The English according to Emerson

" If he is rich, he buys a demesne, and builds a hall..." (Emerson speaking of the English.)

by cheri block

I’ve just finished reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay (1856) entitled English Traits. Particularly curious (and a bit amusing)  is Chapter VI on Manners.

One of my essays this quarter is due next Wednesday, so I am rolling around ideas that have worked their way out of my “rich mud of conception,” as American pragmatist Charles Saunders Peirce might observe, fighting their way to consciousness despite my distractions.

One possible topic I am thinking about is English manners.

I like manners, custom, and chivalry.

The English seem to possess such qualities, generally speaking, not including the tabloid press and the comedians.

This quarter, our professor asked us to read Jane Austen.

Although Jane Austen is the Queen of Excessive Subordination, overuse of adverbs, and preponderance of dashes ( a bit ironic since her main characters are the Dashwood sisters), her keen observations of the English gentry in the last part of the 18th Century drew me in again to her novel Sense and Sensibility.

Particularly hilarious and biting is her satire of the Palmers, minor characters who come to greet the Dashwood sisters. It is the Palmers whom I will be examining in my essay, I think, unless a better idea sludges up in the next day or two.

Emerson is also on our reading list and since I taught American literature for over 20 years, he is no stranger to me.  I returned to his essays for insight.

Here are some of the observations that Emerson makes about the English, loosely paraphrased:

1.The English, above all, have pluck.

2. They do not tolerate wishy-washy opinion-givers.

3. They do not appreciate diffidence or a fainthearted approach to things.

4. They do what they want. They are “Occupied with their own affairs.”

5. They value personal eccentricity.

6. Their training and their manners are their harnesses.

7. Lousy weather keeps the English indoors so the their houses take on much importance.

8. Families stay in close location to one another.

9. English women are supportive of fine English men.

10. They desire independence and value the privacy of their homes.

11. The English have  cold repressive manners and their only enthusiasm is seen at operas.

Well!! There you have it!! Hyacinth, what say you, old gal? Monty? Agreed?

Are these the holy grail of English manners?

Are these antiquated, worn-out, and stereotypical?

What say you, blokes?

About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
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25 Responses to The English according to Emerson

  1. andreaskluth says:

    I recognize the love of eccentricity, which I share and love within my (very English) employer, The Economist.

    There is a lot to the manners thing, but (as Newton might say) every force has an equal and opposite counterfource, and the counter-force here is ‘yobbism’ or ‘yobbery’. They have the gentlemen, but also the ale-pissing Neanderthals for contrast.

  2. Forgive me, but as a recovering anglophile I have to come down on the “antiquated, worn out and stereotypical” side of the argument. I think we often confuse 18th century formality and social structure (along with the the whole Victorian thing in the 19th century) as manners. Plus Hollywood hasn’t helped.

    If you are doing something on Emerson, it might be more interesting to look at how his thinking/philosophy compares and contrasts with that of the English, for example, with respect to aristocracy, empire etc. Just a quick thought.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Thomas,

      Do you agree that Sense and Sensibility is either a comedic or sardonic satire of English manners?

      Those points were Emerson’s from 1865 and I suspect they were true for the time.

      Great idea for topic, but perhaps too large for my assignment: five pages at most.

  3. I’m no expert but yes, I’d agree.

    I don’t know if you can say that Emerson’s points were “true at the time,” however. They were his perceptions, whether they are true is another question–which might lead to other topic ideas:

    1. Does the behavior of the characters in S&S support or refute Emerson’s perceptions?

    2. Assuming that Emerson’s perceptions of the English are accurate, how does Austen satirize those behaviors in S&S? (just pick a couple to make it manageable).

  4. Phil says:

    Would that Emerson could observe the English of today.

  5. Mr. Crotchety says:

    Yobs have pretty much undone any fantasy I ever had about English manners in general (this observation based on too much personal experience). But for a woman with an authentic posh accent, I’m willing to say anything in favor of English manners in particular (this observation based on insufficient personal experience).

    My observation about weather is that, the body of mountaineering literature probably amounts to a mountain in itself – because the weather often favors writing more than it does climbing.

    The em dash cannot be overused — I can refer you to an excellent short story by Maugham.

    • Cheri says:

      Yes, please refer me. I love Maugham and have read a number of his books.

      Hooray for the dash! Simply dashing, those Dashwoods (well, not Elinor).

      • Mr. Crotchety says:

        I got back to my books. The story is, ‘The Creative Impulse.” I mistakenly remembered; it’s the comic possibilities of the semicolon, not the em dash.

  6. andreaskluth says:

    Yobs: They’re a peculiarly British species of thug or hooligan. ‘Wide boy’ is a term I’ve heard for the softer versions.

  7. Richard says:

    All generalisations of humanity are fleeting, not least those of the English.

    This is a country of violent contrasts personified in its people, of soft rolling hills and urban ennui, of quiet country lanes and teeming motorways, of miniature Alps and gaunt industrial slagheaps, of remote valleys and lakes and over-populated squalor, of village life and dysfunctional sinks. An admixture of cultures, sometimes acting as one, at other times starkly dissonant.

    We are three nations, perhaps more, sometimes proudly “English” at other times recoiling in our parts from that appellation. The English of England are not the British of Empire. Our language is as varied as our people. Our differences force a reluctant tolerance.

    Our history is one of violent turbulence and unrest, bordering on anarchy. We have an inborn revulsion for authority of all kinds. That is why we respect the rule of law and have an unwritten constitution. Yet we have suffered the most awful privations and abuse of power.

    This theme has played for a thousand or more years in numerous guises. Caricatures of ourselves amuse us, as do silhouettes. We do not mention the series of cultural, social, intellectual, scientific and technological “firsts” for fear of boredom, or even antagonism, abroad: what does it matter, anyway?

    As for etiquette, we are repelled by it, save as a tool to further other purposes, but manners sweeten the passage of life, so we do try with these.

    The Empire was more than one and was brief. When it is judged in the scales of history it will be found, like all institutions, imperfect to say the least, but a net force for good in the world, like both Greece and Rome.

    • Cheri says:

      Sir Richard,

      Wordsworth and T. S. Eliot in one expression!

      I have never traveled to England. Hard to believe but true.

      Several years from now, we will spend two weeks or so in Britain, traveling the countryside, visiting museums, and seeing for ourselves.

      I understand that much has changed, as it has all over Europe.

  8. Cheri says:

    Does anyone out there have an opinion about the possibility of Jane Austen being a Cavalier?

    Or is she a Roundhead?

    • Mr. Crotchety says:

      Definitely. Roundhead.

      • Cheri says:

        Jane Austen (as author) creating characters that are earnest/wild (wild gets shot down), men who are serious/flamboyant ( flamboyant does it to himself), but also hilariously funny characters who speak so oddly that Austen’s great wit and irony clearly drives the silliness, meanness, and protocol of the gentry.

        Some have said this book is dark and terrifying.

        I found it funny.

        Still a Roundhead?

    • Cavalier if you use Andreas’s framework.

      Plus I don’t think she would have liked Milton and he was a roundie, wasn’t he?

  9. Cheri says:

    Thank you for the title, Mr. C.

  10. Sense and Sensibility really rubs me the wrong way. I find Austen so sirupy that it makes my blood sugar go up. My wife and daughters on the other hand can not replay the serie often enough.
    When I want to really get my terrible twins in a frenzy I refer to Mr Knightly as Mr Everynight and rush into hiding.

  11. Man of Roma says:

    I am sorry to disagree with Paul, but I find Jane Austen absolutely great and, to me (as far as I can say) quintessentially English. It seems she talks about the little things of village life, but she instead creates magnificent frescoes of an entire society. Up with Jane (and with the lovely English! – that I sometimes like to criticise, only because I love being a provocateur and to compete with the best).

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