Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The term Merry England, or in more jocular, half-timbered spelling Merrie England, refers to a semi-mythological, idyllic, and pastoral way of life that the lucky inhabitants of England allegedly enjoyed at some poorly-defined point between the Middle Ages and the completion of the Industrial Revolution. It's a utopian and not completely consistent vision: a revisited England, "the thatched cottage, the country inn, the cup of tea, and Sunday roast". It may be treated both as a product of the imagination, and an ideological construct.
The concept of a Merry England may have originated in the Middle Ages, describing a utopian state of life that most people aspired to lead (see Cockaigne). Peasant revolts, such as those led by Wat Tyler and Jack Straw invoked a visionary idea, which was also egalitarian. This was in any case an unrealistic version of life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, although there was a period after the Black Death when labour shortages meant that agricultural workers were in a stronger position.
At various times since the Middle Ages, authors, propagandists, romanticists, poets and others have revived or co-opted the term. There is for example a celebrated Hogarth engraving entitled The Roast Beef of Old England; which is anti-monastic.
In a form adapted to political conservatism, the vision extends to: a few urban artisans and other cosmopolitans; a flexible and humane clergy; an interested and altruistic squirearchy , aristocracy and royalty. Solidity and good cheer would be the values of yeoman farmers, whatever the foibles of those higher in the hierarchy.
In the nineteenth century William Cobbett, and the later Samuel Taylor Coleridge, subscribed to some extent to the "Merry England" view. It became associated on one side with the Anglo-Catholics and Catholicism, as a version of life's generosity ; for example William Meynell entitled one his magazines Merrie England. G. K. Chesterton in part adapted it to urban conditions. William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement and other left-inclined improvers (whom Sir Hugh Casson called "the herbivores") were also (partly) believers. The pastoral aspects of William Blake, a Londoner and an actual craftsman, lack the same mellow quality. For a time, similar alternatives to an industrialising society, with large-scale movement off the land to jerry-built cities and gross social inequality, were mentioned both by rhetorical Tories and utopian socialists. The Merry England myth was a common reference point.
Merry England did not really "decline" in the way that Storm Jameson said it did in her book The Decline of Merry England (1930). It has the significant subtitle an essay on Puritanism in England.
The term Deep England is often used by those who dislike this vision, or the use to which it is put. In doing so, they identify themselves as political opponents of the Deep England viewpoint and its supporters. In short, it is supposed or asserted that Deep England stands for what English cultural conservatives would wish to conserve.
The term, which alludes to la France profonde , has been attributed to both Patrick Wright and Angus Calder, opponents of this world-view. In their opinion, it glosses over the simple historical facts that undermine it: the bucolic vista of perceived loveliness was fundamentally one of widespread rural poverty, in which lives were brutal and short.
Those who make use of the vision are frequently regarded by their critics as having a cultural and racial agenda which is exclusive rather than inclusive. On another level, the concept of Deep England is often closely associated with an explicit opposition to modernism, and industrialisation. It has served a particular political purpose in the hands of some political organisations, especially those of a retrospective inclination, espousing a yearning for a mythical forgotten golden age. There was a ruralist movement in England before World War II, typefied by the writer H. J. Massingham.
Examples of this conservative or village green viewpoint include the Conservative Party under John Major, and the editorial line sometimes adopted by the British Daily Mail newspaper. Present-day true believers include subscribers to magazines like This England. The radio soap opera The Archers presents a more dialectical picture of actual life in a small rural village.
Little England and propaganda
In Angus Calder's re-examination of the ideological constructs surrounding Little England during World War II in The Myth of the Blitz, he puts forward the view that the myth of Deep England was central to wartime propaganda operations within the United Kingdom, and then, as now, served a clearly defined political and cultural purpose in the hands of various interested agencies.
Calder cites the writer and broadcaster J.B. Priestley whom he considered to be a proponent of the Deep England world-view. Priestley's wartime BBC radio "chats" described the beauty of the English natural environment, this at a time when rationing was at its height, and the population of London was sleeping in subway stations. In reference to one of Priestley's bucolic broadcasts, Calder made the following point:
- Priestley, the socialist, gives this cottage no occupant, nor does he wonder about the size of the occupant's wage, nor ask if the cottage has internal sanitation and running water. His countryside only exists as spectacle, for the delectation of people with motor cars. [..]" (Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, London 1991)
Literature and the arts
In popular culture, the adjective Dickensian is sometimes used in reference to this view, but Charles Dickens wrote nostalgia, not fantasy. Mr. Pickwick's world was that of the 1820s and 1830s, of the stagecoach before the advent of the railways.
The transition from a literary locus of Merry England to a more obviously political one cannot be placed before 1945, as the cited example of J. B. Priestley shows.
Writers and artists described as having a Deep England viewpoint range from the radical visionary poet William Blake to the evangelical Christian Arthur Mee. The Rudyard Kipling of Puck of Pook's Hill is certainly one; when he wrote it, he was in transition towards his later, very conservative stance. Within art, the fabled long-lost merrie England was also a recurring theme in the Victorian-era paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Reference points might be taken as children's writer Beatrix Potter, the poet John Betjeman (more interested in Victoriana ), and the fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien, whose hobbit characters' culture in The Shire embodied many aspects of the Deep England point of view.
In his essay "Epic Pooh", Michael Moorcock wrote:
- "The little hills and woods of that Surrey of the mind, the Shire, are 'safe', but the wild landscapes everywhere beyond the Shire are 'dangerous'. Experience of life itself is dangerous. The Lord of the Rings is a pernicious confirmation of the values of a declining nation with a morally bankrupt class whose cowardly self-protection is primarily responsible for the problems England answered with the ruthless logic of Thatcherism. Humanity was derided and marginalised. Sentimentality became the acceptable subsitute. So few people seem to be able to tell the difference."
Here the shift has taken place: Tolkien was profoundly conservative, as Moorcock is quite aware, but not at all an imperialist. He set rural Warwickshire within a Middle-earth, but made it apparent that its perimeter was artificially maintained. Modelling a "safe place" in fantasy on Deep England is not the same as claiming that the real England should be or ever was that way.
The novel England, England by Julian Barnes describes an imaginary, though plausible, set of circumstances that cause modern England to return to the state of Deep England. The author's views are not made explicit, but the characters who choose to remain in the changed nation are treated more sympathetically than those who leave.
- Hutton, Ronald (2001). The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400–1700. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks. ISBN 019285447X.
- Wright, Patrick (1985). On Living in an Old Country (ch 2, esp pp 81–7). Verso Books. ISBN 0860918335.
- Images of England 2: "Deep England and the Countryside"
- "Epic Pooh" by Michael Moorcock, a critique of this world-view in fantasy fiction.
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