Comet Book Report: Bloody Foreigners, by Robert Winder

(By recommendation of fjm.)

I stopped on page 145 for a very good reason: I’m saving the next hundred pages or so for when I start work on the Victorian book.

Winder’s purpose here is to approach immigration into Britain not as a topic to be organized by theme, but as a narrative to be organized chronologically. This makes him absolutely perfect for my use, because I don’t have to spend a lot of effort winnowing out the details that post-date my period; I just stop reading. He begins with the earliest settlements of the island and proceeds from there, addressing waves of immigration as they come, occasionally backtracking a little bit to talk about the pioneers of a particular group before they showed up in larger numbers, but overall taking everything in general order.

He also addresses something I must admit I sometimes fall prey to, despite my awareness of history: the tendency to view “Britishness” (or “Englishness,” and he does track the difference between those concepts) as some kind of natural, native-bred thing, only recently disturbed by foreigners in real numbers. Even though I know about the Flemings and the Huguenots; even though I know there were Africans present at least as early as the sixteenth century; even though I got annoyed at Lisa Goldstein’s The Alchemist’s Door for its assertion that you only ever heard people speaking English on the streets of Elizabethan London . . . all of that slips so easily beneath the surface of my thoughts. Sure, I come from a country peopled largely by recent immigrants and their descendants, but Britain’s different, right? Well, yes — the scale isn’t quite the same. But when Winder points out that thirteen thousand Poor Palatines (German refugees) showed up in the summer of 1709, or that British ships hired Lascars (Indians) in large numbers and then abandoned them upon making port in London, it rapidly becomes apparent that Britain has long been more cosmopolitan than you might think.

And given that one of my goals with the Onyx Court series is to gradually open it up to the presence of the larger world, it’s very useful to know which groups became significant presences at what points in the timeline. I don’t think I’m likely to have scenes terribly far afield — Berkshire and the Channel are probably as far as I’ll go — because this is meant to be a London-based story, but I can talk about the people in London. (Fortunately, that’s precisely where the vast majority of the immigrants ended up, at least for the first couple of generations.)

Since Winder’s trying to cover twenty-five thousand years in 480 pages, his pace is necessarily brisk. (Though by page 29, we’re already up to the Norman Conquest.) This is an overview, not an in-depth exploration of any group or individual. Fortunately, the “Select Bibliography” gives you nine pages of sources to follow up with. And I appreciate Winder’s attempts to put the different groups in context with one another where appropriate; the reception of the Poor Palatines, for example, was strongly shaped by the previous experience of the Huguenots. He also doesn’t stop at characterizing the immigrants by the countries they came from: he touches on the questions of religion, economic class, and other points of demography. From a survey kind of book like this, that’s about all you can ask for.

0 Responses to “Comet Book Report: Bloody Foreigners, by Robert Winder”

  1. stephanieburgis

    Ooh, I’d never heard of that one, but now I’ll be checking it out next time I go to the library. Thanks for posting about it!

  2. diatryma

    One of Wrede and Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia books has some sort of spell that keeps England/Britain (I’m not entirely sure when the name thing happened) itself, through all sorts of immigration and invasion. I thought it was a really cool concept, and one I will steal the next time someone gets anti-immigration with me.

    • Marie Brennan

      I had forgotten about that.

      (Britain, btw, came into legal existence in 1707, when an Act was passed uniting the crowns of England and Scotland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain.)

  3. scribble_myname

    This sounds perfect for something my sister’s working on! Thanks for the recommend!

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