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Imagining Englishness

A Past Perfect Rather Than a Perfect Past: Julian Barnes’s Reflective Nostalgia in England, England

A Past Perfect Rather Than a Perfect Past: England, England et la nostalgie réflexive de Julian Barnes
Fanny Delnieppe


Cet article explore, à travers le concept de nostalgie, la représentation de l’identité anglaise telle qu’elle apparaît dans le roman England, England de Julian Barnes (1998). De manière assez paradoxale, le roman semble profiter de l’engouement de ses contemporains pour le mode nostalgique en même temps qu’il déconstruit, de manière critique, les versions nostalgiques de l’anglicité qui font du passé une marchandise adaptée à l’idéologie du politiquement correct et au marché mondialisé. Bien qu’il dénonce ces constructions inauthentiques de l’identité anglaise qui se révèlent complices de la logique du consumérisme et du simulacre (Jameson), le roman problématise, de façon postmoderniste, la notion d’authenticité, remettant ainsi en question l’existence même d’une conception de l’identité nationale qui serait fidèle à la réalité. En conclusion, l’article se penche sur la dernière section du roman qui semble proposer une esquisse de l’identité anglaise apte à résoudre quelques-unes de ces contradictions. L’auteur semble en effet dire que, s’il est nécessaire d’avoir conscience du caractère inéluctablement fabriqué de toute définition de l’anglicité, il est d’autant plus désirable de prêter attention aux valeurs qui vont définir ce construit. La spécificité de la nostalgie à l’œuvre dans England, England tient au fait que cette nostalgie est tournée vers l’avenir dans la mesure où l’auteur recherche, dans les constructions nostalgiques contemporaines de l’anglicité, les idéaux qui devraient servir de lignes directrices à la construction du futur de la nation.

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So England comes to me, and what do I say to her? I say, ‘Listen, baby, face facts. We’re in the third millennium and your tits have dropped. The solution is not a push-up bra.’
(Barnes 38)

1In an article published in 2004, Vera Nünning comments on ‘the present heightened interest in Englishness, which manifests itself both in fictional and scholarly works’ (Nünning 2004, 153) and cites Julian Barnes’s England, England as an example illustrating this trend. The novel indeed tackles the theme of English national identity, and it does so through the particular lens of the country’s history. As Svetlana Boym suggests in The Future of Nostalgia, a country’s memory of its past is central to its inhabitants’ sense of a collective identity: ‘cultural identity is [built] through various common frameworks of memory and even what might appear as stereotypes’ (Boym 42). This idea is explicitly voiced in Barnes’s text, in which we can read ‘memory is identity’ (Barnes 259).

2‘England, England’ is the name of the last project of the character called Sir Jack, a caricature of a newspaper tycoon ‘reminiscent of British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell (1923-91) and Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch (born 1931)’ (Guignery 2006, 105), who has decided that his last idea before retirement, his ‘Ninth Symphony’ (Barnes 45), would be about nothing less grand than his country. The difficulty is that, as Jerry Batson, ‘a consultant to the elect’ as he likes to present himself (Barnes 37), points out to him, their country, England, is ‘no longer mega’ (Barnes 40) and that it does not have much left—not even its ‘tits’ (Barnes 38)—to boast of. Its strength, Batson says, lies in its old age; it is indeed ‘a nation of great age, great history, great accumulated wisdom. Social and cultural history—stacks of it, reams of it–eminently marketable, never more so than in the current climate’ (Barnes 41). The idea is therefore quite simple: if England has nothing but its past to offer, one should ‘plac[e] the product correctly [and] sell [this] past to other nations as their future’ (Barnes 41). To do so, Sir Jack, decides to build a small-size replica of the country on the Isle of Wight, where tourists from all over the world can visit many of the elements they usually associate with Englishness, be they historical landmarks and figures, geographical sites or cultural symbols.

3Because it is made to appeal and be palatable to the ‘purchasers of Quality Leisure,’ the ‘[t]op dollar [and] [l]ong yen’ as he likes to put it (Barnes 60), Sir Jack’s version of England is highly selective and simplified. Barnes’s reflection on national identity is thus double; at the same time as it deconstructs a certain version of Englishness—one that is highly nostalgic and shown to be ‘based on a coarsening simplification of pretty well everything’ (Barnes 134)—the novel draws the portrait of a contemporary England which appears to be wholly subservient to the logic of the free market and of globalization, and totally addicted to what Fredric Jameson has called the ‘culture of the simulacrum’ (Jameson 18). Despite what may appear from this account, Barnes’s novel is also far from unambiguous, as will become clear in the third part of this paper. Indeed, the author’s deconstruction of a certain vision of Englishness is complicated by a postmodern reflection on identity. While it seems to lament the preference for the replica over the original and for the fake over the authentic, the novel also acknowledges the inevitably constructed nature of identity, problematizes the notion of authenticity, and questions the very possibility of attaining (historical) truth, thereby putting into question the eventuality of ever forging a ‘true’ national identity. One solution, Barnes seems to suggest, is to find a compromise between the necessity of having a national identity which is not completely inauthentic, and the sheer impossibility of the task. This compromise seems to lie in the awareness of the inauthenticity of any identity or, rather, in the redefinition of authenticity as something which implies not so much a movement backwards to the past as one pointing to the future. Relying on Svetlana Boym’s useful distinction between what she calls ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective’ nostalgia as set out in her study The Future of Nostalgia, the fourth part of this paper contrasts Sir Jack’s enterprise with Barnes’s, and concludes that the latter’s search for identity and authenticity becomes one for the ideals that should act as a driving force in shaping the nation’s future. These considerations, because they bear upon a novel that is in many ways a reflection on contemporary England and Englishness, will, in the end, lead us to consider in what relation England, England stands to the Condition-of-England novel—also called the social-problem or industrial novel—which, in the nineteenth century, portrayed the country in order to raise awareness as to the growing divide separating the rich and the poor, and as to what it saw as the economic and social injustices affecting the English working class.

Marketing Englishness: ‘the repositioning of myths for modern times’ (Barnes 152)

4To carry out his project, Sir Jack asks Jeffrey, his concept developer, for a worldwide poll of the ‘[t]op fifty characteristics associated with the word England among prospective purchasers of Quality Leisure’. He also entrusts Dr Max, a historian specially appointed for the occasion, ‘[with] find[ing] out how much [English] people know’ about their own history (Barnes 60). The result of the poll is a list of fifty items including institutional features like the Royal Family, the Union Jack and Beefeaters; tourist sights among which we find Stonehenge and the white cliffs of Dover; architectural, literary and cultural icons—Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, thatched cottages, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, London taxis and double-decker buses; and elements from popular culture such as pubs, beer, Manchester United Football Club, cricket and TV Classic serials. However, the list also displays less flattering characteristics such as snobbery, hypocrisy, perfidy, whingeing, emotional frigidity, flagellation and not washing (Barnes 86–7). But because he is a ‘patriot’ (Barnes 38), Sir Jack prefers to take no heed of the negative traits. Besides ‘cross[ing] off items he judged the result of faulty polling technique’ (Barnes 88), the businessman ‘carefully prunes the list so as to retain only the glorifying items of the past’ (Guignery 2006, 108), like the Battle of Britain, and forgets about the more controversial ones. Imperialism, for instance, although it ranks ten in the list, will be mentioned no further.

5Through selection, the already stereotypical portrait of England is thus made even more stereotypical. According to Vera Nünning, Sir Jack’s enterprise typifies many contemporary definitions of English national identity, which rely, for their appeal, on nostalgia: ‘Barnes exposes the one-sidedness that characterizes many contemporary versions of Englishness, which overwhelmingly locate “true” Englishness in the distant past’ and ‘mostly centre around favourable self-images’ (Nünning 2001, 65, 67). Because of the chosen focus on a mythical Old England, everything related to Wales, Scotland or Ireland, as well as to multiculturalism, is left out and this, too, proves to be ‘a salient feature of many constructions of Englishness’ according to Nünning (Nünning 2001, 74).

6Through Sir Jack’s project, the novel therefore satirizes the contemporary nostalgic versions of Englishness, but it also issues a critical commentary on contemporary England. Indeed, to ensure the project’s financial success, the committee does not content itself with concentrating on the distant past—a little manipulation of history is also deemed necessary. For instance, it does not refrain from contemplating the possibility that Robin Hood and his Merrie Men might have been ‘a band of . . . fairies’ in order to allure the gay community. On the consideration that ‘pink pound does not go through the same turnstile as top dollar’ (Barnes 153), it finally opts for the democratic band version, more likely to entice a large number of visitors:

‘Jeff Public would, I think, applaud the legend of the ur-freedom-fighter not just for his liberationist actions and redistributive economic policy, but also for his democratic choice of companions. Friar Tuck, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son. What have we here? A rebel priest with an eating disorder; a person suffering from either restricted growth or gigantism, depending how ironic you judge the medieval mind to have been; a possible case of pityriasis rosea, although dipsomania can’t be ruled out; and a flour operative whose personal identity is dependent upon his father’s social position. Then we have Allan-a-dale, whose bursting heart might allegorically refer to a cardiac condition.

‘In other words, a grouping of the marginalized led by an equal-opportunity employer who was, whether he knew it or not, one of the first implementers of an affirmative rights programme.’ (Barnes 153–154)

7This modern vision of the myth leads the committee to start ‘active recruitment among gays and ethnic minorities’ (Barnes 156) and, after the park’s opening and some complaints from the tourists, to reposition the myth even further: ‘Band personnel had been realigned with great sensitivity; offensive elements in the scenario—old-fashioned attitudes to wildlife, over-consumption of red meat–had been expunged or attenuated’ (Barnes 228). As Vanessa Guignery explains: ‘Le mythe de Robin des Bois fait . . . l’objet d’une récriture, plus adaptée à l’esprit du troisième millénaire, aux attentes supposées du public et à la logique du politiquement correct . . . Cette exploitation du passé en fonction des intérêts économiques, moraux et pratiques de la période contemporaine explique la série de déformations dont il est régulièrement victime’ (Guignery 2001, 83–4). The Hood myth is thus modified to adapt to politically correct imperatives. Likewise, the story of Nell Gwynn, meant to ‘provide some kind of sex angle’ undergoes ‘a little massaging, to bring her into line with third millennium family values’ (Barnes 95, 97). From a ‘Protestant whore,’ she is thus transformed into ‘a nice, middle-class girl who ends up marrying the king’ (Barnes 97–98): ‘[n]owadays, she was a nice, unambitious girl who ran a juicer stall a few hundred metres from the Palace railings. Yet her essence, like her juice, had been concentrated, and she remained a version of what she had once been, or at least what Visitors—even readers of family newspapers—expected her to have been. Raven hair, sparkling eyes, a white flounced blouse cut in a certain way, lipstick, gold jewellery, and vivacity: an English Carmen’ (Barnes 190).

8The decision to turn Robin Hood’s Band into a bunch of vegetarian and animal-friendly marginalized, and Nell Gwynn into a Cinderella, is, of course, fuelled by economic motives, more than by idealistic considerations. Political correctness is thus made to serve the ends of capitalism and consumerism. No visitor of the park seems to notice the liberties taken with the historical record. To his consternation, Dr Max, who has been researching how much the English knew about their history, is forced to realize that his compatriots’ historical knowledge is rather limited: ‘everyone . . . know[s] what you might expect. Diddly-squat, as the jargon has it’ (Barnes 153).

The Unreality of Contemporary England

  • 1 It is significant that Barnes has his character build a miniature England. In On Longing, Susan Ste (...)

9With England, England, Barnes may well be commenting on the loss of historicity and on the culture of the simulacrum, which, according to Fredric Jameson, characterize our postmodern times.1 In Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson indeed explains that ‘with a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and “spectacles” . . . the past . . . has meanwhile itself become a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum’ (Jameson 18). This description aptly applies to the world of a theme park which transforms English history and identity into a series of ‘depthless, stereotypical images drawn, without a context of analysis, from past eras and mixed promiscuously’ (Holmes 91). The preference for the adulterated copy as a replacement of the original characterizes the evolution of ‘England, England.’

  • 2 See Jean Baudrillard, L’Échange symbolique et la mort, Paris : Gallimard, 1976, p. 77 and Jean Baud (...)
  • 3 In an interview, Julian Barnes described the work as ‘farcical’ (see Freiburg 46).

10From a mere tourist attraction, the park comes in time to replace the original England. With the mainland undergoing mass depopulation due to economic motives, and tourists who would rather visit the island than go to the mainland, ‘[t]he world began to forget that “England” had ever meant anything except England, England’ (Barnes 262). Even the employees of the park start forgetting about their identity and believing that they are the characters they were hired to impersonate. Thus the Band, bored with its vegetarian diet, starts hunting preys in the Animal Heritage Park, the smugglers smuggle, the (real) King, whom Sir Jack persuaded to come to the island to play his role and that of his ancestor Charles II, chats up Nell Gwynn, making rather indecent propositions—actually offering her to ‘juice [his] clementines any time she wanted’ (Barnes 192)—and there are complaints from visitors about Dr Johnson’s ‘depressing company [and] racist remarks’ (Barnes 214). The employees’ ‘adhesion . . . of personality’ (Barnes 202) compounds the blurring of the boundary between reality and representation at work in England, England. The copy, with no link whatsoever with the reality it is supposed to represent, replaces the original, a move that corresponds to the third-order simulacrum as defined by Jean Baudrillard in Simulacres et simulation, and as the point of entry into the hyperreal.2 If the novel’s major mode appears as that of farce,3 it may well be to adapt to the unreality of a society which ‘prefer[s] the replica to the original’ (Barnes 55) and where, ‘after a while[,] the real thing becomes the replica’ (Barnes 63). Yet it is important to understand that the logic of the simulacrum is inseparably tied to that of the free market. In Jameson’s words, ‘the logic of the simulacrum . . . does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it’ (Jameson 46). England, England becomes ‘a pure market state’ (Barnes 187), with all its components–from immigration laws to justice and health–made to be congruent with economic imperatives.

11In an interview, Barnes declared that his work was an ‘idea of England novel’ rather than a ‘state of England novel.’ When asked about the difference between the two, the author replied:

England as a functioning economy is comparatively rich and healthy; many elements of society are comparatively happy. That may be the state of England; but, whether it is or not, what is the idea of England? What has become of it? . . . England as an idea has become somewhat degraded, and I was interested in what would happen if you pushed that, fictionally, to an extreme. You take some of the tendencies that are implicit in contemporary Britain, like the complete dominance of the free market, the tendency of the country to sell itself and parody itself for the consumption of others, the increasing dependence on tourist dollars … You take all this and push it as far as it can go and set it in the future. It’s a garish, farcical, extremist version of what the country seems to be getting like now. (Guppy 74)

  • 4 Barnes denied having ever had any reformist intentions in mind. Referring to Pitman’s being a caric (...)
  • 5 One may, for example, here think of the genre of the neo-Victorian novel, which Christian Gutleben (...)

12The novel is thus more preoccupied with ‘tendencies’, ideas and ideologies than with documentary content. It is not a work depicting the living conditions of England’s underprivileged or the tensions and divisions at work in society, as a modern Condition-of-England novel might do. Furthermore, its farcical mode distances it from the latter Realist tradition. Yet England, England could, to some extent, be considered as a variation on the Victorian subgenre. The parallel established between Martha and her country with regard to their respective evolution recalls one aspect of the social-problem novel in which, as Michael Wheeler explains, ‘change and development in the individual is often related to external social change’ (Wheeler 37). Barnes’s novel also shares with its nineteenth-century literary ancestor, if not its ‘reformist drive’ (Wheeler 37), then its critical and political dimension.4 If the criticism is no longer directed at industrialism as Raymond Williams asserts it was in relation with the industrial novel (Williams 109), it is levelled at the state of a country which, under the guise of democratization and political correctness, flattens out its past and identity into a commodified and homogenized copy, ready to be sold off to global consumers. The historical past no longer serves, as it did in the nineteenth-century novel, as a context in which ‘to place the changes of the present’ (Wheeler 37) but has been evacuated: ‘[t]here was no history except Pitco history’ (Barnes 207). According to Laura Bulger, the novel’s criticism is also pointed toward this version of the past as ‘promoted by cinema, television and tourist flyers’ (Bulger 54), but the indictment might also well extend to fiction that capitalizes on the current nostalgic drive,5 thereby including England, England itself, as will be seen in more detail in the fourth part of this article. This paper will now turn to one of the fundamental paradoxes haunting the novel. Indeed, if the latter, in unison with Baudrillard, Jameson and others, appears to disparage the country’s degeneration into the hyperreal, it also fosters a postmodernist reflection on the elusive quest for the real.

‘Is not the very notion of the authentic somehow, in its own way, bogus?’ (Barnes 134): The Impossibility of Authentic Englishness

  • 6 In a study on Derridean deconstruction, Jonathan Culler indeed explains that the concept of origin (...)

13According to Dr Max, Sir Jack’s project is ‘[v]ulgar . . . Staggeringly commercial . . . Horrible in many of its incidental manifestations. Manipulative in its central philosophy. All these, but not . . . bogus’ (Barnes 134). He explains to Martha Cochrane, the project’s ‘Appointed Cynic’ (Barnes 46), that, as an historian, he cannot defend the idea of an original moment that would mark the beginnings of things: ‘there is no authentic moment of beginning, of purity, however hard their devotees pretend. We may choose to freeze a moment and say that it all “began” then, but as an historian I have to tell you that such labelling is intellectually indefensible. What we are looking at is almost always a replica, if that is the locally fashionable term, of something earlier. There is no prime moment’ (Barnes 135). Through the character of Dr Max, Barnes deconstructs, in Derridean fashion, the notion of an historical origin.6 When applied to the concept of identity in general, and of Englishness in particular, it follows that there is no moment in time at which to locate any authentic Englishness and that, in fact, there is no authentic Englishness because English national identity is forever already constructed.

14The novel here partakes of historiographic concerns which the author had tackled in earlier novels like Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989). These novels are usually categorized as historiographic metafictions, a term coined by Linda Hutcheon, who defines this type of fiction as one which, by elaborating on the similitudes between historical and literary writing—or between history and story—, problematizes our conception of History, and questions the validity of historical knowledge (Hutcheon 1988, 105–123). As a consequence, any interpretation of history, in so far as it will be subjective, ideological and partial, and any attempt at defining national identity, are bound to be constructed or, in Dr Max’s term, ‘bogus.’ This explains why the historian does not totally object to the project. When Martha asks him if he despises it, she gets the following answer: ‘Oh, Miss C–ochrane, entre n–ous, I do, I do. But that’s merely a social and aesthetic judgement. To any creature of taste and discernment, it’s a monstrosity planned and conceived, if I may so characterize our beloved Duce, by another monstrosity. But as an historian, I have to say that I barely object’ (Barnes 136).

15Any representation of England’s past and identity is bound to be constructed and, to this extent, inauthentic. As Vera Nünning points out, England, England ‘highlights the impossibility of knowing what Englishness may ever have consisted of in the past, and it deconstructs the notion that there is either a continuity between past and present Englishness, or something like essential “Englishness.” What Barnes satirically illustrates over and over again is that there is no “essence” of Englishness, let alone a “quintessence”’ (Nünning 2001, 74). But if there is no authentic Englishness, if any version of it is constructed, what version is to be adopted? If ‘Getting its history wrong is also part of creating a nation’ as Barnes put it in an interview (Guignery 2009, 59), how wrong may we be if we do not want the nation to become, to borrow Dr Max’s term, a ‘monstrosity’?

‘[A] social and aesthetic judgement’ (Barnes 136). And an Ethical One

16The novel’s third part centres on Martha after she left her position in Sir Jack’s England, England. We find her back on the mainland, which has changed its name to ‘Anglia’ after it ‘declared its separateness from the rest of the globe and from the Third Millennium’ (Barnes 262), letting England, England become, in the world’s mind, the ‘real’ England. The country now lives in autarchy and has reverted to a pre-industrial state. Many critics have commented on the ambiguous nature of the novel’s end, which appears as a curious mixture of nostalgia, irony and seriousness. Barnes takes care not to draw an idealistic portrait of Martha’s village, and to constantly highlight its artificial nature, thereby undermining, as Vanessa Guignery explains, the equation between traditional rural societies and authenticity (Guignery 2006, 114). As the author said in interview, ‘[i]n many ways it’s a completely fake village. It’s a bogus village reinventing itself’ (Guignery 2009, 63). Many of its inhabitants have changed their names and professions, and are the target of the novelist’s humour, like ‘Jez Harris, formerly Jack Oshinsky, junior legal expert with an American electronics firm [who] backdate[d] both his name and his technology’ by becoming a blacksmith and farrier, and who delights in ‘play[ing] the yokel whenever some anthropologist, travel writer, or linguistic theoretician would turn up inadequately disguised as a tourist’ (Barnes 251). Yet, as Richard Bradford points out, ‘although most of the characters are still playing roles they now seem more comfortable in doing so, as if they have found a tolerable median between story and fact’ (Bradford 183). The impression that Anglia is not derided as much as England, England is also stems from ‘the note of wistfulness that creeps into Barnes’s descriptions of the landscape [and] of the Sunday congregation [which] tempers the satirical tone’ (Henstra 102). Sarah Henstra describes this last chapter as ‘a commemorative portrait of England’s lost origin, a eulogy for the old myth of organic society’ (Henstra 103), a view shared by Nick Bentley who argues that, notwithstanding its parodic accent, the final section resembles a ‘pastoral elegy’ (Bentley 494).

17In fact, this return to the pastoral vein is one more element which makes England, England somewhat in line with the Condition-of-England novel. Indeed, according to Rosemarie Bodenheimer, works such as Oliver Twist, Alton Locke and Ruth ‘create pastoral realms and mythic histories that function as alternatives or correctives to courses of thought and action fixed in the social order. Fictional appeals to nature or to a value-laden past are particularly open to dismissal as escapist or nostalgic fantasy. But in the dialectic of narrative argument, they can function as genuine alternatives: not as better worlds elsewhere but as challenges to the assumptions of a dominant social theory’ (Bodenheimer 9).

18In the case of Barnes’s novel, the pastoral realm does not function, as it did for the nineteenth-century novels cited above, ‘as a complex arena of resistance to the environmentalist view of character’ (Bodenheimer 9), but, one might argue, as a sphere of opposition to ‘modern life’s driving ideology’ (Henstra 104), which includes all the aspects denounced in the second part of the novel such as the culture of the simulacrum, the commodification of history and of identity, and the enslavement to consumerism. The incorporation of a self-conscious ‘nostalgic reverie’ (Henstra 102) serves to counter the ideology and values on which Sir Jack’s project was built. Yet there might seem to be a contradiction between, on the one hand, the novel’s indictment of England, England’s opportunistic recourse to nostalgia, and, on the other, its own nostalgic tendencies regarding Anglia. So what, if anything, distinguishes the latter from the nostalgia on which England, England thrived?

  • 7 For an analysis of the link between irony, nostalgia and the postmodern, see Linda Hutcheon, “Irony (...)

19Here, we may refer to the two kinds of nostalgia theorized by Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia. Boym distinguishes between what she terms ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective’ nostalgia to characterize one’s relationship to the past and self-perception. The first kind ‘proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps’ while the latter ‘dwells . . . in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance’ (Boym 41). Restorative nostalgia ‘characterizes national and nationalist revivals all over the world, which engage in the antimodern myth-making of history by means of a return to national symbols and myths’ (Boym 41); it ‘gravitates toward collective pictorial symbols . . . in an attempt to conquer and spatialize time’ (Boym 49). This description is reminiscent of England, England with its mythologization of the past into idealized images concentrated in a precise location. Conversely, with reflective nostalgia, ‘[t]he focus . . . is not on recovery of what is perceived to be an absolute truth but on the meditation on history’ (Boym 49). This kind of nostalgia ‘can be ironic and humorous. It reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another, as affective memories do not absolve one from compassion, judgment or critical reflection’ (Boym 49–50). This second type seems to describe the world of Anglia, and to characterize the narrator’s—and, we might add, the author’s—attitude in the whole novel, in which nostalgia is always tainted with irony in the manner typical of Linda Hutcheon’s postmodernism.7

  • 8 We can here add that this utopian streak may be traced back to the Condition-of-England novel. Acco (...)

20Towards the end, the text seems to self-consciously comment on the peculiar kind of nostalgia at work in its third part: ‘perhaps it was [nostalgia], and nostalgia of a truer kind: not for what you knew, or thought you had known, as a child, but for what you could never have known’ (Barnes 269). As Sarah Henstra puts it, ‘[h]ere the text seems to be forwarding a version of nostalgia that might be excused—might be considered “truer”—because it is knowingly constructed and aware of its idealizing take on the past. This self-conscious nostalgia differs from the kind [experienced by] England, England’s visitors, because it acknowledges that the object of its affection is not, and possibly never was, the “real thing”’ (Henstra 103). The text’s self-consciousness about its nostalgic and mythologizing tendencies thus works both as a bastion against the ‘risks and lures of nostalgia’ (Hutcheon 2000, 206), and as an excuse, a legitimization of its yielding to it. Of course, the text does not presumably advocate a return to a pre-industrial state and shows its awareness as to the nostalgic, escapist and maybe even utopian dimension of the third part’s representation of England,8 in particular through the use of irony and the emphasis on the village’s artificiality. ‘Brittle cynicism’ might well be ‘a truer response to the modern world than . . . sentimental yearning’ (Barnes 243); the novelist cannot afford to be naively romantic because ‘the words, the serious words, have been used up over the centuries’ by, among others, his literary predecessors (Barnes 243). Faced with the challenge of the already said, one can, as Umberto Eco suggests, consciously play the game of irony (Eco 77–78).

21Nevertheless, nostalgia of the reflective kind, although sentimental, might yield some fruitful insight. As Svetlana Boym explains in words that strikingly echo Barnes’s narrator’s, reflective nostalgia is creative nostalgia to the extent that it ‘reveals the fantasies of the age, and it is in those fantasies and potentialities that the future is born. One is nostalgic not for the past the way it was, but for the past the way it could have been. It is this past perfect that one strives to realize in the future’ (Boym 351, my emphasis). Barnes’s reflective or ‘truer’ nostalgia is thus turned towards the time to come in that it consists in analysing the constructions of the past in order to define the ideals for the nation’s future. As Boym puts it, ‘the goal of the odyssey is a rendezvous with oneself’ (Boym 50)—reflective nostalgia is a creative search for identity. Although this type of nostalgia is often ‘inconclusive’ (Boym 50), Barnes’s novel seems to point to certain guidelines concerning the ideals that should act as a driving force in building the nation’s identity.

‘[T]he nation does better if it has some serious beliefs’ (Barnes 244)

22Commenting on the end of his book, Barnes declared: ‘[t]he third part [is] about the question of to what extent a country can begin again, and what that beginning again means . . . What I try to do is ask the question, “Say everything collapses somewhere, and then you start again, what does such starting again consist of for a country? And is it the same answer as before?”’ (in Guignery 2009, 62). The answer to the last question seems to be that it isn’t. Anglia is indeed said to have abandoned ‘the long-agreed goals of the nation–economic growth, political influence, military capacity, and moral superiority’ (Barnes 261), and, like Martha, to ‘divide itself … between the entirely local and the nearly eternal’ (Barnes 270), to ‘commune with the reality [it] kn[ows]’ (Barnes 268). This idea of community, of human contact, is a defining one as regards authenticity. Indeed, we have already remarked on how the actor hired to play Dr Johnson on the island identified with the poet so much that he, too, was suffering from melancholy. After seeing him in her office to inform him of the visitors’ complaints about his inhospitable attitude, Martha has some sort of revelation: ‘[t]he sudden truth she had felt as he leaned over her, wheezing and muttering, was that his pain was authentic. And his pain was authentic because it came from authentic contact with the world’ (Barnes 223). The authentic is thus redefined as being less a synonym of the ‘original’ or of the ‘true,’ than of the human.

23Linked to this idea of community is the notion of a collective dream that is mentioned in regards to Anglia’s historical destiny: ‘Was it mere willed antiquarianism, as The Times alleged, or had that trait been part of its nature, its history, anyway? Was it a brave new venture, one of spiritual renewal and moral self-sufficiency, as political leaders maintained?’ (Barnes 266). Even if nothing is asserted, the text seems to forward the question of whether idealism, the faith in one’s ability to be guided by one’s dreams—and perhaps even nostalgia—, are not part of the nation’s defining traits. For England, the novel diagnoses a ‘loss of faith,’ a ‘los[s of] seriousness’ (Barnes 244), which is said to lie ‘in celebrating the original image . . . the image and the moment even if it had never happened’ (Barnes 245). This image could be that of Anglia’s community, as celebrating it could perhaps give England the feeling of being, like the rabbit on which the novel closes, ‘fearless and quietly confident of its territory’ (Barnes 275). Again, this image does not function as something to be concretised but rather as an emblem embodying the ‘serious beliefs’ a nation should have (Barnes 243).

24England, England is, to say the least, a deeply ambiguous novel. It offers a critical deconstruction of nostalgic and stereotypical versions of Englishness which transform the past into a politically correct global commodity, at the same time as it takes advantage of the current nostalgic drive. It denounces today’s culture of the simulacrum while it invalidates the concept of authenticity, and shows that any definition of English identity is a construct. One way it could be seen to resolve these paradoxes lies in the manner it draws attention to the responsibility entailed by this process of identity construction, and in its redefinition of the concepts of nostalgia and of authenticity. Barnes’s nostalgia appears to be oriented towards the future rather than the past. It is a quest, not for an historical truth or origin, but for the ideals that should guide the nation’s future. These ideals should not be driven by the search for profit, but ought to include the values of community, human contact and the faith in the country’s potential to write its own future.

25England, England thus shares with the Condition-of-England novel its political dimension in the form of its indictment of the dominant ideology of the time, but favours the farcical mode over the realist one, the former being perhaps considered better suited and more efficient to denounce the unreality in which the country lives. Like some of its predecessors, it features a pastoral realm, not so much as an escape than as an area of resistance against some of contemporary England’s ‘tendencies,’ and as a space offering a vision in the past perfect. The last section indeed shows England as it never was, but as it must be celebrated if the ‘little seriousness of life’ is to be achieved (Barnes 245) while the irony that permeates it makes sure that we will not take this interpretation too seriously.

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1 It is significant that Barnes has his character build a miniature England. In On Longing, Susan Stewart points out how the function of the miniature is ‘to bring historical events “to life,” to immediacy, and thereby to erase their history, to lose us within their presentness’ (Stewart 60).

2 See Jean Baudrillard, L’Échange symbolique et la mort, Paris : Gallimard, 1976, p. 77 and Jean Baudrillard, Simulacres et simulation, Paris : Galilée, 1981, p. 17. Although Barnes denied in an interview having ever read any literary theory (in Freiburg 37), the character of the French philosopher who appears at the beginning of the novel, and many of Dr Max’s theories, are reminiscent of the works of Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord–the latter being directly quoted: ‘All that was once directly lived . . . has become mere representation’ (Barnes 56).

3 In an interview, Julian Barnes described the work as ‘farcical’ (see Freiburg 46).

4 Barnes denied having ever had any reformist intentions in mind. Referring to Pitman’s being a caricature of Rupert Murdoch, he said ‘I don’t have the illusion that Rupert Murdoch is going to read England, England and behave differently’. On the other hand, he did call his work a ‘political novel’ (Freiburg 46).

5 One may, for example, here think of the genre of the neo-Victorian novel, which Christian Gutleben has described as ‘unashamedly opportunistic’ in its exploitation of the nostalgic spirit of the time (Gutleben 250).

6 In a study on Derridean deconstruction, Jonathan Culler indeed explains that the concept of origin and, in particular, that of historical origin, in so far as it belongs to the metaphysics of presence, is one put into question by Derridean deconstruction (see Culler 94). This is to be related to the invalidating of the binary opposition between original and copy. As Culler notes, ‘every supposed original may be shown to be an imitation, in a process that is arrested only by positing a divine origin, an absolute original’ (Culler 187). Although one might suspect Barnes of a satirizing intent, given the slight parodic accents of Dr Max’s character and discourse, one cannot help thinking that the novel endorses these poststructuralist theses.

7 For an analysis of the link between irony, nostalgia and the postmodern, see Linda Hutcheon, “Irony, Nostalgia and the Postmodern,” Methods for the Study of Literature as Cultural Memory, Studies in Comparative Literature 30 (2000): 189–207.

8 We can here add that this utopian streak may be traced back to the Condition-of-England novel. According to Steven Connor indeed, ‘[i]n nineteenth-century Britain, in the high noon of the social-realist novel, Dickens, Eliot, Disraeli and Gaskell all responded to the imperative to imagine and diagnose the “condition of England,” in novels the very teeming inclusiveness of which seemed to be both an enactment of the problem of imagining the whole nation and a utopian prefiguring of such a vision of healing unity’ (Connor 44).

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Fanny Delnieppe, « A Past Perfect Rather Than a Perfect Past: Julian Barnes’s Reflective Nostalgia in England, England »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 49 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 28 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Fanny Delnieppe

Fanny Delnieppe is a lecturer at the University of Avignon. Her research focuses on the contemporary British novel and, in particular, on its political and subversive dimension. She is the author of chapters on contemporary British authors such as Jeanette Winterson, D. M. Thomas and Ali Smith, as well as on the role of literature in the world of academia. She is currently working on a project on the evolution of the novel in the face of contemporary technological advances.

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