Notes on the English Character
by E.M. Forster
First note. I had better let the cat out of the bag at once and record my opinion
that the character of the English is essentially middle class. There is a sound
historical reason for this, for, since the end of the eighteenth century, the middle
classes have been the dominant force in our community. They gained wealth by the
Industrial Revolution, political power by the Reform Bill of 1832; they are
connected with the rise and organization of the British Empire; they are responsible
for the literature of the nineteenth century. Solidity, caution, integrity, efficiency.
Lack of imagination, hypocrisy. These qualities characterize the middle classes in
every country, but in England they are national characteristics also, because only in
England have the middle classes been in power for one hundred and fifty years.
Napoleon, in his rude way, called us "a nation of shopkeepers." We prefer to call
ourselves "a great commercial nation" -- it sounds more dignified -- but the two
phrases amount to the same. Of course there are other classes: there is an
aristocracy, there are the poor. But it is on the middle classes that the eye of the
critic rests -- just as it rests on the poor in Russia and on the aristocracy in Japan.
Russia is symbolized by the peasant or by the factory worker; Japan by the samurai;
the national figure of England is Mr. Bull with his top hat, his comfortable clothes,
his substantial stomach, and his substantial balance at the bank. Saint George may
caper on banners and in the speeches of politicians, but it is John Bull who delivers
the goods. And even Saint George-- if Gibbon is correct-- wore a top hat once; he
was an army contractor and supplied indifferent bacon. It all amounts to the same in
Second Note. Just as the heart of England is the middle classes, so the heart of
the middle classes is the public school system. This extraordinary institution is local.