George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying made a household plant synonymous with English suburbia. The aspidistra stood for everything pernicious, petty and pretentious about Middle England, about those with neither the unaffected simplicity of the workers, nor the effortless panache of “moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge”.
The lead character, Gordon Comstock, works in a bookshop which was based on the bookshop where Orwell worked in what was then a middle-class suburb, Hampstead. The class distinctions are also described in literary terms, with customers going for either lowbrow thrillers or highbrow novelists such as Virginia Woolf. Those in the middle want to seem sophisticated but aren’t. One Hyacinth Bucket-esque example, Mrs Penn (described as “middle-middle class”) poorly imitates the style of a literary review in her pronouncements. We are supposed to laugh at her when she grandly pronounces that the author of The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy, is “so universal, and yet at the same time so thoroughly English in spirit”.
The aspidistra doesn’t have the same resonance today as it did in the 1930s. Perhaps another phenomenon with 1930s associations does: Mock Tudor architecture. This style recently made its way back into the British tabloids after the singer Liam Gallagher bought a Mock Tudor house in Highgate, and was mocked for being a “rock’n’roll hellraiser” in a house built in such a typically boring and suburban style.
This style originated in the second half of the 19th century. One impressive early example is Cragside in Northumbria, which was billed as northern England’s Neuschwanstein. The style was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, whose acolytes were attracted to the original Tudor use of handcrafted, organic material. Yes, this includes the black and white gables which are the first thing to come to mind when the style is mentioned.
Originally – as with, for example, Anne Hathaway’s genuinely Tudor cottage near Stratford-upon-Avon – the panels were wattle and daub, painted white for waterproofing. The timbers were oak, containing tannic acid, which turns it black when mixed with the iron present in rainwater. Both the white and the black, then, depend for their existence on English rain.
Mock Tudor is specifically English. It was supremely fashionable in the Edwardian explosion of suburban housebuilding, and then again in the 1930s expansion of the metropolis, hence the aspidistra associations. People looked back to the Tudor period because of their self-confidence in Englishness. They related to the high-water mark of the English Renaissance, and – particularly for the Edwardians – the first boisterous attempts at empire building (the East India Company was founded in 1600). The shop Liberty was built in 1924, with oak repurposed from HMS Hindustan and HMS Impregnable.
Nicolas Pevsner’s The Englishness of English Art describes it as a fondness for “polarities”, for maintaining “pairs of apparently contradicting qualities”.
The supposed impregnability of the island nation recalls other tropes of English self-understanding. Michael Portillo considers the core of Englishness to be seen in avoiding either of the ideological extremes which ravaged the continental mainland in the 20th century. He touched on an ancient idea here, first articulated at length by John Henry Newman: the “middle way” or via media. Newman was discussing Anglican ecclesiology, but the idea that Englishness involves treading a middle path which unifies opposing tendencies and therefore avoids extremism has much broader provenance. Nicolas Pevsner’s The Englishness of English Art describes it as a fondness for “polarities”, for maintaining “pairs of apparently contradicting qualities”. Mock Tudor’s black and white masonry similarly holds together two contraries in one unified impression, and herein lies some of its quintessential Englishness.
There is also a long tradition of considering the English as a particularly practical people, going back at least as far as the Industrial Revolution. Goethe saw “practicality” as explaining English ascendency in his time, and Dickens famously regarded the English as a “matter-of-fact sort of people”. This contrasted with stereotypes of the French as mercilessly using “pure reason”, and the grandiosity of German idealism. Compare Cragside to Neuschwanstein, for example, or indeed, the Château de Voltaire.
Readers would be forgiven for thinking this all sounds a little un-Catholic. Admittedly, the House of Tudor was hardly helpful to the Catholic cause, but the same needn’t be true of (faux-)Tudor houses. It was in the decades leading up to the Reformation that we see a distinctively English identity beginning to emerge, yet still in unity with Rome. We thus see something like Newman said must result from the re-evangelisation of England – a fusion of the “English temper of mind” with the Universal Church, not a confusing of Catholicism with only continental cultures. That this period is writ large on the roofs and gables across the land thus indicates both yearning for home and the wound of homesickness itself.
This leaves the association with petty-minded suburbia of aspidistras and Hyacinth Bucket. The original Tudor style was always middle-class, more Little Moreton Hall than Blenheim Palace. The 20th-century expansion of the middle class led Mock Tudor increasingly to dominate the suburbs (Osbert Lancaster called it “Stockbroker Tudor”). We should be wary of such snobbery. Unlike the 1930s, today it is unconventional to believe in conventions. Young people today live among customs to which they’ve never been accustomed. Provocation is now passé.
Contempt for suburbia is often a thinly veiled haughtiness towards the duties of convention and social expectation. This includes many things condemned as boring: like parental responsibility, marital fidelity, or caring for elders. Patrick Deneen’s The Failure of Liberalism describes the loss of a world with “widely observed informal norms” that were “discarded as forms of oppression”. Such norms are rooted in culture.
A recent document from the International Theological Commission describes “communities of belonging”, like the family and the nation, as having “traditions and stories” which transmit the ethos of a people. An ethos, it says, should actualise the universal truths of human nature in terms of a local setting. We thus see a very Mock Tudor coincidence of opposites – the particularity of the English homestead combined with the Universal Church which is its true home – or, to quote Mrs Penn, something “so universal, and yet at the same time so thoroughly English in spirit”.