Moesswilde on Readman, 'Storied Ground: Landscape and the Shaping of English National Identity'

Author: 
Paul Readman
Reviewer: 
Emma Moesswilde

Paul Readman. Storied Ground: Landscape and the Shaping of English National Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Illustrations. 348 pp. $32.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-42473-8.

Reviewed by Emma Moesswilde (Georgetown University) Published on H-Environment (February, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55452

Paul Readman’s Storied Ground: Landscape and the Shaping of English National Identity conducts a whirlwind tour of the spaces that, he argues, played an essential role in the crystallization of English national identity in the long nineteenth century. An exploration of the relationship between landscape, history, and patriotism, Storied Ground considers how various English landscapes, from the Cliffs of Dover to the cityscape of Manchester, contributed to a sense of modern patriotism by exemplifying Englishness in both rural and urban settings. Central to Readman’s work is the concept of “associational value”—the historical and cultural background of certain locations that made them significant to English identity. The ability of English landscapes to represent historical and cultural continuities in the tumultuous period from the late eighteenth century to the prewar early twentieth century was essential to the development of a modern English national identity and largely contingent on the various associational values of the landscapes that Readman explores in Storied Ground.

Storied Ground is divided into three parts, each considering a type of landscape that became essential to the shaping of English national identity over the long nineteenth century. In part 1, Readman points out the significance of border landscapes—the Cliffs of Dover and the Northumbrian borders—that indicated Englishness, but sometimes also Britishness, because of their proximity to non-English spaces. In part 2, Readman explores the development of landscape preservation, exemplified in the Lake District and the New Forest, as a recognition of landscapes’ associational value and inherent importance to national identity and well-being. Finally, in part 3, Readman moves into new territory to argue that non-rural landscapes, such as the industrial landscape of Manchester and the waters and banks of the Thames, were equally important to the formation and assertion of English national identity. In six chapters, Readman covers a great deal of literal and metaphorical ground, drawing the rich histories of these assorted landscapes together to demonstrate their contributions to English national identity and patriotism. His introduction and conclusion bookend these landscape studies with a brief overview of relevant historiography on English landscape studies, patriotism and nationalism, and modernity. At just over three hundred pages, Readman’s work is a cohesive portrait of English landscape history, which offers a broad perspective despite its location-based organization. Although he focuses on English landscapes, Readman notes the complex tensions and harmonies between English and British identities, contending that such spaces as the Cliffs of Dover had associational values significant to Scottish, as well as English, people who beheld them but keeps the majority of his analysis focused on English spaces and Englishness, rather than Britishness.

Nineteenth-century landscape writing, travel guides and tourism literature, and such artistic portrayals as paintings and poetry provide the source material for Readman’s work. The author draws on the writings of Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Gaskell, and other significant literary contributors to investigate nineteenth-century perceptions of English landscape and identity. Readman also makes use of the wealth of visual representations of English landscapes, from paintings from the likes of J. M. W. Turner and George Vicat Cole to images used in advertisements and tourism literature. Storied Ground makes excellent use of these pictorial sources; forty figures (albeit in black and white) embellish its pages and bring Readman’s landscapes of choice to life. Readman is careful to consider the lives and perceptions of ordinary people’s encounters with English landscapes as well as elite portrayals of these spaces, although the vast majority of his source material is published, leaving me wondering about unpublished descriptions of English landscapes from those who lived and worked on, rather than visited, them. He makes extensive use of tourist guides intended to welcome visitors to the New Forest, Manchester, or on a trip up the Thames, and to portray a landscape’s associational and historical value to the nation. In so doing, Readman demonstrates the essential Englishness of valued landscapes as aesthetically and historically valuable to ordinary folks whose touristic access to these landscapes corresponded with a greater national acknowledgment of their inherent value over the long nineteenth century.

Storied Ground illuminates the ways perceptions of landscapes and the values and stories associated with them helped to shape and shore up English national identity over the course of the nineteenth century. The landscapes Readman analyzes were essential to the development of patriotic Englishness by helping to articulate borders, create a preservation ethic that imbued landscapes with value, and affirm English modernity in urban and rural spaces while revering their persistent historical and cultural associations. This analysis shines particularly in the third section on Manchester and the Thames, where Readman leaves behind the traditional focus on rural landscapes to illustrate the significance of Manchester’s industrial landscape as a defining location of English modernity enjoyed by tourists and artists as a sublime space worthy of renown. Similarly, Readman’s analysis of the Thames as a riparian space that literally and figuratively wound its way through English history and culture brings a refreshing perspective to the study of landscape history, so often confined to solid ground. 

While the range of locations Readman explores paints an effective picture of the various environments that contributed to the collective English national identity which is the focus of Storied Ground, I would have welcomed further consideration of the connections between national identity, English landscapes, and British imperial landscapes, to which Readman alludes at several points. Although insularity, exemplified by the Cliffs of Dover and the Northumbrian borders in Readman’s argument, was and remains a central component of Englishness, the degree to which non-English landscapes also played a significant role in forming English national identity over the long nineteenth century also merits further study.

Storied Ground will be of interest to historians of Britain, the environment, and nationalism and patriotism. It would also be an asset to any syllabus on modern English or British history, and its discussion of art, literature, and architecture’s influence on national identity makes Storied Ground relevant to the environmental humanities more broadly. Balancing national and local landscapes and histories, Readman’s work offers an environmental perspective on English national identity and its roots that considers places, as well as people, as central to modern patriotism. In a post-Brexit world, such a ground-up reevaluation of the roots of English national identity and its long history is welcome and will hopefully provoke further study of the connections between place and patriotism.

Citation: Emma Moesswilde. Review of Readman, Paul, Storied Ground: Landscape and the Shaping of English National Identity. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55452

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