Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1768
Ian Buruma’s Anglomania tells two related stories. The first and longer of the two tracks the history of Europe’s love affair with England. From Voltaire in the eighteenth century and Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth to Isaiah Berlin in the twentieth, he sketches some of the more colorful figures who have carried on that intense romance. A smaller but equally interesting narrative, Buruma’s own story frames the larger history by representing both sides of the attraction in many ways. Half Dutch and half British, Buruma was raised and educated in Holland and has lived for the last decade in London. His unique view thus allows him to understand this international relationship from both perspectives.
Describing how many of Europe’s leading thinkers and writers gravitated to England, the author notes, “For about three hundred years, since the Glorious Revolution [of 1688], Britain attracted liberals from all over Europe, including Russia, because of its remarkable combination of civility and freedom.” Buruma sets out, not to write a standard history of this migration of exiles and émigrés, but rather to portray the unique characters who represent different aspects of the relationship. “I have selected a number of European Anglophiles and, by way of contrast, some ferocious Anglophobes, to see what Europeans particularly admired (or loathed) about Britain. . . . Some are famous, others obscure.” His first historical chapter, for example, describes Voltaire, the eighteenth century French philosopher and father of Anglophilia, who arrived in England with no English but who ended up writing Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733) and other works that offered some of the most insightful analyses of England. Voltaire’s many bons mots included, “England was like a hogshead of beer: froth at the top, dregs at the bottom, the middle excellent.” Like so many later Europeans, Voltaire was attracted to England’s liberty and reason: “The best of England, in Voltaire’s opinion, was the enlightened, universal, skeptical rationalism of English thinkers.” Why, Voltaire finally argued, cannot eighteenth century Europe be more like England?
The remaining fifteen chapters are equally intriguing historical narratives. The second chapter, “Goethe’s Shakespeare,” reveals how the Germans adopted the English Renaissance dramatist in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Among other anomalies of this relationship, Buruma explains how the Nazi elite were in Weimar, Germany, celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday while German troops were preparing for the invasion of Britain in the spring of 1940. Later chapters cover Prince Herman Von Puckler-Muskau—better known as “Prince Pickle” in England—who coveted English gardens and laid them out on his Prussian estate. Even English food, Buruma reports, was fashionable at one point in the eighteenth century.
Karl Marx was only the most famous of a number of European revolutionaries who included the Russian Alexander Herzen and the Italians Giuseppe Garibaldi and Giuseppe Mazzini. Marx fled to London after the failed mid-nineteenth century revolutions across Europe and lived there from 1849 until his death in 1883. He spent most of his time in the main reading room of the British Museum writing Das Kapital (1867), ranting at the British class system, and waiting for the revolution that would never come—at least not to England. The French-born Pierre de Coubertin, who organized the modern Olympic Games beginning in 1896, modeled many of his ideas on British school sports. Likewise, the Viennese Theodor Herzl based the core of his Zionism on the combination of order and freedom, which he considered perfect in England. Finally, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, who achieved one of the remarkable feats of architectural history in the fifty-volume The Buildings of England (1951), was a refugee born in Leipzig, Germany, and another addicted Anglophile.
The Anglophobes, like Marx, are nearly as interesting. For example, William II, who had overseen the destruction of one empire in 1918, lived in exile in Holland until his death in 1941, waiting futilely for the call from Germany to lead another. Although Queen Victoria was his grandmother, he hurled anti-Semitic rantings (“Juda-England”) against the country across the English Channel in what read like the diary of a very sick child.
What makes Buruma’s history so compelling is not only these individual portraits of both well-known and obscure Anglophiles and Anglophobes but also the way in which he interweaves the social and intellectual history. He shows, for example, how the 1945 liberation of Europe was, from the European viewpoint, a fulfillment of the British aristocratic style, or the notion of “the gentleman.” The Italians even have a word for this foreign imitation of the English style,gentlemanismo. The invasion twenty years later by the Beatles and the waves of rock stars who were to follow, on the contrary, constituted a working-class challenge to musical and other cultural forms. What thus fascinated people about England were its aristocracy and, simultaneously, its working class and that lower class’s culture of rebellion. Buruma is best at balancing this kind of intellectual and social history and explaining the paradoxes that are at the heart of British culture.
Buruma, whose mother was English and whose German-Jewish father worked in factories in Germany during the war before being liberated by the Soviet army, tells a personal history that is just as intriguing and contains the same social intellectual tenor that helps to weld the stories of the larger history together. The chapter that opens this book, “Churchill’s Cigar,” describes the ten-year-old Buruma shopping for cheroots with his English grandfather in a cigar store in The Hague, which proudly displayed the cigar butts smoked by the wartime liberator. Many of Buruma’s childhood memories revolve around his grandparents’ Berkshire farm, to which he flashes back throughout this history. His later chapter on the Wagnerians traces the assimilation of his German-Jewish great- grandparents into England at the end of the nineteenth century. His chapter on Leslie Howard, the perfect English gentleman, who, it turns out, was Hungarian, relates how his grandparents sheltered Jewish refugee children from Germany during World War II. They did not act out of religious conviction or Jewish solidarity, Buruma argues, but rather out of their idea of England.
. . . to the Schlesingers the idea of England as a place of refuge was not just propaganda. They believed in it, in the way that patriots do who cannot take freedom from persecution for granted. To them, the self-regarding clichés about Britain—fairness, liberty, tolerance, and so on—were not clichés. They cultivated them, in the way educated German Jews cultivated German music, philosophy, and humanism, and more superficial Anglomanes cultivate flowery accents and loud tweeds.
In his closing two chapters, Buruma recounts his experience writing for the “self-consciously English” magazine the Spectator in the early 1990’s and his lunches with “the last Englishman,” Isaiah Berlin, the Russian- Jewish refugee who became a philosopher, historian, and Oxford don. This last chapter becomes a larger argument for England’s move toward unification with Europe.
Buruma, in short, has the admirable ability to personalize and make something concrete of his intellectual history, for at the center of Anglomania are ideas of liberty, tolerance, and freedom. While the superficial Anglophile may mimic the British style with the cricket test matches and club ties, the more serious Anglophiles captured here were far more interested in the ideas this unique English culture embodies. England also has the freedoms other European countries have had to wage bloody civil war to achieve—and still have not attained. Buruma sees the contradictions, even the paradoxes, in this Anglomaniacal worship in which class snobbery and inequities characterize so much of English life. “All radicals in exile wondered why this should be: how had Britain managed to achieve its peculiar equilibrium, based on a combination of social stability and inequality, of freedom and dull conformity, tolerance and provincial smugness, civility and greed?”
Put another way, how can British culture embody the Queen Mother and the tabloids? As Buruma’s book illustrates in every chapter, perhaps this is just another way of saying what a rich culture Britain has produced and what a fervent reaction has occurred around the world. Of course, there is no contradiction between freedom and social rank in England. “The slums were appalling and the gap between rich and poor was immense, but the potential sting of rebellion had been drawn by the promise of prosperity, by civil liberties. . . .” It is that promise that has attracted so many people to Britain and has been cherished by its own citizens so dearly.
Anglomania is full of fascinating narratives that embody this richness and mystery of British history and culture. “Fingal’s Cave” (chapter 4), for example, recounts the story of Fingal, a legendary leader of the Fenian warrior poets in third century Ireland. Fingal’s son Ossian produced an epic about him that became a bulwark of the Scottish cult, and the story was later recounted in different media in the nineteenth century by poet James Macpherson and composer Felix Mendelssohn. Buruma uses the story of Fingal to distinguish gradations of Anglophilia. This romance of precivilization and the love of history and tradition continue in the worship of all things Celtic, from the film Braveheart (1995) to the popularity of Irish music and Irish dancing. Chapter 7, “Schooldays,” recounts the history of Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), the book by Thomas Hughes that idealized boys’ life at Rugby School in the 1830’s and became the basis of the myth about “the playing fields of Eton” and the British public school system. No myth has been stronger through the twentieth century, yet beneath that myth is not just the aristocratic style, Buruma proves, but the rule of British law—no mean achievement in world history. Examples of England’s strong tradition of civil liberties surface throughout Buruma’s history.
For instance, the issue of Dr. Simon Bernard, a British doctor who was arrested in 1858 for his alleged involvement in a bomb plot against Napoleon III, set off huge demonstrations. The jury finally declared Bernard not guilty.
Crowds gathered all over Britain to celebrate the acquittal. Members of the jury were mobbed by well-wishers on their way to the pub. Women cried, and men threw their hats up into the air. Even the policemen were happy. And so, wrote Herzen, “England celebrated a fresh triumph of her liberty.”
Buruma’s history is full of these intriguing accounts of British culture and the attraction it holds for Anglophiles everywhere. Why, as Voltaire asked some centuries ago, cannot the world be more like England?
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (April 15, 1999): 1510.
The Economist 351 (April 10, 1999): 3.
National Review 220 (May 17, 1999): 50.
New Criterion 18 (September, 1999): 65.
The New York Review of Books 46 (May 20, 1999): 12.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (May 2, 1999): 9.