“Life Among the English” – A Review

This was a funny little book. It was not a work of academic scholarship, nor was it a popularization, novelesque approach to telling about the development of England as a social and political entity. It was more like a pamphlet (pamphlets of old were longer, sort of mini-books) but if it was, what as the point (for pamphlets are most often written to deliver a point, and those most often themselves political)?

“Life Among the English” is a short review of the development of what the English love to call ‘custom’ from the days of the Romans until the early 20th century – food and entertainment and fashion and behavior. And we do love England, don’t we? We need look no further than Downton Abbey, James Bond, The Tudors or Notting Hill – all of which charm and enthrall us. My favorite novelist is W. Somerset Maugham, an Englishman of the Edwardian era – in every sense; and that is extremely cool (he was a spy during the war – of course he was – his novels overflow with England, especially ‘Human Bondage‘ which might be the best novel ever written). Empathy – it’s not something we are very good at (we are often punished for showing empathy these days, making us timid) and it’s not something the English are known for – except that it should be. So many of the great social movements started there. Lots of these described in Macaulay’s quirky little book.

It’s a fun little book too, to a point, but I would really have been interested to ask Rose Macaulay what she was getting at, who was the audience, why this of all the things she could have done (and did) with her talent. Alas I’ll probably never know…

One takeaway, however, for us these days struggling to understand the direction of the future: the English are a singular lot (English, specifically, not the Scottish or Irish or Welsh – this is a book about the English), with a particular way of viewing their island world which developed over many centuries. If nothing else, those who are still befuddled by Brexit might find some insight in Macaulay’s pamphlet. To understand just how diverse, just how different the English are from their neighbors across the channel. And is not diversity important?

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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