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DIAGNOSIS OF THE ENGLISHMAN 



BY JOHN GALSWORTHY 



After nine months of war, search for the cause thereof 
borders on the academic. Comment on the physical facts of 
the situation does not come within the scope of one who by 
disposition and training is concerned with states of mind. 
Speculation on what the future may bring forth may be left to 
those with an aptitude for prophecy. 

But there is one thought which rises supreme at this particu- 
lar moment of these tremendous times: the period of surprise is 
over; the forces known; the issue fully joined. It is now a case 
of "Pull devil, pull baker!" and a question of the fiber of the 
combatants. For this reason I think it not amiss to try and 
present to any whom it may concern as detached a picture as 
I can of the real nature of that combatant who is called the 
Englishman, especially since ignorance in central Europe of his 
character was the chief cause of this war, and speculation as to 
the future is useless without right comprehension of this curious 
creature. 

For this task I claim the credentials of one who, having no 
drop of any but English blood, has for many years observed, 
criticized, and satirized himself and his compatriots. I take 
the Englishman advisedly, because he represents four-fifths of 
the population of the British Isles, and eight-ninths of the 
character and sentiment therein. 

And first let me say that there is no more deceptive, uncon- 
sciously deceptive person, on the face of the globe. The English- 
man certainly does not know himself; and outside England he 
is but guessed at. Only a pure Englishman — and he must be an 
odd one — really knows the Englishman; just as, for inspired 
judgment of art, one must go to the inspired artist. 

Racially the Englishman is so complex and so old a blend 
that no one can say what he is. In character he is just as com- 



684 THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW 

plex. Physically there are two main types: one inclining to 
length of limb, narrowness of face and head (you will see nowhere 
such long and narrow heads as in our islands), and bony jaws; 
the other approximating more to the ordinary "John Bull." 
The first type is gaining on the second. There is little or no 
difference' in the main character behind them. 

In attempting to understand the real nature of the 
Englishman certain salient facts must be borne in mind. 

To be surrounded generation after generation by the sea 
has developed in him a suppressed idealism, a peculiar im- 
permeability, a turn for adventure, a faculty for wandering, 
and for being sufficient unto himself in far surroundings. 

Whoso weathers for centuries a climate that, though healthy 
and never extreme, is perhaps the least reliable and one of the 
wettest in the world, must needs grow in himself a counter- 
balance of dry philosophy, a defiant humor, an enforced medium 
temperature of soul. The Englishman is no more given to 
extremes than is his climate; against its damp and perpetual 
changes he has become coated with a sort of bluntness. 

This is by far the oldest settled Western Power, politically 
speaking. For eight hundred and fifty years England has 
known no serious military disturbance from without; for over 
two hundred she has known no military disturbance and no 
serious political turmoil within. This is partly the outcome 
of her isolation, partly the happy accident of her political 
constitution, partly the result of the Englishman's habit of 
looking before he leaps, which comes, no doubt, from the 
mixture in his blood and the mixture in his climate. 

Taken in conjunction with centuries of political stability, 
the great preponderance for several generations of town over 
country life is the main cause of a certain deeply ingrained 
humaneness, of which, speaking generally, the Englishman 
appears to be rather ashamed than otherwise. 

That the public schools are a potent element in the forma- 
tion of the modern Englishman, not only of the upper, but of all 
classes, is something that one rather despairs of making under- 
stood — in countries that have no similar institution. But: 
imagine one hundred thousand youths of the wealthiest, health- 
iest, and most influential classes passed, during each generation, 
at the most impressionable age, into a sort of ethical mold; 
emerging therefrom stamped to the core with the impress of a 
uniform morality, uniform manners, uniform way of looking at 
life; remembering always that these youths fill seven-eighths of 



DIAGNOSIS OF THE ENGLISHMAN 685 

the important positions in the professional administration of 
their country and the conduct of its commercial enterprise; 
remembering, too, that through perpetual contact with every 
other class their standard of morality and way of looking at life 
filter down into the very toes of the land. This great character- 
forming machine is remarkable for an unself-consciousness which 
gives it enormous strength and elasticity. Not inspired by the 
State, it inspires the State. The characteristics of the philoso- 
phy it enjoins are mainly negative and, for that, the stronger. 
"Never show your feelings — to do so is not manly and bores 
your fellows. Don't cry out when you're hurt, making yourself 
a nuisance to other people. Tell no tales about your com- 
panions, and no lies about yourself. Avoid all 'swank,' 'side,' 
'swagger,' braggadocio of speech or manner, on pain of being 
laughed at." (This maxim is carried to such a pitch that the 
Englishman, except in his press, habitually understates every- 
thing.) "Think little of money, and speak less of it. Play 
games hard, and keep the rules of them even when your blood 
is hot and you are tempted to disregard them." In three words : 
"play the game" — a little phrase which may be taken as the 
characteristic understatement of the modern Englishman's 
creed of honor in all classes. This great unconscious machine 
has considerable defects. It tends to the formation of "caste" ; 
it is a poor teacher of sheer learning, and, aesthetically, with its 
universal, suppression of all interesting and queer individual 
traits of personality — it is almost horrid. But it imparts a 
remarkable incorruptibility to English life; it conserves vitality 
by suppressing all extremes; and it implants everywhere a kind 
of unassuming stoicism and respect for the rules of the great 
game — Life. Through its unconscious example, and through 
its cult of games, it has vastly influenced even the classes not 
directly under its control. 

Three more main facts must be borne in mind: 

The essential democracy of the Government. 

Freedom of speech and the press. 

Absence of compulsory military service. 

These, the outcome of the quiet and stable home life of an 
island people, have done more than anything to make the 
Englishman a deceptive personality to the outside eye. He has 
for centuries been permitted to grumble. There is no such 
confirmed grumbler — until he really has something to grumble 
at, and then no one who grumbles less. There is no such con- 
firmed carper at the condition of his country, yet no one really so 



686 THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW 

profoundly convinced of its perfection. A stranger might well 
think, from his utterances, that he was spoiled by the freedom 
of his life, unprepared to sacrifice anything for a land in such a 
condition. Threaten that country, and with it his liberty, and 
you will find that his grumbles have meant less than nothing. 
You will find, too, that behind the apparent slackness of every 
arrangement and every individual are powers of adaptability to 
facts, elasticity, practical genius, a latent spirit of competition, 
and a determination that are staggering. Before this war began 
it was the fashion among a number of English to lament the 
decadence of the race. These very grumblers are now foremost 
in praising, and quite rightly, the spirit shown in every part of 
their country. Their lamentations, which plentifully deceived 
the outside ear, were just English grumbles, for if in truth Eng- 
land had been decadent, there could have been no such universal 
display for them to be praising now. But all this democratic 
grumbling and habit of "going as you please" serve a deep pur- 
pose. Autocracy, censorship, compulsion, destroy humor in a 
nation's blood and elasticity in its fiber; they cut at the very 
mainsprings of national vitality. Only free from these baneful 
controls can each man arrive in his own way at realization of 
what is or is not national necessity; only free from them will 
each man truly identify himself with a national ideal — not 
through deliberate instruction or by command of others, but by 
simple, natural conviction from within. 

I enter here two cautions to the stranger trying to form an 
estimate of the Englishman: the creature must not be judged 
from his press, which, manned (with certain exceptions) by 
those who are not typically English, is too highly colored alto- 
gether to illustrate the true English spirit; nor can he be judged 
by such of his literature as is best known on the Continent. 
The Englishman proper is inexpressive, unexpressed. Further, 
he must not be judged by the evidences of his wealth. England 
may be the richest country in the world per head of population, 
but not five per cent, of that population have any wealth to 
speak of, certainly not enough to have affected their hardihood; 
and, with inconsiderable exceptions, those who have enough are 
brought up to worship hardihood. For the vast proportion of 
young Englishmen active military service is merely a change 
from work as hard and more monotonous. 

From these main premises, then, we come to what the 
Englishman really is. 

When, after months of travel, one returns to England, one 



DIAGNOSIS OF THE ENGLISHMAN 687 

can taste, smell, feel the difference in the atmosphere, physical 
and moral — the curious, damp, blunt, good-humored, happy-go- 
lucky, old-established, slow-seeming formlessness of everything. 
You hail a porter, you tell him you have plenty of time — he 
muddles your things amiably with an air of, "It '11 be all right," 
till you have only just time. But suppose you tell him you 
have no time — he will set himself to catch that train for you, 
and he will catch it faster than a porter of any other country. 
Let no stranger, however, experiment to prove the truth of this, 
for that porter — and a porter is very like any other Englishman 
— is incapable of taking the foreigner seriously; and, quite 
friendly, but a little pitying, will lose him the train, assuring the 
unfortunate gentleman that he really doesn't know what train 
he wants to catch — how should he? Forgive us, gentle strangers, 
we are islanders and know no better. 

The Englishman must have a thing brought under his nose 
before he will act; bring it there and he will go on acting after 
everybody else has stopped. He lives very much in the moment 
because he is essentially a man of facts and not a man of imagina- 
tion. Want of imagination makes him, philosophically speaking, 
rather ludicrous; in practical affairs it handicaps him at the 
start; but once he has "got going," as we say, it is of incalculable 
assistance to his stamina. The Englishman, partly through this 
lack of imagination and nervous sensibility, partly through his 
inbred dislike of extremes, and habit of minimizing the expression 
of everything, is a perfect example of the conservation of energy. 
It is very difficult to come to the end of him. Add to this un- 
imaginative, practical, tenacious moderation, an inherent spirit 
of competition — not to say pugnacity — so strong that it will 
often show through the coating of his "live-and-let-live," half- 
surly, half-good-humored manner; add a peculiar, ironic, "don't- 
care" sort of humor, an underground but inveterate humaneness 
and an ashamed idealism, and you get some notion of the pudding 
of English character. Its main feature is a kind of terrible cool- 
ness, a rather awful level-headedness. The Englishman makes 
constant small blunders, but few, almost no, deep mistakes. 
He is a slow starter, but there is no stronger finisher, because 
he has by temperament and training the faculty of getting 
through any job that he gives his mind to with a minimum 
expenditure of vital energy; nothing is wasted in expression, 
style, spread-eagleism; everything is instinctively kept as near 
to the practical heart of the matter as possible. He is — to the 
eye of an artist — distressingly matter-of-fact, a tempting mark 



688 THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW 

for satire. And yet he is in truth an idealist, though it is his 
nature to snub, disguise, and mock his own inherent optimism. 
To admit enthusiasms is "bad form" if he is a "gentleman"; 
and "swank" or mere waste of good heat if he is not a "gentle- 
man." England produces more than its proper percentage of 
cranks and poets, and, I take it, this is nature's way of redressing 
the balance in a country where feelings are not shown, senti- 
ments not expressed, and extremes laughed at. Not that the 
Englishman lacks heart; he is not cold, as is generally supposed; 
on the contrary, he is warm-hearted and feels very strongly; 
but just as peasants, for lack of words to express their feelings, 
become stolid, so it is with the Englishman, from sheer lack of the 
habit of self-expression. Nor is the Englishman deliberately 
hypocritical; but his tenacity, combined with his powerlessness 
to express his feelings, often gives him the appearance of a 
Pharisee. He is inarticulate; has not the clear and fluent 
cynicism of expansive natures wherewith to confess exactly how 
he stands. It is the habit of men of all nations to want to have 
things both ways; the Englishman is, unfortunately, so unable 
to express himself even to himself that he has never realized 
this, much less confessed it — hence his appearance of hypocrisy. 

He is quite wrongly credited with being attached to money. 
His island position, his early discoveries of coal, iron, and 
processes of manufacture, have made him, of course, into a con- 
firmed industrialist and trader, but he is always an adventurer 
in wealth rather than a heaper-up of it. He is far from sitting 
on his money-bags — has absolutely no vein of proper avarice; 
and for national ends will spill out his money like water when 
he is convinced of the necessity. 

In everything, it comes to that with the Englishman: he 
must be convinced; and he takes a lot of convincing. He 
absorbs ideas slowly, reluctantly; he would rather not imagine 
anything unless he is obliged; but in proportion to the slowness 
with which he can be moved is the slowness with which he can 
be removed! Hence the symbol of the bulldog. When he does 
see and seize a thing he seizes it with the whole of his weight and 
wastes no breath in telling you that he has got hold. That is 
why his press is so untypical; it gives the impression that he does 
waste breath. And while he has hold he gets in more mischief 
in a shorter time than any other dog, because of his capacity 
for concentrating on the present, without speculating on the past 
or future. 

For the particular situation which the Englishman has now to 



DIAGNOSIS OF THE ENGLISHMAN 689 

face he is terribly well adapted. Because he has so little 
imagination, so little power of expression, he is saving nerve 
all the time. Because he never goes to extremes, he is saving 
energy of body and spirit. That the men of all nations are 
about equally endowed with courage and self-sacrifice has been 
proved in these last six months; it is to other qualities that one 
must look for final victory in a war of exhaustion. The English- 
man does not look into himself; he does not brood; he sees no 
further forward than is necessary; and he must have his joke. 
These are fearful and wonderful advantages. Examine the 
letters and diaries of the various combatants and you will see 
how far less imaginative and reflecting (though shrewd, prac- 
tical, and humorous) the English are than any others; you 
will gain, too, a profound, a deadly conviction that behind them 
is a fiber like rubber that may be frayed and bent a little this 
way and that, but can neither be permeated nor broken. 

When this war began the Englishman rubbed his eyes steeped 
in peace; he is still rubbing them just a little, but less and less 
every day. A profound lover of peace by habit and tradition, 
he has actually realized by now that he is in for it up to the neck. 
To any one who really knows him — c'est quelque chose! 

I freely confess that from an aesthetic point of view the 
Englishman, devoid of high lights and shadows, coated with 
drab, and superhumanly steady on his feet, is not too attractive. 
But for the wearing, tearing, slow, and dreadful business of this 
war, the Englishman — fighting of his own free will, unimagina- 
tive, humorous, competitive, practical, never in extremes, a 
dumb, inveterate optimist, and terribly tenacious — is equipped 
with Victory. 

John Galsworthy. 



vol. cci. — no. 714 44