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

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

Conclusion: On Englishness and the
Twenty-First-Century Novel

IN 2001 Ian McEwan's novel Atonement was shortlisted for the annual Booker Prize. Starting with an epigraph from Jane Austen ('Remember that we are English … ') and a long episode portraying a 1930s country-house party, it was the story of the childhood and youth of an English novelist—a novelist, moreover, of the generation before McEwan's own. Atonement proceeds to evoke the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940 and the arrival of the casualties from Dunkirk at St Thomas's Hospital in London. Apart from a brief concluding section dated 'London, 1999', all the narrated events take place well before McEwan's own birth in 1948.1 Critics found nothing unusual in this degree of retrospective vision. Historical reconstruction had become such a regular feature of late twentieth-century English fiction that Atonement was not generally classed as a historical novel.

With the exception of some little-understood foreigners encountered by the British soldiers near Dunkirk, all McEwan's characters are English. Atonement was published at a time when self-consciously Anglocentric fiction (including a number of novels with 'England' or 'English' in their titles) was back in fashion. McEwan was concerned with class conflict within his country-house society, and with the contrast between the private world of upper-class manners and regimented mass institutions such as the army and the hospital. Dunkirk and its aftermath were presented as a time of national crisis successfully surmounted by most of his characters. One of Atonement's few direct acknowledgements of the vast social changes that took place subsequently was the bare information that, in 1999, the country house of the opening section had been turned into a hotel. Presumably it would have been staffed by members of Britain's recent immigrant population, but that was not one of the novelist's concerns.

Lamenting the death of the American novelist Saul Bellow in 2005, McEwan wrote that 'In Britain we no longer seem able to write across

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