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
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why