Event: History Today at Hatchards, Socrates

The Quest for Englishness

Paul Rich describes how the aggressive imperialism of the late Victorian age co-existed uneasily with the intellectual search for English 'roots' in a pre-industrial and mythical past.

Nationalism in English society has not been a subject that has especially interested historians until comparatively recently. This is perhaps in part a legacy of the Whig domination of English historiography and the emphasis on parliament and good government to the exclusion of political doctrine, which has often been seen as more of a bogy in continental European political history. The attainment of political stability by the mid-Victorian era has thus usually been perceived as a result of the insulation of English politics from the turbulence of European nationalism and a preoccupation with other issues surrounding the moral responses to industrialisation and urbanisation.

Even in its heyday, though, the 'condition of England' question in the nineteenth century assumed a form of unique cultural and political entity entitled 'England'. There was, in fact, in a considerable body of Victorian thought a conscious 'idea' of England that may not have reached the ideological precision of European nationalist visionaries such as Mazzini, but which nevertheless exerted a hold over both educated and informed opinion and more popular sentiments.

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