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September 22, 2006

Do many of our ideas about England and Englishness come out of the novel? And is national identity the central theme of the English novel? Nation and Novel: The English Novel from its Origins to the Present Day - Patrick Parrinder

Posted by David Womersley

Nation and Novel: The English Novel from its Origins to the Present Day
by Patrick Parrinder
Pp. viii + 502. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006
Hardback, 25

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Patrick Parrinder's Nation and Novel, and finds "a Whig history of the novel in which the sunlit uplands towards which we have been struggling are the gentle slopes of multiculturalism, rather than liberty".

What is the "story of the novel"? And does it make sense to assume that the primary Western narrative form itself possesses what it purveys: namely, a story? Patrick Parrinder's new book surveys the English novel, from its shadowy forebear (normally here referred to by the tweezer-like phrase "early prose fiction") through to the self-consciously multicultural novels of the early twenty-first century.

The clew Parrinder follows across the centuries and through the manifold re-inventions of this protean form is that of national identity. In the book's opening pages he makes large claims for the appropriateness and fruitfulness of this angle of attack (p. 6):

the nature of national identity and of its now rather unfashionable counterpart "national character" has been consistently debated by English novelists across the centuries. Secondly, novels are the source of some of our most influential ideas and expressions of national identity. Works of art which are enjoyed and appreciated by subsequent generations play a key part in the transmission and dissemination of national images, memories, and myths. Thirdly, the fictional tradition adds a largely untapped body of evidence to historical enquiry into the origins and development of our inherited ideas about England and the English.
It certainly is the case that many English novels interrogate the question of national identity: as Parrinder says, "fictional narrative gives us an inside view of a society or nation." (p. 1) But is this a path taken by all the great English novels?

And, even among those that do, is the engagement with the question of national identity of their essence, or might it rather be something more incidental, a means to the end of focusing the novel on its true subject, which is less political - even allowing for the distinction Parrinder wishes to draw between the "cultural nation" and the "political nation" (p. 17)? Parrinder's hypothesis is unquestionably worthy of investigation. Now that it has been investigated, the question arises: is it true?

On the showing of Nation and Novel, it is true in parts. In the earlier sections of the book, until we reach the early nineteenth century, the coverage is wide but shallow, consisting for the most part of short one to two page summaries of the content of a series of novels. This is not Parrinder's home territory, and it shows, not just in the unanalytic and conceptually thin quality of the writing, but also in a series of missed opportunities.

Burney's Evelina (1778), for instance, is a fascinating example of how the inherited form of the family romance acquired new tonalities and resonances when filtered through the contemporary political language of Great Britain's war with its American colonies a language which had as its central tropes the "mother country" and the "filial colonies". National identity is very much at stake here, and is fused with the question of personal identity: Evelina's quest to find out who she is and to unravel the mystery of her parentage as she crosses the threshold into adulthood shadows the parallel and simultaneous struggle of the American colonies to do the same - to take, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, their place in the ranks of nations. Yet this novel, so intelligently preoccupied with the character and fortunes of the English nation at a time of imperial crisis, receives from Parrinder only a handful of glancing references.

Where then does his approach pay dividends? Disraeli, Scott, Thackeray, Waugh and Powell are authors on whom Parrinder has genuinely interesting things to say, and in these sections of Nation and Novel his writing becomes more engaged and more richly detailed. However, the corollary of these achievements is the troubling list of surely more important novelists about whom Parrinder's approach constrains him to say little: Henry James, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce.

He makes a valiant attempt to give extended treatment to Dickens, aware perhaps that a survey of this kind which either did not or could not find room for his novels would be even more eviscerated than Hamlet without the prince, but here he is evidently arguing uphill, since Dickens' imaginative energies incorporate, but also pass beyond, the political. In its heyday, the novel's deepest concerns relate to difficult questions of personal, not national, identity. Its preoccupations are moral rather than political, and political issues are admitted into the novel for the way they can illuminate these more fundamental issues. This is the reason why, in the nineteenth and to a lesser extent in the twentieth centuries, Parrinder's approach produces a vision of the English novel not unlike those maps of the world drawn according to an unusual projection: the marginal and secondary swell into importance, the great dwindle and are pushed to the margins. Such maps are amusing and instructional, but serve no lasting purpose.

Nation and Novel concludes on a chord of resonant teleology. Discussing immigrant novelists such as Rushdie, Naipaul and Zadie Smith, Parrinder finds in them the summation of the process he has been tracing (p. 405):

The creation of new identities and the surprising prolongation, or perhaps even usurpation, of older ones is at the heart of immigration fiction. In the work of these writers the implicit subject matter of the whole tradition of the English novel - the creation, maintenance, decay, and cross-fertilization of the national identity - is at last made explicit.
As noted above, there are good reasons for being sceptical as to whether this is really the "implicit subject matter of the whole tradition of the English novel".

Today one might also demur at this note of triumphant, celebratory culmination. Parrinder has written a Whig history of the novel in which the sunlit uplands towards which we have been struggling are the gentle slopes of multiculturalism, rather than liberty. In the wake of the London bombings of July 2005 and the foiled multiple aircraft bombings of August 2006, multiculturalism perhaps no longer seems such a haven, its "tolerance" now unmasked as merely a fig-leaf for a disdain and aloofness which in some areas amounts to an informal apartheid, its consequences not an easy racial ecumenicism but rather conditions favourable to the nourishing of virulently toxic identities in which questions of race and religion have become poisonously fused. Parrinder's last words promise "more of the same" (p. 414):

The idea that national identity is problematic is now very widespread, if not universal. We may be confident that twenty-first-century novelists will continue to participate in the making and remaking of English identity.
The level tone here suggests a prospect of intriguing, but mild, intellectual pleasures. It is a sign of how swiftly and drastically the waters of nationalism are now moving that "the making and remaking of English identity" seems likely, in the coming years, to be rather more violent than is implied by the equanimity of Parrinder's conclusion.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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a vision of the English novel not unlike those maps of the world drawn according to an unusual projection: the marginal and secondary swell into importance, the great dwindle and are pushed to the margins. Such maps are amusing and instructional, but serve no lasting purpose.

What a beautiful analogy! It makes me think of the controversy over Gall-Peters projection, an episode which illustrates how political prejudice can drive out sense and fact. A slightly hostile account is found on Wikipedia which suggests that Peters unwittingly plagiarized a very similar projection invented by James Gall, while one nearer to the source shows that Peters calculated it not on the spherical approximation but on the dimensions of the earth as an ellipsoid, as predicted by Newton and experimentally confirmed by, among others, that remarkable Enlightenment man Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis.

I was initially put off the projection by all the United-Nationsy hoo-ha surrounding it, but I have come round to it since seeing it used on a web page, where it makes excellent use of the limited space provided by a computer screen.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 25, 2006 08:22 PM
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