Throughout my tour of the United Kingdom, I was impressed by the many stands and plaques that are implanted through the entire country, celebrating certain times in history that favor positive times in British history or important British figures. This demonstration of nostalgia for a more rose-tinted view of the past, though, there are distinctly different ways to view this admiration: through the city and through the country. The city heavily relies on this nostalgia to sentimentalize the “Great Persons” of the past who lived in the city and acknowledges the person’s contributions to the world, while the country acknowledges an admiration for the past mostly through its preservation of the quirks and beauty of the country. Through this, I am not saying these methods of nostalgia do not happen the other way as well; however, there are reasons why one is emphasized more than the other in both places, such as “Great People” not usually being in the country (in most circumstances) due to the lower amount of people who come from the country.
With its illustrious history of kings and queens throughout history, the cities of the United Kingdom, particularly those in England, such as London, emphasize the importance and impact those kings had on their own history in a nostalgic remembrance. One particular place where kings and queens are emphasized is the building where they are crowned: Westminster Abbey. In fact, many of the kings and queens are buried there, such as Elizabeth I, Henry V, and over 20 other monarchs. Francis Beaumont, who lived from 1584-1616, in his poem “On the Tombs of Westminster Abbey” commented, “Think how many royal bones/ Sleep within this heap of stones … Where from their pulpits sealed with dust/ They preach: ‘In greatness is not trust’” (Beaumont 3-22). Beaumont’s poem comments on the fragility of life and how everyone will die eventually, but his narrator does not hide his awe for the people buried in the Abbey during the poem. Beaumont’s narrator instead states the people who lie in the tombs as seemed the least likely to die, thus his comments on the frailty of all humans relies on the fact that these monarchs were basically gods who walked on Earth, and that basic human facts that mortality and degeneration did not happen to them. Therefore, just because they occupied an important role in society, these people were given a status that did not give them flaws, which might have been because of the view that the monarchs were God’s anointed rulers, and gives them a warped, sentimental view that these people from a long time ago were not fallible to death. One can still see the residue from that feeling today, such as the vast tombs the monarchs reside in that seem massive compared to regular tombs in normal graveyards for so-called “normal” people.
In the modern day, especially in cities, the legacy of the worshipping the “Great Person” to portray the worth Britain puts in its past continues, and not just through kings and queens. For example, in the city of Rochester, there are several areas of dedication to the author Charles Dickens, who was one of the most popular writers in the 19th century and someone who is a large part of British identity through his works. Not only is his old house located in Rochester kept in relatively good condition to honor the man, including a memorial within a park he frequently visited. Along with that, there is a museum which has much Dickens’ memorabilia along the same street. In fact, while the museum does allude to some indiscretions in Dickens’ character (such as his womanizing and affair with the actress Ellen Ternan), it tries to de-emphasize Dickens’ role in the affair and calls Ternan a “siren.”
Therefore, the exhibit tries to whitewash the flaws of Dickens and create a narrative that emphasizes how much of a “Great Man” he was in order to create a proper narrative to sentimentalize the past and ignore the real problems of the era in a haze of nostalgia in an attempt to clear the legacy of someone so affiliated with Britain, just like how Beaumont’s poem creates the idea that monarchs are god-like in the eyes of many people.
Another spot in London also has reverence for past figures as well: Parliament Square. There, I saw people such as Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, and Abraham Lincoln portrayed as statues, and soon where 20th century suffragette Millicent Fawcett will be portrayed as well. Not only do these statues emphasize the importance of the “Great Person” list frequently portrayed in British city life, but also presents a new problem through ignoring the struggle some had against the British government for many years, such as a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the same area. Gandhi had been arrested before by the British government, and the memorial makes no mention of this.
So, not only is British culture ignoring flaws in these “Great People,” but also glosses over its own flaws as a society by erecting statues of people they persecuted and not mentioning those people were persecuted by their own culture at the time the person was alive. Thus, cities (and the British identity these cities hold) usually try to sentimentalize their own history under the guise of “Great People” and the meaningful things those people did, even though it tends to wash over the problems of the past like it washes over the indiscretions of the famous people as well, making British identity seem cleaner by both of these means.
On the other hand, while the country in British culture also tends to sentimentalize the past as well. People in the country emphasize a nostalgic look at the past more through its preservation of its history and the quirkier aspects of the culture from its buildings or landmarks. In Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, the culture of the country itself brings back a flood of memories for the main character, especially when related to physical places. When she talks to her old friend Peter Walsh, Mrs. Dalloway becomes emotionally overcome when talking about a lake: “‘Do you remember the lake?’ she said, in an abrupt voice, under the pressure of an emotion that caught her heart, made the muscles of her throat stiff, and contracted her lips in a spasm as she said ‘lake’” (Woolf 63). Mrs. Dalloway sentimentalizes the countryside through its physical aspects, such as a lake, emphasizing the natural area within the country estate of Bourton (the house where Mrs. Dalloway lives as a young lady). The connection between the past and the country are heavily linked upon in the novel, and this recollection to the country brings back strong emotional connections from the characters.
In a similar way, I saw this connection in a similar way when we traveled in the country, seeing a link to the past and a natural formation or a building while traveling around. One such example is the countryside area of land near the smallest city in the United Kingdom (St. Davids, Wales). During a hike all of the class took, we all saw a space of land near the Atlantic Ocean that showed an affectionate view toward the past through nature. Notably, though, I was impressed by the preservation of religious items associated with the culture. For example, the chapel based on the area where the Welsh saint St. David (who the city is named after) was supposedly born is marked off, even though the building is crumbled, so people do not desecrate the area. Also, there is a well called “St. Non’s Well” (St. Non is St. David’s mother), which is said to cure those with ailments, and has been preserved for innumerable amount of years in the area. Near both the chapel and the well, there is a resort for those interested in having a good view of the ocean and being in the area where these religious items unique to Wales are.
For one, while both the well and the chapel celebrate “Great People” like what usually happens in the city, I find it interesting that both of these areas preserve these Great People through a natural phenomena and a building rather than a simple statue or plaque. From here, becomes apparent that country life is so reliant on landmarks that even when honoring people it still has a way of working hard to keep the physical aspects of a place while also honoring the person. Furthermore, while trying to preserve these areas is important from a cultural and religious standpoint for Britons, the resort emphasizes the nostalgia even more for these areas, as these old areas become tourist destinations within the country. Therefore, these nostalgic, quaint places in Wales become a notable part in the British identity.
Another example of using the past to memorialize the past is the village of St. Fagans in Wales, where an open-air museum in the town uses buildings to memorialize the history of the country as well, with a plethora of areas which have previously been disassembled residing in the area, such as a church that had been used on the site for hundreds of years beforehand. In fact, there were even paintings that were reproduced in the church, though these paintings are only mediocre. This presentation of country areas as wanting to keep areas constructed the way they were exactly before, even when they were not particularly valuable to outsiders, allows people in the country to reflect on their own unique society and contributions to British society, even if some of those contributions are mediocre when looked at through modern eyes. In fact, one magazine named it the most popular tourist attraction in the UK in 2011 (WalesOnline), demonstrating the popularity of old buildings and their display of nostalgia for the past.
Just like Mrs. Dalloway, the scene of nature or a building from long ago can give one a feeling of quaintness and emotion, but the emotion feels odd when brought out into the light of the present, especially since I heard at one time on the trip that there is still a lot of prejudice toward ethnic and sexual minorities in the country, which may have to do with a fascination of a time when those attitudes were not unique among people in both the city and country of the UK. However, the fascination with the British identity allows people to be less suspicious of the meanings underneath this preservation of the past under the guise of continuing to show off the culture.
Overall, the British have a culture that leads to a sentimentalizing of the past that skips over the past’s problems, trying to create an image that does not wholly line up with the reality of situations. However, it also allows the British to relish a cultural moment of the past and preserve parts of the past that they can truly call their own, whether it is a person or a place, creating a strange mix of overt nostalgia with a sense of fantasy on the British Isles.
“Rochester celebrates Charles Dickens link” (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-kent-20561929)
“St Fagans National Museum of History” (https://museum.wales/stfagans/)
“St Non’s Chapel and Holy Well” (http://www.castlewales.com/stnon.html)
Beaumont, Francis. “On the Tombs in Westminster Abbey.” London: A History in Verse. Ed. by Mark Frost. London, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. 137-138. Print.
“National History Monument at St. Fagans soars to the top of UK’s Favorite Tourist Sites.” WalesOnline. 29 September 2011. http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/national-history-museum-st-fagans-1813294
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, Brace & World Inc., 1925. Print.