Entente not so cordiale

BEST OF ENEMIES: Anglo-French relations since the Norman conquest Robert Gibson Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 25

Robert Gibson's Best of Enemies is an engaging account of the long, feuding love affair between England and France. The tempestuous relationship between Marianne, personification of the French nation, and John Bull, her English counterpart, affords a wealth of irresistible ironies and absurdities as well as the odd tender moment.

The figure of John Bull, Gibson tells us, was invented by John Arbuthnot in the early 18th century, at a time rife with both cosmopolitanism and xenophobia. While the wits larked about in Paris, acquiring polish and gloss, stay-at-home defensiveness emphasised all that was bluff and bucolic in the sterling English personality. Arbuthnot designed John Bull as "a character in a set of satirical pamphlets depicting the lawsuit he brings with Nicholas Frog (Holland) against Philip Baboon (the Duke of Anjou) who has bespoken his liveries at the shop of Lewis Baboon (Louis Bourbon, the French king). John Bull is described as an "honest plain-dealing fellow, choleric, bold and of a very inconstant temper . . . very apt to quarrel with his best friends, especially if they pretend to govern him . . . John's temper depended very much upon the air: his spirits rose and fell with the weather-glass. John was quick and understood his business very well . . . a boon companion, loving his bottle and his diversion".

This stereotype has nourished our language ever since. Mrs Gaskell, I'm convinced, drew on it for her creation of Squire Hamley in Wives and Daughters, just as in the same novel she brilliantly exploits English anxieties about French sexiness to paint her portrait of Cynthia, the enchanting but heartless coquette. Charlotte Bronte, arch-champion of the Duke of Wellington, took pre-judice to almost comic extremes: French, while being a language her well-educated heroines speak perfectly, is also French, the epitome of all that is sordid, corrupt, dishonest, oppressive and silly. Robert Gibson, preferring to quote male writers, shows how the tradition was subverted by the French themselves: "Soho long provided sexual displays much more outrageous than the Folies Bergeres . . . Verlaine and Rimbaud chose to spend their homosexual honeymoon in London while Gide and Marc Allegret spent theirs in Cambridge." Lesbians (Vita Sackville-West among them) tended to run the other way: Natalie Barney's modernist salon nourished a whole generation of writers; it's only in Paris that Stephen, dyke heroine of The Well of Loneliness, can express her true sexuality through the exquisite tailor-made clothes she can buy there. Gibson says dryly: "in the populist English view, Paris remains the capital of sexual licence while 'French kissing' and 'French knickers' continue to enjoy a cachet they may not altogether deserve."

We continue to project our fantasies back and forth. I remember how as a child I was delighted not only to learn that a creme anglaise was the French form of custard, but that taking French leave was translated as filer a l'anglaise.

One of the additional pleasures of this book is to be found in the telling visual images provided by both sides. Cartoons and sketches pierce the witty, erudite surface of the text to trawl for deeper, more disturbing meanings. A drawing by Paul in Punch from September 1986 of "the Chunnel" suggests unconscious anxieties attached to the idea of merging. The gateway to the tunnel is a guillotine, blade hoisted ready to fall on the unsuspecting traveller. Dark washes of ink evoke a dangerous, engulfing landscape that castrates as it kills. On the other side, a French propaganda poster of 1943 labels the English as blood-crazed murderers haunting the scene of their crimes, and shows Joan of Arc, wringing her manacled hands, rising from the flaming pyre of Rouen after an allied air-raid.The female body carries the idea of haunting by both murderers and victims, and it's this compression of meaning which gives the image its force.

Overall, Gibson's study is both fascinating and solidly researched. He tracks the arrival of the Normans, the growth of nationalism in the Middle Ages, the fighting for the domination of western Europe and, later on, the imperial territories, the rise of religious and cultural divisions in the 16th and 17th centuries, the impact of industrial and agricultural progress, the effects of the Revolution and of the Commune, the uneasy truces and lulls of this century. Copious quotation, plus a pleasingly crisp style, combine to make this a very attractive and readable volume. Just the thing to consult en route to the gite.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk