The conventional archetype of the Englishman usually features a set of immutable qualities. He is stoical, robust, resourceful, peace-loving, steady under fire and not without humour. Slow to anger, he is a formidable foe when roused, though not necessarily a John Bull. Many people (especially foreigners) still imagine him with a bowler hat and umbrella, sporting a dark suit. The inference is that the appearance of decency and conformity equates to a form of defined conduct. In the 1960s television series The Avengers, the hero John Steed wore a bowler, although often in bright hues to match his colourful and stylish suits, suggesting that Steed was not completely orthodox. However, if we examine portrayals of four famous stereotypical Englishmen --Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Raffles, Dr. Jekyll and Percival Blakeney—which have shaped the English male image, it becomes clear that the heroic Englishman is far from perfect.
It is interesting to note that all these stories first appeared in print from 1886 to 1905 (although those which became series continued beyond this point, and all have been adapted for stage and screen, right up to the present day). During this period the tide of scientific knowledge surged forward, so it is not surprising that a consuming interest in science permeates the Jekyll and Holmes stories.
Dr. Jekyll appeared in 1886, in the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson. Dr. Jekyll is essentially benign until he drinks a potion which he has concocted, after which the formula either releases the amoral Mr. Hyde from within him, or causes Dr. Jekyll to transform into him. Eventually the formula runs out and cannot be recreated, but by then the battle for control of Mr. Hyde is lost, and he consumes Dr. Jekyll.
Sherlock Holmes was also created by a Scottish author, Arthur Conan Doyle, and made his debut in 1887. Holmes is a superior man and an outstanding consulting detective, famous for his ability to adopt many convincing disguises. He lives an austere and ascetic lifestyle, eschewing the company of others (including that of his biographer John Watson) for days on end whilst bending his enormous powers of concentration upon a problem. However, various aspects of his character are questionable, such as his excessive use of drugs during periods of boredom between cases.
The first story about the 'gentleman thief' Arthur Raffles appeared in 1898, written by Englishman Ernest William Hornung. Holmes and Raffles are examples of the same type of man choosing disparate paths, the one using his talents (broadly) for the public good, the other for his private gain, but both employing similar methods. Like Holmes, who will play the game for the game's sake, Raffles sometimes burgles the rich for amusement rather than for mere gain.
In 1880 the Orczy family left Hungary and moved to London, and Emmuska Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel was first published in 1905. Pimpernel is the story of a young French actress, Marguerite St. Just, who marries the wealthy English nobleman Sir Percival Blakeney, but is then alienated from him as he becomes increasingly foppish and remote. Meanwhile Chauvelin, an agent of the French Revolutionary government, comes to England to blackmail Margeurite into helping him find and unmask the Scarlet Pimpernel, an Englishman who rescues condemned French aristocrats from the guillotine. Unbeknownst to Marguerite, the elusive hero is in fact her husband. After a mission to France in search of Marguerite's brother, Armand St. Just, the Blakeneys return safely to England and are reconciled.
All these Englishmen share common personality traits which are not universally admirable, representing a heady blend of good and bad. They show a love of danger, adventure and excitement, combined with recklessness about their own safety and occasionally carelessness for that of others. Their position at the heart of society serves to cloak the intensive double life with which it is paradoxically combined, and their moral code only partially overlaps with that of the mainstream, allowing them to break the law in the belief that the end justifies the means. Extraordinarily gifted, they are clever to the point of exceptional intellect and their single-mindedness borders on obsession, while they also display unusual physical ability and endurance. In their interactions their vanity and arrogance amounts to contempt towards others, but they occasionally show respect for those of similarly high ability. They are as prepared to deceive—even their closest friends and family—as they are ready to charm when desirable or necessary. While well-educated, such men to a large extent supplement formal education with their own independent endeavours and experiments at the 'University of Life,' aided by their deep and penetrating comprehension of human nature.
Naturally more parallels may be drawn, since this list is not exhaustive, but the thrust of it is that these Englishmen are far from the ideal of the perfect gentleman. Inner demons and angels drive them to all sorts of actions, some benign, some malign. Their lives embody the old expression "The path less trodden."
These fictional portraits of flawed heroes upon which we have built our perceptions of Englishmen are perhaps more true to life than they have been given credit. Real-life English heroes are, in fact, similarly flawed. For example, Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada but also plundered the choicest Spanish vessels, actually sloping off from the battle to do so. Winston Churchill was a great wartime leader, but was often rude and drank heavily. Perhaps these sorts of traits are indeed necessary, not just in fiction, but in order to accomplish great feats?
Much depends upon the purpose that these characters' energies serve. Though Hyde is a terrible warning about the consequences of letting one's flaws gain the upper hand, we usually forgive Holmes his breaking and entering, Raffles his thefts from the super-rich, and Blakeney his duplicitous conduct towards his friends and family. There is sufficient inherent goodness about their actions to override their vices. Indeed, the unconventional English gentleman is often far more romantic and beguiling than the perfect one. --Alexander J. Betts
Copyright © Alexander J. Betts 2011.