Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

Introduction

ENGLISH novels—like French, Russian, and American novels—are read all over the world, and the fact that they express and help to define a particular nationality is part of their appeal. Fictional narrative gives us an inside view of a society or nation, just as it gives access to personal experiences very different from our own. There are few more enjoyable ways of increasing our knowledge and satisfying our curiosity than reading a novel that we cannot put down. But the ideas and information that we derive from reading fiction are not always easy to single out. The Frenchness of a French novel, or the Russianness of a Russian novel, is a thing that most readers (whether native or foreign) only vaguely sense. Often it resides in impressions that are wholly or largely subconscious as well as in those that are crudely obvious. The same is true of English novels, with the added complication that English identity has itself come to be seen as notoriously elusive and idiosyncratic.

We must begin, then, with a brief preliminary account of what the historian E. P. Thompson once called 'the peculiarities of the English'.1 There is no written constitution and no readily available national ideology, as in the United States. There is no generally agreed name for the Anglo-British state (England? Great Britain? The United Kingdom? The UK?) except in a formal or ceremonial context. To the extent that the state is held together by time-worn institutions such as the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the national system of patronage and titles, it wins at best a grudging allegiance from many English—and Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish—people. But the British mainland with its three separate nationalities has learned to live fairly easily with political and cultural divisions. The necessity of division is enshrined in such typically English social forms as the adversarial system of justice and the two-party system (Government and Opposition) in Parliament.

What, then, is the novel's representation of Englishness? Does it reflect what seems to be the national characteristic of unity-in-division? If the answer to this question is far from being simple and straightforward, it is not only because of the multiplicity of English novels themselves. The

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