Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

27 January 2009

Shorts (No. 1): English literature – the ‘essence of Great Britain’?

Filed under: Britain,Britology,England,English literature,Great Britain,NHS — David @ 7.45 pm

OK, not even I can keep up the 3,000-word essay format every time I put up a post! So I’m going to start a new series of ‘shorts’: snapshots of my Britological encounters on the WWW and other media.

Here’s one to kick off the series: a post entitled “English literature: The Essence of Great Britain”. My readers will appreciate the wry, ironic smile that such an alluring title induced in me! As it happens, there wasn’t much else to this post other than this aperçu. So I added a lengthy(‘ish) comment to beef it up and put the other point of view. It’s still awaiting ‘moderation’ as I write; but as I am the soul of moderation (…), I’d be surprised if it didn’t pass.However, just in case, here it is:

“Don’t you mean English literature embodies the essence of England, and English history, culture, etc? Just as Scottish literature evokes the Scottish experience, and Irish literature conveys the Irish spirit and history, etc. The very fact that we call it ‘English literature’ should tell you something: that it’s ultimately an expression of the English culture and character. There’s no such thing as ‘British literature’ (even less ‘Great British literature’) other than as the sum of the separate canons of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish literature.

“It’s true, however, that in the past, the national and political identities of England and Great Britain have been merged. But that’s never been the case for its literature or other art forms. And it’s even less so now that the political and formal identities of Britain and England are increasingly parting company.”

You might want to check the post out and add suitably de-britologising comments of your own. But go easy on the author: he’s intelligent and well-meaning but just needs to have gently pointed out to him that England and Britain are not one and the same. Witness his interesting analysis of NHS deficiencies, which just needs to have one extra thing mentioned to complete the picture: the fact that what he describes is taking place in England only and that there is no such thing as the ‘British NHS’ any more. Perhaps leave him a comment there, instead.

That’s really all for now, folks! But don’t worry, it won’t be too long before the next dissertation hits a screen near you!



  1. Perhaps the only British writer I could think of would be Rudyard Kipling. He was voice for all the nations in the islands, especially his Barrack Room Ballads. Although when he settled in Sussex he became overwhelming English (Puck of Pook’s Hill etc) – odd that. Must be something in the water 🙂

    Comment by PaganPride — 28 January 2009 @ 12.28 am | Reply

  2. I’m not sure on this point. The difficulty is that the word English can mean both “relating to the country of England” and “in the English language”.

    If you take somebody like Dylan Thomas, for example, he was a Welsh man who wrote a lot about his Welsh experience and background, so his work is part of the literature of Wales, but he wrote exclusively in the English language so doesn’t his work also add to the cannon of English literature?

    Comment by Alwyn ap Huw — 28 January 2009 @ 7.40 pm | Reply

    • Good point, Alwyn; but would you call Dylan Thomas’s work ‘British literature’? And would you say it was about the ‘essence of Great Britain’? I don’t think so, even if it does deal with ‘quintessentially British’ experiences in another sense, i.e. Welsh ones.

      Comment by David — 31 January 2009 @ 8.17 am | Reply

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