it is common to the whole human race. But it was simply out of the weakness of vanity that they confessed to the sin of pride. In reality, they are not particularly proud and certainly not in the least stern; they are an exceptionally kindly and even soft-hearted people. They do not even take their pleasures sadly; they only take an incidental and I think regrettable pleasure in being called sad.

The meaning of Merry England was in this old original character of the English. In mediaeval times their public and proverbial character was festive and full of fun; and even in modern times their private and personal character is the same. The witness to it is the wonderful English literature; but of late years it has been overlaid by the cross-purposes about the Continental criticism and the false ideal thus imposed. It is not only a false but even a foreign ideal. The Englishman actually dresses up as the French picture of himself. To get clear of this complication, the right course is to appeal to the authority of that great national literature, especially as it was when it was still entirely normal, and had not been crossed and confused by the self-conscious poses of more recent times. The last full and free manifestation of this normal and national spirit is represented by the name of Pickwick. It is the last expression of the complete freedom and fullness, not only in the literature of England, but even in the literature of Dickens. Though the work of Dickens continued to be great, though in some matters of subtlety and reality it became much greater, there was something that it never quite recovered again; and it was something that can only be called the liberty of our fathers. The author of "Our Mutual Friend" was not quite so free as the author of "Pickwick"; not even so free as the author of "Oliver Twist." Though his insight into the growth of modern plutocracy was far deeper than that of any of his contemporaries, he has himself suffered a little from passing successfully into more plutocratic circles. He no longer represents quite so realistically the inspired prejudices of the whole people. He is touched a little with the newspaper notion of good taste. There has fallen on him a little of that fatal sort of broad-mindedness which looks at maps rather than places. He has no longer the wisdom of the uneducated man, who says what he thinks. He has begun to have too much of the knowledge of the half-educated man, who says what he thinks he ought to think.. Wild and fantastic as the first books of Dickens may appear, they are in one sense more realistic than his realistic books. The young Dickens describes things because they are real, and laughs at them because they are laughable. He may exaggerate them, but it is because they are there to be exaggerated. He describes the Eatonswill election as comic and corrupt because it was comic and corrupt. He is not concerned, or is only very incidentally concerned, with the consequences of his argument as affecting representative government, as affecting an existing oligarchy or a possible democracy. Similarly the young Dickens described Fagin the Jew exactly as any poor man in a poor street would have described him, and would still describe him. The older Dickens of "Our Mutual Friend" had grown faintly afraid of being an anti-Semite. I do not mean that he was insincere or intimidated; on the contrary, he was much bolder and franker than anybody else. But his mind had been modified by a modern refinement and lost the old popular realism of Ben Jonson or Fielding. The Puritan in "Pickwick" is just like the Puritan in "Bartholomew Fair." But if Mr. Stiggins had intruded on the domestic happiness of Mr. Wilfer instead of Mr. Weller, I doubt if that Free Church Minister's nose would have been quite so red or his character quite so black as it was painted.

In short, Dickens gained only liberality when he lost liberty. It is a melancholy exchange; and though Dickens, as has been said, kept his superiority to his own rather snobbish generation to the very last, it is in his first books, and especially in "Pickwick," that we must seek the full and frank expression of that old traditional truth about the English people. That truth certainly bears no resemblance to the image of the stern inarticulate stoic which foreigners have invented as a criticism and we have accepted as a compliment. On the other hand, it does bear a marked resemblance to the mediaeval tradition about England as we have it in Chaucer or in the ballads about Robin Hood. That spirit is not at all stoical and is certainly the very reverse of Puritan. It is full of precisely that almost illogical indulgence, that charity to the indefensible, that made possible the sympathy for the Wife of Bath, for Falstaff, and for Friar Tuck.

And that is the truth about the English adventure even outside England. Its type of endurance has not been stoicism but rather tolerance. We might say it was much too tolerant, if it had not the rare virtue of tolerating the intolerable. What has really made the English, apart from mere jingo journalistic flatteries, a success in colonies and in campaigns in savage countries, was a certain comic acceptance of the incongruous; a certain capacity in the English cockney or yokel of continuing to be absurdly like himself even when, in the ritual formula, he don't know where he are. This is a national merit which, like other national merits, is gained at the expense of missing other things; of missing, for instance, the full status of the citizen and the full inherited experience that comes of remaining rooted in very old civilisations. But it is perhaps the most humorous and attractive of all national virtues; and men who really know from the inside the various nations of European humanity have found nothing more human than the ordinary English comic song or the talk of the Tommies in the trenches. Of all that great popular tradition "Pickwick" is the supreme artistic sympathetic masterpiece and even the miracle. Its very faults are its merits; since they correspond to this particular national morality. If the story is chaotic, it is because the philosophy of the people has long been chaotic, and indeed even perilously chaotic. If it is even in one sense superficial, as being a skimming of the surface of a vast and varied society, it is because it is true. In that sense the English spirit really has a certain superficiality of which the very deep motive is sociability. It loses something, indeed, it loses a great deal, in not thinking its way back to first principles or facing fundamental truths. But it also gains a great deal in the great virtue of charity; both in the form of patience with comrades and hospitality to strangers. Friendships are not broken up by the feuds of the intellect; and if there is far too little recognition of the idea of truth, there is a very valuable recognition of the idea of trust.

Nothing is more English or more characteristic in the Pickwick epic than the fact that the band of comrades are comic in their incongruity. They differ and do not quarrel; or they quarrel and do not part. There is an assumption and atmosphere of absurd toleration spread over the whole story, so that we never expect ridicule to be anything except ridiculous. Mr. Pickwick calls Mr. Winkle an imposter; but he does not seem to object to impostors. He denounces his followers for trifling with feminine feelings and then only laughs when the denunciation is turned against himself. There runs through the whole story an implication that the absurd company will go through with its absurd adventure; and that implication has been tacit in many companies of English people. There must have been many groups of Englishmen in camps and colonial holes and corners, consisting of men who got on with each other somehow, though each was regarded lightly enough as an individual. They were comic characters, if not to themselves, at least to each other. And even in isolation, any one of them who had with him (as he often had) a tattered volume of Pickwick, must have felt that he carried his country in his pocket.

G. K. Chesterton.

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Last modified: 1st April 2008
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.
Email: martin@gkc.org.uk