Postwar Englishness in the fiction of Pat Barker, Graham Swift and Adam Thorpe
The widely-recognised crisis of Englishness in the 1980s and 1990s has generally been explained as a response to the end of empire. If the place of memories of the First and Second World Wars in this crisis has been considered at all, these have generally been assumed to support a nostalgic version of English or British national identity. Taking three contemporary British novelists-Graham Swift, Pat Barker and Adam Thorpe-as examples, however, this thesis argues that the late-twentiethcentury memory of these conflicts is strikingly ambivalent, and that the contemporary crisis of Englishness must be understood not only as postcolonial, but also, in a strong sense, as postwar. The Introduction sets out the parameters of critical discussion of latetwentieth-century Englishness to date and explains my use of the term 'postwar', as marking the continuing cultural legacy of the world wars, and the process of interrogative re-reading of that legacy undertaken in the contemporary fiction I discuss. It also challenges the assumption that 'nostalgia' and a 'healthy' attitude to the past can necessarily be easily distinguished, through a discussion of postFreudian psychoanalytic approaches to mourning and melancholia. Chapter One considers three writers of the early to mid-twentieth century, Siegfried Sassoon, J. B.Priestley, and Elizabeth Bowen, in order to suggest the nature of the questions about Englishness, war and violence which re-emerge with the breakdown of Britain's postwar social and political consensus from the mid-1970s onward. Chapter Two then discusses Graham Swift's early novels, The Sweet Shop Owner, Shuttlecock and Waterland, arguing that critical attention to his metafictional concerns in Waterland has meant that his interest in suburban English life as encrypting memories of war has been overlooked. Chapter Three proceeds to Pat Barker's The Regeneration Trilogy, charting a two-way process of haunting through which contemporary concerns with violence are read back into the historical and literary record of the First World War, and simultaneously seem to re-emerge in the present as the return of the violence underpinning a melancholic cultural attachment to the very English narrative of 'doomed youth'. My discussion in Chapter Four of Adam Thorpe's novels Ulverton, Still and Pieces of Light emphasises their exploration of the violence at the heart of the 'deep England' evoked in heritage representations of Englishness. I suggest, however, that Thorpe's attempts to find appropriate fictional forms for ambivalence and melancholia are at times closer to paralysed repetitions than to interrogations of Englishness. My argument concludes with a reading of Swift's Last Orders, which I contend enacts the beginnings of a movement beyond the wartime end of a certain England and Englishness. Its misreading by critics as parochial and nostalgic, I suggest, indicates the extent of critical misunderstanding of the troubled memory of the world wars in contemporary Britain. It also testifies to the difficulty and the necessity of the creative and critical work on postwar Englishness undertaken by the writers considered in this study.