Cheered on by the Tory faithful, John Major recently dismissed as ‘claptrap’ a letter signed by 500 university teachers of English attacking the proposed revisions to the National Curriculum. The academics were accused – falsely, I believe – of wanting to undermine the teaching of Shakespeare. A few months earlier, the Education Secretary John Patten sent back an official report on English in schools with the comment that 15-year-olds perhaps ought to be made to study the ‘great tradition of the novel’. There have been solemn consultations about this with educational experts, and it remains to be seen whether Mr Patten’s opinions will become part of a legally enforceable literary canon.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the main defenders of the canon today are government ministers and the right-wing press. A GCSE board’s decision to prescribe a Frederick Forsyth novel a few years ago was subjected to a bruising examination by the tabloids. The press and the politicians take comfort from a scenario in which the threat to the national literary heritage can be represented as coming from a bunch of degenerate academics. In the early Seventies, a student of mine briefly leapt into prominence with his assertion that his supervisor wanted him to read Pope when he wanted to read comics. Nowadays he could happily divert to the respectable discipline of cultural studies, but his preference is still regarded in some quarters as evidence of looniness or worse.
Our literary past is one of the few remaining national symbols that a Tory prime minister can readily appeal to. With the Church and the monarchy becoming an embarrassment and the pound sterling about to disappear into the jaws of the ecu, patriotic rhetoric is beginning to find itself short of subject-matter. And if Dickens, Shakespeare and the Union Jack are now to be the main symbols of our Great Britishness, the politics of nostalgia can expect to meet with a continuing resistance from those charged with passing on literary knowledge to the next generation.
It would be nice to attribute this resistance to a new internationalism, the discovery of a world elsewhere, but the questioning and reassessment of the national canon has mostly been very inward-looking. One of its strongest motivations is the perceived contrast between the stale illusions of national importance and what seem to be clear indications of cultural decline. As the nation went, it has been said, so did its literature. The North American critic Hugh Kenner’s recent book on this topic was uncharitably entitled A Sinking Island.
John Patten’s recent appropriation of F.R. Leavis’s concept of the ‘great tradition’ is, needless to say, full of ironies. Leavis was certainly exhibiting a mild form of chauvinism – the tradition he presented was, he implied, morally superior to the French and Russian novelists revered by an earlier generation. Leavis strenuously singled out what Virginia Woolf had called ‘the few English novels written for grown-up people’. These novels originally consisted of Middlemarch (Virginia Woolf’s nomination), the works of Jane Austen, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence, Dickens’s Hard Times and half of Daniel Deronda. The ‘great tradition’ doubtless stands for something much less rigorous in Mr Patten’s mind, but it is nevertheless likely to deny to early adolescents the opportunity of enjoying some of the fiction best suited to their age group. Nor will it help them to discover contemporary writing.
One of the advantages of having a strict version of the canon was that it made literary history very easy to write. The old method (a product of the so-called New Criticism) was to say, like Leavis, that you had found the best books, and then to describe them in chronological order. More recently, literary historians have been concerned to trace the development of a highly selective (but not canonical) ‘discursive field’ of texts, so as to reveal the changes of ideology or ‘structure of feeling’ from decade to decade. Questions of aesthetic value are routinely bypassed. Of the two critics under review, Malcolm Bradbury is a self-conscious progressive, but he writes the old kind of history. D.J. Taylor is a self-conscious reactionary whose book is a rather strange example of the new kind.
Taylor’s belief, set out bluntly in his introduction, is that no modern English writer can ‘hold a candle’ to Dickens or George Eliot. Born in 1960, Taylor has now written two books on post-war English fiction – the first was A Vain Conceit (1989) – expounding the Victorian values that he first acquired (as he now tells us) when reading Dombey and Son in his father’s study. Malcolm Bradbury’s new book, by contrast, is an unstinting celebration of the fiction written between 1 November 1878, when Henry James paid his last call on George Eliot but failed to achieve a meeting of minds, and the closing date for entries for the 1993 Booker Prize. Publication of The Modern British Novel was deliberately timed for the day before the announcement of this year’s winner. Bradbury has been shortlisted for the Booker, has been chairman of the Booker judges, and has recently been one of three judges who awarded the Booker of Bookers to Salman Rushdie. On the other hand, A Vain Conceit was described on the dustjacket as a ‘provocative antidote to Booker Prize ballyhoo’. D.J. Taylor was one of the supporting witnesses in Auberon Waugh’s recent television programme rubbishing the Booker.
Bradbury has no anxieties over the canon, or if he does they are not on show. He unhesitatingly tells us which modern British novels are ‘fine’ or ‘important’ works, and he tends to see their significance as being a function of their timeliness. A master of popularisation (but a master in a hurry), he moves at a cracking pace through the late Victorian, the early modern, the modern, the Modernist, the new, the experimental, the late modern and the Post-Modern. Only the pessimistic Forties and the ‘sagging Seventies’ threaten to mar the general impression of a crowded, jaunty progress. It is true that the novel reached its peak in the Modernist period, which is rather too early in the century for a wholly satisfactory narrative. But Bradbury is able to conclude with the observation that European and world politics in the Nineties have neatly returned to something like the state of affairs a hundred years earlier. The British novel, he says, is now poised for a new beginning, just as it was in the time of Conrad and Stevenson. While it would be absurd to claim that literature, in any absolute sense, continually improves, The Modern British Novel comes as close as it urbanely and reasonably could to a Whig interpretation of literary history.
Press Bradbury on what he means by ‘British’ and ‘the novel’, and you might not get a wholly satisfactory answer. There is something to be said for being disarmingly vague and pragmatically hospitable in applying these labels, but his proclaimed hospitality can be misleading. Take ‘British’, which now automatically replaces ‘English’ in these contexts. In Bradbury’s usage, it does not imply any commitment to look closely, or indeed at all, at Scotland and Wales. He defines the British tradition as an international tradition, linked with travel, exile, emigration and the free movement of ideas, so that Rushdie and Henry James are in, as are Doris Lessing and Vikram Seth. But Bradbury is remarkably ambivalent about at least one novelist who might be hospitably claimed as a modern British master – V.S. Naipaul, who is briefly referred to as ‘the Trinidadian novelist’. This might place him with such non-British writers as Nadine Gordimer and Patrick White, but he is later included in Bradbury’s alphabetical checklist of British novelists since 1876. It looks as if an adverse judgment has been passed by default.
It is not that Bradbury shies away from evaluative criticism: the book is full of generous and positive verdicts. The modern novel, realistic or experimental, is always striving to be adequate to the successive phases of modern experience – and both the realists and the experimenters meet with Bradbury’s approval. This, surely, is unexceptionable. But what is the novel, and where are its boundaries? Look up the checklist and you will find a large number of genre writers, from Brian Aldiss to P.G. Wodehouse, whose names are virtually absent from the main narrative. Bradbury’s book is based on an entirely conventional notion of the fictional mainstream. One can imagine a very different history of fiction in our century.
The notion of the mainstream or literary novel would have meant little to the mid-Victorians. It began – as reflected in the debates between Stevenson and James, for example – almost exactly when this book begins. Bradbury is much more broadminded than many earlier arbiters of the mainstream have been. He reminds us of James’s offer to collaborate with Wells in a book about Mars (surely one of the most intriguing unwritten novels), and genially describes the bust-up between these two writers as ‘this splendid quarrel’. But Bradbury lacks curiosity about non-mainstream fiction. The boundaries he instinctively stays within were crossed and re-crossed by many of the novelists he most admires, including the three (Angela Carter, William Golding and Angus Wilson) to whose memory his book is dedicated. The result is a history of the modern novel in which the coincidence of the mainstream and the canon are taken for granted.
D.J. Taylor also confines a his attentions to mainstream fiction (despite a curious weakness for Angela Thirkell), and at first glance he might seem to be following the same track as Bradbury’s later chapters. In fact, After the War is entirely concerned with social-realist fiction and with the way that it describes contemporary society. Many of the big post-war names, such as Golding, Lessing, Murdoch and Spark, are deliberately ignored in favour of novels that are cited for their sociological interest, even though Taylor often doesn’t much like them. At one extreme there is Kingsley Amis, whose novels are said to have ‘enormous importance’ and are discussed in great detail even though Taylor admits that they are not to his taste. At the other extreme, something called the ‘average post-war novel’ makes regular appearances, and long-forgotten books like William Camp’s The Ruling Passion (a Civil Service novel which ‘emphasises only the dullness of the higher administrative life’) are gratuitously resurrected only to be casually tossed aside.
Taylor’s account of the sociological interest of The Ruling Passion seems valid, though it will hardly attract any new readers to the work. But his motives are far from being consistently sociological: he has a strongly evaluative thesis, to the effect that the modern novel is mostly a failure. As an art-form it is in decline because it no longer combines social realism with strong character-creation. The disappearance of characters from 20th-century fiction is not a new complaint. Joyce, Lawrence and Virginia Woolf were all found wanting in this area by some of their earlier critics. Even Lawrence’s close friend of Middleton Murry wrote that the ‘denizens’ of Women in Love were lacking in individuality – though this may have meant that he couldn’t recognise himself in the book. Virginia Woolf described the Modernist experiment as an attempt to improve on Arnold Bennett and his contemporaries, who held forth in theory about the importance of character but failed miserably in practice.
The Marxist and Freudian explanations of the demise of characterisation in modern writing are surely commonplace by now – but Taylor does not even mention them. His populist stance on the contemporary novel and what it ought to be doing seems to mirror his contribution to a recent BBC Bookmark programme, described in the credits as ‘Trollopian pastiches by D.J. Taylor’. Admittedly, it is often difficult to make out what precisely he is arguing. Reading his earlier book was like watching Nigel Short play chess against himself; paragraph followed paragraph in a sequence of thrusts and parries, moves and countermoves, in which neither player ever looked like winning. After the War is less infuriatingly self-contradictory, but then it is generally a duller and more placid affair.
On one matter Taylor has quite irresponsibly altered his views. In A Vain Conceit Graham Swift was enthusiastically welcomed as one of an emerging group of younger writers; in After the War Taylor remarks woundingly and in passing that ‘you and I might suspect that the new Graham Swift is tripe.’ That is the last we hear of the unfortunate Swift, who isn’t even listed in the index. If Taylor now thinks that he overrated Swift, it would have been more scrupulous to say so.
There are other kinds of carelessness in this rather messy book. It is grossly distorting to say that the late Victorian ‘Hill Top’ novel was so called ‘because of its characteristic al fresco dalliance’; and Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did certainly wasn’t, as Taylor asserts, a parody of the form. (He must have confused it with another writer’s The Woman Who Didn’t.) Nor can Lessing’s The Golden Notebook be claimed to exemplify the feminist ‘style of fiction’ in the Seventies, as would have been obvious if Taylor had given its correct publication date. The British prime minister in The Satanic Verses is not called ‘Mrs Torcher’. The Modern British Novel also contains number of errors. Bradbury quotes the description of a fictional Edwardian knight of the road, ‘surrounded by a tableland of motoring cap’, which looks at first like a misprint for ‘map’; but in fact it should be ‘surmounted’. Yet Bradbury could put Taylor right about Grant Allen, Doris Lessing and Mrs Torture.
Modern realist novels, according to Taylor, portray a social landscape without the strong, morally energised central figures found in Victorians such as Trollope and Gissing. Instead, from Powell’s Nick Jenkins and Waugh’s Guy Crouchback onwards, we get passive, defeated characters, if not Adrian Mole-like wimps. It can, however, be argued that the Victorian novels singled out for Leavis’s great tradition were not entirely dissimilar – Dorothea Brooke is ground down by life, and the Jamesian personality has Mole-like tendencies. What Taylor is praising in Victorian fiction is perhaps not its strict moral realism but the mixture of realism and romantic fantasy. It this is so, he ought not to confine his sample of present-day novelists to the likes of Kingsley Amis, John Wain and A.S. Byatt.
Another novelist whose protagonists are more or less passive and defeated is George Orwell. Gordon Comstock and Winston Smith are no heroes, as their names indicate. But Orwell himself – also a created character in various ways – was a redoubtable hero. In both A Vain Conceit and After the War Taylor invokes him as a tutelary deity: in the later book we begin and end with Orwell, or rather with Orwell and water. ‘We have nothing to lose but our aitches,’ the sardonic but perky conclusion to The Road to Wigan Pier, lurks behind the cotton wool of Taylor’s final pronouncement that ‘we have nothing to lose but our preconceptions.’ Taylor has been describing some recent novels of ‘conscious retreat’, ‘the provincial, the pastoral and the commonplace’, which he thinks we would need to lose our preconceptions in order to appreciate. But the Orwellian echo is too grandiose for the occasion, and as for the pastoral novelists – J.L. Carr and the late Don Bannister – one must hope that they are not unceremoniously ditched in Taylor’s next volume.
Is modern fiction inadequate because the modern world is too complex for the novelist to grasp? Taylor took this view in A Vain Conceit, though it isn’t much emphasised in After the War. ‘Is there a novelist now writing who can adequately explain the scientific basis of the modern world? Of course not,’ he once wrote. On another occasion, arguing that readability and formal experiment are not mutually exclusive, he said – as if to clinch the argument – ‘Look at J.G. Ballard.’ But in neither of his books has he stopped to look at Ballard, or any novelist like him. Ballard takes an original view of English society in some of his books, and could also have a fair shot at explaining the scientific basis of the modern world; but, as a genre writer, he presumably doesn’t count. (Imagine what Orwell would have said about that.) Similarly, Malcolm Bradbury only gives Ballard a passing mention or two, focusing on the moment at which, with Empire of the Sun, he ‘became an important mainstream novelist’.
Ballard is one of the main contemporary successors to that magnificent group of late 19th-century writers – Stevenson, Kipling, Conan Doyle, the early Wells – who have added hugely to the international standing and influence of British fiction without ever fitting comfortably into the literary canon, let alone being admitted to the ‘great tradition’. They are writers who appeal to adolescents as well as to grown-ups, and they are the successors to the Gothic novelists who had much the same formative impact. Perhaps it is time to point out that these writers bulk larger in world literature than the Victorian worthies who form the bedside reading of British prime ministers. If we learned to integrate the Gothic, science fiction, the short story and all the other sub-generic forms into our general history of fiction we would have a new understanding of our national tradition. It could have still greater fascination than the histories we now have, and the claims of the ‘British novel’ could be advanced with still greater confidence.