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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
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
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
vol. cci. — no. 714 44