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The Estranging Sea
by [?]

“God bless the narrow sea which keeps her off,
And keeps our Britain whole within itself.”

So speaks “the Tory member’s elder son,” in “The Princess”:–

“… God bless the narrow seas!
I wish they were a whole Atlantic broad”;

and the transatlantic reader, pausing to digest this conservative sentiment, wonders what difference a thousand leagues would make. If the little strip of roughened water which divides Dover from Calais were twice the ocean’s breadth, could the division be any wider and deeper than it is?

We Americans cross from continent to continent, and are merged blissfully into the Old-World life. Inured from infancy to contrasts, we seldom resent the unfamiliar. Our attitude towards it is, for the most part, frankly receptive, and full of joyous possibilities. We take kindly, or at least tolerantly, to foreign creeds and customs. We fail to be affronted by what we do not understand. We are not without a shadowy conviction that there may be other points of view than our own, other beliefs than those we have been taught to cherish. Mr. Birrell, endeavouring to account for Charlotte Bronte’s hostility to the Belgians,–who had been uncommonly kind to her,–says that she “had never any patience” with Catholicism. The remark invites the reply of the Papal chamberlain to Prince Herbert Bismarck, when that nobleman, being in attendance upon the Emperor, pushed rudely–and unbidden–into Pope Leo’s audience chamber. “I am Prince Herbert Bismarck,” shouted the German. “That,” said the urbane Italian, “explains, but does not excuse your conduct.”

So much has been said and written about England’s “splendid isolation,” the phrase has grown so familiar to English eyes and ears, that the political and social attitude which it represents is a source of pride to thousands of Englishmen who are intelligent enough to know what isolation costs. “It is of the utmost importance,” says the “Spectator,” “that we should understand that the temper with which England regards the other states of Europe, and the temper with which those states regard her, is absolutely different.” And then, with ill-concealed elation, the writer adds: “The English are the most universally disliked nation on the face of the earth.”

Diplomatically, this may be true, though it is hard to see why. Socially and individually, it is not true at all. The English possess too many agreeable traits to permit them to be as much disliked as they think and hope they are. Even on the Continent, even in that strange tourist world where hostilities grow apace, where the courtesies of life are relaxed, and where every nationality presents its least lovable aspect, the English can never aspire to the prize of unpopularity. They are too silent, too clean, too handsome, too fond of fresh air, too schooled in the laws of justice which compel them to acknowledge–however reluctantly–the rights of other men. They are certainly uncivil, but that is a matter of no great moment. We do not demand that our fellow tourists should be urbane, but that they should evince a sense of propriety in their behaviour, that they should be decently reluctant to annoy. There is distinction in the Englishman’s quietude, and in his innate respect for order.

But why should he covet alienation? Why should he dread popularity, lest it imply that he resembles other men? When the tide of fortune turned in the South African war, and the news of the relief of Mafeking drove London mad with joy, there were Englishmen who expressed grave alarm at the fervid demonstrations of the populace. England, they said, was wont to take her defeats without despondency, and her victories without elation. They feared the national character was changing, and becoming more like the character of Frenchmen and Americans.

This apprehension–happily unfounded–was very insular and very English. National traits are, as a matter of fact, as enduring as the mountain-tops. They survive all change of policies, all shifting of boundary lines, all expansion and contraction of dominion. When Froissart tranquilly observed, “The English are affable to no other nation than themselves,” he spoke for the centuries to come. Sorbieres, who visited England in 1663, who loved the English turf, hated and feared the English cooking, and deeply admired his hospitable English hosts, admitted that the nation had “a propensity to scorn all the rest of the world.” The famous verdict, “Les Anglais sont justes, mais pas bons,” crystallizes the judgment of time. Foreign opinion is necessarily an imperfect diagnosis, but it has its value to the open mind. He is a wise man who heeds it, and a dull man who holds it in derision. When an English writer in “Macmillan” remarks with airy contempt that French criticisms on England have “all the piquancy of a woman’s criticisms on a man,” the American–standing outside the ring–is amused by this superb simplicity of self-conceit.