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Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1937
Yale University Press, 1992.
Review by Jameel Hampton
M. A. Candidate
Queens University
Linda Colley’s Britons: forging the nation, 1707-1837, is one of many fairly recent works addressing the problematic, but seemingly more relevant subject of national identity after the decline of class as vehicle for historical exploration.[1] In this contemporary avenue of investigation, Colley is not unique, but certainly not conventional in conceiving a Britain fashioned in the eighteenth century by a wide array of knowing and unknowing conspirators, including “Others” and cults, Protestantism and popular pageantry, an ailing and admirable Princess, and patricians in an enhanced state of fascinating self-destruction. Colley’s underpinning contentions on national unification are supported by dogged adherence to her claims and an impressive and diverse arsenal of sources. While the supporting evidence is often thin, certain omissions are conspicuously absent, and Colley’s exact methodological credo is unmentioned, these minor flaws do not impair the overall quality and readability of this book.

Colley’s Britain was accomplished before the Victorian Age, a Britain of England, Scotland, and Wales, more linked than blended, and forged in the face of menacing “Other[s]”: “The sense of a common identity here did not come into being, then, because of an integration and homogenization of disparate cultures. Instead, Britishness was superimposed over an array of internal differences in response to contact with the Other, and above all in response to conflict with the Other.”[2] The first chapter describes the creation of a unifying British-Protestant Volk in response to the prolonged and multi-faceted conflict with powerful Catholic France, and Colley states that the actual military engagements were largely perceived as religious wars. Colley contends that Britain struggled with its unfamiliar paramountcy and lack of an identifiable “Other” between 1763 and 1775. The loss of America recast Britain into its more comfortable state of tension, which lasted nearly forty years until Napoleon’s final defeat when Britain experienced “the outbreak of peace in 1815.”[3] Exotic Empire also served as Britain’s “Other”, as did England and Scotland in chapter three, which includes Colley’s fascinating presentation of Wilkes’ Scottophobia as a performative cultural agent, a unifying force for Britain, as well as a reaction to an increasingly unified Britain. In Colley’s estimation, other key factors contributed to adjoining the nation including the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion and the waning of Scottish resistance and the astute adaptations of the aristocracy to preserve itself as a caste atop a new “British society”, as described in chapter four.
Britons’ greatest strength is its marvelous control; although Colley’s major focus is a conservative one on central institutions[4] and this work is a deliberate ‘history of the majority’, her history does not merely address traditional nationalist paradigms. While Colley refers and pays homage to Thompson and his classic The Making of the English Working Class, as well as Hobsbawm, Porter, and Rudé, her recurring anti-Thompsonian snipes are one of the major features of the book: “There were always dissenting voices: and it is right and proper that they should emerge loud and clear from the historical record and that we acknowledge them. But we should not let them drown out the other, apparently more conventional voices of those far greater numbers of Britons . . . [This work] is partly an attempt to rescue these people, the seeming conformists, from the condescension of posterity (I had more appropriately said from the ignorance of historians).”[5] However, Colley does not portray the masses as mere pawns of institutions. A major contention of this work, expressed most directly in the second chapter, is that eighteenth century Britain was a mutually beneficial entity in which the majority accepted and helped to build as it was to their advantage. Indeed, while Britons is a ‘history of society’ concerned with the social texture of the majority, it does not understate the role of individual agency, although Colley may be guilty of understating social dissent.It is difficult to believe that the poor and indigent were almost always onside with the British enterprise.


This text is the history of an idea, but not a history of ideas. Colley’s focus on the majority in a study of a considerable period fits perfectly with the idea of a cultural mentalité, and this idea is everywhere apparent in her unsparing use of the word “cult” to describe general mindsets which contributed, directly or indirectly, to an overarching Britishness. The examination of a British mentalité and the discussion of “cults” are also at the heart of Colley’s capacity for cultural history and comparative British/European social history. Like Greenfeld in his Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Colley states that the British path to modern statehood should not automatically be considered unique and, therefore, studied in isolation from those of its continental counterparts. Rather, if there is indeed a British Sonderweg in the concerned period, it should be proved by comparison, as Colley does. Moreover, with cultural history, Colley’s presentation of cultural phenomena as performative is brilliant, especially in descriptions of the aristocracy developing a “cultural identity”.

The variety of Colley’s sources is impressive and she wields them expertly, but it is the value she places on different sources that is of real benefit to the reader.A good example of this is in her discussion of the increasing exposure of women to the public sphere: 

throughout this period, women were exposed as never before to the bustle and seductions of urban life, to newspapers, magazines, books and broadsheets . . . It is in this context that the renewed emphasis in a great deal of prescriptive literature on the importance of separate spheres must be understood. If British women were being urged to remain at home more stridently in this period than ever before, it was largely because so many of them were finding an increasing amount to do outside the home. The literature of separate spheres was more didactic than descriptive.[6]

Similarly, the qualifications she imposes on her own arguments are beneficial and key to her control. Colley is often found to confront and absorb possible criticisms of her contentions and her dealings with patriotic societies are a good example: “It would be wrong then to see the patriotic societies crudely and simply as a piece of bourgeois assertiveness. But they do illustrate how easily active patriotism in this society, as in any society, blends into a demand for wider citizenship and political change.”[7]

Nonetheless, Britons has several minor and nagging weaknesses. The ‘great game’ is conventionally used to describe Victorian Britain’s central Asian cold war with Russia, but Colley applies it differently: “In the uncertain aftermath of the Seven Years War, Scots played a leading part in making British imperialism what it was . . . Their disproportionate contribution to the Great Game persisted throughout the nineteenth century and on to the end of the empire.”[8] Extremely confident in her contentions and criticisms, Colley does make the occasional strange and unclear generalization: “Since all Europeans still write history in an intensely nationalistic fashion”; “There were street clubs . . . clubs devoted to hobbies . . . innumerable masonic and quasi-masonic societies catering to the male delight in secret rituals and dressing-up.”[9] While her style is usually good and occasionally brilliant, there are some moments of poor writing.[10] Especially in the sixth chapter, Colley makes aggressive and puzzling generalizations: “A female Briton could be punished for plotting against the state, but--in law--she could never play the part of an active patriot within it. The law though, if not an ass, is rarely an adequate reflector of social realities.”[11]

Colley’s “historiographical positioning” requires some unearthing because at no point does she clearly delineate her methodological credo or directly identify those she disdains. Rather, Colley swipes at a phantom foe, which one can safely assume is a stereotyped albatross of traditional Thomponsonian social history. Colley makes passing insinuations that the development of British Empire was an act of deliberate economic and territorial aggression, and while this can be viewed as valid under the overarching idea of eighteenth century conflict with the great “Other”, France, it is another inaccurate generalization, especially when extended to the nineteenth century. Moreover, she often uses the word “captive” in referring to British imperial subjects to create a negative impression about the motives and nature of the Empire. 

The sixth chapter, “Womanpower”, contains some of Colley’s finest moments,[12] but it is also where she tars herself with one of her own brushes. Consistent with contemporary feminist scholarship in history, Colley interrogates the exclusion of women from meaningful participation in society and their subjugation to the ‘domestic sphere’. Colley’s ideological alignment in this regard is further identified in her reference to Joan Wallach Scott’s influential Gender and the Politics of History, when she states that gender identities and roles are effects of performative culture. Colley’s aforementioned anti-Thompsonian jabs accuse traditional social historians of overstating degrees of developing social unrest and dissent by way of an excessive focus on ‘the minority’.[13] Colley loads the sixth chapter with evidence pointing toward a period of female emancipation, but, then, consistent with her focus on ‘the majority’, she confesses that women did not break out of political exclusion or the domestic sphere.[14]However, Colley makes a contradictory contention on the emergence of women into meaningful public life: “At one and the same time, separate sexual spheres were being increasingly prescribed in theory, yet increasingly broken through in practice . . . For women to be supplying the soldiery with banners, flannel shirts and other material comforts was, superficially, all of a piece with their ministrations to their menfolk at home. Yet, in reality, what the women were doing represented the thin edge of a far more radical wedge.”[15] If the Marxist, Labour, and Traditional social historians of the 1960s and 1970s were guilty of digging for the seeds of social dissent, then Colley, a self-identified disciple of her own contemporary school of analysis, feminist history, is similarly guilty of relegating the majority of women to “the enormous condescension of posterity”. 

Many key omissions are conspicuously absent. Colley fails to mention the ramifications of French cultural paramountcy in the eighteenth century. Despite her considerable emphasis on “Francophobia”, Napoleon’s abortive backdoor invasions of Ireland are mentioned only in passing. Wales, with a distinct language, culture, and population size not dwarfed by that of Scotland in this period, receives little attention. Indeed, in a book about Britain, the greatest regrettable omissions belong to Ireland. With definitions of “Britain”, “nation”, and Ireland’s changing political status within the Union aside, the Irish experience is intertwined with the British one such that a clean surgical separation would be impossible.

Colley decides to exclude Ireland as a Catholic country and a strategic threat to Britain, but its inclusion would not necessarily be inimical to her thesis: Ireland was irrefutably different and it cannot easily be cut out of the British experience in this period. Chapter three contains Colley’s excellent presentation of how Scotsmen seized the opportunities of Empire not afforded to them at home and how this contributed to a more patriotic Britain and a more “British” empire. Conversely, Colley does not mention how Irishmen seized the opportunities of empire after the 1800 Act of Union, and although Irishmen largely failed to crack the Anglo-Scottish upper echelons of imperial administration, their participation in Empire supports the classification of Ireland as a part of a more united Britain in the early-nineteenth century as opposed to a colony; Colley’s thesis might have been complemented by this line of contention.[16] Moreover, Colley’s thesis might have benefited from the mention of five hundred thousand of the most patriotic Britons: Irish Protestants.[17]

In a work with such concern for France and Francophobia, Napoleon’s threat is not mentioned in connection to the 1798 rebellion, which is completely ignored. The omission of Ireland is especially conspicuous in the discussion of Catholic Emancipation: the threat of insurrection in Ireland is mentioned only in passing and Irish Protestants are puzzlingly absent in her discussion of anti-Catholic petitions. A discussion of British attitudes toward Ireland, and stereotypical images of the Irish as violent, maverick, and backward, would have fit nicely with her Protestant thesis and added another menacing “Other”, closer to home than even France. Colley does make this identification, but rather vaguely, in her article “Britishness and Otherness: an Argument.”[18]

The failure to treat Ireland and Ulster are the only outstanding omissions in Colley’s near comprehensive treatment of relevant issues in contemporary Britain.[19] An increasing multi-ethnic United Kingdom asks the same questions Colley deals with: what does it mean to be English? What does it mean to be British? Colley deals with patriotism in a period of lingering sentiment from the Falklands war. Scotland is dealt with extensively as it presses for more economic and political sovereignty. The benefits the monarchy derived from the death of Princess Charlotte and the “cult of royal women”, as described by Colley, now seem to be eerie and vatic allegories for the death of Princess Diana and her posthumous cult.[20] Most important, at the gates of European integration and in the absence of a discernable “Other”, will Britain cease to exist? Britons is about the development of British national consciousness in a time when emotional reactions to European integration raise question about its validity. Colley proves a British Sonderweg by way of comparative history at a time when European integration might bring Britain closer together or pull it apart. 

The terminal date, 1837, is calculated. If Colley would have extended her analysis she would have encountered many events inimical to her thesis: the onset of government unpopularity in Scotland and Wales; the unrest among the urban industrial poor of the North and Midlands and the intellectual response to socio-economic polarity; and the Irish Famine. However, extending her analysis to include the Victorian Empire would have greatly aided Colley. The perpetual “little wars” of the Victorian Age amounted to the constant presence of an “Other”, and, Colley has elsewhere identified the fascinating and widespread “psychic effect” of the Victorian Empire:

Possession of such a vast and obviously alien empire encouraged the British to see themselves as a distinct, special, and—often—superior people. The could contrast their law, their standard of living, their treatment of women, their political stability, and, above all, their collective power against societies that they only imperfectly understood but usually perceived as far less developed. Whatever their own individual ethnic backgrounds, Britons could join together vis-à-vis the empire and act out the flattering parts of heroic conqueror, humane judge, and civilizing agent . . . this sense of the eastern and African empire as embodying an essential quality of difference against which Britishness could emerge with far greater clarity was not confined to those who had direct experience of colonial life. It was decimated far more widely by way of the theatre, ballads, journalism, the music hall, children’s books, art of all kinds, and of course, by novels.[21]

Colley also suggests some intriguing avenues for further investigation: psychohistorical investigation of the self- destructive British patrician life in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries;[22] the surprisingly scarcely covered area of the domestic response to war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France; and an Annales-style investigation of the nationalistic mentalité of empire and the “psychic effect” on the mother country’s feelings of national identity. Moreover, Colley’s contention in comparing Britain to twentieth century America is a particularly provocative, cynical, and disturbing commentary on nationalism in pluralistic societies: nationalism as a mere xenophobic reflection off of a targeted “Other”.

          Britons is often thin on documentary evidence for its lengthy arguments, but Colley’s skilful placement of proof ensures that the reader is not asked to make too many large imaginative leaps. Colley’s presentation and motivations seem to be relevantly and firmly rooted in some of the historiographical trends and pressing contemporary British issues in the time of its composition and publication. Britons manages to be sweeping and comprehensive without failing to capture particularities and, while one can point out minor flaws, they do no in any major way detract from the overall quality of the work.

Jameel Hampton
McGill University

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[1] This review is much indebted to two others which served as contextualizing aids: Steven Heathorn, “(Re)discovering the National Character: some Recent Work on the History of English Nationalism and its Influence on the Construction of a British National Identity”. Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism (23 (1-2) 1996), 9-18; Gerald Newman, “Nationalism Revisited”. Journal of British Studies (35 (1) 1996), 118-127.
[2] Linda Colley, Britons: forging the nation, 1707-1837. (London: Yale University Press, 1992), 6.
[3]Ibid., 322. This is one of Colley’s moments of brilliant style. Also see note 22.
[4]Britons is similar to Sir Geoffrey Elton’s The English in its relative conservatism and focus on central institutions. Newman, “Nationalism Revisited”, 123.
[5] Colley, Britons: forging the nation, 1707-1837, 4-5.
[6]Ibid., 281.
[7]Ibid., 93.
[8]Ibid., 132.
[9]Ibid., 86, 88.
[10] “But for many patriots, these practical measures designed to enhance the nation’s cannon-fodder came nowhere near to resolving the heart of the problem.” Ibid., 87. 
[11]Ibid., 238-239. Colley also mentions a “residual sexism of British historiography” when referring to a term in an Roy Porter article. Ibid., 242.
[12] The chapter includes attractive references to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and Rousseau’s Emile, as well as an arresting introduction.
[13] “Simple, traditional and picturesque folk living in the depths of the countryside, pursuing their lives in time-hallowed fashion, undisturbed by any hint of modernity, were assumed to be more deferential and therefore more loyal. Just like many social historians today, however, ministers anticipated protest and sedition from those ‘accustomed to associate together’ ” Ibid., 296.
[14] “British women, like most British men, were still without the vote, still excluded from most public buildings and political clubs, still denied a free choice of a career if they were educated and still likely to be grossly underpaid if they were in employment . . . the vast majority of women continued to find most of their satisfaction, such as it was, in the domestic sphere.” Ibid., 276-281.
[15]Ibid., 250-261.
[16] All of Colley’s limited dealings with Ireland are gross and highly debatable generalizations, but especially her treatment of the very contentious issue of how to classify Ireland’s official and effective status within the Britain and the Empire: “Ireland’s relationship with the empire was always an ambiguous one. How could it not be, when London treated it as a colony, and when Irishmen of all kinds partook, as Roy Foster has written, ‘psychologically and pragmatically . . . of attitudes best called colonial’? ” Ibid., 8. 
[17]Christopher Hawrie, “Uncool Britannia” Times Literary Supplement 1 August 1999, 14.
[18] Linda Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: an Argument”. Journal of British Studies (31 (1) 1992), 314.
[19] Colley’s aforementioned article is similar in this regard as she makes references to the works of Salman Rushdie and religion in contemporary Britain, and the various divisive effects of Margaret Thatcher’s neo-conservative regime, including the end of the collectivist ethos that had prevailed in Post-World-War-Two Britain. Ibid., 309-313.
[20] Colley, Britons: forging the nation, 1707-1837, 270-273.
[21] Although Colley makes similar points in Britons, her presentations of the empire as the “Other” in her aforementioned article are far more compelling: “One only has remember how West Indians, Indians, and Africans feature as the mysterious, or threatening, or ambiguous, or unsettlingly seductive Other in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, or in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, or in the less reputable but massively popular works of Rider Haggard or John Buchan.” Colley, “Britishness and Otherness: an Argument”, 325.
[22] This brief discussion is one the most engaging and well-written sections of the book: “Defeat in America, revolution in France, and war with both, together with the expanding volume and diversity of domestic and imperial government, imposed a massive strain on the lives, nerves and confidence of the British élite. One result was a spate of high-level causalities and not just on the battlefield. William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister from 1783 to 1801 and again from 1804 to 1806, died at the age of forty-seven, a victim of incessant work and compensatory drinking . . . There was, indeed, a distinctively sturm-und-drang quality about British patrician life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that has never been properly investigated since, a special kind of emotionalism and violence.” Colley, Britons: forging the nation, 1707-1837, 151.