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Introduction: Contemporary Literary Renaissances

Introduction : Renaissances littéraires contemporaines
Catherine Bernard et Vanessa Guignery


Ce numéro d’Études britanniques contemporaines est issu des travaux de l’atelier de la Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC), organisé par Catherine Bernard lors du congrès de la Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur de 2021. Ce congrès avait pour thème « RenaissanceS » et il fut l’occasion pour les contributeurs d’explorer l’influence de la période de la Renaissance sur les productions littéraires contemporaines et d’examiner les modes de renouvellement esthétique, de réinvention et de reprise des formes, sujets et genres littéraires du passé. Outre les articles analysant la notion de renaissance dans des romans et poèmes contemporains, ce numéro inclut un essai portant sur le concept d’épuisement dans Endgame de Samuel Beckett.

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1Even as literature and the arts of the 20th century were setting new horizons for creation, they often engaged in an inventive dialogue with the Renaissance period. The period from the end of the 19th century to the early 21st century has offered a rich reservoir of texts, historical subjects, interrogations and experiences that have been rewritten across the centuries to constitute part of the organic fabric of literature and the arts. The influence of the Renaissance has taken many forms, from direct intertextual references to less identifiable traces. In most cases however, the Renaissance has, as expected, been read as the founding moment of our humanist model, as well as the matrix of an individualism that has been endlessly reassessed without being radically disqualified. This explains the return of modernist and contemporary writers to a period that works as an allegorical mirror for current interrogations. Virginia Woolf sets the early moments of her historical fantasy Orlando (1928) during the Elizabethan period, to better ground her exploration of identity fashioning in an age that was both foundational of individualism and already harboured dissenting views of what constitutes selfhood. Lytton Strachey also understood the extraordinary potential of the period which he reinvented in Elizabeth and Essex (likewise published in 1928).

2In the last few decades, the Renaissance has enjoyed a renewal of interest in the field of historical fiction (see Peter Ackroyd’s fantasised reinvention of Renaissance occultism in The House of Doctor Dee [1993], Jeanette Winterson’s own take on Renaissance expansionism in Sexing the Cherry [1989], and novels by Hilary Mantel or Sarah Dunant), in popular culture (as shown in The English Renaissance in Popular Culture: An Age for All Time [2010], edited by Greg Colón Semenza), in life-writing as well as in more experimental artistic forms (see Martin Crimp and George Benjamin’s reappropriation of Marlowe’s Edward II, in their latest collaboration, the opera Lessons in Love and Violence [2018]). The philosophical and theoretical legacy of the Renaissance can also be felt in the form of a critical humanism, for instance in the permanence of dystopian fiction since the 1940s, or in the deconstruction of travel or discovery narratives.

3In this issue of Études britanniques contemporaines, Jean-Michel Ganteau argues, for that matter, that contemporary texts, especially those dealing with climate change, ‘resonate with their predecessors from the Renaissance’ in a way that can help us ‘trace a move from humanism to post-humanism, from anthropocentrism to the contemporary dismissal of exceptionalism,’ encouraging us to embrace a plurality of scales rather than a singular one. This is what is fostered in The Long Dry (2006), a novel by Welsh writer Cynan Jones, which revisits and challenges some of major notions of the Renaissance (such as the emphasis on individualism and human exceptionalism, ‘the great chain of being’ or the sense of a ‘clearly ordered, accessible cosmogony’), highlighting interactions between the human and the non-human and prompting readers to ‘develop new responsibilities for their natural environment.’

4In addition to the evocation of a specific historical period, the concept of ‘renaissance’ relates to experiments both in form and content so that the term can be read as a metaphor for aesthetic renewal and reinvention. 20th and 21st century English literature has often revisited past forms in order to self-reflexively explore the mechanisms of fiction-making and the ideological economy of representation, parody constituting one of the chosen instruments of this aesthetic revival. The renaissance of pastoral poetry in the 20th century, as well as that of gothic fiction, or of utopian writing in feminist fiction, testify to the creative potential of looking back in order to invent the literature to come and to critically embrace the present. Choosing to revive past forms or subjects is more than playful: it allows modern and contemporary art and literature to fathom their own historical and epistemological determinisms and to historicize their own situation as regards their legacy as well as their future.

5Such a revival, rediscovery and reinterpretation of the past has been at the heart of the trend of neo-Victorian fiction which resurrects and revitalizes some of the aesthetic forms of Victorian times to endow them with new modes and meanings—a renewal encapsulated by the prefixes ‘re-’ and ‘neo-’. Christian Gutleben, in his article on A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990) and Graham Swift’s Ever After (1992), thus analyses the postmodernist ‘poetics of exhumation’ of Victorian ghosts and ancestors whose aim is to give ‘new life to seemingly dead voices, myths or historical actors.’ He insists that this resuscitation and recycling of the past is not a mere nostalgic repetition as it gives way to new and innovative structures, narrative forms and idioms through ‘creative recontextualisation and updated, hybrid restructuration.’ Lilia Louati concurs that more than nostalgia is at stake in neo-Victorian fiction as she draws from Marie-Luise Kohlke’s concept of neo-Victorian ‘sexsation’ to explore the re-writing and ‘re-righting’ of patriarchal discourse on female sexuality in Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (2002). In Waters’s novel, the masculine genre of pornography is re-appropriated and revised in order to offer ‘a compelling alternative female erotic.’

6Contemporary literature excels at reviving and subverting literary genres and the historical novel has been thoroughly transformed in English fiction since the 1980s. In her article on Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (2013), Armelle Parey notes however that recent developments in historical novels differ from Linda Hutcheon’s category of historiographic metafiction and ‘its disruptive narrative strategies, marked by distance, irony, parody and pastiche’ as writers attempt to ‘represent the past realistically without dismissing the lessons of postmodernism.’ Novelists thus strive for accuracy and truthfulness while forcing self-consciousness on the reader, as is the case in Life after Life, an anti-mimetic novel which re-imagines women’s war experiences and encourages the reader to reflect upon them. In Penelope Lively’s The Photograph (2003), which is analysed by Héloïse Lecomte, the literary genre being ironically revisited is that of the detective story whose tropes are transposed in a ‘contemporary tale of delayed mourning.’ Lecomte shows that the detective genre is being subverted and renewed through the ‘incorporation of emotion into obsessional investigation,’ thereby replacing ‘the 19th-century unwavering belief in almighty rationality’ with irony. In the process, the memory of the deceased is retrieved while the mourners ‘experience an empathetic rebirth in the process of resurrecting the past.’

7On the other hand, a sense of loss emerges from John Fuller’s poetic and fictional work as he is relentlessly trying to revive the haunting ghost of Mary Price, the former occupant of the cottage he bought in 1969 in Wales, who died in 1944. As shown by Aurélien Saby, while Fuller’s poetics of renaissance entails a revival and transformation of classical forms and genres like the pastoral, the elegy or the ekphrasis, his attempts to fully capture his shadowy and elusive muse through words fail. Instead, his poetry gives birth to unexpected connections between humans, matter and nature, viewing ‘natural cycles as series of births, deaths and renaissances in new forms.’ New forms of life are also what awaits patients leaving the hospital and recovering from a disease, as portrayed in contemporary poems by Denise Riley, Liz Lochhead, Fleur Adcock and Julia Darling. In her article, Elise Brault-Dreux insists that recovery is experienced as neither a rebirth nor ‘a new start from afresh’ as the disease has left lasting traces. She argues with Georges Canguilhem that the former patients need to comply with ‘new norms of life’ and ‘innovate a new form of normality’ to transform vulnerability into capacity. Peter Reading is more pessimistic as in his poetry collection C in which ‘a hundred poems of one hundred-word each chronicle disease and hospitalisation,’ he negates the possibility of recovery through new norms of life and states ‘the incapacity of poetry to create the acceptable illusion of the efficacy of the cure.’

8The multiple renaissances at stake in the novels and poems examined in this issue cover a wide spectrum. Whether successful or not, they never lead to a return of the same but require transformations and revisions in a process that is both an exploration of the past (historical or personal) and a new perspective on the present. Revivals, exhumations and resurrections of past periods, events, figures, genres, forms or idioms thus cast a new light on the contemporary, encouraging characters and readers to reflect on interactions between the past and the present so as to project us into the future.

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Catherine Bernard et Vanessa Guignery, « Introduction: Contemporary Literary Renaissances »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 11 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at Université Paris-Cité. She has published extensively on contemporary art (Rachel Whiteread, Gillian Wearing, Mark Wallinger among others) and on recent English fiction (Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Ali Smith or Harry Parker). Her research has also turned to English modernism and more specifically Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. She has published a critical edition and translation of Flush into French (Gallimard, Bibliothèque La Pléiade, 2012), and a critical edition and translation of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Essais choisis, Gallimard, Folio classique, 2015). She is also the author of a monograph on contemporary British fiction and contemporary art: Matière à réflexion. Du corps politique dans la littérature et les arts visuels britanniques contemporains (Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2018).

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Vanessa Guignery

Vanessa Guignery is Professor of contemporary English and Postcolonial Literatures at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. She has published several books and essays on the work of Julian Barnes, including The Fiction of Julian Barnes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), Conversations with Julian Barnes (University of Mississippi Press, 2009, with Ryan Roberts), and Julian Barnes from the Margins: Exploring the Writer’s Archives (Bloomsbury, 2020), and edited Julian Barnes’s Romans for the Quarto collection of Gallimard (2021). She is the author of monographs on Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (2012), B.S. Johnson (2009) and Jonathan Coe (2015), and the editor or co-editor of collections of essays on contemporary British and postcolonial literature (notably on Ben Okri, Janet Frame, Nadine Gordimer and Caryl Phillips, and on such topics as the poetics of voice and silence, hybridity and fragmentation). She is the President of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC).

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