The Novel and National Identity

In the Guardian, Terry Eagleton reviews Patrick Parrinder’s Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day.

In the 18th century, as Nation and Novel shows, the rise of the novel is bound up with the forging of a new kind of Protestant national identity, as Britain consolidates its commercial and imperial power after the revolutionary upheavals of the civil war era and the Restoration. It’s no accident that Defoe writes a scabrous poem entitled “The True-Born Englishman”, as well as producing what Parrinder sees as a study in national character in the figure of the robustly individualist Robinson Crusoe. Henry Fielding wrote the original lyrics for “The Roast Beef of Old England”, while Samuel Richardson’s novels can be read among other things as Whiggish political allegories.

It took an outsider, Sir Walter Scott, to launch some of the most searching reflections on nationhood and national character. The art of Dickens, an author Parrinder reads as both an instinctive republican and a Little Englander, was praised by George Gissing as embodying the spirit of the English race. Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, which portrays an English nation at the mercy of (probably Jewish) foreign crooks and speculators, is one instance of that spirit at its most sourly xenophobic.

As the Victorian age passed into a world of mass migrations, new nation-states and the collapse of empires, national identity became an increasingly self-conscious literary topic. As Parrinder points out, the very idea of national identity, as opposed to national character, reflects a certain anxiety. National character, supposedly, is an objective set of features (in the case of the English, common sense, moderation, idiosyncrasy, philistinism, emotional reserve and so on), while identity is usually what you are still in search of. “What are we?” is a less unsettling question for a nation to ask itself than “Who are we?”