Thursday, 29 August 2019

For Britain, See England

I am trying to write my conference paper on Carol Ann Duffy and the Four Nations, honestly, but this Cambridge University summer course caught my eye.

What did authors in Britain write about in the decade immediately following the First World War? How did they reflect upon those complex, often troubled years, 1919-1930? What did they think about sexuality and censorship; about relations between women and men; about the decline of empire; about the hopes for peace? What can we learn from them now?
• After the First World War: T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922); Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (1928); Helen Zenna Smith, Not So Quiet (1930)
• Nation vs. Nature: D. H. Lawrence, The Captain's Doll (1923); D. H. Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers (poems, 1923)
• The Social System: Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925)
• Sexuality and Censorship: Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928)
• Ends of Empire: E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924)

Thinking of myself as – in part – a 1930s and Welsh literature specialist, I was intrigued by a 1920s Britain course. So much happened: the aftermath of WW1 (there's always a lag between events and literary responses); the Irish War of Independence and the ensuing Civil War and Free State; the Depression; mass unemployment in the coal-belts of Scotland, Wales and England; the impact of suffrage; the first Labour government and the Zinoviev letter. In Wales, we see the foundation of the Urdd, Eric Gill moving from Ditchling to Capel-y-ffin, the Arthur Machen craze, Kate Roberts gets going; the foundation of Plaid Cymru, Hunger Marches, Dorothy Edwards's Rhapsody and Winter Sonata, Aneurin Bevan is first elected… you get the idea. I'm pretty sure that things happened in Scotland and Ireland, and people wrote about them too. Welsh, Scottish and Irish/Northern Irish authors might even have written about things that happened elsewhere.

What's my point? This Cambridge course incorporates an anglicised American (TS Eliot) and Helen Zinna Smith, an Australian living in England. It pops out of south-east England for a quick look at DH Lawrence (though not his Nottinghamshire mining novels), but manages not to include a single Welsh, Scottish, Irish or Northern Irish author. This syllabus includes more authors from 52 Tavistock Square, London, than there are from the other nations of the British Isles. My gripe is partly about nomenclature: don't say Britain if you really mean England, and partly conceptual. These islands have long, complex intertwined histories and cultures - the complications are what makes the literature of the time so enthralling. It just seems so terribly old-fashioned to assume that the view from Bloomsbury is definitive. A Welsh-speaking miner-poet or Scottish baroness or a Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington is simply not going to have the same view as afforded the inhabitants of fashionable, moneyed North London or indeed from East Coker. Promoting the continued cultural exclusion of everything unfamiliar to white privileged south-easterners is the intellectual version of treating Downton Abbey as representative of British society.

No doubt these lectures will be fascinating and intellectually coherent in isolation, but as a whole they promote a deeply reactionary image of Britain, England and of literary studies as the valorisation of highly partial perspectives without reflecting on their partiality at all. The unspoken implication is that the study of authors from or living in one corner of England is universal, whereas the literatures produced in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, whether in English or not, are parochial. At a time when the UK is once again faced with dismemberment (not something I have a problem with), it behoves those with cultural capital to wonder whether exclusionary practices like these might have something to do with the Scots and the Welsh feeling unwanted.

What's the answer? Come to a deeply unfashionable university like mine which makes the effort to encompass a range of voices, not just those already sanctioned by dubious authority.

*Title of this post echoes the 1888 Britannica entry for Wales which infamously read 'For Wales, see England'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Cambridge summer school is, unfortunately, so very much par for the course.