Literary Evasions of the English Nation in the Twentieth Century
Literary Evasions of the English Nation in the 20th Century Nicholas Parker - Prof. Marjorie Howes and Prof. Andrew Von Hendy. ABSTRACT This dissertation seeks to engage with some of the complex means by which English subjects in the twentieth century envisage their relationship with the concept of nation, and with their own nation in particular. These are deeply ambivalent relationships, which present simultaneously seemingly contradictory and irreconcilable characteristics. In some ways the nation seems hegemonic and repressively conditioning to many English writers over the last hundred years. It is also deeply embedded in our ways of conceiving of ourselves, and is an irresistibly enticing means of understanding the world around us. It pushes individuals towards resistance and yet strongly resists evasion. At times the nation enables the establishment of identity in opposition to other ideological forces; at other moments, it becomes the problematic ideological structure in itself. These and other dichotomies will be examined in the course of this study. In chapter one I consider examples of writing between the wars, and comparable ways in which two authors render the subjectivity of the English individual as an untenable balancing act between living inside and outside the nation's literal and metaphorical territory. Woolf and the little known C.E. Montague narrate their changing engagement with England during and between the World Wars. Wartime is a moment of profound reification of the nation, where failure to fully commit to support it is potentially punishable by death. Both Mrs. Dalloway and Montague's Rough Justice narrate, in their differing ways, just such a death. Both authors share a developing sense of the frailty and decrepitude of England in the period, but both also develop a clear model for the recasting, rather than the casting out, of England into more enduring and politically palatable terms. In the second chapter I turn to the nation as it attempts to reproduce itself abroad. In the 1930s colonial English abroad are rendered in a state of dislocation from their home nation by Orwell and Mary O'Malley. They are cast as "ambassadors" for the English nation, proxies who are expected to prove themselves the most respectable of exemplars for their home. However, in the course of Burmese Days and O'Malley's Peking Picnic these central characters prove unqualified to maintain the impossible ideals of the nation they are expected to represent. They are instead aliens, in relation to both their home nation and their new "home" abroad. Chapter three ranges from the 1930s to 1960s, and to English regional narratives in which characters actively attempt to evade their nationality. The conceptual center of the chapter is the Angry Young Men movement of the 1950s, quintessentially represented by Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse. Beyond manifesting a rebelliousness towards the English nation in general, these two writers outline characters who employ a technique of fantasizing other lives as an attempt to liberate themselves from the pressures of an English nation with which they cannot, or will not, align themselves. They daydream visions of empowerment, glory and power. In so doing they momentarily disrupt the direct influence of the nation over them. Phyllis Bentley, a Northern English writer from an earlier decade, renders in her novel Environment a comparable desire to break from the influence of the English nation by dint of daydreaming another, independent existence. The relatively obscure Arthur Wise, writing in the late 1960s, enacts this fantasy in the most extreme terms in his 1968 novel The Day the Queen Flew to Scotland for the Grouse Shooting, a text that depicts the dream of bloody revolution and complete fragmentation of England, North and South. In my final chapter I turn to writing from later in the century, in which ambivalence about national affiliation leads to an extreme skepticism towards the nation as a concept in general, and to all other ideological constructs along with it. William Golding and Ian McEwan, in their novels Free Fall and Black Dogs, create willfully nihilistic characters that fear all hegemonic forces and struggle to gain and retain independence from investment in nation. Neither of these central protagonists can remain dislocated from allegiances for long however - the need for alignment with some form of collective construct outside themselves (like nation, personal love, theological values, etcetera) is overwhelming. I conclude, on the basis of the work of these ten writers, that the English nation is in a deeply unstable position, its authority, and even its substantive existence, challenged in a variety of ways both from without and from within. Its external opponents, both in rival nation-states and sub-national ideological movements (a number of which are violently threatening) are largely manifest. Perhaps more dangerous still, for England's continued endurance, are the threats which these writers suggest can come from national `insiders,' who resist, evade, question, even attack, the nation from which they purportedly emerge.