Why, oh why, do we love the English so?

Published April 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In the last scene of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," Leslie Howard is crossing the channel after having saved dozens of French aristocrats from the guillotine. On sighting the White Cliffs he turns to his wife, played by Merle Oberon, and says with a sob in his voice, "Look, Marguerite ... England!"

It brings the house down every time, Ian Buruma claims in his intriguing new book, "Anglomania," because deep down we're all closet Anglophiles. And by "we," he doesn't just mean Americans. In fact, that line was written by Alexander Korda, a Hungarian, and spoken by Leslie Howard, another Hungarian, in a screenplay based on a book by yet another Hungarian, Baroness Orczy. As Buruma demonstrates, Westerners from Voltaire to Isaiah Berlin have credited the English with all sorts of attractive traits, among them heroism, tolerance and an almost childlike sense of fair play. In this engaging mix of history and reportage, Buruma explains why.

His personal Anglophilia has its origins in his childhood. Raised in Holland by a Dutch father and an English mother, he spent school holidays in England. His maternal grandparents, second-generation German-Jewish immigrants who left the slums of East London to settle in Berkshire, were more English than Lord Peter Wimsey: "Sherry on the terrace; village fjtes on the lawn; cooked breakfasts kept warm under silver covers." Buruma adored his grandfather with an intensity found only in "small boys and religious fanatics," and at an early age he became convinced of the absolute superiority of life in England.

OK, so Buruma's Anglophilia has emotional roots -- but where did the rest of us get the idea? Have we all been brainwashed by centuries of fabulous PR, courtesy of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Rupert Brooke (not to mention Diana Rigg, for whom thousands of middle-aged men would lay down their lives)? Or does this myth, like so many, contain something real at its core?

Not to ruin the suspense for you, but Buruma thinks that Anglomanes are onto something: The English really are -- or, at least, were -- a special breed. Beginning with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he writes, Britain exhibited "a remarkable combination of civility and freedom ... [it was] the only European power that had a free press, freedom of speech, and a freely elected government." Naturally enough, this atmosphere attracted intellectuals, who then passed their enthusiasm on to others.

Take the case of Voltaire, who fled to England in 1726, propelled by a brush with the Bastille over a poem that the French government considered seditious. He was enchanted: "The arts are all honored and rewarded," he wrote. "There is a difference between the stations of life but none other between men except that of merit."

When Voltaire returned to France in 1728, he brought l'anglomanie with him. English food became popular at Parisian dinner parties. French women began wearing English bonnets. Fussy French gardens were redesigned into English parks. Eventually our own Benjamin Franklin, whose love for all things French is legendary, contracted Anglomania from Voltaire. As Buruma observes, "the seed had been sown" for American Anglophilia. Could the Ralph Lauren Home Collection be far behind?

Similar patterns prevailed throughout Europe. The Germans caught Anglomania via Shakespeare, whom they adopted as a Nordic poet. In France, the Baron de Coubertin, reading about Rugby School in "Tom Brown's School Days," decided that his nation could be reinvigorated by cold baths and cricket; he went on to start the modern Olympic Games.

Today, Buruma concedes, the sun is setting on Anglophilia. European unity demands that Britons abandon their image of themselves as the valiant defenders of freedom before it deteriorates into jingoism or self-parody. No longer an insular bastion of freedom peopled by the happy few, Britain will become just another cog in the European Union.

We Americans, of course, will still have PBS.

By JoAnn Gutin

JoAnn Gutin is a writer and anthropologist who lives in New York.


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