Degrading Forms of Pantomime: Englishness and Shame in De Quincey

By Jagoe, Eva-Lynn Alicia | Studies in Romanticism, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Degrading Forms of Pantomime: Englishness and Shame in De Quincey


Jagoe, Eva-Lynn Alicia, Studies in Romanticism


Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to English feelings, than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars, and tearing away that 'decent drapery', which time, or indulgence to human frailty, may have drawn over them ... and for any such acts of gratuitous self-humiliation from those who can be supposed in sympathy with the decent and self-respecting part of society, we must look to French literature, or to that part of the German, which is tainted with the spurious and defective sensibility of the French. (1)

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THOMAS DE QUINCEY BEGINS HIS CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM Eater by identifying himself as an English writer with English Feelings. His nationalism is defined in contradistinction to the markedly different behaviors of the exhibitionist French and Germans, whose self-disclosures he finds to be shamefully indecent. Scars and ulcers, corporeal metaphors for metaphysical traits, create a spectacle that should be, in all decency, concealed. Throughout much of his writing, De Quincey describes the desired literary and cultural characteristics of English identity as distinct from continental mores and their insidious infiltration into English sensibilities. While much analysis has been done of De Quincey's reactions to the Empire's commodities and its imported infections, I am fascinated by a more proximate other that displays itself time and again in De Quincey's lesser-known writings. (2) This European other--more specifically, the French against whom England waged wars from 1793-1815--is definitionally opposed, and thus foundational, to De Quincey's sense of Englishness.

I am not challenging the indisputable fact that English national identity was formed in large part by its imperial incursions, but rather shifting emphasis from what has become, in recent criticism, the most pressing of nineteenth-century international relations. In light of recent scholarship on De Quincey's orientalism that links his political fears of the Orient with his personal psychological guilt, I propose a reading of his shorter pieces on European cultural differences and the power of English nationalism, namely "The English Mail Coach," "French and English Manners," and "Pronunciation." In describing the manners and morals of continental Europeans, De Quincey is formulating a sense of his national identity that stems from negation--he is not French (or German)--as much as from any more positive sense of community. But I suspect that his supercilious descriptions of the civilized other derive from the insecurities, embarrassments, and failures that define De Quincey's own personal identity and, by extension, his sense of national identity as well.

In recent years, scholars have postulated different theories about British nationalism. (3) Eric Evans cogently describes two of these interpretations. The first focuses on the experience of waging war against Catholic France, which caused the elite of England, Scotland, and Wales to unify as both Protestant and British. With the threats of French invasion that occurred in the 1790's and then in the early 19th century, British patriotism defined itself through a repulsion not only of French physical incursions but also of French culture. This identity was essentially conservative, propagated by the elite and the middle-classes against a common enemy, and defined oppositionally. As Evans states, "A growing sense of national identity can, therefore, be a function of patriotic response to external challenge .... To resist it, a sense of Protestant British identity was invoked against a French threat variously characterised as Catholic or atheist" (224).

The second interpretation of British patriotism, according to Evans, is based on the radicalism prominent in the period. This sense of national identity was egalitarian and independent, based as it was upon the insistence that the ruling elite be overthrown. "The Norman Yoke" theory proposed that ever since 1066 true English liberty and freedom had been lost, and that the English must look to their Saxon ancestors to challenge the authority of the ruling classes. …

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