Imagining Britain : the formation of British national identity during the eighteenth century
This thesis explores the supposed development of an 'imagined community' of the British during the eighteenth century. Responding in particular to Linda Colley, it aims to show that her use of Benedict Anderson's well-known definition of the nation is both inappropriate and misleading. Taking as its evidence the substantial genre of contemporary historical writing about pre-Norman Britain, it attempts to develop an account of that genre's relationship to the growing reading public in Britain, its capacity to provide the imaginative terrain in which that public might consider itself to possess a shared identity, and the limits and obstacles to such a project. In doing so, it also explores the nature of the historical genre in this period, and finds its development to be tightly bound up with developments in print culture more generally, but especially with the rise of the novel and of the newspaper (the very genres lying at the heart of Anderson's account of nationalism). Later chapters concern themselves with developing the arguments brought out in the first half of the thesis, using different forms of evidence: histories of the common law, the debate on population, and the debate over the French Revolution. Here I deal variously with issues of custom, tradition, commerce and improvement, and their purchase upon notions of truth, as well as with the position of marginal figures - women, 'the mob' - in the supposedly national imagination. I conclude by arguing that the nation represented by Anderson is fundamentally utopian in character, that it did not and does not meet the essentially elitist 'imagined community' which my thesis uncovers, and should not be used to describe it.