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

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

12
From Forster to Orwell: The Novel
of England's Destiny

AT the end of the nineteenth century, Krishan Kumar has claimed, 'English intellectuals and artists—historians, political theorists, literary and cultural critics, composers, poets and novelists—for the first time began an inquiry into the character of the English people as a nation—as a collectivity, that is, with a distinct sense of its history, its traditions and its destiny'.1 Such an inquiry was hardly unprecedented, as this book has shown. In early twentieth-century fiction it was pursued with greater self-consciousness than ever before, but also in an increasingly sceptical and critical spirit. If any novelist of the time was dedicated to investigating the English character it was E. M. Forster, but Forster wrote in 'What I Believe' (1939) that 'I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country'.2

Early in Forster's The Longest Journey (1907) the protagonist, Rickie Elliot, is being shown around Sawston School, a Jacobean foundation that is now a boarding school for the upper-middle classes. Rickie, who will become a teacher at Sawston, is deeply ambivalent about the publicschool ethos. But as he looks reverentially at a fragment of Jacobean brickwork he and his guide, the schoolmaster Herbert Pembroke, are joined in a moment of sympathy:

The two men, who had so little in common, were thrilled with patriotism. They
rejoiced that their country was great, noble, and old.

'Thank God I'm English,' said Rickie suddenly.

'Thank Him indeed,' said Mr Pembroke, laying a hand on his back.

'We've been nearly as great as the Greeks, I do believe. Greater, I'm sure, than
the Italians, though they did get closer to beauty. Greater than the French, though
we do take all their ideas. I can't help thinking that England is immense. English
literature certainly.'3

This scene could not have appeared in a mid-Victorian novel, since characters in Victorian fiction do not feel the need to launch into patriotic

-291-

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