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For fairly obvious reasons (for some years now I have been engaged with my own variation on the theme) I love reading histories of literature, and Nation and Novel by Patrick Parrinder is a particularly interesting example because of its thematic content. What he attempts to do is show how the English novel (and though the last chapter is largely devoted to immigrant literature, the book is explicitly limited to English literature, no Irish or Welsh authors are included, and despite the presence of Walter Scott little comes from Scotland either) both engages with and illuminates the ever-changing question of the English national character. In fact he pretty clearly lays at the door of literature the notion that there might be such a thing as a ‘national character’. Thematically this tends to come down to a binary opposition: Puritan versus Cavalier, which he also tends to recast in political terms as Whig versus Tory (even when socialism comes into the political picture and becomes the main opposition to toryism, Parrinder tends to continue using these two terms). Curiously, he seems to equate Puritan and Tory, an equation I’m not entirely comfortable with. And in the final analysis, certainly in so far as we accept his view of significant works and trends, it would appear that in literary terms the Puritan and the Tory come out ahead. I tend to think he overplays this opposition, especially as we get into the 20th century. I was quite relieved when Puritan/Cavalier seemed to disappear from the story around the 1920s and 30s, until he suddenly reintroduced the opposition in his discussion of Kingsley Amis. But then, when the TLS did their books of the year a couple of weeks back, A.N. Wilson introduced his selection by saying he had picked one Puritan and one Cavalier; so maybe the terms continue to have a relevance.

As the above may suggest, I am unconvinced by Parrinder’s overall argument, but that does not mean that I think this is a flawed or uninteresting book. In fact I think it is a very valuable argument, and in his detailed discussion of certain books I think there is some excellent stuff.

However, there are things that bother me about the book. To start with, there is the issue of science fiction. We know that Parrinder is a scholar of science fiction, and his occasional references to sf in this book are far from negative. But he still seems to have excluded sf from the picture. His discussion of the Gothic centres almost exclusively on Northanger Abbey, with barely any mention of The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Thomas Love Peacock or Mary Shelley. Robert Louis Stevenson is entirely absent from the history (how would Jeckyll and Hyde fit into a discussion of the two-part British character? Or is Scottishness enough to exclude it?) Surely The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds say as much about English social structures and behaviour as Tono-Bungay and The History of Mr Polly, which are the only ones of H.G. Wells’s many novels that receive significant attention. And so it goes on. I make no special claims for sf above other genres (Graham Greene isn’t mentioned), but I feel it should play more of a part than it does.

But that is a minor quibble compared to the whole issue of selection. No work of this nature can cover everything, there are bound to be works that receive excessive attention and authors who are ignored completely. That is the way of things. It is also inevitable that selections will be made that suit the overall theme of the book. Nevertheless, when the argument of the book does balance Puritan against Cavalier, Whig against Tory, I can’t help feeling that somehow there should be more Cavalier and Whig authors in the mix. And there are times when I felt sometimes odd decisions were made: why so much space devoted to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time and so little space to John Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga? And if you are going to look at the charmed circle of friends at the heart of Powell’s sequence, maybe you might compare it, if only briefly, to other circles of friends who have negotiated a slightly different political landscape, for instance those in Frederick Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes?

I know, I know, I’m asking for a book that Parrinder didn’t write, a book twice the length and five times the complexity. Maybe it’s a measure of how good Parrinder’s book is that it raised these issues, started these arguments. Certainly I would like to see a book that argued with Parrinder about the trends that were significant in the history of English Literature, about whether Whig or Tory or Socialist or Puritan or Cavalier or whatever are appropriate terms for highlighting characteristics, manners and styles. There’s an argument to be had here, but this is a really good place to begin that aargument.

First published at LiveJournal,4 December 2007.

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