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Ce numéro d’Études britanniques contemporaines s’intéresse à la postérité de la catégorie du ‘state of England novel’ pour comprendre comment la littérature et les arts britanniques des XXe et XXIe siècles se sont confrontés à la réalité sociale et politique de la Grande-Bretagne. Plus encore, les articles ici regroupés analysent comment la fiction, mais aussi le théâtre, la poésie ou la culture visuelle ont contribué à imaginer l’identité d’une nation dans toute sa diversité et sa fluidité. La représentation est analysée comme une poétique de l’intelligence collective, produisant un travail réflexif par lequel le corps politique s’incarne et se déploie dans son historicité.

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  • 1 See for example James Gindin’s review in Novel: a Forum on Fiction 2:1 (1968): 89–90.

1In book 1, chapter 1 of Past and Present (1843), Thomas Carlyle raised the ‘Condition of England question,’ emphasising the necessity to grasp the full measure of the contradictions of England’s new industrial prosperity. The expression took hold and was reappropriated by literary history through the ‘Condition of England novel’ category. The ethical and aesthetic urge to reflect on the present condition of the ‘nation’ has always been central to British art. Even as modernism was taking form, Forster was writing his own ‘State of England novel,’ with Howards End. English late modernism was, to a great extent, characterised by a compulsion to turn once again to a confrontation with the reality of the here and now. The very history of criticism reflects that supposed oscillation between experimentation and mimesis. In 1967, Rubin Rabinowitz hailed what was for him a welcome return to less arcane narrative forms and a greater concern with the materiality of reality. Although his polemical essay The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950-1960 was received with great circumspection by academics,1 it exemplified a growing distrust of the legacy of forms of fiction felt to be disconnected from the here and now of daily lives. Such a concern about fiction’s mimetic function was of course also taken up by Iris Murdoch and David Lodge in what became two much debated accounts of the dilemna faced by novelists and short story writers. In ‘Against Dryness’ (1961), Murdoch defined the 20th–century novel as either ‘crystalline’ or ‘journalistic.’ Denouncing what she perceived as the deceitful consolations of form, she turned to the renewed and ‘destructive power’ of character to rediscover the paradoxical impact of art that ‘invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts, in W. H. Auden’s words, to use it as magic’ (31). David Lodge, for his part, saw the novelist ‘at the crossroads’ and defended the idea that realism might be endowed with renewed aesthetic relevance, even in the wake of Modernism, to reach a fruitful compromise between the inventive constraints of realism and the power of ‘fictive imagination’ (108).

2We might argue that the same tension has been present ever since in British fiction. Recent critical accounts and analyses of British fiction since the 80s have stressed fiction’s capacity to stride the frontier supposedly separating formalism and realism (James 2012). In his introduction to a recent issue of Textual Practice devoted to Martin Amis’s Money, Joseph Brooker defined Amis’s manner in Money as characteristic of that fruitful tension: ‘An extremity of artifice coexists with the pursuit of contemporary actuality’ (Brooker 2012, 5). A very recent issue of Etudes anglaises also emphasizes the necessity to revisit that supposed formal antagonism (Guignery and Porée). For many contemporary novelists, confronting oneself with such pressing ‘actuality’ implies finding a form that may broach a sense of dislocation and anxiety while taking up the challenge of narrative. Achieving such dialectics implies a conflicted relation to one’s here and now. Rewriting the ‘state of England novel’ for our age of strife and globalisation implies instilling new energy in forms that the playfulness of formalism and fabulation had apparently rendered obsolete. In a culture of generalised obsolescence, it implies reactivating the memory of mimesis and foregrounding its unchanged relevance.

3Critics have written at length on the intertextual logic of contemporary British fiction (see, among others, Brooker 2010, Gutleben, Letissier). Entering in a dialogue with that great tradition of the ‘State of England literature’ necessarily disrupts established generic boundaries, a blurring already programmatic to late modernist texts, as Virginia Woolf’s essay-novel The Years amply testifies. Many contemporary writers, not all in the sphere of fiction, have perceived the emancipatory potential of such cross-generic play. Zadie Smith herself has been inspired by Forster’s own confrontation with realism and has reappropriated Howards End in On Beauty (2005); Martin Amis has recently reworked the realistic injunction by pushing it in the direction of extreme farce and satire in Lionel Asbo: State of England (2011).

4More broadly, recent criticism has taken a renewed interest in art’s accountability to our sense of crisis and anxiety (Gasiorek and James), in the wake of pioneering studies such as Steven Connor’s 1995 The English Novel in History, 1950 to 1995 or Patrica Waugh’s Harvest of the Sixties. As is the case with Contemporary Literature’s ‘Fiction Since 2000’ issue, criticism has taken a specific interest in literature’s capacity to address our post 9/11 anxiety. While the likes of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift or Zadie Smith choose to revisit the Thatcher and neo-liberal legacy of the 1980s (see Brooker 2012, 5–6), the new millenial fears of global terrorism and ecological disaster have also gradually invaded literary imagination. Cosmopolitanism has, in that context, taken on renewed relevance (Boxall, Schoene, Walkowitz), identities becoming increasingly fluid and de-centred or, as Peter Brooker suggests, merely anchorless and multiple under the aegis of American soft power: ‘the condition-of-England novel is sometimes narrated from an aeroplane between Heathrow and JFK’ (Brooker 2012, 6).

5In the face of such powerful forces, the relevance of the ‘State of England’ category may seem doubtful. Yet what cannot but strike the reader of Ebc’s present issue is how, far from becoming generic and global, a sense of Britishness has survived, even under the layered and conflicted guise of satire, parody or stylistic masquerade, even in the hybrid form of an increasingly ramified sense of belonging. Critics have shown how the regional novel could coexist with Britain’s multicultural turn (James 2008, King). All three sections of this issue explore British culture’s capacity to reappropriate the modalities of ‘Condition of England’ literature, to see how issues of national and aesthetic identity, of community fashioning and agency are represented and conceptualised. The paths chosen are varied: from essay-fiction to experimentation with verbatim theatre. In all cases, what is at stake is literature’s capacity to re-invent a form of criticity that provides writing with some purchase over the social, political and ideological fabric of the present.

6In more than one way, visual culture had shown the way. From Bill Brandt’s documentary work of the 1930s, to the visionary Mass Observation Project which Charles Madge, Tom Harrison and Humphrey Jennings initiated in 1937 (Hubble et al.), from Mike Leigh’s and Ken Loach’s social cinema to Martin Parr’s visual archiving of Britain, from the ongoing TV soaps Coronation Street and EastEnders, to Mark Wallinger’s Turner Prize installation State Britain (2007), British visual culture has relentlessly explored the many ways in which the visual has also engaged, often reflexively, in a critical dialogue with the present. The recent success of David Hockney’s Royal Academy show (2012) with its monumental evocations of a nostalgic English countryside and of Tate Britain’s exhibition Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life (2013) prove how central the representation of the present has always been to Britain’s aesthetic identity.

7Reading British culture against the grain of the established modes of periodization shows how deeply entangled artistic and ideological reflexiveness might be. For all literary history’s belief in reactions and counter-reactions, ruptures and watersheds, a similar concern with political agency runs across the spectrum of late modernist and contemporary British art and literature: from the realistic turn of the 1950s in fiction and drama, to the political agenda of experimentation in the 1960s; from British Pop art to the radical agenda of playwrights like Edward Bond or Martin Crimp or recent experimentations with hybrid forms as in the case of Lloyd Newson’s DV8 company (see their controversial take on British multiculturalism in their 2011 production Can We Talk About This?). The works of such radical figures as Richard Hamilton is, for instance, exemplary of the dialectics of experimentation and mimesis. His work on the Dirty Protest of the IRA prisoners of the Maze prison (see The Citizen, 1981–83) reaches deep into the memory of official portraiture to profoundly upset the comfortable dichotomy opposing abstraction and figuration and the very language of artistic commitment to the present.

8The articles here gathered show how British literature and visual arts have relentlessly tried to address the changing economy of cultural belonging. As always with British literature, class consciousness bisects other aspects of identity politics that reach deep into collective consciousness. Such a complex form of consciousness does not work in a linear fashion. To borrow Raymond Williams’ seminal analysis of the mixed temporality of culture, our sense of cultural belonging exists at the point of juncture of three modalities of culture: dominant, emergent and residual (415–420); and finding ways to understand the ‘State of England’ implies literature and the arts occupy unstable, once more layered cultural strata. Contemporary British literature and visual arts know that one of their tasks is to do justice to what Steven Connor defines as the ‘competing multiplicities of times, time-scales, and temporal syntaxes’ (ebook).

9These multiplicities are conditioned by forces as varied as memory, technology, gender formations, class, taste, sensibility. The three sections of the present issue open different paths to explore such multiplicities and the way Britain represents itself to itself. The first section ‘Imagining Englishness’ allows us to return to the much-debated issue of national representations from a diachronic and inter-medial perspective. Isabelle Brasme’s analysis of Ford Madox Ford’s deeply reflexive take on English identity and Fanny Delnieppe’s exploration of Julian Barnes’s ironical agenda in England, England both show how ambiguous the very notion of Englishness may prove to be when turned against the ideological machinery of nationhood. Julie Morère’s article on English fashion photography shows how the cultural clichés underlying the representation of English identity are in fact caught in a dialectics subverting the deathly logic of nostalgia and conservatism.

10The second section, ‘Conflicted Identities’, explores the deconstruction of essentialism further by turning to the making of identity. Christine Reynier’s reading of ‘the modernist State of England novel’ turns to the work of women novelists to understand how modernist experiments allow a form of anxious consciousness to speak through. That anxiousness may also be class-based, as Reynier’s and the next two articles prove. Turning respectively to George Orwell’s capacity to write as a critical observer, and to the poetic legacy of the 1984–1985 miner’s strike, Corina Stan and Claire Hélie aptly remind us that ‘the condition of England’ literature has always necessarily been aware of the class determinisms that both structure and fracture English society and which it is the task of literature to re-imagine and phrase. As Lauren Elkin’s article devoted to Zadie Smith and Cyrielle Garson and Madelena Gonzalez’ piece on verbatim theatre also show, literature has recently found new/different ways of addressing the mutations of the body politics. Such key issues as cultural diversity or social mobility are taken on by fiction and drama in ways that once more point to the fruitful dialectics of artistic experimentation and reflexive mimesis.

11The issue’s third and final section, ‘Writing the Body Politics,’ precisely foregrounds the way writers and artists have invented embodied visions of the nation. That quest for an embodied consciousness may travel across media as in the case in Anne-Marie Smith Di Biasio’s article on Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea; it may also embody itself in desire as is the case in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty and Davie Lodge’s Nice Work both the subject of Christian Gutleben’s piece, a desire whose power is both instrumentalised and subversive of all established social structures. Embodying the nation eventually requires writing may find a language that is fully empathetic. As Jean-Michel Ganteau’s article on Patrick Neate’s Jerusalem and Marc Porée’s piece on Will Self’s Umbrella reveal, fiction’s historicity lies in its capacity to invent a language of the senses which profoundly disturbs our reading experience. Mimesis, they seem to conclude, should speak to our capacity to organically imagine a world in flux. Only then may writing and representation speak of / to our capacity to feel, act, think as historical beings. Only then may writing and representation address the ‘state’ of a body politics that is always a form of collective poiein.

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Boxall, Peter, Twenty-First Century Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.

Brooker, Joseph, Literature of the 1980s: After the Watershed, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2010.

Brooker, Joseph, ‘Introduction: Listen to Money Singing,’ Textual Practice 26: 1 (2012): 1–10.

Connor, Steven, The English Novel in History, 1950 to the Present, London: Routledge, 1996.

Connor, Steven, ‘The Impossibility of the Present: or, from the Contemporary to the Contemporal,’ Literature and the Contemporary: Fictions and Theories of the Present, eds. Roger Luckhurst and Peter Marks, London: Routledge, 2014, ebook.

Gasiorek, Andrzej, and David James, eds., ‘Fiction since 2000: Postmillenial Commitments,’ Contemporary Literature 53: 4 (2012): 609–627.

Gindin, James, ‘Rubin Rabinowitz. The Reaction Against Experiment in the English Novel, 1950-1960. Review,’ Novel: a Forum on Fiction 2:1 (1968): 89–90.

Guignery, Vanessa, and Marc Porée, ‘Introduction,’ Etudes anglaises, ‘The British Contemporary Novel: 2008-2015,’ 68: 2 (2015): 131-142.

Gutleben, Christian, Nostalgic Postmodernism: The Victorian Tradition and the Contemporary British Novel, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

Hubble, Nick, Margaretta Jolly, and Laura Marcus, Mass-Observation as Poetics and Science, New Formations 44 (2001).

James, David, Contemporary British Fiction and the Artistry of Space, London: Continuum, 2008.

———, ‘A Renaissance for the Crystalline Novel?,’ Contemporary Literature 53: 4 (2012): 845–874.

King, Bruce, The Oxford English Literary History. Volume 13. 1948-2000, Oxford: OUP, 2004.

Letissier, Georges, ‘The Neo-Victorian Novel: Contemporary Fiction Writing and Dickens Criticism,’ New Bearings on Dickens, eds. Francesca Orestano, and Norbert Lennartz, Rome: Aracne, 2012, 75–101.

Lodge, David, ‘The Novelist at the Crossroads,’ Critical Quaterly 11.2 (1969): 105–132; repr. The Novel Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction, ed. Malcolm Bradbury, Glasgow: Fontana, 1978. 84–110.

McLeod, John, Postcolonial London. Rewriting the Metropolis, London: Routledge, 2004.

Murdoch, Iris, ‘Against Dryness. A Polemical Sketch,’ Encounter (January 1961); repr. The Novel Today. Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction, ed. Malcolm Bradbury, Glasgow: Fontana, 1977, 23–31.

Schoene, Berthold, The Cosmopolitan Novel, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009.

Walkowitz, Rebecca L, Cosmopolitan Style. Modernism Beyond the Nation, New York: Columbia UP, 2006.

Waugh, Patricia, Harvest of the Sixties: English Literature and its Backgrounds 1960–90, Oxford: OUP, 1995.

Williams, Raymond,, ‘Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,’, New Left Review 1.82 (1973): 3–16; repr. Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies, eds. Sandra Mukerji, and Michael Schudson, Berkeley: U of California P, 1991, 407–423.

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1 See for example James Gindin’s review in Novel: a Forum on Fiction 2:1 (1968): 89–90.

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Catherine Bernard, « Introduction »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 49 | 2015, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2015, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Catherine Bernard

Catherine Bernard is Professor of English literature and art history at Paris Diderot University. She has published extensively on contemporary art (Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Rachel Whiteread, but also Gillian Wearing and Sam Taylor-Wood). She has also done extensive work on recent English fiction (Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Barker or Graham Swift). Her research has also turned to English modernism and more specifically Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. She has co-edited several volumes of articles on Woolf, has published a critical study of Mrs Dalloway (Gallimard, Foliothèque, 2006), as well as a critical edition of Flush, for the Pléiade Edition of Woolf’s works (2012), and a critical edition and translation into French of a selection of Woolf’s essays (Gallimard, Folio classique, 2015). She is currently working on a study of the body politics of contemporary British fiction and visual culture to be published with the Presses de la Sorbonne. She is the President of the Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines (SÉAC).

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