There is more to the story than a solid slice of Stilton and a stiff upper lip

Nation and Novel
May 5, 2006

Pimm's fruit cup, Stilton cheese and the novel - three things that are generally identified with the English. Yet, at the root of "Englishness" lie centuries of ethnic mixing and miscegenation between Romans, Angles, Saxons, Celts, Danes, Vikings, Normans and many others.

Thus, long before English society and the English novel came to show their current influences from the numerous post-colonial movements of the 20th century, both the society and its literature had been altered by much earlier encounters.

By reminding us of this historical truth in Nation and Novel , Patrick Parrinder provides a caveat against the notion of ethnic purity in fiction.

He also establishes, early on, a circularity. Having begun by looking at early English prose narratives, some of which are translations from other European languages into English, he closes his book by studying the influence of immigrant narratives on the novel in the present moment: an influence he wholly approves of for its rejuvenating effect on a recently stagnant literary form.

Despite its youth as a form in other parts of the world, the novel has about it a sense of "Englishness", and Parrinder shows how the very notion of the English nation-state has come to be shaped by the novel. Henry James, for example, hoped that his readers would be unable to tell whether he was an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America. And James Joyce is also supposed to have said that literature is national before it is international, adding that: "If you are sufficiently national, you will be international."

In the second half of the 20th century, the process of novelistic nation-building continued with the emergence of English-language novels such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart around the time of the newfound political independence of many countries, which helped to give audibility, identity and shape to these new nations. But at the same time, the very newness of these emerging literatures acted as a foil to the English novel, reminding readers everywhere of the age and permanence of the English landscape - the moors, lakes, valleys, hamlets and country churches - that had penetrated other cultures by way of the British Empire and insinuated themselves into a cross-cultural novelistic conversation.

After an introduction that concentrates the mind and establishes the framework within which his narrative moves, Parrinder devotes 11 chapters to engaging closely with the English novel over the centuries before he offers, in the last four chapters, a reading of empire.

Not surprisingly, given the established nature of the English novel, Parrinder's book is not an exercise in canon formation, unlike studies of still emerging literatures, and is both pedagogic and monographic in intent. Nation and Novel is really a reckoning of the relationship between fiction and nation and the literary repercussions of this relationship. In detailed textual studies of works ranging from Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur to V. S. Naipaul's In a Free State , Parrinder looks at the changes in social perceptions and in the "reading" of the English nation that have been mediated by novelistic discourse. Today, the English literary canon has developed to a point where specialists are happy to speak in terms of narrow periods: Elizabethan, Victorian, Modern and so on. The stark contrast with the emerging literatures in English, clubbed together under exceptionally spacious and generalised categories such as "post-colonial", could hardly be greater. And yet, Parrinder reminds us, the English novel is a latecomer compared with epic poetry, myths and ballads. Nevertheless, its steady growth has left us with several instantly recognisable English characters such as Robinson Crusoe and Robin Hood, not to mention what Joyce in Ulysses summed up as the "British beatitudes": beer, beef, business, bulldogs, Bibles, battleships, buggery and bishops.

Parrinder investigates many of the tropes associated with the novel. To name several of the most important, there is the idea of an "English character" defined by emotional reserve and self-suppression; the use of allegorical names, which is part of the novel's inheritance from earlier literatures and is sometimes political, as with the subtly Whig or Tory names of Jane Austen's characters; the "journey" as a narrative device, an element impossible in plays because of the limitations of the stage; "gentrification", a direct outcome of the bourgeois anxiety to acquire, which was a key part of life in 18th-century Britain; "village life", which was at the heart of Romanticism; of the "historical romance", as written by Walter Scott, but also by others; the autobiographical novel or Bildungsroman ; "nationalistic readings", such as those of Robinson Crusoe by several critics; the "doctrinal issue" of the sufferings of Job central to the 18th-century novel; and finally the concept of the "highwayman" and the "arch-thief" Robin Hood. Referring to this last element - society's underbelly in the novel - Parrinder memorably quotes Lennard J. Davis's Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel : "Without the appearance of the whore, the rogue, the cutpurse, the cheat, the thief or the outsider, it would be impossible to imagine the genre of the novel." It is not surprising that this highly democratic literary form has been used to mark democratic victories. Ironically, after the Civil War, fiction about rogues was allied with the Royalists because the Puritan Commonwealth condemned with equal fervour both criminals and the followers of the defeated King.

Perhaps the only quibble one might have with this thoroughly researched literary history is that, insofar as it addresses the student of literature or the lover of the English novel, it gives far too much space to detailed synopses of numerous works - territory much travelled - and not enough to the study of sociohistorical conditions that influenced the writing of these works.

In the end, however, the reader is well aware that everything Parrinder writes is supported by centuries of evidence, the certainty of a canon and that canon's familiarity around the world. The English novel is a confident body of literature, and this invests Nation and Novel with an energy, evident in its clear distinctions, its sound comparisons and, above all, in the complete absence of the provisional judgments that will remain necessary in discussing the novels of the emerging English literatures for a long while to come.

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in literature from Bristol University.

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

Author - Patrick Parrinder
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 502
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 19 926484 8

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