A curious tendency in British intellectual culture during the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth is an intensely racialized way of thinking about subdivisions within what would now be called the ‘white British’ population: classes, regions, counties. Readers are probably most likely to have encountered this trend in John Cowper Powys’s novel of 1932, A Glastonbury Romance, where the differences between ‘Silurian’ South Wales and ‘Viking’ Norfolk assume decisive importance for plot and characterization. But today I want to look instead at a longish extract from the beginning of Henry Jenner’s classic Handbook of the Cornish Language (1904), a book which played a major part in the twentieth-century revival of Cornish. Jenner writes:
It is not to be supposed that the possession of an Aryan language is necessarily a proof of the possession of Aryan blood. In many cases the conquering white race imposed its language on the aborigines whom it subjugated and enslaved. This must have been very much the case in Britain, and it is probable that the lower classes of a great part of England, though they now speak a language of mixed Teutonic and Latin origin, as they once spoke Celtic, are largely the descendants, through the slaves successively of Britons, Romans, and Saxons, and the “villains” or nativi of the Norman manorial system, of the aboriginal palæolithic “cave” man, and have far less in common with the Anglo-Saxon, the Celt, or any other white man than they have with the Hottentot, the Esquimaux, the Lapp, or the Australian “blackfellow.” This is particularly the case in what was once the forest-covered district of middle England. There, no doubt, when there was any fighting to be done, the aboriginal hid in the woods until it was all over, and only then came out to share in the spoil and the glory and the drinks; while the white man, whether Briton, Saxon, or Norman, went out to fight, and not infrequently to be killed. A survival, perhaps, of the unfittest was the result, which may account for some of the peculiar characteristics of the Midland lower classes. That the successive changes of masters were matters of little or no importance to the enslaved aboriginal, while a life of servitude was intolerable to the free white man, may account for the fact that the labouring classes of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Wales, and the Welsh border are of a type infinitely superior in manners, morals, and physique to the same class in the Midlands, because they now consist almost entirely of the descendants of the free Britons who were driven westward rather than submit to the overwhelming invasion of the Teutonic tribes. Thus it is that probably, except for a certain Silurian (or Iberian) element in South Wales, which descends from the higher or fighting sort of pre-Aryan, and a surviving aboriginal element in parts of Ireland, the natives of what are known as the “Celtic” parts of these islands are more purely Aryan than any except the upper and upper middle classes of the so-called “Anglo-Saxon” districts of Britain. And of the Celtic parts of Britain, the Highlanders of Scotland and the Cornish are probably of the most unmixed Aryan or white race. (Handbook, pp. 3f.)
There are several fairly obvious points to be made here—as well as the thoroughly obvious point that Jenner’s account of what ‘must have been very much the case [...] no doubt [...]’ seems to be based on nothing but pure fantasy.
The first is that Jenner is here re-imagining class differences in terms borrowed from the racial thinking of contemporary colonialism. With the exception of the ‘Lapp’ (Sami), whose status as the putative aboriginal European was well-established, the peoples to whom Jenner chooses to compare the working class of the Midlands are all indigenous to British settler colonies—in Canada, in Australia, and at the Cape. Britain here becomes something like South Africa, where different groups of white settlers may fight among themselves but there can be no doubt that the ‘enslaved aboriginal’ will remain enslaved whatever the outcome.
The contrast Jenner draws between the English Midlands and some other regions of Britain, meanwhile, is of course motivated partly by his desire to present the Celts in general and the Cornish in particular as the true Aryans of the archipelago. But I think we would be wrong to overlook the distinction it also establishes between the ‘infinitely superior’ labourers living in districts that were (with the exception of parts of Wales) still predominantly agricultural, on the one hand, and the ‘aboriginal’ workers of the urban and industrialized Midlands on the other. It is not surprising to find Jenner, a person of robustly conservative political views, associating the unspoiled agricultural labourer with the interests of the ‘upper and upper middle classes’ against those of the despised industrial proletariat; the only interesting thing is how completely this association is transposed into the language of imaginary racial differences.
Finally, the passage provides a very clear demonstration of the fact that the word ‘white’, in writing of this kind, has virtually nothing to do with skin colour.