23 June 2015


By Max O'Rell
Ye Leadenhalle Presse 1883
By Leon Delbos
Oxford: Clarendon Press 1904

In 1872, a French man called Léon Pierre Blouet arrived in London to look for work. Within two years, he was senior French master at St Paul’s London Boys’ School. With a gift for witty anecdotes and a journalist’s taste for observation, he began writing about life in England. By 1883, he had enough material to publish a book that he thought would give French readers a rare insight into what made les Rosbifs tick. To protect his reputation at the school, he adopted the nom de plume Max O’Rell and published John Bull et son île.  

 Thirty-two years later, Leon Delbos, the author of several language instruction books, sent John Bull to France believing that this ‘typical’ Briton could be shown having realistic conversations that might give his readers a practical grounding in French. The bulk of the book charts John Bull’s journey from St Malo to Paris, where he meets his niece and sees the sights, by means of English text in one column matched by its French equivalent in parallel. According to the author, John Bull is “a good-natured fellow, a great smoker, not in any way inclined to dyspepsia”.
The John Bull of Max O’Rell and Leon Delbos is the familiar, portly Victorian version with his top hat, ruddy cheeks and Union Jack waistcoat. But his origins lay more than a century before Victoria came to the throne in a political satire of 1712 written by John Arbuthnot, a friend of Jonathan Swift. The History of John Bull was a thinly veiled attack on the conduct of the War of the Spanish Succession: our hero, a lowly clothier (the put-upon English people), launches a protracted legal case (the War) against Lewis Baboon (Louis Bourbon of France). With his plain-speaking manner and rough honesty, this John Bull became a useful cipher for satirists and cartoonists as the 18th century progressed. He was put to particularly effective use by James Gillray at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, depicted as a gluttonous, beer-swilling yokel who Gillray called “Old Grumble Gizzard”.
With the defeat of Napoleon, Old Grumble Gizzard was hosed down and given the neat, honest clothing of something like a country squire. Often with the addition of a walking cane and a squat bulldog, he sprang up in cartoons, on posters, on biscuit tins. The complaints he had always had about foreigners, intellectuals and taxes, and his unwavering patriotism, coalesced into a symbol of what were considered core British values. John Bull would speak as he found, he would harrumph at those who dared to interfere with a man’s right to go about his business and he would proudly stand in defence of an Empire that was bringing nothing but light into the dark places of the world.

For our language learner, France is clearly one of those dark places. Before describing John Bull’s journey, Delbos gives a section called simply ‘Phrases’, which includes some apparently common turns of speech that a visiting British chap might need. There are some potentially useful ones such as “What is the name of that street” or “It is snowing”. But on the whole this is 20-odd pages of non-seqiturs that Grenville Kleiser would be proud of: “C’est un drôle de corps et un fameux pique-assiette” (He is a queer chap and a first-rate sponge); “A d’autres, mon bonhomme, mais pas a un vieux routier comme moi” (Go and tell that to the Marines, old fellow, but not to an old hand like me). “Je connais ces gaillards-la. Ca vous emprunte de l’argent et puis quand il faut le render ca vient pleurnicher et vous faire des conte a dormir debout” (I know these fellows. They borrow money from you, and when they have to return it they come blubbering with cock-and-bull stories). You get the impression that John Bull has formed a good idea of the cut of Johnny Foreigner’s jib.

Despite his role as a kind of British everyman, it becomes clear as Delbos has him barging his way from hotel to hotel that this John Bull is in fact everyman except the lower orders. He is kindly enough to the driver of the carriage that guides him across the treacherous wet sands of the causeway to Mont St. Michel, and he declines to inform on a Parisian shoe shiner who has trained a little dog to muddy the boots of passers-by. But when they get to the hotel on the mount, he won’t have breakfast in the same room as the driver, and he sells his silence on the shoe shiner’s dog by demanding a free polish should he ever come that way again.

His largely patronising interactions with the French people make him seem more like an aristocrat or upper middle class dignitary than a stout yeoman. Allied to his snobbery, though, are the no-nonsense attributes of a Northern industrialist or a military man. In one of several ‘soliloquies’ we find him wandering the beach and noticing the sky and the “rosy children playing by the water-side”. Then he trips over a stone. “I nearly went sprawling,” he says, “Why do I meddle with poetry instead of looking straight before me?”

Having dragged his niece to see Napoleon’s tomb, the old soldiers hobbling around les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower (“peu jolie, mais curieuse”) and the Museums of Mineralogy and Zoology, he draws the line at the Museum of Anatomy as he sees “no necessity for teaching young girls anatomy”. The niece, meanwhile, is demure and deferential to her uncle, dutifully acquiescing in his dull itineraries. She shows one little spark of spirit when she gives the rogue shoe shiner a franc for his dog and is rebuked for encouraging a scoundrel. But this surely cannot be an English girl such as Max O’Rell found in John Bull’s back yard.

Perhaps inevitably, O’Rell deals in generalisations. The characteristics he finds in particular groups give rise to a succession of types: it is as if John Bull, personification of a nation, has spawned a selection of memes to populate it with. The English girl, for example, is a stark contrast to her pampered French equivalent. Wearing her sixpenny hat, cotton dress and strong-soled shoes, she thinks nothing of going off to play lawn tennis with some young fellows and “not one mamma in the party”. When she returns from her day full of healthy exercise she “devours her dinner without shame”.

 This robust liberty is enjoyed by a certain level of the well-to-do. Below them, O’Rell has sketched a different type to inhabit the “lower orders”. Women here are “thin-faced or bloated-looking. They are horribly pale; there is no colour to be seen except on the tips of their noses”. More generally, across the classes, he notes that “an Englishwoman is seldom handsome after thirty”.

Maybe because he never imagined the book would be widely read by his hosts, O’Rell does not pull his punches. The Albert Memorial, for example, is worth visiting, but only to show “how easy it is to fool away three millions of francs”. And on a currently familiar note: “The drunkenness in the streets is indescribable. On Saturday nights it is a general witches’ Sabbath. The women drink to almost as great an excess as the men.” English food, naturally, is summed up by the quote from Voltaire about the country having hundreds of religions but only one sauce.

The barbed attacks are often funny and sometimes rude, but they are balanced by plenty of things that O’Rell admires about the British. A running theme is freedom from bureaucracy. He is impressed that we “do not have to show our papers at every moment” and that “John Bull has quite shaken off the yoke of red tape”. It is a theme that crops up even when talking about the “exuberant beauty of the English parks” which contrast with those in France where every stray leaf is trimmed away and the trees look like toys in a children’s farm yard.

John Bull et son île caused a stir among British readers, even in its original French. The attraction of a ‘how others see us’ book was clearly understood by publishers, 14 of whom vied for the rights to issue a translation. When it finally appeared as John Bull and His Island under the imprint of Ye Leadenhalle Presse, it was said to have sold 1,000 copies a day in its first three weeks.

In Britain, the book was generally regarded as satire, with some reviewers taking it in good heart and others taking offence. For the Dundee Courier, it was a “book to read, to laugh over, even to learn from”. But, for the Leeds Mercury who suggested that it might be better if all copies were to be sunk in the Channel, it “is a living witness to the mass of ignorance there is still in the world between two of its foremost peoples”.
That point seems to have overlooked O’Rell’s own comments on the subject. At one point he describes the Standard Geographies that are given to English children to learn about other nations. France, the little ones are assured, is a place where the men leave the women to mind the shop while they spend all day in the cafes, and where “every third mother is unmarried and every third child has a stain on his birth”.

Aside from their ostensible purposes, these books are examples of the simplifications involved in adopting or ascribing a national identity. Nationalism and xenophobia are two sides of the same centime. The 19th century John Bull plundered his way across the world convinced of the superiority of his own culture, and Marianne, Mother Russia and Uncle Sam were little better. Probably the only people who could understand the complexity and ambiguity of a nation’s character were those who had no nation.

 Not that such a creature would cut any ice with the John Bull who was stomping around Paris. At one point, Delbos has him go for a hair cut at an establishment called Figaro’s – a straightforward way to bring up some useful phrases you would think. But no: “What terrible bores these hair-cutters are,” says John Bull, “They are all alike, and they keep you on the rack the whole time your head is in their hands. Encore une classe qui n’a pas de pays.” “Another lot of people who have no country.”  

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