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Defining the British national character: Narrations in British culture of the last two centuries

Barbara S Kono, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation argues that widespread belief in a British national character is the result of the wide circulation of images purporting to depict its traits, and further, that audiences for those images have been no less important than image makers in determining what kind of character has been imagined. To support these contentions depictions of the British or English are examined, chosen mainly for their own wide circulation or that of their authors' work in general, but also for their derivation from earlier images in order to demonstrate the continuity of the nation's self-imagining. Apart from one sixteenth century text by Sir Walter Raleigh, the images examined are taken from British works of the last two centuries: in the nineteenth century from texts by Thomas Macaulay, James Anthony Froude, Charles Kingsley, Matthew Arnold and Alfred Tennyson, and paintings by Ford Madox Brown and John Everett Millais; in this century from texts by Sapper, Maud Diver, E. M. Forster, George Orwell, Margaret Drabble and Salman Rushdie, political speeches by Margaret Thatcher, T. E. Utley and Britain's current chancellor Gordon Brown, and the 1980s re-enactment of Raleigh's activities known as Operation Raleigh. Reference is also made throughout to other contemporaneous images in a variety of media. Discussion draws on post-colonial theory and on theories of nations and nationalism and of narrative and historiography, with a predominantly Marxist approach. Although authors' motives for designedly portraying the national character have quite personal, even, at times, irrational aspects, they are primarily ideological. Motivation is, however, largely irrelevant to the images' reception, which mainly depends on their appeal, availability and general circulation. In conclusion, the construction and proclamation of a supposed national character is seen to be a continuing process which provides the nation's members with an acceptable collective self-image adapted to concerns of the time. Largely stereotypical, inevitably idealized and fraught with ideology, such collective representations incorporate much that is true but differ considerably from prevailing national norms of attitude and behavior. One or another such representation has nevertheless been embraced by a very large number of Britons as embodying their national character.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Art History|European history

Recommended Citation

Kono, Barbara S, "Defining the British national character: Narrations in British culture of the last two centuries" (1999). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9920619.