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A Masterly Inactivity
by [?]

It is no small privilege to you “gentlemen of England who live at home at ease,” or otherwise, that you cannot hear how the whole Continent is talking of you at this moment. We have, as a nation, no small share of self-sufficiency and self-esteem. If we do not thank God for it, we are right well pleased to know that we are not like that Publican there, “who eats garlic, or carries a stiletto, or knouts his servants, or indulges in any other taste or pastime of ‘the confounded foreigner.'” The ‘Times’ proclaims how infinitely superior we are every morning; and each traveller–John Murray in hand–expounds in his bad French, that an Englishman is the only European native brought up in the knowledge of truth and the wash-tub.

By dint of time, iteration, and a considerable amount of that same French I speak of, an article expressly manufactured for exportation, we really did at last persuade patient and suffering Europe to take us at our own valuation. We got them to believe that–with certain little peculiarities, certain lesser vices, rather amiable than otherwise–no nation, ancient or modern, could approach us. That we were at one and the same time the richest, the strongest, the most honourable, the most courageous people recorded in history; and not alone this, but the politest and the most conciliatory, with the largest coal-fields and the best cookery in Europe. Now, there is nothing more damaging than the witness who proves too much. Miss Edgeworth tells us somewhere, I think, of an Irish peer who, travelling in France with a negro servant, directed him, if questioned on the subject, always to say his master was a Frenchman. He was punctiliously faithful to his orders; but whenever he said, “My massa a Frenchman,” he always added, “So am I.”

In the same spirit has Bull gone and damaged himself abroad. He might have enjoyed an unlimited credit for his stories of English wealth and greatness–how big was our fleet, and how bitter our beer; he might have rung the changes over our just pride in our insular position and our income-tax, and none dared to dispute him; but when, in the warm expansiveness of his enthusiasm, he proceeded to say, not merely that we dressed better and dined better than the foreigner, but that our manners were more polished, our address more insinuating, and the amiability of our whole social tone more conspicuous, “Mossoo,” taking him to represent all from Stockholm to Sicily, began to examine for himself, and after some hesitation to ask, “What if the wealth be only like the politeness? What if the national character be about as rude as the cookery? What if English morality turn out to be a jumble and confusion, very like English-French? Who is to tell us that the coal-fields may not be as easily exhausted as the civility?” These were very ugly doubts, and for some years back foreigners, after that slow fashion in which public opinion moves amongst them, have been turning them over and over, but in a manner that showed a great revulsion had taken place on the Continent with regard to the estimate of England.

A nation usually judges another nation by the individuals and by the Government. Now it is no calumny to say that, taking them en masse, the English who travel abroad, whether it be from indifference, from indolence, from a rooted confidence in their own superiority, or from some defect in character, neither win favour for themselves, nor affection for their country from foreigners. So long as we were looked upon, however, as colossal in wealth and power, a certain rude and abrupt demeanour was taken as the type of a people too practical to be polished. It grew to be thought that intense activity and untiring energy had no time to bestow on mere forms. When, however, a suspicion began to get abroad–it was a cloud no bigger at first than a man’s hand–that if we had the money it was to hoard it, and if we had the power it was to withhold its exercise; that we wanted, in fact, to impose on the world by the menace of a force we never meant to employ, and to rule Europe as great financiers “bear” the Stock Exchange–then, and then for the first time, there arose that cry against England as a sham and an imposition, of which, as I said before, it is very pleasant for you at home if the sounds have not reached you.