In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section National Identity

  • Introduction

Victorian Literature National Identity
Sondeep Kandola
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0182


In the United Kingdom in the Victorian period, contemporary commentators concerned themselves with questions of a collective “national character” rather than the modern, and arguably more individualistic, concept of “national identity” (The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair cited under Theorizing the Victorian Nation). The Victorian period saw the development of a science of national character which was shaped in both its domestic and imperial iterations by the pressures of imperial expansion, technological progress, and attendant discussions of culture and ethnicity. Theorists, critics, and historians such as John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Babington Macaulay, and Robert Knox variously sought to identify the attributes of not only the English national character but also those of their Celtic confrères and colonial peoples and the historical, cultural, and political agency (or lack thereof) that arose from it in increasingly racialized and scientific terms. Where English national stereotypes such as industriousness, vigor, discipline, and self-sufficiency were seen to have powered both the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s imperial mission, racist stereotypes of the Irish as feckless, savage, and mercurial were used to explain away outbreaks of political dissent. Historians, such as the authors of The Making of English National Identity. (cited under Theorizing the Victorian Nation) and The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair (cited under the Union, have pointed to the incremental Anglicization of the four nations that made up the United Kingdom in this period. For Kumar, this was a form of internal colonialism that was engineered by the English (the “wealthiest, most numerous, and most powerful group within the United Kingdom”) which was then successfully repeated overseas to form a second land empire (p. 589). The success of this Anglicization saw historian John Seeley confidently assert in his 1883 lectures “The Expansion of England” that his contemporaries should no longer confine themselves to the domestic affairs of the British Isles but to the “Greater Britain” which, for him, referred to the white settler dominions of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. However, Seeley also believed that the privilege of an English identity could not be extended to India as a colonized territory. Rising national confidence both in Britain’s growing primacy on the world stage as an industrial powerhouse and in the success of its “civilizing” imperial mission was inevitably undermined by instances of mass labor unrest and events such as the Great Hunger (1848–1852), the Indian Mutiny (1857–1858), and the Boer Wars (1880–1881; 1899–1902). Literature of the period, from the novels of Charles Dickens to the fin-de-siècle poetry of Rudyard Kipling, played a crucial role in registering and negotiating the social and political changes afoot in Victorian Britain and beyond which were both shaped by the national character and also came to reshape it.

General Overviews

Responding to domestic and imperial pressures across the Victorian period, thinkers like Carlyle, Macaulay, Bagehot, Arnold, Mill, and Seeley variously debated the different historical, political, and racial characteristics displayed by the member states of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and its citizens. The sections that follow are, firstly, concerned with Victorian conceptions of national character, as shaped by internal and external pressures and debates, and the evolving historiography of the concept of the Victorian nation-state to the present day. The second section examines Victorian and modern understandings of the political and cultural ramifications of the maintenance of the Union of the four nations that constituted the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century.

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