Table of Contents
2. 'Englishness' as a Problem
2.1 'Englishness' as a construct in Barnes' England, England
2.2 'Englishness' as an excluding concept in Levy's Small Island
What is ‘Englishness’ and how can it be distinguished from ‘Britishness’? Why do we need these national identity concepts and why do they pose a problem? The purpose of this essay is to discuss these questions by means of a careful analysis of two selected books: Julian Barnes’ England, England and Andrea Levy’s Small Island. While both novels deal with the concept of ‘Englishness’, they do so in different ways. While Barnes exposes the constructedness of collective identities like ‘Englishness’, Levy reveals its excluding function and the paradoxes between ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’ from the perspectives of Jamaican ‘Windrush’-migrants.
2. ‘Englishness’ as a Problem
2.1 ‘Englishness’ as a construct in Barnes’ England England
Julian Barnes’ England, England is a brilliant satire and beautiful piece of postmodern historiographic metafiction, as Barnes exposes that history is no account of past reality but a cultural construct that tries to give historical continuity to the present and allows the legitimization of national identities. In his novel Barnes reveals the constructedness of identities on collective and individual levels and exhibits how collective identity constructs can be instrumentalized to exploit the ignorance of tourists.
In the first part of his novel, which is just called “England”, Barnes introduces the reader to the main topic of his book: the constructedness of identity and history in any form. The reader is introduced to this topic by one of the main characters of the story, Martha Cochrane. By telling the reader about her upbringing from an adult perspective, she explicitly stresses the constructedness of her memories that make up her identity (EE1, 3f). From Martha we learn that identity is only what we can remember from the past and that people long for coherent stories of their lives. Whenever parts of these stories seem incoherent to the rest or simply unpleasant, memories are changed and gaps are filled by imagination, which Martha criticises as self-deception: “It was like a country remembering its history: the past was never just the past, it was what made the present able to live with itself” (EE, 6). Martha also explains why people can remember certain things from their past in detail, while they totally forget about other events. Things that seem important or are associated to pleasant feelings become worthy of a memory, while events deemed unimportant or unpleasant people try to forget (EE, 12).
“Character was there to be built,” Martha gets told (EE, 13). The experiences we make and the ways we react to them form our identities, but also what we choose to remember or delete from our memories affects what we come to see in the mirror (EE, 17).
Martha’s jigsaw-puzzle of England is not only a metaphor of her individual identity construction but also of the constructedness of collective identities like ‘Englishness’ and nation states (EE, 24f). It shows that individual and collective identities like ‘Englishness’ are constructed in the same way and that both are interwoven, as history and traditions give a context to individual experiences (Nünning, 73). The first part of the novel therefore beautifully frames and foreshadows Barnes’ witty satire in the two subsequent parts of the story: the idea that national identities like ‘Englishness’ can be reconstructed using a finite number of constituent elements in order to meet the shallow expectations of tourists and feed the greed of a capitalist individual: Jack Pitman.
‘Englishness’ is a construct constituted by what people associate with English history and typical English characteristics, which together form a collective identity that appeals to feelings of community and belonging. People constantly use symbols to remind each other of this collective identity. Symbols are created in a psychological process of reification in which people associate things with memories and charge them up with meaning. Like consumers who buy status symbols to make them part of their identities, tourists to England desire to experience symbols of ‘Englishness’, to take photos of them and buy typical souvenirs to take home, which allows them to take possession of the things that they ascribe positive meaning to. This insight into human psychology is what capitalist Jack Pitman makes use of in his new tourism project called ‘England, England’. From interviews with foreigners he collects 50 pieces of ‘Englishness’ (EE, 83-85), which allows him to recreate England en miniature as a theme park that includes selected pieces of ‘Englishness’ and actors who impersonate famous historical personas. The replication of historical symbols and events does not even have to be precise, as Jack Pitman’s private historian Dr. Max finds out that even natives of England seldom have a clue about the history of ‘Englishness’: “patriotism’s most eager bedfellow was ignorance, not knowledge” (EE, 82). This is why rough replicas of English cultural icons suffice to do the trick. More important is that these icons can be directly experienced, touched or possessed. A good example offers the “Samuel Johnson Dining experience”, where tourists can eat together and talk to one of the most famous scholars from the 18th century - impersonated by an actor. Experiences in the park need to be pleasant, not controversial or unpleasant, which would only keep tourists from visiting and paying for admission, which reveals that historical correctness seems to be less important than to meet present expectations (Nünning, 68).
But soon the artificial reconstruction of ‘Englishness’ has to face adversities, as the appointed actors cannot resist to fill their inaccurately drawn roles with life and start to deviate from them in a way that creates some unpleasant tourist experiences. Robin Hood and his Merry Men start to hunt, the smugglers start to smuggle and Samuel Johnson becomes so realistic that tourists continuously complain about his insufferable character until management decides to take him to a psychiatric hospital. These incidents only reveal that the actors stuck in their static roles yet like all human beings long for individual development and self-actualization and that tourists may be prone to prefer a pleasant fake to the real thing.
Despite these minor difficulties ‘England, England’ becomes a big success and Jack Pitman ascends to the despot of a free market sovereign state that uses its propaganda newspaper ‘The Times of London’ to manipulate public opinion and run down its rival country Old England (EE, 250). Old England economically collapses and loses its political sovereignty. In the last part of the book named ‘Albion’ the country has devolved into a preindustrial state inhabited by escapists who have constructed themselves an English fantasy world where they live secluded from the outside world. Among these escapists who have constructed themselves new villager identities, Martha Cochrane observes them celebrating an artificial May Day festival and one of the villagers, “Phil Henderson, waving a plastic flag bearing the cross of St. George, Patron saint of England, Aragon and Portugal, she remembered, also protector of Genoa and Venice” (EE, 265). Martha exposes the fact that the English flag had never been a unique symbol for ‘Englishness’, which makes it possible to also use it for any new collective identity constructs if no other claimants object. With Old England having forgotten most of its national history, the creation of new myths, occasional folk festivals and the flag as a symbol allow the villagers to simulate historical continuity. This scene therefore reveals that the function of a national emblem is as imaginary as Jack Pitman’s theme park ‘England, England’ and that in the era of alienated postmodernism people long for community, belonging and thus for collective identities, accepting self-delusion as a price to be paid (Easthope, 55).
1 EE = England, England