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Exploring Faults and Fault Lines
Introduction : L’exploration des failles et des lignes de faille
Vanessa Guignery


Ce numéro d’Études britanniques contemporaines est issu de travaux de l’atelier de la Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SEAC) lors du congrès de la Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur de 2022 à Clermont-Ferrand. Le congrès s’est articulé autour des notions de failles et de lignes de faille et a permis aux contributeurs et contributrices de sonder les dimensions polysémiques de ces concepts dans la littérature et la culture britanniques des xxe et xxie siècles. Partant de la signification concrète des failles et lignes de faille en géologie, les articles embrassent des contextes plus larges où les scissions, fissures et ruptures peuvent conduire à des divisions durables mais aussi ouvrir la voie à de nouvelles explorations. Outre les contributions s’intéressant aux notions de failles et lignes de faille, ce numéro comprend un essai sur Capital (2012) de John Lanchester et deux comptes rendus d’ouvrages sur le modernisme et le recyclage de Virginia Woolf dans l’art et la littérature contemporains.

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1In Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), the main character Vina embraces instability, both her own and the world’s: ‘Nothing was certain in her vicinity any more, the ground was always trembling, and of course the fault lines spread through her from top to toe, and faults in human beings always open up in the end, like cracks in the groaning earth.’ (130) This passage beautifully encapsulates the polysemic dimension of faults and fault lines in their geological and metaphorical meanings. Geologically defined as a break or fracture in the earth’s crust, a fault appears when a volume of rock is split apart as a result of rock-mass movements and friction. Earthquakes typically occur along fault lines when the accumulated stresses and strains reach such a level that they need to be released. Far from being restricted to geological mechanisms, faults are referred to more broadly and metaphorically to connote splits, cracks, ruptures, rifts or divisions in various domains and on diverse scales, which are likely to have long-lasting consequences on individuals, communities and societies. In literature and arts, fault lines reveal oppositions and dissensions between differing aesthetics which may lead to clashes but can also pave the way for new perspectives and explorations. A fault is also to be understood as a flaw, failure, blemish, weakness, slippage or shortcoming.

2This issue of Études britanniques contemporaines aims to explore these multifaceted dimensions of the concept of fault lines in British literature and culture. Contributors cover a wide spectrum ranging from modernism (focusing on Virginia Woolf and the contemporary debate around her Bloomsbury bust in Tavistock Square) through the mid-twentieth century (examining Rose Macaulay’s and Jocelyn Brooke’s respective novels The World My Wilderness and The Image of a Drawn Sword, both published in 1950) to the contemporary era (embracing a variety of literary genres, from novels by Graham Swift and Sarah Moss to Denise Riley’s 2012 essay/journal Time Lived, Without its Flow and 2016 poetry collection Say Something Back, to short fiction by Northern Irish authors Lucy Caldwell and Jan Carson).

3The twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from the disruptive and agonistic intensity of modernism to postmodernism and beyond, have seen countless examples of seismic changes, shifts and breaks resulting from tensions or frictions between tradition and the avant-garde, convention and experimentation as examined, for example, in Marjorie Perloff’s The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre and the Language of Rupture (1986). Andreas Huyssen’s seminal study After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (1986) more specifically examines the divide between high modernism and the market or mass culture, but continuities can also be perceived, as shown by Christine Reynier in Virginia Woolf’s Good Housekeeping Essays (2019) where she explores the links between modernism (and the form of the essay) and popular culture (Woolf’s ‘Six Articles on London Life’ had been published in Good Housekeeping magazine). In the same way, the fracture between realists and modernists (the ‘Edwardians’ and the ‘Georgians’ whom Woolf opposed in her 1924 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’) has been re-examined and qualified, for instance in Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism: Continuities, Revisions, Speculations  (2017), edited by Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier. The volume proposes to ‘see the transition between the nineteenth century and the twentieth as a cross-fertilizing move rather than as a divide’ (Reviron-Piégay). E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), for instance, despite depicting strict class divisions, is a powerful example of the yoking together of realism and modernism, the connection of the prose and the passion, and ‘the inevitable interactions between different social classes’ as epitomized by the figure of Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast’s son (Gutleben 4).

4At the collective level, the historical fractures and the world wars which have shaken the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have shattered any illusory sense of world, European or national unity and stability. Colonisation and its aftermath, such as the immigration of colonial subjects to the imperial centre, far from bolstering an ethics of hospitality and commonality, have created sites of fracture within British society and left individuals from the former colonies ‘divided to the vein’ to quote Derek Walcott (27). Inner splits and multiple cracks at the individual level of the psychic self are responsible for a sense of fragmentation and sometimes forms of mental disorder, which have been examined in trauma, memory and disability studies, and explored by writers and artists. From the shell-shocked war veterans like Captain Chris Baldry in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918) or Septimus Warren Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) to the facially wounded soldiers (the ‘gueules cassées’) depicted by Pat Barker and the amputated officer in Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier (2016), characters struggle to come to terms with the dislocation of their lives, which, especially in the case of Parker’s novel, is mirrored in the very structure of the text. Language often fails to transcribe such extreme and traumatic conditions, as Woolf underlined in The Waves (1931): ‘for pain words are lacking. There should be cries, cracks, fissures’ (202). The material work of art may reflect such gaps through blanks or cuts inscribed on the page as in B.S. Johnson’s House Mother Normal (1969) while in art installations, concrete fissures can be displayed, as in the 2019 group exhibition ‘Fault Lines’ at the Freelands Foundation in London which addressed the physical and metaphorical qualities of fault lines, bringing out in sculptures both the sense of tension and that of precariousness.

5When considered as a flaw or a shortcoming, a fault can induce feelings of inadequacy or guilt. It may turn individuals into wounded or vulnerable heroes as examined in Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega’s collective volume, The Wounded Hero in Contemporary Fiction (2020), as well as by Paul Ricoeur in his extensive phenomenological study Fallible Man (1960), in which he engages with the notions of fragility, vulnerability and fallibility (see Causse). As underlined by many theoreticians in vulnerability studies, frailty and fallibility are intrinsic components of any individual and any life, ‘traits of a condition common to all, not of a special category of the “vulnerable”’, to quote Sandra Laugier (10). A flawless situation itself is bound to be only temporary, as underlined by Rosamond, the protagonist of Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before it Falls (2007), after remembering the happy holiday she spent in France: ‘There is nothing one can say, I suppose, about happiness that has no flaws, no blemishes, no fault lines: none, that is, except the certain knowledge that it will have to come to an end’ (16061). In Coe’s novel, the shattering end comes abruptly only a few weeks later when the child Rosamond was taking care of is suddenly snatched away from her, leading to the subsequent departure of her partner and the collapse of the family unit. In other cases, the cracks and fault lines appear more insidiously, as in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (2014) when the cautious way in which Fiona’s husband sets down a cup of coffee for her one morning and she, in turn, accepts it alerts her to an ‘unspoken, unacknowledged’ change in their relationship: ‘there occurred a minuscule shift along the marital fault lines, a movement as near-imperceptible as continental drift’ (143). This near-imperceptible shift cannot help but recall the ‘fine meandering lines’ (43) of the broken and then repaired vase in Atonement (2001), which Cecilia mistakenly thinks so discreet that ‘No one would ever know’ (43). In the same way, ‘the glazed surface of [Briony’s] conviction’ that ‘everything fitted’ in her version of what happened to her cousin by the lake ‘was not without its blemishes and hairline cracks’ (168) which turn into highly visible chasms over the years.

6Moving to a larger scale, writers and artists often highlight in their work the visible and invisible fault lines running through British society, which are emblematic of rifts and fractures between social classes, genders, communities, cultural, ideological or geographical groups, such as the North-South divide originally exposed in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1854–55 novel or the rift between London and other regions underlined by post-Brexit fictions. In Jonathan Coe’s Middle England (2018), a journalist refers to the 2011 riots that followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan (documented in Gillian Slovo’s 2011 play The Riots, written in the style of verbatim theatre) and notes: ‘What happened last week revealed an incredible fault line running right through British society’ (95). Racial and class tension as well as a sense of social and economic exclusion have been identified as contributing factors for the riots, along with poor relations between the police and the black community, recalling the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots when ‘cracks that already existed between the police and the community became deep fissures’ (Lammy).

7Over the years, the rifts within British society, far from healing, only widened. In ‘Fences: A Brexit Diary’, Zadie Smith remarks: ‘One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in British society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black, are real and need to be confronted by all of us.’ In Brexlit: British Literature and the European Project (2021), Kristian Shaw confirms that the 2016 referendum ‘was not responsible for dividing the UK, but merely revealed the inherent fissures already existing within society’ (viii). Brexit literature has been intent on probing these splits, for example in Anthony Cartwright’s aptly-named novella The Cut (2017), Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land (2017) or Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet (2016–2020) in which ‘the fencing off of Britain’ is ‘a projection of nationalism and of the fencing off of cultural identity’, hollowing out ‘the land of commonality’ (Bernard 23). Simon Smith’s 2016 poem ‘England, a Fragment’ likewise points to ‘the fragmentation of a country torn down the middle by the Remain vs Leave debate, and the severing of the country from its extra-national connections in the European Union’ (Collis), while contemporary British theatre reflects the fault lines which divide the nation as Vicky Angelaki analyses in Social and Political Theatre in 21st–Century Britain: Staging Crisis (2017).

8In this issue of Études britanniques contemporaines, contributors explore the notions of faults and fault lines from a variety of perspectives. Clémence Laburthe-Tolra examines Rose Macaulay’s 1950 novel The World My Wilderness through the prism of Gilles Clément’s concept of ‘third landscape’ and considers the fractured urban landscape of London the androgynous female protagonist (who defines herself as a heretic) roams across after the Blitz as ‘a space of in-betweenness for faulty characters’. While the city and British society are wrecked by ruptures and fractures and the protagonist suffers an internal split, Macaulay suggests that a form of suture may be provided by the proliferation of flora among ruins and the emergence of a sense of community among outcasts. Within the novel, the intertextual and intermedial disruptions which perturb linearity simultaneously create webs of meaning, just like the postcards of ruins elaborated by the protagonist.

9Catherine Hoffman also analyses the sense of disintegration and alienation which engulfs the main protagonist of Jocelyn Brooke’s The Image of a Drawn Sword (1950), set in East Kent in the aftermath of World War Two. Hoffman demonstrates the paradoxical nature of a text which portrays the inner disintegration of a former soldier but is nevertheless marked by a great narrative control. The protagonist’s distorted perceptions and communicative dislocations are mirrored by the reader’s own cognitive uncertainty and ethical uneasiness when faced with the resolution of the novel, reinforced by the transtextual instability and slippery genericity of the text. The fractures may not only be the manifestations of a single disturbed personality but reveal wider anxieties about the instability of the world, persisting fault lines and anxieties about renewed war after 1945.

10Isabelle Roblin turns to Graham Swift’s neo-Victorian novel Ever After (1992) to show how the author uses geology both literally (as the Victorian surveyor Matthew Pearce becomes acquainted with Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology) and metaphorically (as this discovery and the excavation of the skull of an ichthyosaurus trigger his crisis of faith). Fault lines and the gap between Matthew and his father-in-law the Rector irremediably widen after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the death of Matthew’s two-year-old son, leading to the radical severance of his links with his wife and family. Another fracture is the one that separates the Victorian narrative from the contemporary period when Matthew’s descendant Bill Unwin fails to understand what was so unsettling for his ancestor and therefore cannot bridge the gap between them.

11The kind of disintegration experienced by Matthew after his son’s death takes a different form in Denise Riley’s essay/journal Time Lived, Without its Flow (2012) and poetry collection Say Something Back (2016), in which the poet and philosopher probes the rift left by her adult son’s demise. In her paper, Héloïse Lecomte demonstrates that deep fractures split both books at various levels (relating to the experience of arrested time that follows a sudden death, the cracks in the self which is torn apart, the incapacity of language to express grief or the failure of cognition). Contrary to what a conventional elegy might offer, the wound as cut refuses to be healed, the mourner dwelling on the fault line which is literally inscribed on the page (through suspended lines, blanks, breaks, intervals or fracturing signs of punctuation). However, Lecomte argues that the redefinition of the rift as an opening and the friction between ‘I’ and ‘you’ have creative and possibly consolatory potential, crafting a space of resonance for deceased and mourner.

12Lea Sinoimeri also explores the potentialities of the second-person pronoun in short fiction by Northern Irish authors Lucy Caldwell and Jan Carson. The ‘you’ narratives in which the second person refers to the narrator may evidence a form of dissociation that points to the split of the speaking subject but they can also draw the reader into an immersive intimacy similar to that provided by radiophonic experiences. Caldwell’s and Carson’s short stories both acknowledge the fractures and fault lines of past and present Northern Irish reality that tear individuals and communities apart and imagine new, liminal and relational modes of being that are conveyed through a blurring of the lines between narrative and dramatic writing.

13If Caldwell and Carson try to foster intimate forms of connection, Sarah Moss confines the characters of her novels to secluded places where they find themselves exposed to individual and collective fault lines: the gender divide in Cold Earth (2009), domestic abuse and patriarchal oppression in Ghost Wall (2019), xenophobia in Summerwater (2020), single parenthood in The Fell (2021). A shattering event often ruptures the surface of daily routine, which Emilie Walezak examines through affect theory as characters, trapped in a mental lockdown, experience contagious fear and anxiety. The Fell is particularly remarkable for the way in which it explores the social fractures that the COVID lockdown has exposed and simultaneously unearths the fundamental fault lines which have caused the current environmental crisis.

14Valérie Favre examines various political fault lines that polarise the contemporary British public sphere and reflects on the reactions triggered by a review launched by the Camden Council of its local memorials and statues following the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June 2020. Among the singled-out statues was Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury bust in Tavistock Square whose presence was questioned in the light of the author’s flaws, especially her class elitism and racism. Favre compares seven articles that were devoted to this issue in the British press in February 2022 and articulates Woolf’s ‘offences’ with the intersectional fault lines of gender, class and race that fracture contemporary British society.

15The contributors to this issue of Études britanniques contemporaines thus probe the polysemic dimension of fissures, splits, divisions, rifts and flaws that may affect the individual or communities and societies, but also aesthetics and epistemologies. Rather than view faults and fault lines as systematically insurmountable and unbridgeable, they explore their capacity to generate new meanings and foster connections.

16The issue includes two additional articles on contemporary British literature. Marianne Hillion examines the insidious effects of global capitalism on urban life as portrayed in John Lanchester’s Capital (2012) which revisits the realist, condition-of-England novel while Catherine Bernard interrogates anxieties relating to the end of literature and shows how recent novels by Ali Smith, Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro persist in representing the world and the present by reinventing the mimetic contract.

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Bernard, Catherine, ‘Vibrant Allegories: Questioning Immunity with Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet (2016–2020)’, Études Anglaises 75.1 (2022): 13–29.

Causse, Guilhem, ‘La “faille” chez Paul Ricœur : De l’identité symbolique et narrative, à l’identité gestuelle et langagière’, Études Ricœuriennes / Ricœur Studies 9.2 (2018): 73–89.

Coe, Jonathan, The Rain Before It Falls, London: Viking, 2007.

Coe, Jonathan, Middle England, London: Viking, 2018.

Collis, Stephen, ‘“Things to address directly”: Border Politics and Contemporary British Poetry’, Études Anglaises 76.1 (2023). Forthcoming.

Coste, Bénédicte, Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier, eds., Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism. Continuities, Revisions, Speculations, London: Routledge, 2017.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel and Susana Onega, eds., The Wounded Hero in Contemporary Fiction, New York: Routledge, 2020.

Gutleben, Christian, ‘Glorious Bastards: The Praise of Impurity in E.M. Forster’s Howards End’, Études britanniques contemporaines 58 (2020). DOI: 10.4000/ebc.8801.

Huyssen, Andreas, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Lammy, David, ‘Tottenham Riot: The Lesson of Broadwater Farm’, The Guardian 7 August 2011, last accessed at on February 19, 2023.

Laugier, Sandra, Politics of the Ordinary: Care, Ethics, and Forms of Life, Leuven, Paris, Bristol: Peeters, 2020.

McEwan, Ian, Atonement (2001), London: Vintage, 2002.

McEwan, Ian, The Children Act, London: Random House, 2014.

Perloff, Marjorie, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre and the Language of Rupture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Reviron-Piégay, Floriane, Coste Bénédicte, Catherine Delyfer and Christine Reynier, eds., Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism. Continuities, Revisions, Speculations’, Études britanniques contemporaines 55 (2018). DOI: 10.4000/ebc.5750.

Reynier, Christine, Virginia Woolf’s Good Housekeeping Essays, New York: Routledge, 2019.

Ricoeur, Paul, Fallible Man (1960), trans. Charles A. Kelbley, New York: Fordham University Press, 1986.

Rushdie, Salman, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, London: Jonathan Cape, 1999.

Shaw, Kristian, Brexlit: British Literature and the European Project, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Smith, Zadie, ‘Fences: A Brexit Diary’, Feel Free: Essays, New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 2019.

Walcott, Derek, ‘A Far Cry from Africa’, The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013, ed. Glyn Maxwell, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 27–28.

Woolf, Virginia, The Waves (1931), ed. Kate Flint, London: Penguin, 1992.

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Vanessa Guignery, « Introduction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 64 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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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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