100+ essays on literary topics
Recent attempts by the British government to remind British citizens of the importance of British values, to encourage parents to instil them in their children and to require state-funded schools to teach them might not be unconnected with current concerns over immigration, but could also be explained by the old saying that you only miss something when it’s gone.
As nobody seems to be able to say exactly what these British values are, except by talking vaguely about the kind of things that are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, from which the government at the same time is threatening to withdraw, perhaps we should turn to literature for an answer. What a nation reads, what it has read in the past and goes on reading, the books that it considers to be its classics, must surely be a better guide to what its values are than the opinion of the government of the day.
The implied contradiction in looking for British values in English literature is inescapable. The homogeneity or otherwise of a nation is one of the factors that affect how it sees itself and wants to be seen by others. The great classic of Italian literature, Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, has that status because it looks back to a time of instability and lawlessness from which Italians had been saved by unification. But it is no work of propaganda. As Victor Hugo did in France, so Manzoni in Italy showed his compatriots the best and the worst of themselves. The combination of romanticism and realism made nineteenth century literature the perfect vehicle for expressing an idealistic view of the nation’s future and an honest view of its imperfect present.
The same was true in England of Dickens, who wrote at a time when the ruling class, fearing revolution, could not make up its mind between reform and repression as the best way of holding the country together, that country being nominally Britain but in practice England. (It has always been necessary for the Irish, Welsh and Scottish to make themselves more English in order to be considered British. Take Dylan Thomas, whose poetry was imbued with the sound of a Welsh male voice choir but who read it in the voice of an English actor.) Dickens both shaped and reflected the way the English thought about themselves. He told them to put their faith, not in governments, but in individualism and protestant ethics. His villains were politicians and money-lenders. His heroes were morally upright men, his heroines self-sacrificing women. The British Empire was useful, both as a plot device and in real life, as a way for people, of their own volition or at Her Majesty’s pleasure, to make a fresh start somewhere else.
For Dickens and for the times he lived in, the question of homogeneity was not primarily about conflict between the different countries of the British Isles, let alone their colonies, but between the classes in all of them. That was why Britain continued to be preoccupied with the French Revolution. The ruling class was alarmed, the working class was inspired. Writers had their hopes raised by the revolution and dashed by Napoleon. The fear or hope of revolution was never far from the minds of poets, novelists and essayists (dramatists were held in check by the censor) throughout the nineteenth century.
The British ruling class has always been afraid of something, whether invasion from without or subversion from within. This has given rise over the centuries to the British habit of looking inward and seeing themselves as somehow different. Different and better, because Britain never went to the extremes of violence that other countries did (having learned its lesson in the Civil War) and because, after 1066, it had never failed to defend itself from invasion by a foreign power. The British government learned over time to judge the extent to which, by compromise and a show of fairness, it could achieve its objectives, which were to avoid trouble and by doing so to maintain the status quo. It learned above all that money talks. Better to buy off your opponents than risk a revolution by firing on them in the streets. This is the story of the nineteenth century Radicals, as told in the novels of George Eliot and her contemporaries, running into the buffers with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and Love on the Dole and their implicit admission of defeat.
Writers by and large reflect rather than shape. The national preference for compromise rather than confrontation, for reasonableness rather than reason, has become in the last hundred years the defining characteristic of the national literature. Romantic idealism has had its day. ‘No, not yet,’ said E.M.Forster. ‘No, not there.’ D.H.Lawrence, spitting and swearing in the wings, was ignored by the well-bred actors on stage, until he went too far with an exhibition of tasteless nudes that the establishment felt obliged to put under lock and key. It was then, in the middle years of the twentieth century, that the establishment forgot, in its irritation with working class upstarts, that the worst thing to do was to confront them. It was, no doubt, an old hand in the Home Office who took the Minister on one side and advised him to remove from the Lord Chancellor his powers of censorship, thereby at a stroke depriving the playwrights of their principal grievance. From then on, they were rebels without a cause.
Matthew Arnold saw it coming when, hearing ‘its long withdrawing roar’, he recognised that the age of faith was over and the age of reason – or in Britain’s case, reasonableness – had begun. As a word to stir the nation, it can’t compare to the three words written above the door of every municipal building in France, but as a way of disarming the opposition and maintaining the status quo reasonableness has proved effective. The values of Arnold and others like him, who clung to what even they recognised as an outmoded idealism, were identical to those of the French revolutionaries in everything except revolution. In News From Nowhere and A Dream of John Ball, William Morris’s socialist vision takes the form of a dream, less a manifesto than a wistful sigh. Utopia in twentieth century English literature was replaced by dystopia. By painting a picture of politics at its worst, British writers drove the last nails into the coffin of romantic idealism. Shakespeare never used words lightly and when, in The Tempest, he described the ‘new world’ as ‘brave’ he surely had in mind the one quality that distinguishes idealists from politicians. Look what happened to the original utopian, Sir Thomas More, when he stood up to Henry VIII. Winston Smith is his counterpart in an age when the words ‘idealist’ and ‘hopeless’ are indissolubly linked and nobody writes utopian novels anymore.
Fairness, moderation, reasonableness. Not words to stir the heart, but definitely British.
The next post will be my Reader’s Diary for 10 September.
My subject on 17 September will be a poem by Charles Causley.