Influence of External Factors on National Identity: Johnson, Boswell, and Edgeworth
The very nature of travel literature is to inform the population that has not traveled abroad to so-called ‘wild’ places of the cultures and people that lie beyond their own nation, specifically, the untraveled English population. Given the rise of imperialism and great desire for global power, it is no surprise that such a movement began, nor that the movement in large part served to support the assertion that England was civilized and refined in a way that the nations it controlled, such as Ireland and Scotland, were not. The context of each novel or journal is shaped by its narrator, as with any work, but the identity of the speaker is especially crucial in understanding the perspective of a traveler on the lands they traveled to. Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui, James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland all provide unique perspectives on the lands under the King’s rule and how each related to one another.
While Edgeworth’s text is fictional, it contains numerous references to a supposedly unbiased editor, who attempts to lend credibility to the stories of the narrator, Lord Glenthorn. Glenthorn is a young English nobleman who travels to Ireland to run an estate owned by his family, where he discovers that he is in fact not English at all. Rather, he is the son of an humble Irish woman who swapped him with the actual Lord Glenthorn as a child and orchestrated his upbringing as a future landowner. Thus, his perception of Ireland is not as his homeland, but as a wild and at times confusing place yet to catch up with the sophistication and technologies of England. He makes his feelings of the lack of English comforts known immediately upon his arrival to Ireland as he travels to his estate: “My English gentleman and my Frenchman both put their heads out of the only window which was pervious, and called most manfully to be let out. ‘Never fear’, said Paddy.” (Edgeworth 174) The sophisticated Europeans are clearly set aside from the Irishman in their ‘manful’ fear of such wild and unfamiliar travel which is all but mundane for the Irish, who have not yet reached refinement enough to have reliable and comfortable transportation. On this occasion, the Irishman and the culture he represents on a larger scale are characterized by the astounded reaction he fails to have at such an obstacle. His lack of alarm speaks to the lack of civilization the French and Englishman had unconsciously expected but were not prepared to experience themselves, despite their presence in the country. They are very much at odds in this short scene, in no small part because the foreigners have already pigeonholed the nation they’re visiting into a wild landscape with people who could not possibly think as they do. Rather than resourceful, Paddy is ridiculous- and the humor Glenthorn finds in the situation is thanks to his own position as an outsider. He still aligns himself with the men working below him at this stage of the novel, ignorant to his nationality and thus viewing Ireland through the scope of a rich English boy who “grew up with his [father’s] prejudices” against the nation (145). However, Glenthorn does not overlook his own class while staying in what he considers to be a hovel on the road, “one night [lying] in a smoky little den, in which the meanest of my servants in England would have thought it impossible to sleep” (175). Here his perception of the nation is not so simple as to be characterized by being related only to born nationality, but rather strongly to his socioeconomic status. In remarking that not even the least of his English servants could sleep where he did, he places Ireland in a dramatically lower position to England. Not only are his lodgings unfit for a servant, they’re unfit for the lowest ranks of his staff- which indicates that, at least in this case, the way Ireland is measured tops out where a similar scale of England begins. Thus, the countries are incomparable.
That Glenthorn is also choosing to use his servants as a benchmark speaks to just how little he thinks of the country, as he believes comparisons can only be drawn to those under him. As he spends more time in Ireland, he does his best to convert a few of his tenants to what he considers a more civilized lifestyle, building a new home for his mother, Ellinor, which she completely fails to utilize or maintain properly. He is horrified and angry that the people he rents his land to could be so lazy and uncaring, but reassures himself with a reminder of just how far behind Ireland is culturally.Even in the days of the great queen Elizabeth, ‘the greatest part of the buildings in the cities and good towns of England consisted only of timber, cast over with thick clay to keep out the wind … In the impatience of my zeal for improvement, I expected to do the work of two hundred years in a few months: and because I could not do this, I was out of humor with myself and with a whole nation. So easily is the humanity of the rich and great disgusted and discouraged! As if any people could be civilized in a moment, and at the word of command of ignorant pride or despotic benevolence. (200-201) While Glenthorn is affected by his stay in Ireland and his interactions with Ellinor and his tenants, he is unable to separate himself from a crucial aspect of his identity that prevents him from ever truly empathizing with them- he is English and born to nobility, and thus he will always see himself above those in the country he learned was lesser. He learns that he is Irish by birth, yes, but his birthplace cannot impact him as intensely as the circumstances which shaped his character and his perception of the world around him. Thus, he views Ireland as an earlier version of England, as he is only able to think about civilization on England’s timeline. He uses the nationality he identifies with to ease any responsibility he feels to help Ireland ‘catch up’ to England in its refinement. Even as he acknowledges his own ignorance of the way the Irish population lives and is comfortable living, he still manages to phrase the situation in a way which paints him as the benevolent leader attempting to bring civilization to savages. Seamus Deane describes Ennui as “not an analysis but a symptom of the colonial problem the country represented” (Strange Country 33); and Glenthorn’s inability to separate Ireland from its relationship with England and the frame of England’s history speaks to this point. Ultimately, Glenthorn is unable to part from the views he was raised with despite the knowledge that he has no true claim to his wealth and English nationality. While he is ethnically Irish, his own identity is inextricably tied to the country where he was raised, speaking to the power of nurture over nature in this instance of self perception.
Despite Boswell’s position as a non-fiction author, he characterizes himself as vividly as Lord Glenthorn as he describes his experiences traveling the Scottish Highlands. His companion is his mentor, Samuel Johnson, who he is constantly seeking to please throughout the course of the journal. During their stay at Loch Ness, Boswell spots “a scene [I thought] that would amuse Dr Johnson … It was a wretched little hovel of earth only, I think, and for a window has only a small hole, which was stopped with a piece of turf, that was taken out occasionally to let in light … [he] was curious to see where she slept.” (Boswell 231) While Boswell is from Scotland himself, he regards England as superior and thus views his own nation from a complicated perspective. Eager to impress his mentor, he eyes the countryside critically to see it as Johnson would- what can be learned about the wild Highlanders on their journey rather than how can Scotland be experienced. Their journey to the Highlands also complicates Boswell’s view of the nation, as he is moving further from England and thus further from the culture he looks up to. Additionally, the way Boswell speaks of the small hut they come across is telling, as he describes everything in negatives: the hut is only dirt, and has only a small window. He views the hovel as a spectacle because of how humble it is, and does not give it the respect of describing what it does have, rather choosing to speak of how it is lacking. Similarly, he takes a negative view of the people he encounters during his travel, assuming the worst one morning as he “began to imagine that the landlord, being about to emigrate, might murder us to get our money” (235) Here Boswell is wary of the landlord because he is aware of how he himself appears: a traveler, an outsider, someone to be taken advantage of because he is not from the area. As his subconsciously distances himself from the people he is staying with, Boswell reveals the impact of English ideals on his experience of Scotland. His own Scotland is heavily influenced by England as he lives just above the border, and so the Highlands he visits may as well be another country. His mind twists this unfamiliarity to mean danger, and so it is as he wakes from sleep that his fears are at their peak. Boswell does not trust this Scotland, viewing it as wild and unruly and rife with opportunity to steal and be stolen from. He is reassured by Johnson, a true Englishman, that there would be no fear of theft- they befriended a number of soldiers only the night before and would be well protected were anything to occur. Boswell immediately falls in line, blaming his wariness on his being half asleep, but his willingness to follow Johnson’s lead belies any real trust in the Highlanders around him. His position is nuanced, as he to an extent accepts that he is Scottish, while also attempting to dilute that culture to be as close to English as he can— he has “intense anxiety about his own Scottish identity” (Rogers 192) and wrestles with it as he decides how to display Scotland as well as how to perceive it himself.
For Boswell, the nationality of someone he respects is the great determining factor in his own national identity, as Johnson represents the refined and learned Englishman Boswell aspires to be. While Johnson is free of such pressures, he is the only true foreigner of the three, as he has no birth connection to the land he is visiting and so can appreciate it as a tourist without the additional opinions he may have gained if he lived in Scotland long term. He does find the cottage Boswell points out to him interesting, and studies it as if it were an exhibit set up for him to discover, decided that “it must be placed where the wind cannot act upon it with violence, because it has no cement, and where the water will run easily away, because it was no floor but the naked ground … no light is admitted but at the entrance” (54). As Boswell did in his description, Johnson speaks of the hut in negatives. However, it is easier to perceive what he is expecting to find in a home from his phrasing: the wind cannot be severe, for the hut has no strong base, it cannot be likely to flood as there is no floor besides earth. In outlining what he expects of a home and immediately assuming that these troubles must have been considered when making the home, he reveals his own mindset on the basics of a livable home. Whether the family could afford cement to strengthen the foundation or a floor besides dirt to stand on is not thought of as a main issue, even with the acknowledgement of the cottage as a humble dwelling. It is here that the higher class English perspective is easily spotted, as Johnson is unable to part with the standards he would use to judge a home he may find near himself while examining a home in the wilderness of the Highlands. He does concede that “this was very far from one of the meanest, for it was divided into several apartments; and its inhabitants possessed such property as a pastoral poet might exalt into riches” (55). Johnson is not quite so harsh as Boswell in his description of the cottage, likely because he truly sees it as an interesting kind of sideshow to their trip to Loch Ness. Boswell views the cottage much as someone would see an untidy room while guests are around: a place worthy of vague embarrassment, and subject to much harsher criticism solely because of a guest’s presence. Johnson is the guest, and as such does not have such a critical eye when surveying the home. He does not go as far as to truly compliment the home- he must qualify it as being pleasing in a pastoral (and thus simple) fashion. In doing so, he does not hold Scotland to his own English standards but instead something more fitting what he believes to be a less civilized nation.
As a whole, the balance between nations is very dependent on the power structures uniting them, which are reflected in the way each character views England in relation to the country they are visiting; that is to say, England stands as the example of civilization and higher society that both Scotland and Ireland are unable to compete with. Regardless of born nationality, all strive to be what they perceive to be tied to “Englishness”- refined, educated, and well mannered. In turn, this means that they are distancing themselves from what it means to be Irish or Scottish, in this case wild and heedless of the modern views and culture present in England. These juxtapositions bring the perceptions of these nations into sharper focus, as they are characterized as uncivil and backwards not because of the traits they have, but because of the traits in common with England that they lack.
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