Marion Thain’s blog is about “public questions of English cultural identities”: she asks if we, as a discipline (named, after all, for a national identity) “have a particular opportunity to contribute, collectively, distinctive resources and expertise to this debate”? Can “English can develop alternative, fresh, inclusive articulations of English nationhood”?
‘English’ carries a huge weight as a descriptor, signifying linguistic, political, geographical, cultural, and historical identity as well as naming our discipline. What is the exchange between these two? As a national identity is redefined and recalibrated, is our discipline, too?
One immediate challenge to English-ness is Brexit, though many voters may have opted for it precisely because it seemed to offer a solution to what it means to be English, or British: an exclusive/exclusionary form of identity based on rejecting centuries of a sometimes febrile but always deeply connected relationship with Europe. In Remain-voter John Sutherland’s The Good Brexiteer’s Guide to English Lit (Reaktion Books 2018) he says he feels “the raw power of Brexit…its muscle and its achievement” (19). Noting that Brexit has “no intellectual history” (18), he proposes a “curriculum… a year’s study for a BA honours degree in Brexit-related literature at a university” (20). He says it’s not aiming to “sneer, denounce rant or satirize” but The Good Brexiteer’s Guide to English Lit is a kind of parody, as the title and the light-hearted prose suggests. But it’s not quite a parody: it draws, from ‘The Battle of Maldon’ to Hilary Mantel a model of an inchoate Englishness, and perhaps it’s the possibility of that inchoate identity that Brexit voters were rejecting too.
By contrast, Marion Thain welcomes the “rich and valuable diversity of scholars, voices and world views” that are part of the decolonising of our discipline. The work of decolonising is very far from over and Marion argues that we should give more “space to other literatures in English” in tandem with a disciplinary contribution to “new ideas of what it means to be English”. This has to be the case: after all, the legacy of Empire is so deeply entwined into the fabric of Englishness that pulling on or reweaving those threads changes the whole material, whether we cut the cloth to fit a cosmopolitan ‘Global Britain’ or little Englander ‘Our Island Story’. Literature of any country is a repository of contemporary thinking about identity, whether it articulates that awareness or not (and whether we admit to reading it in that light or not). And the conscious act of reading something as either English literature or as one of the literatures in English, necessitates our asking questions of that literature and being informed about the ways in which it contributes to, questions, and continually re-shapes forms of English-ness.
A parallel approach is advocated by Alex Niven, lecturer in English at Newcastle University. His book New Model Island: How to build a radical culture beyond the idea of England (2019) argues for an “archipelagoan” rather than “singular island mentality” (118) and so for new regionalism. There is too, recent research in English which draws on a ‘new provincialism’: a wider more decentred view of Englishness. We’re thinking, for example of Ruth Livesey’s work on George Eliot and her contexts. Current contemporary fiction echoes this too: Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England (2019) offers a picture of solid provincial decency and Barney Farmer’s Drunken Baker (2018) liquid provincial indecency. This archipelagoan approach practises a form of decentring, a questioning of traditional power structures and locations that can learn much from work to decolonise the curriculum. The broadening and deepening of curricula enable us to read and engage with literatures that are new to many, and to learn more about – and to disrupt – formations of power and authority.
But our attention to ever-evolving questions of Englishness also means that we have to pay renewed attention to what we can do as scholars, what the backbone of our disciplinary activities and identities contribute to these enormous questions.
We can analyse the language of suppression, the narrative arcs in literature that have silenced and omitted, and that go on to shape readers’ mind-sets and expectations. English as a discipline is used to re-defining and re-thinking: we do it all the time as new critical and theoretical approaches emerge, and as new literatures are (re)discovered. It’s also deeply dialogic: our inherent skills make our discipline a crucial part of how we both ask and answer questions around national and international identities, and accept a multiplicity of answers.
The expansion of our studies also expands possibilities of definition as the concept of any individual nationality – as we know only too well in the UK right now – is never static. The expansion of literatures in English in Britain at the moment, both in the academy and in bookshops, is an important statement of an inclusive English-ness that cannot help but counter narrowing political definitions based in fearful self-interest, and that speaks instead of an alert, creative, thoughtful response to the changing world.
As we move forward, and think about what ‘English’ might look like in the future, we can’t divide literature from all the other applications of that term. Our discipline needs to register and respond to change, as indeed it has done ever since its inception. The difference now is that changes come ever more quickly and in a context where responsiveness has to be equally swift. But in that speed there is an energy which, if it can be used positively to reach out and engage students and all readers, will re-engage us all in the centrality of literature – in all its richnesses and geographical breadth – in our evolving world. English literature and Literatures in English must co-exist in an attentive relationship, sensitive to their histories and to their ever-evolving present, as they co-exist in the minds of their readers, mutually informing and enriching. And in that act of careful reading we may find a model for careful and care-ful citizenship.
Robert Eaglestone (RHUL) and Gail Marshall (Reading), co-organisers of English: Shared Futures