The Czech novelist and playwright Karel Capek was thirty-four when he finally decided to accept a year-old offer from P.E.N. to visit Britain in 1924. He was already well established as a writer. He had collaborated with his older brother, the painter and set designer Josef Capek, on The Insect Play (1921), a political satire about totalitarianism; his novel The Manufacture of the Absolute (1923) had been published to wide acclaim; and such energetic and successful plays as R.U.R. (1920)—which introduced the word “robot” (robota: Josef’s coinage) into the language—and The Makropulos Affair (1923) were garnering international attention. But if Capek was well-established, the Independent Czechoslovak Republic was a fledgling enterprise. Forged by the ceaseless efforts of the philosopher-politician T. G. Masaryk (1850–1937), it was a mere half-dozen years old. Hope had lately installed itself in the small, eager, inward-looking country. The Great War was past; Hitler did not yet loom; peace, progress, and prosperity bloomed everywhere. We know now how tragically short-lived it was to be. Capek, always in delicate health, died in 1938 just after Chamberlain betrayed Czechoslovakia to Hitler; his brother, incarcerated in Dachau in 1939, perished at Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

In 1924, such disaster was, or seemed, impossibly distant. Capek arrived in Folkestone at the end of May. He was met by Czech friends and instantly bundled into a train for London. His English was far from perfect, but his cultural antennae bristled with a voracious sensitivity. He registered the beauty, absurdity, power, mobility, and sheer vast variousness of what was then the greatest metropolis of the world’s most extensive empire. He had come partly as an emissary to the British Empire Exhibition for the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny, partly as an independent cultural explorer. Over the course of two months he scoured Britain for impressions. Besides London, the self-described “pilgrim” visited Oxford, Cambridge, the Lake District, Edinburgh, Dartmoor, and various port cities. He cast a brief glance toward Ireland without actually going there. The result of his pilgrimage was a satchel of nearly thirty literary vignettes and some seventy amusing pen-and-ink drawings and caricatures. The chronicle began to be serialized in Lidové noviny while Capek was still in Britain and in an English translation in The Manchester Guardian later that summer.

When it was first published in book form, in 1925, Letters from England elicited ecstatic reviews. Punch declared it “the best book about our race since the Germania of Tacitus.” In his foreword to this handsome, newly translated edition of Capek’s work, the philosopher Roger Scruton pitches it nearly as strong: the Letters from England, he writes, are “not merely a masterpiece of Czech prose; they are one of the seminal documents of Central European Culture, and among the most influential books of the twentieth century.”

Well, let us bracket Tacitus and the competition for influence and agree that Letters from England is what nearly every reviewer said it was: a “charming” and “humane” work of travel literature by a man of wry, candid, and cosmopolitan sensibility. Capek brings just the right mixture of admiration and affectionate deprecation to bear on his subject; he gives his curiosity free rein, but tempers both praise and deflation with humor; he is as alive to human accomplishment as he is to human folly, and it is rare that he discovers one unmodified by the other.

Capek is a master of gentle amazement. How extraordinary that things should so closely resemble their publicity! He captures a feeling that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled abroad:

It takes you aback to find that in Holland there really are windmills and canals or that on the Strand in London there really are so many people that it makes you feel unwell. There are two absolutely fantastic impressions: to discover something unexpected and to discover something very familiar.… I was… amazed when I found the Houses of Parliament on the river Thames, gentlemen in grey top hats in the streets, two-metre-tall Bobbies at the crossroads, and so on. It was a surprise to discover that England really is English.
The wonder extends to language. “Once I had set foot on land,” Capek confesses, “I found to my surprise that I didn’t speak or understand a single word of English.” Many travelers, I believe, are secretly chagrined when they visit a foreign country and discover that a language they do not know is, in fact, a language that they do not know. Last year when I went to Budapest, I found myself totally at sea with the language. You will point out that this was hardly surprising, since I have not a syllable of Hungarian. Yet that homely fact seemed like a supreme impertinence: the world made sense, why not the ambient phrases that declared it?

Capek was by turns enthralled and nonplussed by England; he never abandoned that slight anxiety a continental dweller harbors about islands: “True, it is all built quite solidly enough, one might almost say on rock, but to have a continent beneath one’s feet makes one feel more secure.” England, he found, was a land of curiosities: capacious, chilly, overwhelming, preposterous. At Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park,

anyone who chooses can bring a chair or platform or nothing at all and can begin to speak. After a while, five or twenty or three-hundred people listen to him, answer him, contradict, nod their head and sometimes sing pious and secular hymns with the speaker. Sometimes an opponent wins the people over to his side and takes up the word himself. Sometimes a crowd separates by simple fission or a coup, like the lowest organisms and cell colonies. … The larger churches have small, mobile pulpits but most speakers simply stand on the ground, suck at a wet cigarette and preach about vegetarianism, the Lord God, education, reparations or spiritualism. Never in my life have I seen anything like it.

Capek is very good at communicating the surfeit and fatigue that being an indefatigable culture tourist involves.

“Have you been to the British Museum?”

“Have you seen the Wallace Collection?”

“Have you been to the Tate Gallery yet?”

“Have you had a look at the South Kensington Museum?”

“Have you been to the National Gallery?”

Yes, yes, yes; I have been everywhere.

Somehow, though, what made the deepest impression was the natural masterpieces on view, not the cultural artifacts. Although he is “a tireless pilgrim of pictures and statues,” Capek found that “the conches and crystals in the Natural History Museum” gave him “the greatest delight.” (“The trees,” he wrote, “are perhaps the most beautiful things in England.”)

Capek visited a number of English clubs, the zoo, and Kew gardens. (The clubs, he manages to suggest, were themselves a sort of menagerie.) At Madame Tussaud’s he “stopped next to one particularly effective figure in a top hat and looked in my catalogue to see who it was. Suddenly the gentleman with the top hat moved and left. It was ghastly. After a while two young ladies looked in their catalogue to see whom I represented.”

Madame Tussaud’s also gave him a deep insight into the relevance of physiognomy:

At first sight a seated gentleman with a goatee beard, No. 12, fascinated me. In the catalogue I found “12: Thomas Neill Cream, executed 1892. Poisoned Matilda Clover with strychnine. He was also found guilty of the murders of three other women.” Truly, his face was very suspicious. Number 13: Franz Müller, murdered Mr. Briggs in a train; hmm. Number 20, a shaven gentleman looking almost honourable: Arthur Devereux, executed 1905, the so-called “trunk murderer” since he concealed the corpses of his victims in trunks. Horrible. Number 21:—no, this venerable cleric can’t be “Mrs. Deyer, the Reading infant murderess.” I find that I have confused the catalogue’s pages and am forced to correct my impressions: the seated gentleman, No. 12, is only Bernard Shaw, No. 13 is Louis Blériot and No. 20 is simply Guglielmo Marconi.
“Never again,” Capek concludes, “will I judge people by their faces.”

Capek’s wonder and appetite for eccentricity is everywhere inflected by a countermovement of—not skepticism, exactly: more a current of protective ambivalence. Traveling in the English countryside, Capek marvels at

the harmony and perfection of the life with which the Englishman surrounds himself at home. The English home is tennis and warm water, a gong summoning you to lunch, books, meadows, comfort which is selected, fixed and blessed by the centuries… a hospitality and formality as comfortable as a dressing gown.
Nevertheless, there is imperfection woven into this perfection. At the British Empire Exhibition, Capek was duly impressed by a life-sized statue of the Prince of Wales made of butter, but noted that it filled him with “regret that most of London’s monuments aren’t also made of butter.” London was the pinnacle of modern civilization, embodying its faults as well as its achievements. “The only perfection which modern civilisation achieves,” Capek complain, “is mechanical; machines are magnificent and immaculate but the life which serves them or is served by them isn’t magnificent or shiny or more perfect or more comely.”

Letters From England falls off a bit when Capek leaves London, and especially when he wends his way through the Scottish countryside. It picks up again towards the end, especially in “A Few Faces,” a chapter of character sketches of some British luminaries. Capek provides amusing caricatures and descriptions of John Galsworthy, G. K. Chesterton (“I have drawn him flying, in the first place because I was only able to get a rather fleeting impression of him and then because of his heavenly exuberance”), H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw: “He is a vegetarian; I don’t know whether from principle or from gourmandise. One never knows whether people have principles on principle or whether for their own personal satisfaction.”

There is a measure of envy mixed in with Capek’s assessments, but it is quiet envy leavened by generous amounts of appreciation, not least appreciation of the alternatives to London. “The Continent,” he writes, “is noisier, less disciplined, dirtier, more rabid, craftier, more passionate, more convivial, more amorous, hedonistic, vivacious, coarse, garrulous, unruly and somehow less perfect. Please, give me a ticket straight to the Continent.” We may doubt whether Letters from England bears comparison with Tacitus; we may even doubt whether it is “among the most influential books” of the last century. But there can be no doubt about its humanity, intelligence, and humor. Letters from England is a delight to read, partly because of Capek’s conviction that “all national peculiarities [are] a positive enrichment of the world.” Although not at all didactic, the book also contains a number of useful lessons—above all, perhaps, the lesson that magnificence is not the only noble national vocation. “I have seen greatness and power, wealth, prosperity and incomparable development,” he writes at the end of his book. “I was never sad that we are a small and unfinished part of the world. To be small, unsettled and uncompleted is a good and courageous mission.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 5, on page 73
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