The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Monday, 18 July 2011

The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920

Time for the next 2 chapters of this literary theory book that I rediscovered unread earlier on this year and hope to comment on each month.

Last month we covered Declension and Frontiers. We now move on to chapters 10 and 11 of Part II on Nation and Society.

Chapter 10 - Englishness

England had a strong sense of itself, its own identity, and it had emerged from its national attributes, 'political, legal and administrative stability, and a widely intelligible vernacular.' (p154) With the expansion of England into Britain and a rapidly growing industrialisation, cultural images and narratives of a sense of nation became more important. It is believed that this emphasis on Englishness was responsible for a decline in 'entrepeneurial spirit' and a rise in literary criticism at the time.

The Boer War was blamed for a change in perceptions away from country born intelligence to city based intelligence. Urban life was destroying the race and only a return to living off the land would reintroduce our identity. In literature, historical depth was needed, and Rudyard Kipling explored this along with a return to ancient dialects and regional language patterns to continue nationality. Language was seen to be degenerating with the loss of Anglo Saxon. William Barnes, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Ezra Pound all championed the return of Anglo Saxon vigour.

Barnes thought that Latin and French words had weakened the English language, and the purest English was in Wessex, the furthest from international influence. Hardy and Kipling embraced the Wessex dialect to authenticate characters.

Along with connections to ancient speech patterns was a fascination for ancient architecture. Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury Hill and other ancient places enhanced a feeling of understanding of an old, wise knowledge that belonged to England, and authors used them to create an accessible magic.

Englishness was beginning to enter the realms of fantasy, no more so than in those who adopted the act of being English. A famous example of the time was Ford Madox Ford, author, poet and editor of literary journals. He spoke with a pronounced precision, claimed a connection with the land and the simple life, medievalism, adopted Toryism, became a cricket enthusiast and the ways of the old school tie. Yet his origins were German, his real surname was Hueffer. It was a performance, validating itself in an emphasis on tradition over the new. It shook up perceptions of being English. Hueffer wrote extensively about Englishness but warned about 'the Heart of England' being an illusion developed by people in cities seeking a more traditional source of national identity.

Chapter 11 - Spies

Patriotism continued in the form of the popular spy novels but here the emphasis is on protecting the national identity from outside influences. The genre replaced the imperial adventure stories as anxieties moved from frontiers to Great Power rivalry.

It is not coincidence that spy novels arose at the same time as the British Secret Service, and its leader was convinced of an invasion by the Germans. To reaffirm his suspicions literature came to his aid. Popular caricatures can often be mistaken for real people. These novels also became heavily didactic as the secret agent became a 'symbol of stability' in a world that was quickly changing.

Where the sensation novels of the 1860's emphasised anxieties of bigamy, or wrongful incarciration in lunatic asylums, the 1880's brought terrorism in the form of the Fenian bombings. Terrorism was international and brought to the fore the fact that Britain was part of a big scary world and not an isolated island bubble. Terrorists were secretive and once a member you could not leave. They were driven by ancient grudges and insults, killing for revenge. Any invasion would be impossible without an influx of spies, living among us, ordinary lives waiting for instruction to wreak havoc. Such a situation, emphasising enigma rather than battles, needed a new type of hero, a sleepy Englishman thrown into an extraordinary situation, having to save not just himself but his country too. Luxurious and high up places provided sophisticated settings for these novels. The threat to England widened as paranoia grew, and E Phillips Oppenheim as well as other authors, became interested in secret societies as the spy novel gained influence.

Lord Baden Powell likened spying to scouting, adventure for anyone tired of life. The thrilling occupations of a spy were a national regenerator and John Buchan's character Richard Hannay embodied that. He was 'nomadic, protean, occasionally violent, a symbol of the instability needed to revitalize a complacent, suburbanized society'. (p180)

Contemporary works that illustrate the above points include...

She and Kim by Rudyard Kipling

The Secret Places of the Heart by H G Wells

England, My England by D H Lawrence

The Heart of the Country and The Spirit of the People by Ford Madox Hueffer

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

The Mysterious Mr Sabin and The Great Impersonation by E Phillips Oppenheim

Just to let you know this post has come out later than planned because after spending 2 hours composing it some days ago, on publishing it something happened and the entire post was wiped with no trace. Gutting!

Please look out for the next 2 chapters some time next month

No comments:

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye