LONDON - The Brits have always been a little envious of their American cousins, though they would never admit it. In Victorian England, nearly two-thirds of everyone leaving Britain headed for the United States. The gold rush attracted a lot of them, but it wasn't so much gold as the lure of adventure and infinite possibility.
Now that they've lost the empire and they're being asked to give up their English identity to blend with the Europeans, their feelings about us are decidedly mixed, ranging from the condescension that begets arrogance to an affection touched with envy. They've always found our dialects strange if not vulgar, but concede to liking things American, as in "Big Mac" (which they think we confuse with Big Ben), and which has replaced the pathetic wee hamburger on a stale bun they used to call, correctly, a "Wimpy."
An intellectual Brit is quick to recall that American writers Henry James and T.S. Eliot felt it necessary to tune an ear to fine language by living and writing in England. But that was a long time ago and British authors today pray to be published in the United States. They'll even make the talk show circuit if that's what it takes.
The Brits jeer at America's rugged and material crudeness, but as a new show at the Victoria and Albert Museum reveals, Englishmen have always recognized the right stuff. In the 19th century, proper Englishmen brought home Colt revolvers and the gun's innovative technology revolutionized English shooting.
In Victorian times, fashionable ladies looked down their noses, some aristocratic and some not, on tacky American fashions, but the Singer sewing machine, brought over from the United States, gave the shop girl stylish fashions she never dreamed she could afford.
If the Magna Carta inspired our democracy as well as that of the mother country, our presidents have nearly always confounded the British. Today Brits get positively wild when you mention the Bushes. They see the two Georges as a dynasty, which means something special in a land where a queen is still a lady.
They mock the president's speech (who doesn't?) and interpret him as more rube than reasonable, dragging out every cliche about the affable Texas cowboy fronting for big business. It's trendy here to affect a preference for the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels over anyone you could name in the United States. (More's the pity.)
Well, almost anyone. Lauren Bush, the president's 16-year-old niece, is draped in an American flag on the cover of Tatler magazine and featured in a full page in the Sunday Independent newspaper, portrayed as "America's latest It Girl," sort of the American equivalent of Lady Di.
She's described as the archetypal healthy blonde with blue eyes, upturned nose, long limbs and the patrician bearing that Americans seek when they "buy" the right ovaries in the right marriage. No matter that most Americans don't know what Lauren Bush looks like and not that many of us shop for ovaries, blonde or brunette.
The Bush daughters, on the other hand, whose difficulties with buying booze in Austin have been widely remarked, are defended ferociously as victims of silly liquor laws. It goes without anyone saying that Chelsea Clinton, who will follow in her father's footsteps at Oxford, will find the pubs closed at 11 (and the libraries open all night).
One liberated punditress is so defensive about the kinds of men Chelsea will meet at Oxford that she offers dating tips. "Anyone who appears to be homosexual actually just thinks Oscar Wilde was incredibly cool, and will grow out of it," writes Zoe Williams in the Evening Standard. If Chelsea gets homesick, she'll find several other Americans at Oxford who may or may not inhale.
She will find retro-feminism here, too, just like at home. The Daily Telegraph offers a family section that catalogues the blessings of full-time moms, who have their own acronym: FTMs. A typical headline: "My Brilliant Career ... Motherhood." A mother of three who graduated in 1983 from St. Paul's Girl School, an elite school noted for brainy students, criticizes headmistresses (and masters) for discouraging motherhood as a career, and for not celebrating maternal joys and biological clocks.
Nevertheless, at the reunion marking the 18th anniversary of their graduation, 20 women stood up proud to be FTMs. Working mothers in England, like working mothers in America, are lobbying for longer maternity leaves and tax breaks. Sounds familiar. Neither a revolution nor an ocean can separate girl cousins, from here to maternity. Queen Victoria would understand.