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“England [is] a long way off”: Historical and Ethical “Elsewheres” in Ian McEwan’s Atonement

“England [is] a long way off”: “ailleurs” historiques et éthiques dans Atonement de Ian McEwan
Elsa Cavalié
p. 129-140


La fiction anglaise de la fin du xxe siècle montre que, pour de nombreux auteurs contemporains (Ishiguro, Barker, Swift,…), “ailleurs” signifie en premier lieu l’Angleterre mythique du passé, que l’on souhaite la recréer ou craigne son influence toxique sur le présent. En effet, dans Atonement—un roman écrit en 2001 et se situant à la fin des années 30—les mythes constitutifs de l’anglicité, tels que la “country house”, ou le code de conduite des gentlemen anglais, sont critiqués afin de souligner leur insuffisance en période de guerre—un ailleurs éthique où les valeurs traditionnelles se trouvent radicalement déstabilisées.
A travers l’exemple de Briony et de Robbie pendant la seconde guerre mondiale, le roman tisse un maillage de tensions entre identité individuelle et identité collective interrogeant la notion de “rencontre avec l’autre”. Dans Atonement, McEwan essaie ainsi de définir une nouvelle approche éthique de la relation avec l’autre—dont nous évoquerons la proximité avec l’éthique Levinassienne—et ainsi d’expier les péchés collectifs et “historiographiques” du passé.)p

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1Since his childhood, Ian McEwan’s life and work has been placed under the aegis of a fascinating yet disturbing elsewhere. Because his father was a soldier in the British army, his childhood was an uprooted one, and very much in contact with the political and social upheavals of the second half of the 20th century. Of his teenage years in Lybia in the 50’s, he recalls living “not very far from the machine gun nest” (Head 3), and understanding “for the first time that political events were real and affected people’s lives” (Head 3). After his return to England, to a state boarding school in Suffolk, his early writing reached towards a different kind of territory—the mind of the Other—in his first collections of short stories First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978)

2Still, McEwan’s novels often use the strangeness of a setting—a thinly disguised Venice in the Comfort of Strangers (1981), post-war Berlin in The Innocent (1990), and, of course, the eponymous Amsterdam (1998)—to enhance the Englishness of the displaced subject and study the crisis of an identity confronted with the loss of geographical bearings. In Atonement (2001), McEwan incorporates temporal and geographical displacement within the structure of the novel: the first section takes place in 1935 England, the second one follows Robbie during the British retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, while the third section takes us back to England and depicts Briony’s experience as a nurse in a war hospital. Indeed, one might argue that for many contemporary British writers, elsewhere means, first and foremost, the mythical England of the past, whether one longs to inhabit it, or dreads its pervasive and toxic influence.

The Remains of Englishness

3The period between 1910 and 1940 has often been described as portraying a “crisis of inheritance” (Su 11) in England. Whether it be in novels written at that very period, such as E.M. Forster’s Howards End, or in contemporary novels revisiting the period like Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day or McEwan’s Atonement, critic Lionel Trilling’s famous “Who shall inherit England?” (Trilling 118) is still very much relevant. Significantly enough, the three novels that have been mentioned put the countryhouse at the centre of that “crisis of inheritance”, as if Englishness and the future of England were inescapably linked with the future of the English countryhouse.

  • 1 Pevsner wrote one of the earliest and most influent theorisations of Englishness in The Englishness (...)

4However, Tallis House—the family house located in Surrey—is no poetic heir to Howards End, and is instead presented as an ugly, squat, orange, architectural monstrosity—a Gothic dereliction of the spirit of the times : “Morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home—barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances, and by a younger writer of the modern school as ‘charmless to a fault’” (19). Although McEwan voluntarily anchors Tallis House in what could be called the “historiography of Englishness” when referring to Nikolaus Pevsner1, the mention is not only to be taken as a scholarly “effet de reel”. The proleptic reference to a potential article draws attention to the fact that what is (and will be) considered as “essentially English” is a social construct (one may notice the lexical field of fallacy in the passage, with words like “stuccoed” or “artificial”). Indeed, Mrs Tallis reflecting on the house remembers that “her father-in-law’s intention [. . .] was to create an ambience of solidity and family tradition.” (145). The idea that tradition might be a deliberate, socially-orientated creation, likens the English country house to an “invented tradition”, to borrow Hobsbawn’s word, and quite a successful one at that, for the house does provide the viewer with “an impression of timeless, unchanging charm” (19) although it was only built forty years before.

5However, like an invisible disease, rot seems to be advancing towards the house, and has already taken hold of the island temple: “Closer to, the temple had a sorrier look: moisture rising through a damaged damp course had caused chunks of stucco to fall away. Sometime in the late nineteenth century clumsy repairs were made with unpainted cement which had turned brown and gave the building a mottled, diseased appearance. Elsewhere, the exposed laths, themselves rotting away, showed through like the ribs of a starving animal” (72).

6The description of the decaying temple is the first of the generic shifts that occur throughout the novel: buildings morphing into animals, bushes transforming into couples (164)—those always signal the liminal quality of the place and the subsequent difficulty in making sense of perceptions which triggers the tragic series of misinterpretations.

7Bearing in mind that the house is at the centre of what is called the “crisis of inheritance” novel, staging its death suggests that something emblematic of English identity has disappeared along with it. The dying temple represents the collapse of a fake ethos of Englishness: although it was built at the same time as the new house, it was supposed to “embody references to the original Adam house” (73), creating an artificial link between past and present—a fascinating yet fake “punctum” in the landscape.

8Still, McEwan acknowledges the fact that loss (here the loss of the original house) may endow a place with nostalgia and give birth to an ambivalent, melancholic spirit of the place: “The idea that the temple, wearing its own black band, grieved for the burned-down mansion, that it yearned for a grand and invisible presence, bestowed a faintly religious ambience. Tragedy had rescued the temple from being entirely a fake” (73). Personified once again, the temple appears to be orphaned, while one might interpret the “yearning for a grand and invisible presence” as an acknowledgment that the disappearance of a clear notion of Englishness is bound to entail a sense of loss, for it unsettles the bases of collective identity. Indeed, throughout the first section of the novel, McEwan draws a parallel between the progressive disintegration of Victorian Englishness as embodied in the temple and the conspicuous absence of Mr. Tallis—the patriarch and presumably the man traditionally supposed to embody the masculine values associated with Englishness. Furthermore, if fathers are to be accepted as the paragons of an English tradition of “inheritance”, one cannot help but notice that Robbie’s father is also missing, and has significantly disappeared during WWI (88) leaving a trail of doubt and loss behind him, for his family never knew whether he volunteered for the war or tried to escape it.

9Indeed, one may note that throughout the novel, various hints suggest that the afternoon and evening represented in the first section are to be considered as existing in the aftermath of WWI—a historical elsewhere that exerts a power over the lives of those who survived it. The vase that Cecilia and Robbie break near the fountain, during their first encounter that day, is the material reminder of that lingering power, for it proves to be a token of gratitude from a French village that Cecilia’s Uncle Clem had saved during the war (22). Strangely enough, the vase “came back home” but Uncle Clem did not, for he was killed shortly before the armistice. From the start, it is made very clear that it is not the aesthetic value of the vase that makes it precious, but rather its status as a reminder of the family’s heroism during WWI: “The vase was respected not for Höroldt’s mastery of polychrome enamels or the blue and gold interlacing strapwork and foliage, but for Uncle Clem, and the lives he had saved, the river he had crossed at midnight, and his death just a week before the Armistice” (24).

10Incidentally, one may notice that Uncle Clem’s death occurs just one week before the armistice, like Wilfred Owen’s, maybe establishing a parallel between the tragic deaths of the two men and offering a meaningful literary intertext to the passage. More significantly, the vase, which has managed to stay intact after the Somme and the crossing back to England, is broken on the very day when the Tallis family is shattered, and consequently functions as a twofold symbol: first, of the unity in the Tallis family and then of the fragile peace in Europe, while both seem to be closely interwoven, signalling the novel’s peculiar focus on the link between individual actions, individual responsibility and the course of history. The fact that an apparently trifling incident triggers such a momentous chain of events is yet another illustration of one of McEwan’s favourite themes, i.e. the significant, one might even say after Briony “crystalline” moment (312) when whole destinies are unexpectedly and abruptly altered.

11Later, Cecilia’s attempts at repairing the vase seem to be quite futile compared to the momentum of her confrontation with Robbie: “It was not until the late afternoon that Cecilia judged the vase repaired. It had baked all afternoon on a table by a south-facing window in the library, and now three fine meandering lines in the glaze, converging like rivers in an atlas, were all that showed. No one would ever know” (43). If one is ready to accept that the vase—German made and given by the French to an Englishman during WWI—might be a symbol of the fragility of peace in Europe after WWI, it may not be going too far to consider that the “three invisible meandering lines” are a metaphor of the conflicts silently breeding in Europe (and particularly in Germany) during the thirties that will finally lead to war and destruction, just like—on a personal level—the first quarrel between Cecilia and Robbie will eventually lead them to their deaths and the dissolution of the Tallis family.

  • 2 The central section depicting Robbie’s nightmarish progress towards Dunkirk was aimed at being the (...)

12Unlike WWI—a silent, haunting presence in the novel—WWII literally tears the narrative apart2 and further enhances the irrelevance of the old ethos of Englishness when confronted with war in France—a geographical elsewhere whose devastating violence dwarfs the niceties of English life. Indeed, during the retreat towards Dunkirk, Robbie and the two other soldiers meet a major from the Buffs—“a pink faced fellow of the old school” (220)—who seems to be straight out of a PG Woodhouse novel. The ensuing parody of the archetypal stiff upper-lip ethos also brings some comic relief to the mounting tension of the previous scenes:

The major had a little toothbrush moustache overhanging small, tight lips that clipped his words briskly. “We’ve got Jerry trapped in the woods over there. He must be an advance party. But he’s well dug in with a couple of machine guns. We’re going to get in there and flush him out.”
Turner felt the horror chill and weaken his legs. He showed the major his empty palms.
“What with, sir?”
“With cunning and a bit of teamwork.”
How was the fool to be resisted? Turner was too tired to think, though he knew he wasn’t going. (220–1)

13The major is indeed a living stereotype: from his physical appearance (“little toothbrush moustache overhanging small, tight lips”) down to his accent and the way he describes his plan to corner the Germans as if war were some sort of glorified fox-hunting (“well dug”, “flush him out”), his behaviour seems dangerously outdated. However, rather than going into full-fleged parody mode, McEwan chooses to juxtapose the stereotypical behaviour of the major to the sense of horror felt by Robbie. Depicted as a mirthless joke, the major stands for the English myth of the gentleman, what Barthes has defined as “this ceaseless, untiring solicitation, this insidious and inflexible demand that all men recognize themselves in this image, eternal yet bearing a date, which was built of them one day as if for all time.” (Barthes 155). Robbie’s gesture—showing his empty palms—as if in penitence, underlines the utter vulnerability of his status as a soldier—abandoned on a French road with an incompetent command—and his subsequent refusal to conform to the supposedly comforting myth of British resilience. When Robbie argues that he has no weapons, the major ironically offers stereotypically British weapons—“cunning and a bit of teamwork”—which seem all but inadequate compared with the deathly power of German artillery, thus reinforcing the bitter criticism of the British Army’s delusions of grandeur.

14Taking a wider historical perspective, McEwan questions another British myth—the famous “Dunkirk spirit” which, thanks to what historian Duncan Anderson called “spinning Dunkirk”, almost instantly transformed a pathetic retreat into a triumphant demonstration of British pluck and obscured the suffering and thousands of casualties experienced by the British Army. Through his attempt to undermine social myths by reworking them from within, McEwan seems to be anchoring the ethical bases of his novel in the tradition of postmodern “historiographic metafictions”—what Linda Hutcheon famously defined as a type of novel that “always works within conventions in order to subvert them” (Hutcheon 5). While accepting the reality and influence of those myths of national identity, Atonement offsets them by representing them against a blatantly violent setting and consequently shifts the focus from the group to the individual in order to allow for a true encounter with the Other and a redefinition of ethics.

Towards a New Ethics?

  • 3 The letter says: “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to (...)

15The first section of the novel centres on Briony’s attempt at coming to terms with what she perceives as a disruption of her stable world order: having read Robbie’s shocking letter to Cecilia3, she is both stunned and entranced by the violent crudeness of a word she instinctively recognizes. However, her need for order and symmetry—her “controlling demon” (5)—leads her to build a story around what she has witnessed. Ethics and storytelling are therefore closely linked insofar as they are presented as coming from the same impulse to restore order to the world. But Briony’s ethics are indicted for merely being a personal attempt at rationalizing the mystery of Robbie and Cecilia’s encounter, thus excluding the possibility of an ethical framework incorporating the unaccountable Other. And indeed, the fledgling writer confusedly feels there’s something wrong with the simplicity of her moral judgements: “But wasn’t she—that was, Briony the writer—supposed to be so worldly now as to be above such nursery-tale ideas as good and evil? There must be some lofty, godlike place from which all people could be judged alike, not pitted against each other, as in some lifelong hockey match, but seen noisily jostling together in all their glorious imperfection” (115).

16Briony’s status as a writer is what supposedly protects her from having a rigid, outdated conception of ethics. Still, her Manichean opposition between good and evil is very early on set against a competing definition of ethics, in which people would be judged in relation to one another: “Perhaps she was not as weak as she always assumed; finally, you had to measure yourself by other people—there really was nothing else” (118).

17However, bearing in mind that the story of Briony as a child is told by Briony as an adult, one may note that the unity of point of view that informed her first account of the facts in “Two Figures by a Fountain” (312–3) has, in her final draft (what the reader is actually presented with), been replaced by a multiplicity of points of view—an attempt at incorporating Otherness, or at least a fantasized Otherness, into the narrative. Yet, the first section significantly ends on a misunderstanding and a monumental error of judgment on Briony’s part when she denounces Robbie as Lola’s rapist, as if the theatrical, self-enclosed quality of the first section did not allow for resolution, as if (literary) atonement needed an “elsewhere”. Consequently, the narrative, metaphorically split by her intra-diegetic moral failure and the resolutely postmodernist impossibility to circumscribe such a momentous event (be it through the use of multiple focalizations), diverges and subsequently depicts two separate experiences of war that resonate and clash together.

18Both Robbie’s and Briony’s encounter with the war start with a process of depersonalization and loss of identity: Robbie becomes “Private Turner” while Briony is known as “Nurse Tallis” in the hospital where she now works and both experience “this narrowing, a stripping away of identity” (275) that simultaneously unsettles their previous identities while creating a temporary ontological void that allows for an encounter with the Other.

  • 4 For instance in the climactic scenes of The Comfort of Strangers (93–96) and The Innocent (163–168)
  • 5 Another instance may be found when Robbie and his fellow soldiers spend the night in a barn in the (...)

19After a narrative gap spanning the few years after Robbie’s arrest, the second section opens in media res, while Robbie and two other privates struggle their way to Dunkirk: it is customary to consider a physical journey as a means to self-discovery, and Robbie’s nightmarish retreat towards Dunkirk is no exception to the case. Yet, his hopeful progress towards possible salvation is interspersed with episodes of horrendous violence. Indeed, physical violence and physical pain are, not too surprisingly for a war novel, a pervasive theme in the section, for the reader learns quite early that Robbie has been wounded by a piece of shrapnel (192). As often in McEwan’s fiction4, the experience of physical pain blurs the boundaries between the outer and the inner worlds, and Robbie’s perception of reality is gradually poisoned by that very palpable symbol of evil. Simultaneously, the war imposes an excruciating process of defamiliarization on the individuals, where the most horrible sights, such as a severed leg in a tree (192), take an awe-inspiring, surrealist tinge. All the while, linguistic difficulties blur the communicational framework with foreigners, and make their fundamental unknowability a source of anxiety rather than wonder5. Language is then presented as burdensome, an inadequate impediment rather than a useful tool, and it is in the mute, utter vulnerability of a child’s face, as he and her mother are about to die under German bombs, that Robbie is seized by an ethical duty of responsibility:

Turner didn’t know a single word of the language. It would have made no difference. She paid him no attention. The boy was staring at him blankly over his mother’s shoulder.
Turner took a step back. And then he ran. (237)

  • 6 Not unlike the famous opening of McEwan’s Enduring Love.

20The cinematic, slow-motion quality6 of the scene conveyed by the short, paratactic sentences, offers a silent background to the feeling that overwhelms Robbie. He is indeed seized by a sense of responsibility towards the Flemish mother and her son that does not stem from a decision to act accordingly. As Levinas explains it “le lien avec autrui ne se noue que comme responsabilité, que celle-ci d’ailleurs soit acceptée ou refusée, que l’on sache ou non comment l’assumer, que l’on puisse ou non faire quelque chose de concret pour autrui” (Levinas 93). Robbie is not indicted for not having been able to save the mother and her child, war conditions made it impossible for him to do that. What is at stake here, is the fleeting albeit crucial moment when Robbie’s conscience was entirely open to the child’s face, and, if only for a second, bound by an inescapable link with the Other.

21As it has been previously mentioned it, one may read the third section of the novel—Briony’s probationary days as a nurse at the time of the British retreat—as a counterpoint to Robbie’s experience of France. Similarly, it is through the disquieting power of physical violence—enhanced by its irruption during a gorgeous May day—and by bypassing the filter of inadequate language that Briony will get a sense of responsibility towards the Other.

22On the first night after the soldiers’ arrival, she is ordered by the ward sister to attend to a wounded French private. The silent discovery of his face exerts a troubling and fascinating attraction over the young girl: “It was hard to think of him as a soldier. He had a fine, delicate face, with dark eyebrows and dark green eyes, and a soft full mouth. His face was white and had an unusual sheen, and the eyes were unhealthily radiant. His head was heavily bandaged” (305). Yet, McEwan insists on the compelling physicality of the young boy’s suffering, as the proliferation of /h/, /f/ and /th/ sounds and the paratactic rhythm convey the sense of strained, painful breathing to the reader.

23To quote Levinas again: “Le visage est signification, et signification sans contexte. Je veux dire qu’autrui, dans la rectitude de son visage, n’est pas un personnage dans son contexte” (Levinas 80). The soldier’s “essential poverty in the face” is gruesomely enhanced by the fact that he is literally disfigured: half of his face is missing and his brain is exposed thus epitomizing the disintegration of humanity when confronted with the transgression of the ultimate taboo—thou shall not kill—and the entering into a temporal elsewhere where the ethical bases of humanity have been irreversibly shattered (the aftermath of WWII and the discovery of the death camps). Faced with his certain death, Briony has to step back from her medical duties, and focus on the much more painful, much more meaningful task of just “being” with the soldier (310). In line with Levinas’s positions, McEwan’s redefinition of ethics is not in the “doing” of anything (le faire)—for Briony only sits near the wounded soldier—but in the fundamental acceptance of responsibility towards the Other that leads her to accompany him in his death. Seized by responsibility about what she has done to Robbie and Cecilia, Briony consequently needs to atone for her fault by going to them, and attempt to rewrite the past. And that is indeed the happy-ending story that is offered to the reader: Briony apologises, sees that Robbie and Cecilia are reunited and leaves them.

24Yet, the epilogue shatters the wishful reconstruction of the past and the reader learns that , in “fact”, Robbie really died of septicaemia in Dunkirk, and Briony never made it to Cecilia’s for she was to much of a coward to confront her sister. The precarious fictional framework is eventually thrown off-balance by Briony much critically-discussed last words: “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all” (371).

25The fact that there is nothing “outside the novelist” seems to deny the possibility of a fruitful fictional “elsewhere” and to condemn the novelist to merely work within his/her own limits, thus offering quite a pessimistic conclusion to Briony’s attempt to atone for her “sin”. Yet, in Briony’s attempt to rewrite history in order to give a voice to an ungraspable other lies a possible path to an atonement which would pertain to the ethical and the historiographic rather than the moral and the religious.

26In Atonement, Ian McEwan uses the topos of the English country house in order to reveal a distrust in the myth of Englishness that harks back to postmodern “incredulity towards meta-narratives” (Lyotard 7) while still acknowledging the sense of loss that the disappearance of the myth may entail. Then by revealing the link between mythical Englishness and the history of WWII, the novels challenges the ethical foundation of the writing of history, as Briony struggles to tell a tale she has not lived and to give voice to the stories of others.

27While acknowledging the impossibility of Briony’s literary atonement, one must still allow for the luminous moments when the encounter with the fictional Other bridges the sixty-year gap separating the reader from the facts and draw a transient line of flight between history, reality and fiction. For it is a historiographic atonement for the dangerous myths of the past that McEwan tentatively offers, one that opens the portal to an ethical and historical elsewhere.

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Anderson, Duncan, “Spinning Dunkirk”, BBC Website—History, 02 June 2004.


Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (1954), New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Childs, Peter, The Fiction of Ian Mc Ewan, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Crostwaithe, Paul, “Speed, War, and Traumatic Affect: Reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement”, Cultural Politics 3.1 (Mar. 2007): 51–70.

De la Concha, Angeles “Unravelling Conventions; or, the Ethics of Deconstruction in Ian McEwan’s Atonement”, The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960’s, Onega, Susana and Jean-Michel Ganteau, eds., Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, 192–209.

Head, Dominic, Ian McEwan, Manchester : Manchester UP, 2007.

Hobsbawn, Eric and Terrence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge : CUP, 1983.

Hutcheon, Linda, Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, London: Routledge, 1988.

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Su, John, Ethics and Nostalgia in the Contemporary Novel, Cambridge : CUP, 2005.

Trilling, Lionel, E.M. Forster, London: Hogarth Press, 1947.

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1 Pevsner wrote one of the earliest and most influent theorisations of Englishness in The Englishness of English Art (1956) but also the monumental Buildings of England (1951)—a 46 volume collection meant to be an “up-to-date portable guide to the most significant buildings in every part of the country” (See Pevsner’s current website

2 The central section depicting Robbie’s nightmarish progress towards Dunkirk was aimed at being the core of the novel, it also was the most personal for McEwan, for it is partly based on his father’s own memories of the retreat to Dunkirk.

3 The letter says: “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long” (86).

4 For instance in the climactic scenes of The Comfort of Strangers (93–96) and The Innocent (163–168).

5 Another instance may be found when Robbie and his fellow soldiers spend the night in a barn in the French countryside. As they are met by three French brothers whose intentions are at first doubtful, the agonizing uncertainty is conveyed by the impossibility to see their faces: “in the fading light, it was impossible to tell” (197).

6 Not unlike the famous opening of McEwan’s Enduring Love.

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Elsa Cavalié, « “England [is] a long way off”: Historical and Ethical “Elsewheres” in Ian McEwan’s Atonement »Études britanniques contemporaines, 37 | 2009, 129-140.

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Elsa Cavalié, « “England [is] a long way off”: Historical and Ethical “Elsewheres” in Ian McEwan’s Atonement »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 37 | 2009, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2017, consulté le 12 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Elsa Cavalié

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS.
Elsa Cavalié est ATER à l’université de Toulouse Le Mirail, ainsi qu’en troisième année de thèse sous la direction de Mme le Professeur Catherine Lanone. Elle travaille sur l’étude de l’anglicité et des réécritures de l’histoires dans les romans britanniques contemporains revisitant la période 1900-1950.

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