Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Towards a Critical Patriotism: The Challenge to Traditional Notions of National Identity Posed by the Dutch Historical Novel in the 1930s

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Towards a Critical Patriotism: The Challenge to Traditional Notions of National Identity Posed by the Dutch Historical Novel in the 1930s

Article excerpt

In the decade preceding the Second World War, the historical novel in the Netherlands functions as a site for contesting aspects of Dutch identity. This challenge to traditional notions of Dutchness cannot be separated from issues of nationalism and patriotism which came to the fore as the decade progressed and a growing sense of being a small country sharing a border with an aggressive neighbour provoked a response throughout Dutch society and culture. Since the Netherlands were neutral during the First World War, it is possible that a less intense national feeling would have developed here than was the case in the countries engaged in fighting. An intellectual radical like Carry van Bruggen certainly felt able to adopt a highly critical stance towards European nationalisms in her major philosophical essay Prometheus (1919). (1) Furthermore, there was a conviction after the First World War that the Netherlands would remain neutral in future conflicts, and Prime Minister Colijn believed this well into the thirties. (2) At the same time, however, Anton Mussert, who was to lead the Dutch National Socialist Party, made an appeal to nationalist feelings at his first rally in 1930, and the first edition of the party newspaper Volk en Vaderland ['People and Fatherland'] appeared in January 1933. (3)

The idea that literature shapes rather than reflects context is not new, as Herbert Butterfield's 1924 essay on the historical novel demonstrates. In it he notes that the historical novel 'is often born of a kind of patriotism; it can scarcely avoid always being the inspiration of it' and 'in this way it becomes itself a power in history, an impulse to fine feeling, and a source of more of the action and heroism which it describes. The historical novel itself becomes a maker of history.' (4) This power, according to Butterfield, comes from the fact that the historical novel has its 'roots in the soil' (p. 41). The 'feeling for the history that breathes through the soil' can induce patriotism where none was intended. Not surprisingly, according to Butterfield, it is the 'epic of national liberty' that 'is specially calculated to produce the precise feeling that it describes, to stir readers to the aspirations that are its theme, to be a force for liberty itself' (p. 88). In this account of the historical novel, then, a story about the past can act upon the present. The starting point of my discussion is that the historical novel, even though its subject matter is history, is very much of the present, of the time in which it was written.

This article investigates how three Dutch historical novels seek to engage with the patriotic sensibilities of the Dutch in the 1930s. I shall be arguing here that although the Dutch situation required a patriotic response, there was little agreement about which aspects of Dutch society and culture formed the core elements of Dutch identity. Indirectly this was due to the democratization process which led the newly emancipated (mainly middle-class women at this stage, with working-class men and women to follow) to seek to adjust the notion of Dutchness to reflect their values. A number of historical novels published in the Netherlands in this period offer a range of images of Dutchness, and I am particularly interested in two kinds of challenge to traditional notions of what constitutes Dutchness. The first is a challenge to the exclusion of women from prevailing ideas of Dutch identity, their invisibility deriving from the practice of subsuming female identity under male identity. It is provided by the novel Vrouw Jacob ('Lady Jack', known as Jacqueline of Hainaut in English and Jacoba van Beieren in Dutch) by Ina Boudier-Bakker, which appeared in 1935. The second challenge is a more complex response to nationalism by the literary and intellectual elite associated with the influential figure of Menno ter Braak. It will be illustrated by discussion of De waterman (1933) (5) by Arthur van Schendel and Schandaal in Holland ['Scandal in Holland'] (1939) by E. …

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