Flying the flag

Patrick Parrinder

  • The Modern British Novel by Malcolm Bradbury
    Secker, 512 pp, £20.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 436 20132 1
  • After the War: The Novel and English Society since 1945 by D.J. Taylor
    Chatto, 310 pp, £17.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7011 3769 X

Cheered on by the Tory faithful, John Major recently dismissed as ‘claptrap’ a letter signed by 500 university teachers of English attacking the proposed revisions to the National Curriculum. The academics were accused – falsely, I believe – of wanting to undermine the teaching of Shakespeare. A few months earlier, the Education Secretary John Patten sent back an official report on English in schools with the comment that 15-year-olds perhaps ought to be made to study the ‘great tradition of the novel’. There have been solemn consultations about this with educational experts, and it remains to be seen whether Mr Patten’s opinions will become part of a legally enforceable literary canon.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the main defenders of the canon today are government ministers and the right-wing press. A GCSE board’s decision to prescribe a Frederick Forsyth novel a few years ago was subjected to a bruising examination by the tabloids. The press and the politicians take comfort from a scenario in which the threat to the national literary heritage can be represented as coming from a bunch of degenerate academics. In the early Seventies, a student of mine briefly leapt into prominence with his assertion that his supervisor wanted him to read Pope when he wanted to read comics. Nowadays he could happily divert to the respectable discipline of cultural studies, but his preference is still regarded in some quarters as evidence of looniness or worse.

Our literary past is one of the few remaining national symbols that a Tory prime minister can readily appeal to. With the Church and the monarchy becoming an embarrassment and the pound sterling about to disappear into the jaws of the ecu, patriotic rhetoric is beginning to find itself short of subject-matter. And if Dickens, Shakespeare and the Union Jack are now to be the main symbols of our Great Britishness, the politics of nostalgia can expect to meet with a continuing resistance from those charged with passing on literary knowledge to the next generation.

It would be nice to attribute this resistance to a new internationalism, the discovery of a world elsewhere, but the questioning and reassessment of the national canon has mostly been very inward-looking. One of its strongest motivations is the perceived contrast between the stale illusions of national importance and what seem to be clear indications of cultural decline. As the nation went, it has been said, so did its literature. The North American critic Hugh Kenner’s recent book on this topic was uncharitably entitled A Sinking Island.

John Patten’s recent appropriation of F.R. Leavis’s concept of the ‘great tradition’ is, needless to say, full of ironies. Leavis was certainly exhibiting a mild form of chauvinism – the tradition he presented was, he implied, morally superior to the French and Russian novelists revered by an earlier generation. Leavis strenuously singled out what Virginia Woolf had called ‘the few English novels written for grown-up people’. These novels originally consisted of Middlemarch (Virginia Woolf’s nomination), the works of Jane Austen, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence, Dickens’s Hard Times and half of Daniel Deronda. The ‘great tradition’ doubtless stands for something much less rigorous in Mr Patten’s mind, but it is nevertheless likely to deny to early adolescents the opportunity of enjoying some of the fiction best suited to their age group. Nor will it help them to discover contemporary writing.

One of the advantages of having a strict version of the canon was that it made literary history very easy to write. The old method (a product of the so-called New Criticism) was to say, like Leavis, that you had found the best books, and then to describe them in chronological order. More recently, literary historians have been concerned to trace the development of a highly selective (but not canonical) ‘discursive field’ of texts, so as to reveal the changes of ideology or ‘structure of feeling’ from decade to decade. Questions of aesthetic value are routinely bypassed. Of the two critics under review, Malcolm Bradbury is a self-conscious progressive, but he writes the old kind of history. D.J. Taylor is a self-conscious reactionary whose book is a rather strange example of the new kind.

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