The Anglo Files

Last summer, my fam assembles for the usual 4th of July weekend. We swam, barbecued, lounged around. Someone made the inevitable comment about how my family is shamefully unpatriotic. This year I think it was Brianna, who hesitantly (and politely) observed that she grew up going to 4th of July parades and really celebrating our freedoms and national character.

That it seemed odd bordering on annoying that her husband was unable to quote the pledge of allegiance. (I think it was the pledge, my apologies in advance. It might have been the national anthem, which—thanks to watching hockey games, I can now sing with fair accuracy).

Carlie, my oldest brother’s wife, instantly perked and concurred. She started her marriage feeling that somehow our family was “normal,” and she was just exuberantly patriotic.

Nope.

Somewhere along the line, my family just decided they would rather be English. I realize we’re not, and I realize how incredibly grating it is to real Europeans when Americans claim their heritage all willy-nilly. I get that.

We’re not really English.

We’re just sort of philosophically displaced, highly skeptical, culturally withdrawn Americans. Or something like that. I don’t really know.

I do know that my bookshelves look like this:

That our bathroom has lush shots of Oxford and Stratford. That we have an inordinate number of tea pots for a twenty-something couple. That I’m addicted to the British classics. That “The King’s Speech” was my favorite film of 2010.

That 4 of my 5 books have been set in England.

I’m not sure why that is, but I’ve started to wonder more recently. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with liking historical fiction. It’s escapist for sure, but escapist is a slippery term. All books—fiction or non—are escapist in the sense that they take you out of or beyond what you know from personal experience. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

So I don’t have a problem with writing historical fiction. I’m just curious why the unerring pull. And why, oddly enough, I switched periods this last book from Victorian to 1920s… and don’t have any interest in going back to the Vics. Am I working my way toward modern day? I think I might be.

The more I think about this, the more I suspect there’s really only one big reason why historical fiction and Englishness have always appealed to me (besides the bells and whistles and costumes, I mean. Those are always fun). Englishness is just an exaggeration (and mild displacement) of all the things I—and we—really do worry about. Americans don’t really like to believe that we have very many shades of “class,” for example. We all know there are millionaire celebrities and folks on welfare, but the middles are all pretty much equal, right?

Wrong.

So it’s fun and innocuous to write about the English and their ridiculously rigid class systems, social anxieties, arguments, and sticklers. But it’s also pretty much the way we are in the States. Only we don’t have the buffer of Amusing National Character. Here, it’s just ugly. And if you want to write about it, you have to write serious books that make people angry.

I’m not sure I want to write serious books that make people angry.

More so than any other type of novelist, historical fiction writers get to play the Man Behind the Green Curtain. We get to say whatever we think and point out the utter foolishness of those we deplore without taking any heat. After all, people are the same today as they were in the 1920s or the Victorian Era or ancient Rome, with basically the same factions and problems and quarrels.

The historical fiction writer just has more toys to play with.

At least, that’s what I tell myself these days when I start to feel a smidge guilty for avoiding all the “issues” of contemporary life and fiction. I don’t know. I don’t think I have a Great American Novel in me. I can’t imagine sorting through all the debris of modern life to find the right shiny bits to paste together. It looks like way too much work.

And I don’t know if I like the idea of writing a downer. Great Am Novs seem to all be downers. Something about the American belief that sadness is the only impressive emotion.

Eh. Too complicated for me. Shall go back to writing my vapid, self-indulgent, Brit-froth mystery now. This is a problem for the proverbial tomorrow…

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7 thoughts on “The Anglo Files

  1. I think that’s totally fascinating. And I buy it. So, if you liked The Vics because it was safe to write through their lens then what in the world is the excuse of the rest of the family?

    I’m going to go with: “Being British is a real thing to BE. Being American isn’t anything…it’s a flat, un-historically laden, blank sort of identity. We have no language, no history, no national food and no tartan.” (Not strictly trued but, that’s the way it feels anyhow.)

    Waddya think? Is that it?

  2. I think there’s some of that for sure. The big issue for me is that, unlike most places, to be a “native” American or to have American “heritage” means, well, Native American/American Indian. So pretty much everybody has to be something hyphenated like African-American or Irish-American or Asian-American. Claiming to be “pure American” often comes across as a faux pas—it can sound like stepping on real Native American toes.

    I’m not sure I would go so far as to say being an American isn’t a “real” thing to be (though it certainly seems boring when you grow up with it). Switzerland doesn’t have it’s own language, for example. And love it or hate it, Americans do have their own take on food (unfortunately for the waist line, I think our most inspired moments are sugar-related, but it has to start somewhere).

    Hmm. I think I’m going to go with being “American” is too politically complicated. We may have a Protestant work ethic, but we also have Protestant insecurity, and I think sometimes the only alternative to being an Ugly American is sometimes to hide out in kilts or kimonos or whatever.

    I’m suddenly super curious if this is a colonial thing. Do Canadians or Australians have this problem? Must research!

  3. Oooh, yes, I would love to know what Canadians and Australians think about their national identities. I also wonder if there’s something larger at work in our extended family. My family had absolutely zero obsession with the British, but also next to zero patriotism. 4th of July was a time to do little fireworks we bought at the stand in front of the grocery store. Sometimes, we had a bar-be-que. Sometimes not. We NEVER went to a parade or thought about anything remotely patriotic. We should ask our moms what they grew up doing and how they were raised to think of America and of being American.

    Oh, and technically, the Swiss do have their own languages. Swiss German is not mutually intelligible with High German. And Romansh is only spoken in Switzerland. I don’t know enough about Swiss Italian and Swiss French to know whether or not they are mutually intelligible with standard French and Italian. It’s true that the Swiss don’t have ONE language that unifies the whole country, but the fact that we think of their “German” as being German and not something distinct is simply one of those strange linguistic things that happens in the world. Linguists often joke that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” In other words, if you claim to have your own language and you have the firepower to back up that claim, you can have your own language. The Swiss, apparently did not care to make any such claim, even though their “German” is unlike standard German to a similar degree that Dutch is. On the other end of the scale are Urdu (spoken in Pakistan) and Hindi (spoken in India), two “languages” that are actually nearly identical except that Urdu takes loan words from Arabic and Farsi and Hindi takes loan words from English. Why are they not two dialects of the same language? Because the Pakistanis and the Indians hate each other and wouldn’t be caught dead speaking the same language (even when they are).

    • Interesting details, Andrea. I knew we could count on you for the linguistic scoop. 🙂 I see I should have gone with one of the other former colonies there; guess it teaches me for trying to be original in making that point.

  4. As I remember, the Wards were brought up attending parades and waving flags, albeit with the knowledge that we were 75% English, 12.5% Scottish, and 12.5% Irish…so Brits by trade and WASPS by politic. Your mothers, interestingly enough, both married husbands who are allergic to all things parade and large-group-gatherish. For examp:despite my earnest begging, our family left Montreal a day early when Heir Papa discovered that the biggest parade in all of Canada, celebrating John Baptiste Day, was going to occur the next day. The older boys learned the Pledge and the National Anthem, and other such patriotic staples, but I think—alas—one of my many failings was remembering what I’d taught before and who hadn’t learned what yet…and standing at attention with hand over heart reciting the Pledge became passe! I am sorry for that. I still sing with my hand over my heart and feel tears in my eyes, as much over the loss of love and loyalty that pervades our modern culture as for my own love of country…which (believe it or not) is great. I am extremely glad to be an American and have no yearning to live in London or the Cotswolds.

  5. I love your blog so much, and when I read this post a while ago it stuck with me so I thought I’d make a random comment.

    “So it’s fun and innocuous to write about the English and their ridiculously rigid class systems, social anxieties, arguments, and sticklers. But it’s also pretty much the way we are in the States. Only we don’t have the buffer of Amusing National Character. ”

    Amusing National Character? Is this the secret John Cleese that resides within the soul of all English people? Please let this be the case! (I’m English and enjoy the idea that this is might be how I’m seen).

    I also love you for knowing that British and English are not the same thing. On American television shows I hear the phrase “British accent” and cringe whilst wondering if the scriptwriters realise that they are implying that Welshmen speak like Hugh Grant.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Tiny Elk! (Also: apologies if you actually go by Tin Yelk. Which could be equally fantastic. I can imagine a great kid’s book about the tin Yelks and the copper Welks).

      And yes, we’re sort of envious of your inner John Cleese. You all lucked out there.

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