history of the phrase ‘close your eyes and think of England’

The phrase close your eyes and think of England and variants are—purportedly—the advice that was given to English brides-to-be on how to cope with unwanted but inevitable sexual intercourse.

However, the earliest occurrence that I have found specifically refers to Canadian deeply ingrained loyalty to the Crown; it is from the final paragraph of an article about Canada at war, published in The Windsor Daily Star (Windsor, Ontario, Canada) of Saturday 2nd November 1940—article reprinted from the magazine Fortune (New York: Time Inc.) of November 1940:

Thus does the Canadian view a future that he can predict no better than his neighbors. Whatever it brings, he holds to the feeling that he will always have a strong sense of nationality and a tendency to keep his nation out of foreign entanglements. But when the test comes, when the United Kingdom gets into trouble again, and when the King calls upon his loyal subjects all over the world, the Canadian knows at a still deeper level of his being that he will undoubtedly do as he has always done before. He will close his eyes and think of England.

The second-earliest occurrence of close your eyes and think of England that I have found does not refer to sexual intercourse, but to kissing; it is from Leonard Lyons1’s column, first published on Monday 17th March 1943 in several U.S. newspapers—for example in the Durham Morning Herald (Durham, North Carolina):

Romance Dept.: Stanley Baldwin2’s son tells this story of the day his sister went out with a young man who wanted to marry her. She asked her mother for advice, in case the young man should want to kiss her. . . . “Do what I did,” said her mother, reminiscing of the beginning of her romance with the man who was to become Prime Minister. “Just close your eyes, and think of England.”

1 Leonard Lyons (1906-1976) was a U.S. newspaper columnist.
2 The British Conservative statesman Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) was Prime Minister from 22nd May 1923 to 22nd January 1924, from 4th November 1924 to 4th June 1929, and from 7th June 1935 to 28th May 1937.

The next-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found does refer to sexual intercourse. However, this occurrence is from a humoristic book, so that it should perhaps not be taken at face value. This book is Les Carnets du Major Thompson (Paris: Hachette, 1954), by the French author and humorist Pierre Daninos (1913-2005). The purported author, William Marmaduke Thompson, is a retired English officer living in France, the country of his second wife; in the following passage, he recounts how Miss Ursula Plunkwell, the Englishwoman who was to become his first wife, approached her nuptials—Meltenham is the strict school where Ursula was educated:

Si elle avait momentanément renoncé au cheval, ce n’était pas pour un époux : c’était pour l’Angleterre et pour les hommes. Meltenham et sa mère l’avaient préparée au mariage dans un esprit tout victorien. La veille de son départ, Lady Plunkett lui avait s ses derniers conseils :
« I know, my dear…. It’s disgusting…. But do as I did with Edward: just close your eyes and think of England…. (Je sais, mon enfant…. Ces choses sont écœurantes…. Mais fais ce que j’ai fait avec Edouard : ferme les yeux et pense à l’Angleterre….) »
Et, comme sa mère et la mère de sa mère, Ursula avait fermé les yeux. Et elle avait pensé à l’avenir de l’Angleterre.

Naturally, the phrase reoccurs in the corresponding passage of The Notebooks of Major Thompson: An Englishman discovers France & the French (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1955), the translation by Robin Farn of Les Carnets du Major Thompson:

If she had for the moment given up riding, it was not for the sake of a husband, it was for England and the human race. Meltenham and her mother had prepared her for marriage in an entirely Victorian spirit. The day before she left home, Lady Plunkwell had delivered her final advice:
“I know, my dear, it’s disgusting. But do as I did with Edward: just close your eyes and think of England!”
Like her mother and her mother’s mother before her, Ursula closed her eyes. She thought of the future of England.

William Marmaduke Thompson and Ursula Plunkwell on their wedding day—illustration by Walter Goetz for The Notebooks of Major Thompson (1955):

wedding of William Marmaduke Thompson and Ursula Plunkwell - The Notebooks of Major Thompson (1955)

Based on The Notebooks of Major Thompson, The French, They Are a Funny Race is a 1955 comedy film written and directed by the U.S. playwright, screenwriter and film director Preston Sturges (1898-1959). The phrase reoccurs in two reviews of this film, which was only released in the USA in May 1957:

1: In the review by A. S. Kany, published in the Journal Herald (Dayton, Ohio, USA) of Wednesday 19th June 1957:

The best crack is when an English mother gives her daughter some moral asperin [sic] on her wedding night: “I know, my dear, it is disgusting, but just close your eyes and think of England!”

2: In the review by Charles Staff, published in The Indianapolis News (Indianapolis, Indiana, USA) of Saturday 14th September 1957:

Toothsome Ursula, on their marriage night, is comforted by her mother, the duchess, who says, “I know, my dear, it’s simply dreadful, but just close your eyes and think of England!”

In 1955, Leonard Lyons related a slightly different version of the story that he had first told in 1943—the earliest occurrence that I have found of this new version is from The Huntsville Times (Huntsville, Alabama, USA) of Friday 23rd December 1955:

ADVICE TO LOVELORN: Noel Coward3 tells this story about Mrs. Stanley Baldwin, soon after her husband had moved from 10 Downing Street. Her daughter came to her for advice about a beau and asked what to do in case the young man should try to kiss her. “Do what I did,” replied Mrs. Baldwin. “Just close your eyes — and think of England.”

3 Noël Coward (1899-1973) was an English playwright, actor and composer.

Seven years later, Leonard Lyons told yet a different version of the story—the following, for example, is from The Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA) of Wednesday 7th November 1962:

A noted Londoner, who has a growing daughter, was advised to counsel her about how to behave with a young man. He replied by quoting advice he heard Mrs. Stanley Baldwin give to her young daughter, who asked what to do if her escort wanted to kiss her. “Do what I did,” Mrs. Baldwin said to the girl. “Just close your eyes and think of England.”

Two years later, Leonard Lyons mentioned Noël Coward again—the following, for example, is from the Philadelphia Daily News (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) of Friday 19th December 1969:

Whenever Noel Coward is asked for advice on an affair of the heart, he quotes what Mrs. Stanley Baldwin told him. The Prime Minister’s widow has a daughter, who asked what she should do if her beau that night should try to kiss her. “Do what I did,” Mrs. Baldwin counseled the girl. “Close your eyes, and think of England.”

In 1969, The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) asked three European journalists for their views on Britain; on Wednesday 14th May 1969, Olof Petterlind, of Svenska Dagbladet, a newspaper published in Stockholm, Sweden, used the phrase, perhaps with implicit and humorous reference to its sexual acceptation:

[As] the owner of a British car for which spare parts have been missing to [sic] long—you wonder which strike is on now and which will be the next one?.
By now I have learned there must always be a strike somewhere in Britain, and when the car stops there is only one thing to do, count to ten, close your eyes and think of England.

 

ATTRIBUTIONS TO VICTORIAN AND EDWARDIAN TIMES

 

It seems that it was only relatively recently—and with no satisfactory evidence—that the phrase came to be attributed to Victorian and Edwardian times.

In The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1972), by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, the epigraph to the chapter titled Class and Position of the Nanny—First Sexual Detour is the following quotation:

“I am happy now that Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England.”
                                                                                                  Lady Hillingham, Journal, 1912

However, this quotation may be apocryphal, as Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy himself suspected:

Victorian times continue until 1914. One finds as many mentions in Edwardian literature to the chastity, the holy purity of upper class women, indeed to their active abhorrence of sex, as one does in the nineteenth century. There was the passage I quoted from Lady Hillingham at the head of this chapter—“. . . close my eyes, open my legs and think of England”. The source for this quotation is a little suspect. The sentiment expressed is without question typical and accurate.

Likewise, William Davis significantly used the word “legendary” in this passage from Honeymoons: where the confetti trail leads, published in The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Sunday 17th June 1973:

The classic Victorian mother was the legendary British lady whose parting pre-nuptial advice to her daughter was: “Close your eyes — and think of England.”

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