The culture of imitation and the crisis of national identity in Julian Barnes' "England England"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Identities as stabilising mechanism

3. What becomes of history and national heritage

4. Invented traditions

5. The Relation between the authentic and the replica

6. Is there authenticity, truth and a beginning?

7. Englishness equals heterogeneity

8. Conclusion

9. Sources

1. Introduction

In recent years, the concept of Englishness has received a lot of attention, in popular culture as well as in academic circles. Very often music, popular literature, fashion and lifestyles seem to be based on a general idea of a standard Englishness which has become favoured not only in England or Great Britain itself, but all around the world. Few national identities are as thoroughly profiled in popular belief as the English, albeit those beliefs are often based on various wide-spread clichés about a nation, whose history has, in fact, always been marked by change. This has led to an academic interest in what about Englishness is cliché, what is really true and, above all, a definition of what Englishness is or may be; an issue that appears to be difficult, since even in terms of language Englishness is subject to a constant process of development and transformation, which is highly polarising- some people, for instance, may welcome Multicultural London English as a new spoken variety, others reject it because to their minds, it replaces the original speech and ruins what they believe to be the ‘real’ or ‘true’ English. The first group may then question the term ‘original’, because a century ago the language that is considered original now may have been new and replacing what was considered original back then. The problem shown in this example roughly illustrates the problem in general: a loss of the original that people are yearning to find and to determine, a quest which seems to never come to an end, causing a state of crisis.

This problem of authenticity is a recurrent motif in the work of Julian Barnes, who in his novel England, England explores Englishness in particular, the nature of traditions, of history and of (national) identity, and in how far they are invented or constructed. This work will focus on how the process of constructing traditions and identities is depicted in the novel and address the problems and crises linked to identity, authenticity and truth as raised by Julian Barnes.

2. Identities as a stabilising mechanism

Before exploring the nature of identity or history and the extent to which they are invented, it is important to explain their necessity. Identity is required to establish patterns and coherence in human existence; thus, national identity is just another means by which the individual tries to fit itself into an existing pattern. In his essay on England, England Nick Bentley states that a Lacanian approach to national identity may prove helpful, and quotes Žižek on Lacan:

“The subject attempts to fill out its constitutive lack by means of identification, by identifying itself with some master- signifier guaranteeing its place in the symbolic network.”1

This suggests that, firstly, the individual feels a need for finding this particular place in the network and, secondly, that the national identity is nothing but a master- signifier, and Englishness a network of different master-signifiers- as Bentley explains, it is “a cycle of open symbols that do not have referents in the real world but are in a continuous glissement with each other.”2 An example for such a chain of signifiers is the list of ‘50 Quintessences of Englishness’ that appears in Barnes’ novel. All of the objects on that list appear to be symbolic for Englishness, but neither each single object nor the list as a whole resembles Englishness.3

Bentley develops another idea, which is based on Lacans psychological model of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real as three parts that make up the psychology of an individual, and that are interrelated when it comes to forming an identity. In the case of Englishness, the Imaginary can be an individual’s self-awareness and the Symbolic the concept of Englishness, whilst the Real threatens the symbolic concept because it, metaphorically speaking, tears a hole into the net of the symbolic and may destroy the construction.4 In a time, where for example multiculturalism and the post- colonial guilt resemble the Real (as suggested by Bentley) and thus, the threat to a construct that helps humans structuring the world around them and adding coherence to the present contingence, the Symbolic gains importance, and national identity gains centre stage. Nevertheless, Englishness keeps being overshadowed by the problematic nature it bears, namely that it continues being an accumulation of signifiers, “symbols without meaning in themselves”.5

Another mechanism introduced by Bentley that helps structuring the world and also building identities is the process of narrativisation and the relation between time and narrative as suggested by Paul Ricoeur. According to him, time undergoes a process of narrativisation in order to be perceptible, as it is an abstract concept. Hence, time is understood through the interweaving of historical and fictional narratives as well as the addition of a plot. This can be applied to history as well as to national identity- an accumulation of happenings becomes a history, as well as a chain of images and symbols becomes Englishness.6

Barnes provides an image for this necessity, or this wish, to construct identities right at the beginning of the novel, when the still toddler- aged protagonist Martha Cochrane is doing a jigsaw puzzle of the counties of England, and her father hides a piece every time, only to provide her with the missing part when the rest of the puzzle would be done. It does not only depict how Martha ‘completes’ England for herself and completes the image of the entity of England, but also how her own ‘heart is made whole’7 when her father supplies the missing bit. How neither she nor England can ever be made ‘whole’ again is shown when Martha’s father leaves the family and takes Nottinghamshire with him. Martha realises that she will never complete the puzzle and disposes of it piece by piece. Thus, she disposes of the idea of a coherent identity and a coherent Englishness, which takes the novel one step further and foreshadows what is to come, namely Jack Pitman’s construction of England, England, a fake England, on the Isle of Wight.

3. What becomes of history and national heritage

In England, England the crisis of uncertainty about the English national identity is attempted to be overcome by means of capitalising and commercialising the national heritage and England’s past, and exploiting the history of the country. The result of this, however, is an extremely superficial and simplified view on history and a whole country’s attributes, which creates even further crises instead of providing a solution to the first one.

It all starts in Martha’s history lessons at school, where history is taught in rhymes and accompanied with rhythmical clapping in order to be easier to memorise. “She [the history teacher] led them in and out of two millennia, making history not a dogged process, but a series of vivid and competing moments8 such as “55BC (clap clap) Roman Invasion/ 1066 (clap clap) Battle of Hastings/ 1215 (clap clap) Magna Charta/ 1512 (clap clap) Henry the Eighth (clap clap)/ Defender of Faith (clap clap)”.9 Thus, already in history lessons the subject matter is reduced to the most glaring and important moments, ignoring their frame and, hence, causing a feeling of almost religious awe towards national history.10

The process of “glorification of national history”11 is taken one big step further as Jack Pitman discusses his plans for England with the lawyer Jerry Batson. They both admit that England’s glory days are in the past and today’s England is just an average country in comparison to the empire it used to be, but their intention is to make use of the past:

“You - we - England - my client - is - are - a nation of great age, great history, great accumulated wisdom. Social and cultural history - stacks of it, reams of it - eminently marketable, never more so than in the current climate. Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Industrial Revolution, gardening, that sort of thing. If I may coin, no, copyright, a phrase, We already are what others may hope to become. This isn’t self- pity, this is the strength of our position, our glory, our product placement. We are the new pioneers. We must sell our past to other nations as their future!”12

That this ambitious concept and especially the idea behind it is nothing but a way to come to terms with a crisis-torn present is artfully suggested right at the beginning of the novel:

“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.”13

Unfortunately, it does not provide a solution to the present problem- “the accumulation of paradigmatic images of England’s past [͙΁ results in the removal of any sense of a future England”,14 an outcome that will be examined further in the following chapter. The combination of a patriotic revival of the past and its marketability creates the following problem: as in Martha’s history classes, Pitman’s committee focuses on a restricted number of national myths they stage in a way that is easily digestible for tourists; “versions of Englishness are constructed in order to serve the needs of the present.”15 This happens in accordance with the opinion of Jack Pitman: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Max, people won’t be shelling out to learn things. If they want that, they can go to a sodding library if they can find one open. They’ll come to us to enjoy what they already know.”16 As Dr Max finds out, people do not know very much and often the information they have is wrong; their knowledge, as a survey he conducts shows, “consist[s΁ at best of names, dates or meaningless catch-phrases.”17 These are now the ground on which England, England is built and the outcome is almost to be ridiculed- as Barnes himself says in an interview: “It seems to me that, increasingly, countries are caricaturing themselves and are using a very air-brushed version of certain aspects of their own history.”18


1 Bentley 2007: 486

2 Bentley 2007: 486

3 Cf. Bentley 2007: 486

4 Cf. Bentley 2007: 487

5 Head 2006: 17

6 Bentley 2007: 488

7 Barnes 2012: 6

8 Barnes 2012: 12

9 Barnes 2012: 11

10 Cf. Nünning 2001: 61

11 Nünning 2001: 61

12 Barnes 2012: 39f

13 Barnes 2012: 6

14 Bentley 2007: 491

15 Nünning 2001: 62

16 Barnes 2012: 71

17 Nünning 2001: 66

18 Guignery 2000: 60

Excerpt out of 19 pages


The culture of imitation and the crisis of national identity in Julian Barnes' "England England"
University of Cologne
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Anglistik, Julian Barnes, England England, national identity, postmodernism, unreliability of memory, Jean Baudrillard
Quote paper
Kira Schneider (Author), 2013, The culture of imitation and the crisis of national identity in Julian Barnes' "England England", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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