When the future was Orange

A juicy account of England's links with Holland is missing a few segments, Anthony Milton discovers

May 29, 2008

At a time when our "island race" is displaying a particular anxiety to define its unique national identity through citizenship tests, it is particularly salutary for the English to be reminded of the profound cultural ties that have bound their country to other nations.

A particularly acute case of national cultural amnesia relates to the country's links with the Dutch in the 17th century, most strikingly manifested in the successful invasion by the forces of William of Orange in 1688 and his assumption of the throne with his wife, Mary, the daughter of the ousted King James II. This successful coup was no flash in the pan, however, but came at the end of a century of intense social, political, intellectual and cultural relations between the two countries.

At the heart of Lisa Jardine's beautifully written and illustrated new book is a wonderfully vivid and richly layered account of 17th-century cultural interactions between England and the Dutch (sometimes expanded by sleight of hand to include Antwerp). She demonstrates through a plethora of case studies the cultural interaction of a network of English and Dutch men and women, bound together by common interests in music appreciation, art connoisseurship, jewellery, gardens, science, medicine and friendship.

At the centre of these contacts lies the Huygens family, and most of all the attractive figure of Constantijn Huygens senior, a well-connected polymath and connoisseur who consciously sought throughout his long life to build cultural bridges between the two countries. With an excellent eye for the telling detail and an effortless skill in evoking character, Jardine offers a rich, cumulative analysis of these bridges and makes a convincing case for their two-way traffic.

The problems with this book lie not at its heart but in its packaging. It is not clear that its subtitle, "How England plundered Holland's glory", is really justified (the only obvious plundering went the other way, with the shipping of art treasures from the royal collection to the Netherlands in the 1690s). While Jardine rehearses a well-established argument that the Glorious Revolution was in effect a Dutch invasion by William, it is far from clear that those cultural relations examined in the book explain why this was possible.

A shared love of gardens need not generate a political alliance (both English and Dutch people admired the gardens of Louis XIV's Versailles). It is notable that only one of the so-called "immortal seven" Englishmen who wrote to invite William's invasion appears in the cultural networks outlined here.

While Anglo-Dutch cultural relations undoubtedly ran deep, we see only a very narrow selection here, focused tightly on the royal courts of Stuart and Orange and the aristocracy, on salons and soirees (the reader would hardly suspect that it was the opponents of both courts in the 1650s who actually proposed the formation of an Anglo-Dutch state). There is no mention of the "stranger communities" who dwelt in each country, or of the English soldiers serving in the Netherlands, and most bafflingly virtually no reference to religion. Yet it was perceived religious bonds that embraced more layers of society, that lay at the heart of the public justification of William's invasion and that generated by far the most voluminous exchange of ideas between the two countries (694 editions of English puritan works were published in Dutch translation in the 17th century).

On the other hand, a relentless emphasis on cultural empathy leaves inexplicable the three Anglo-Dutch wars fought between 1652 and 1674, and the torrent of anti-Dutch writing that accompanied them. There is a larger and more ambiguous Anglo-Dutch story that remains to be told.

Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory

By Lisa Jardine

Harper Press, 400pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780007197323

Published 1 April 2008

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