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Cahier spécial Atonement

‘Moving gently through her thoughts, as one might explore a new garden’ (McEwan 150): The Gardens of Atonement

‘Moving gently through her thoughts, as one might explore a new garden’ (McEwan 150) : les jardins d’Atonement
Cécile Beaufils


L’aspect pastoral du roman d’Ian McEwan Atonement a été souligné à de multiples reprises, ainsi que la place de la nature dans l’adaptation filmique réalisée par Joe Wright en 2007. Au-delà de la simple observation d’un topos culturel, la présence de la nature justifie une étude plus approfondie, ce motif étant utilisé comme un outil heuristique dans le projet d’écriture de Briony. L’émergence de la nature comme toile de fond de l’intrigue et élément clé dans les motivations des personnages peut être comprise comme une indication du lien entre le processus de découverte qui est au cœur du roman et une construction esthétique complexe ancrée dans la tradition empiriste. Nous proposons donc de consacrer cet article à l’image du jardin dans le roman et son adaptation : en tant que témoin de l’empirisme, ode à une esthétique, et réaffirmation du lien entre nature et écriture. Ce modèle est progressivement remis en question à mesure que le roman se déploie ; dans ce contexte, on examinera la place de la nature en tant que toile de fond et outil essentiel à l’intrigue.

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1In chapter 12 of Atonement, Emily Tallis is left alone while almost everyone else has gone to search for the missing twins. She reflects on her life, on her relationship with the conspicuously absent pater familias, and on her own capacities. In this thought process, her own point of view is drawn inwards in a surprising way: as most of the other characters have left to explore the grounds of the house physically, her own exploratory process is not external but internal and she is led to introspection, as she compares that introspection to the discovery of a garden: ‘no one else she knew had her knack of keeping still, without even a book on her lap, of moving gently through her thoughts, as one might explore a new garden’ (150). The simile strikes us as unusual since it is a mirror image of what is happening outside, in the garden: as we know, Emily Tallis’ introspection prevents her from reading earlier, outward warning signs of Lola’s abuse, among other things. With this simile, Briony Tallis—as the author of parts I, II, III—reveals two motifs that are central to the first part: nature, and on a more specific scale, the English garden. But the seemingly natural artifact that constitutes the English garden is not the only iteration of the presence of nature in the novel, a preoccupation also staged in Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation. When the trope of the English garden is absent, it is replaced with nature, a more generic, but still effective marker. Nature, on a broader scale, is present in each part of the novel, even in part III, which is set in London. In the novel, the word ‘nature’ is not used to refer to the natural sphere, but rather to signify ‘human nature’ in an essential capacity: ‘good-natured’ (4), ‘sweet-natured’ (49), ‘his practical nature’ (91), ‘human nature itself’ (282), etc.. It all points to an intrinsic human quality, but not to the realm of the natural sphere. The reader of Atonement—and the spectator of the film—is led to explore a carefully tended garden, one meant to give the illusion of chaos, of being ‘natural’, when it is anything but. Beyond this observation of the presence of a specific cultural topos, the very presence of nature in the novel and its adaptation warrants a closer look, especially as it is used as a heuristic tool in Briony’s writing project. The apparition of nature as a frequent backdrop to the plot and also as a key element in the characters’ motivations may be seen as a clue as to how to read the novel; that is, how to connect the gradual discovery process of the novel’s core and an intricate aesthetic construction rooted in the empiricist tradition, which is gradually challenged. I then propose to explore the image of the garden in the novel and its adaptation: as an empiricist device, an ode to a specific visual aesthetics, and a strong claim to connecting nature and artistic creation.

Gardens all the Way down: the Pivotal Imagery of Nature

  • 1 I use ‘Englishness’ in the sense of ‘anglicité’ as defined by Elsa Cavalié, that is as a term which (...)
  • 2 Two plants, it should be noted, traditionally used to alleviate headaches and migraines—the Tallis (...)

2It is easy to forget just how pervasive nature is in the novel and in its film adaptation. And yet, even the way the film was marketed showcases its importance: the UK poster of the film, also used as a cover for the 2007 re-issue paperback edition of the novel, stages Cecilia and Robbie as stereotypical ‘star-crossed lovers’, a trope foregrounded with the presence of the slogan ‘Joined by love. Separated by war. Redeemed by hope’. The background of each photograph is a natural setting: green for Cecilia (connecting her to the grounds of Tallis House), and the red of a French poppy field for Robbie (connecting him to the visual tropes of war and remembrance). Such use of nature leads us to consider how the two complementary colors are employed to create contrast, but also visual storytelling in a setting immediately signifying Englishness.1 In the novel, Briony/MacEwan uses it to provide a sense of place, and give the reader elements of characterization. Nature is used to create the illusion of an English pastoral, showing the narrator’s attention to botanical precision and sometimes giving away elements of suspicious regularity, organization for the attentive reader: a wealth of different plants is displayed, thus respecting the ideal of variety of the English landscape garden, from generic ‘wildflowers’ (23) to more precise designations such as a ‘rugosa hedge’ (19), or Cecilia’s bunch of flowers which is composed of ‘rose-bay willow-herb and irises’ (20). The Tallis garden contains ‘camomile and feverfew’2 (20), and Emily Tallis is contemplating Robbie’s proposal to plant wisteria, ‘whose flower and scent he liked’ (151). In the first part of the novel, these recurring elements are used as Barthesian ‘effet de réel’ (Barthes 87) indications, and are already coming under scrutiny for the attentive or second-time reader since the precision of the botanical elements does not change according to the focalizer, therefore becoming elements of suspicious stylistic regularity.

3Vegetation, in the first part of the novel, also points to the idealized and memorialized aspects of the setting, and works as a counterpoint to the text’s manifold literary references. The cinematographic choices made by Joe Wright and his team mean to provide the viewer with a constant reminder of the importance of nature. It is achieved in the 1935 part with a significant amount of screen time devoted to the grounds of Tallis House, turned into a true Eden by daylight, especially thanks to visual devices created by cinematographer Seamus MacGarvey, like his use of a silk stocking on the camera lens to create a soft-focus effect, as well as his work on color saturation (Fisher). The film does not provide a pointillist view of nature, for nature is everywhere, even within the house and its lavishly floral decoration chosen by Sarah Greenwood: some shots provide us with a collage of floral wallpapers, saturating the screen with an artificial, aestheticized representation of quintessentially English floral patterns from the first five minutes of the film. Even in indoor scenes, nature (albeit a stylized, fantasized one) is present on screen.

4Nature is still very much present in the second section of the novel, but this time it is used to offset the contrast at work between the brutality and pointlessness of the retreat and the countryside, to the point when the soldiers interpret the landscape in military terms. For instance, as Robbie catalogs the variety of trees in the French countryside, a displacement of the frame of reference used in the first part can be observed; the vegetation becomes both lush and disturbing, with an almost animal quality: ‘bushes with fat shiny leaves. There was also stunted oaks, barely in leaf. The vegetation underfoot smelled sweet and damp, and he thought there must be something wrong with the place’ (194-195). The softness of the sibilants clashes with the sudden ‘hum of machinery’ (195) intervening in the following paragraph, when the soldiers mistakenly think of a bombing, but they are being attacked by bees. With such a stress on the distortion of perceptions, it may be relevant to point out that while the novel has a well-documented relationship to British literary history, it also borrows from British visual and pictorial history. The soldiers’ visual representation of nature as contaminated by war and machine is reminiscent of the works of British visual artists who represented the two world wars, like Wyndham Lewis or, in the passage referred to above, Paul Nash. Both artists conflate the machine and the biological, and Robbie’s (and Briony’s) visual frame of reference is based on such visual metaphors and interpretative filters. Much like Paul Nash’s Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-1) or the earlier We are Making a New World (1918), the natural sphere is based on a reversal of the expected: what is thought to be a seascape is a field of crashed planes, and what looks like a lunar landscape is an anti-pastoral landscape where every potentially fertile element is shown to be sterile. The countryside, expected in the novel to be a form of pre-lapserian Eden, also turns into a Hell when the soldiers attempt to find water: ‘the woods were near, there would be streams and waterfalls and lakes in there. He imagined a paradise. […] All the new greenery spoke to him only of water’ (238). This reversal of tropes of nature is echoed straightforwardly in Wright’s film with the contrast between the soldiers exploring an orchard which mostly comprises apple trees, and their macabre discovery—the Edenic landscape is once again tainted by the knowledge of death, represented on screen by a long still shot showing Robbie standing in front of the dead girls’ bodies. The intrusion of the machine into the natural world is another visual trope explored in the film’s second part, with for instance vertical factories and their chimneys breaking the horizontal monotony of the flat landscapes of northern France, then becoming elements of the countryside.

5Contrary to the first two parts of the novel and of the film, the last main part of Atonement contains far fewer mentions of nature; the trope is relegated to second-hand mentions and letters, becoming ever more part of a lost, pastoral past: in Cyril Connolly’s letter, in letters Briony receives from home, in news given to Cecilia by Briony, and a small but significant detail observed by Briony in her final confrontation with her estranged sister. The textual remoteness of these mentions, never directly given to the reader (who does not see the letters from home, for instance, but only their summary in the narration or in dialogues), is tied in to Briony’s sense of loss as she ‘felt a dreamy nostalgia, a vague yearning for a long-lost life’ (279). They also reveal the evolution of Briony as a narrator who now tells more than she shows: the apparently small signifier of nature is part and parcel of Briony’s evolution, of the novel as a Künstlerroman. Finally, the coda, in keeping with its return to realist fiction, takes stock of the evolution of the English garden first described at the beginning of the novel. The nostalgia Briony tries to keep at bay lies not only in the changes found in the house, but also in supposedly recent and intrusive interventions in the design of the grounds.

6Nature is then used as a signpost for the past, for cultural references, and it also serves a diegetic function, summarizing the situation, and creating echoes. For instance, Briony immediately notices the presence of one natural element as she visits her sister and Robbie in London in the third part of the novel: the ‘jam jar of blue flowers, harebells perhaps’ (335) works as a punctum of the domestic scene since Briony’s gaze returns to it later ‘Was that where the harebells came from? Surely there had been an idyll’ (348), when speculating about the lovers’ retreat, the cottage in Wiltshire. In the film, a different kind of blue flowers is present in the domestic scene (harebells are still shown on screen, but only in the Tallis garden, when Briony is shown in a writing frenzy). The idyll imagined by Briony encapsulates the link between the pastoral and the romantic plot, as well as nature and fantasy as it fuels Briony’s propensity to extrapolate and translate details into fairy tales. Even though Briony is reaching the end of her apprenticeship as an author, she still interprets the world in literary terms and patterns, this time using ‘idyll’ in its colloquial sense of love story and not in its literary signification, a pastoral poem. Again, nature and the pastoral are inherent to the writing process. The iconic function of nature also enables the narrator to create playful echoes and parallelisms already hinting at the artificiality of the retelling. The word ‘nettle’ is such a case: we see a frustrated Briony imagining a story while she is vengefully beheading nettles standing in for Lola (‘the next several nettles were Lola too’ [74]), and one of Robbie’s comrades is also named Nettle. There is no similarity between the two occurrences of the weed, which only foregrounds the resurgence of Briony’s ‘controlling demon’ (5). In the adaptation, nature also works as a visual shorthand for cultural trope when Robbie is shown in a field of poppies—this time using a visual signifier from another war to connote remembrance.

7Nature is finally included in the characterization process and in the identification of the focalizers, in their relationships with nature: the most obvious case of this process is Robbie, introduced to us as a transitory gardener and landscape designer: in Cecilia’s words, ‘Since coming down, landscape gardening had become his last craze but one’ (18). Robbie is shown as an in-between, multifaceted character, and he is often placed in nature, a reminiscence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (a novel referenced as having been read by Robbie), but also to his own uncertain social standing: ‘Beyond the compass were his copies of Auden’s Poems and Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. At the other end of the table were various histories, theoretical treatises and practical handbooks on landscape gardening’ (82). His theoretical knowledge, it should be noted, is always matched with a practical application, an involvement in the materiality of things. Robbie is a gardener as much as he is an intellectual, which provides the reader with hints of the novel’s take on the classical assertion of the connection at work between gardening and literary creation. On the other hand, Emily Tallis skims the surface of the garden, like everything else, and her enjoyment of nature excludes the references to the wilderness that are present in the depictions of nature by the other focalizers; she enjoys ‘the house, the park and above all, the children’ (148) in the way eighteenth-century theorists of the English landscape garden insist it should be enjoyed: as something both stimulating and soothing, as, for instance, Sir Uvedale Price’s ‘soft and pleasing repose’ (Price 115) as the effect of the stimulation offered by the picturesque.

8Aesthetically, the novel capitalizes on Englishness, which is not exclusive to the architecture of the house. The garden’s link to the values of Englishness is distinct from that of the house. It is of a political nature, the English garden having a history of being considered as a political expression of nationalism. From the eighteenth century onwards, it has been presented as quintessentially English (by Joseph Addison in particular, in his 1712 Spectator papers, by Horace Walpole, and even earlier by Francis Bacon), even though its origins were later proved to be the result of various influences. The novel’s fascination with the tradition of the English landscape garden should be compared to the way the film partly adheres to the conventions of the Heritage film, in its lavishness and greenness at least. One of Andrew Higson’s first definitions of Heritage cinema in his seminal work on the genre connects architecture, literary history and landscape: ‘The luxurious country-house settings, the picturesque rolling green landscapes of southern England, the pleasures of period costume, and the canonical literary reference points’ (Higson 1).

9The novel uses very precise natural elements as aesthetic and symbolic markers, for instance the recurrence of the oak tree, used as an emblem of Englishness in the text: in the first part, oaks stand in for Briony’s fairy tale imagination. In a moment of self-pity she imagines her fate as the heroine of a Pre-Raphaelite painting:

[H]er only reasonable choice then would be to run away, to live under hedges, eat berries and speak to no one, and be found by a bearded woodsman one winter’s dawn, curled up at the base of a giant oak, beautiful and dead, and barefoot, or perhaps wearing the ballet pumps with the pink ribbon straps… (14-15)

10This emblematic use is pursued in the rest of the novel, as we learn in the second part that Robbie found the twins under a giant tree, probably an oak or an elm (they are the only species of trees mentioned in the Tallis estate). Oaks are also used as visual framing devices characterizing the adherence of the landscape to the two cardinal rules of the English garden, that is variety and prospect as clearly implied in the ‘oak woods’ (18), the ‘thick crested oaks’ of the ‘Surrey hills’ framing the fountain scene (38), Emily Tallis’ view of the garden, ‘from most perspectives the row of pillars and the pediment above them were charmingly half obscured by the elms and oaks that had grown up around’ (72). The Englishness of the oaks then exists both because of their traditional symbolism, and because they are systematically connected to issues of perspective, central to the discovery of the English garden. Robbie’s inverted progress through the French countryside is also marked by oaks, but they are described as ‘stunted oaks’ (195). The reappearance of the trees in the coda marks the inherent nostalgia of Briony’s return: the trees have been ‘cleared to make way for a golf course’ (363), which strengthens their emblematic function.

11The precise description of the specific features of the English landscape garden is a counterpoint to the (false) Englishness of the house (see Cavalié 2009 129-131), whose artificiality is all the more striking as the original house is no longer, leading to an aesthetic disjointedness. The disjointedness is clearly underlined just before Briony witnesses Lola’s assault, ‘The bridge led to nothing more than an artificial island in an artificial lake’ (163). The structure of the sentence, hinging on ‘nothing’, provides the reader with nesting dolls of artificiality, the prospect is false and the expectations of a resolution are bound to be disappointed. The text gives us to see the grounds, and nature in general, as a maze meant to trick the perceptions of the visitor, but also to isolate the grounds from the outside world, using devices characteristic of the English landscape garden, with deceptively whimsical names. The first instance is the ‘ha-ha’, which is a sunken—and therefore invisible—wall meant to prevent livestock from entering an area. It first appears at the beginning of chapter 2:

Once through the iron kissing gate, and past the rhododendrons beneath the ha-ha, she crossed the open parkland—sold off to a local farmer to graze his cows on—and came up behind the fountain and its retaining wall and the half-scale reproduction of Bernini’s Triton in the Piazza Barberini in Rome. (18)

12The device returns in the second part as Robbie revisits his past, strolling on a literal memory lane materialized by a quasi-chiastic inversion of terms; he walks the opposite trajectory, using almost the same words as the ones used by Briony using Cecilia’s point of view (which is in itself already a clue of the recursive process at work in the novel):

It was one of those rare mornings which declares itself […] the grand portal to summer, and he was walking through it with Briony, past the Triton pond, down beyond the ha-ha and rhododendrons, through the iron kissing gate and onto the winding narrow woodland path. (229)

13The ha-ha is associated twice with the kissing gate, also a device traditionally used to keep livestock out, despite its misleadingly playful name. These two devices are deceptive obstacles used to create the illusion of an unobstructed gaze, of a porous boundary with nature, but they create physical and linguistic obstacles. The garden of the Tallises is a hortus conclusus, a closed garden, supposedly an Edenic respite from the outside world, and as such it is defined by strategies of enclosure meant to prevent the intrusion of the outside world, of livestock, that is to say the laboring country, in the idyllic garden. These enclosing devices also give the illusion of an unobstructed viewpoint, as a parallel to Briony’s manipulations as an author.

  • 3 On the topic, see Mitric (715-740) and Marcus (83-98).

14However, the textual and physical enclosing strategies are all a sham—as abundantly shown in studies of the novel’s relationship to modernism3: Lola’s rape, and Briony’s reaction, prove there is just as much corruption inside the supposedly sheltered hortus conclusus as in the outside world. In the end, we learn from Briony’s summarized accounts of letters from home and from her conversation with Cecily that since the House was requisitioned as part of the war effort, the borders of the garden have become permeable to the outside world (‘the cows had been moved into three fields on the north side so that the park could be ploughed up for corn’ [278-279], ‘the park’s been ploughed up for corn’ [333]) and the Meissen vase is broken for good by Betty. The artificial, mythologized vision of History is here confirmed by the manufactured quality Briony observes when she returns to the house in the coda—an artificiality at work in the film’s use of many formal features of the Heritage film, such as the extensive use of the set (Stokesay Court, in Shropshire) both as the setting for the upper-class and the servants (and the focus on their distinct quarters), the work on costumes or the extremely detailed use of historically accurate elements in the war scenes.

15The pastoral presented both in the novel and its adaptation is tinged with nostalgia, as we have already seen in the markers of the past. In the coda, Briony attempts to undermine her own temptation by claiming that ‘there was no need to be nostalgic’ (363), however her (re)discovery of the grounds and house is marked by loss: the island has even become a ‘barrow’ (363), a burial site for the past. She observes and evaluates the changes brought about over the years, as the pastoral has been replaced by the utilitarian, and a golf course with open vistas has replaced the carefully designed landscape, complete with markers of utility more than view: litter bins, benches, electric lights. In keeping with the recursive nature of the narrative and Briony’s observations about culture in the coda, the novel displays a form of mistaken nostalgia for a time when categories were easier to identify, an artificial temple was an artificial temple, and an English garden was a place to be discovered gradually and which changed as it was explored.

The Metaphor of the Garden and Knowledge: Aesthetics and Hermeneutics

  • 4 On the relationship between seeing and knowing, see Laurent Mellet’s analysis of hermeneutics in th (...)

16One of the central characteristics of the English garden is its manipulation of prospects, of viewpoints. Vision in Atonement has been studied on many occasions (especially regarding the connection between vision and knowledge4), but I would like to return briefly to the use of sensations regarding nature, to support the analogy of the novel as a landscape garden. While the novel constantly manipulates fields of vision (and the film makes us see events, like Briony’s belated epiphany during Lola and Paul Marshall’s wedding ceremony), it does so in a way that Peter Mathews calls ‘a complicated perspectivist structure, a tactic that requires the reader continually to revise their point of view of particular events and characters’ (151): we are led to continually alter what we think of events, characters, as the novel unfolds. The process then imitates how ‘one might explore a new garden’ (150), gaining access to manipulated and manipulative perspectives to create new points of view on especially picturesque elements. This pattern of exploration and rediscovery is present in key scenes of the novel like the fountain scene or the library scene, however they also occur with the landscape, and more particularly the garden. Elements that have already been described change according to the moment of the day or night, such as the ‘bamboo tunnel’ (159), accessed several times through different points of view. In Joe Wright’s adaptation, different scenes transform the garden into an unrecognizable space, especially at night.

17One can only experience the English landscape garden while moving through it, hence the multiple instances of crossings, and the construction of the garden (and of nature) as a maze. And indeed, the meandering design of the garden’s paths acts as a constant reminder that the exploratory process is gradual: ‘along the path […] by the old diving pool […] before curving away through the oak woods’ (18). Even the progress of the soldiers in France is characterized by a similar process, in which the characters never seem to be able to walk unencumbered, or in a straight line when outdoors. In Joe Wright’s adaptation, this is mirrored by the placement of the camera behind obstacles, like trees (Wright 0:59) when the soldiers cross an orchard. Such a reliance on both perception and spatial movement foregrounds the primacy of experience. Briony’s project, like a landscape garden, is rooted within an empiricist framework, with its emphasis on the senses. In the construction of the novel, sensation is a prelude to expression, in keeping with John Locke’s analysis of external stimuli, unlike the Cartesian conception of the acquisition of knowledge. The process is similar to Briony’s desire to move through people’s lives by using their supposed point of view, to make her literary project a literal projection of the self onto other people’s existence. Meaning is then produced as one goes, bodies having to move through time and space for meaning to emerge, in a way not dissimilar to the never fully stabilized geometry of the novel’s narrative structure, its play on perceptions and the implied author.

  • 5 See eighteenth-century essayist George Mason, in his Essay on Design in Gardening: the true genius (...)

18In Atonement, McEwan draws on a comparison between artistic creation and gardening: in the novel, nature is presented both as a place of artifice and as a place of creation. The comparison is canonical in British culture, and sheds light on the cultural heritage behind McEwan’s play on imagination and nature. This is first introduced thanks to Robbie’s attraction to landscape gardening as well as literature, pointing to the parallel with literature but also the realm of fantasy: ‘Landscape gardening was no more than a bohemian fantasy’ (91), while Robbie explains his fascination with gardening as an essentially literary one sparked by the so-called ‘laborer poets’: ‘the eighteenth-century poetry that had almost persuaded him he should be a landscape gardener’ (92). Chapter 8 as a whole juxtaposes cultural references, showing Robbie’s eclectic taste and how he partly fits the role of the ideal British landscape designer5 (before switching to medicine) as he is well-versed in the humanities and interested in practical work.

19Briony also connects the natural realm and artistic creation; in the garden, she reflects on the story she just made up while attacking weeds:

It is hard to slash at nettles for long without a story imposing itself […]. Then playwriting itself became a nettle, became several in fact; the shallowness, the wasted time, the messiness of other minds, the hopelessness of pretending—in the garden of the arts, it was a weed and had to die. (73)

20The metaphor coming to life in this passage showcases the aesthetic porosity between the act of writing and controlling nature: Briony tries to weed out the garden, to have everything fall in line, the opposite of her sister’s attempts to succeed in composing a bouquet of flowers with ‘a natural chaotic look’ (23). Cecilia worries that her flower arrangement might look too ‘orderly’ (45). The two sisters produce a form of aesthetic chiasmus, in itself a sign of order and symmetry for the reader, and a sign of Briony’s constant struggle with such ‘artful disorder’ (45), the disorder present in the aesthetics of the English landscape garden.

The English Garden and Hermeneutics: Questioning Empiricism?

21A fundamental question arises, especially in relation to the modernist intertext of the novel and its empiricist undertones: how do you make sense of things? Especially when sensory perceptions can be deceiving and when even landscapes are artificial creations meant to create predetermined effects and affect. The most common hypothesis, for Atonement, is, through writing (at least it is Briony’s option in the end, her endless rewriting), but I propose to add that the novel’s relationship with empiricism does not merely consist in questioning that tradition. That relation might seem, like the novel’s relationship with modernism, closer to a dialogue than anything. Ann Banfield has brilliantly shown, in her analysis of modernism and philosophy based on a question which appears in the last section of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, ‘But how describe a world seen without a self’? (Woolf 503), how the modernism of the Bloomsbury group operated in the wake of empiricism, and how Woolf’s articulation of the two is made possible by the way the novel plays with British tropes of nature, and the way the characters and the narrator play with these.

22How do you make sense of things, then? Only as consciousness moves through things—and things change along the way, in the same manner an observer discovers a new English garden. As Bertrand Russell posits, sensation is the basis of the possibility of the acquisition of knowledge (Banfield 69). Briony’s writing project can then be seen as an attempt to make sense not only of the world, but of her past, in a process that can be likened to Emily Tallis’ analogy (which can and should also be taken as an intertextual reference to the Bloomsbury group and Bertrand Russell in particular), but in the end we are given to read a project that is deeply rooted within British intellectual history. Briony’s act of writing and of understanding events and people (or misunderstanding them) then becomes, in a perspective influenced by this philosophical tradition, the aesthetic object itself.

23Atonement presents the reader with a wealth of traditions that are interwoven, borrowed from, questioned. This dialogic intention is to be found in its intertextuality (specifically in is dialogue with modernism), but also in wider cultural elements that are crucial to Britain’s history of ideas. Atonement subtly asserts its debt to the way the acquisition of knowledge is achieved in empiricist thought through the image of self-discovery as entering a new garden, before showing us just how tightly composed this garden is. However, and this point might help us understand the complex relationships between Atonement and its own heritage, what matters the most in the presence of nature in the novel is its dynamic aspect: one can only properly explore an English garden by doing so oneself, and by being in movement.

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Banfield, Ann, The Phantom Table. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

Barthes, Roland, ‘L’effet de réel’, Roland Barthes, Leo Bersani, et al., Littérature et réalité, Paris: Le Seuil, coll. Points, 1982.

Bending, Stephen, ‘Horace Walpole and Eighteenth-Century Garden History’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 57 (1994): 209–226, last accessed at on January 5, 2018.

Cavalié, Elsa, ‘“England is a long way off”: Historical and Ethical “Elsewheres” in Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, Etudes britanniques contemporaines 37 (2009): 129-140.

Cavalié, Elsa, Réécrire l’Angleterre. L’anglicité dans la littérature britannique contemporaine. Montpellier: PU de la Méditerranée, 2015.

Fisher, Bob, ‘Seamus McGarvey talks Atonement’, Moviemaker, February 4 (2008), last accessed at on January 5, 2018.

Higson, Andrew, English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume Drama since 1980, Oxford: OUP, 2003.

Marcus, Laura, ‘Ian McEwan’s Modernist Time: Atonement and Saturday’, ed. Sebastian Groes, Ian McEwan, London: Continuum, 2009, 83-98.

Mathews, Peter, ‘The Impression of a Deeper Darkness: Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, English Studies in Canada 32.1 (March 2006): 147-160.

McEwan, Ian, Atonement, London: Vintage, 2001.

Mellet, Laurent, Atonement, Ian McEwan, Joe Wright, Paris: CNED, 2017.

Mitrić, Ana, ‘Turning Points: Atonement, Horizon, and Late Modernism’, Modernism/Modernity 21.3 (September 2014): 715-740.

Price, Uvedale, Essay on the Picturesque, As Compared with the Sublime and The Beautiful (1794), Edinburgh: Caldwell, Lloyd & Co., 1842, last accessed at on January 5, 2018.

Woolf, Virginia, Collected Works, ed. Stella McNichol, London: Palgrave, 1992.

Wright, Joe, Atonement (2007), DVD Universal Studios, 82532511, 2007.

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1 I use ‘Englishness’ in the sense of ‘anglicité’ as defined by Elsa Cavalié, that is as a term which is not purely geographical, but rather in-between geography, History and literature. As Cavalié remarks, Englishness should be envisioned as a cultural construct, the combination of symbols: ‘Prise dans le flou de la mémoire, de l’histoire et du lieu, l’anglicité se dérobe et c’est ainsi bien comme concept culturel qu’il faut l’envisager : non pas comme le socle identitaire commun à tous les Anglais mais comme un ensemble de symboles/topoï/motifs reconnus par les Britanniques, anglais ou pas, ainsi que par les étrangers’ (Cavalié 2015, 11).

2 Two plants, it should be noted, traditionally used to alleviate headaches and migraines—the Tallis garden is not purely ornamental, it is also medicinal.

3 On the topic, see Mitric (715-740) and Marcus (83-98).

4 On the relationship between seeing and knowing, see Laurent Mellet’s analysis of hermeneutics in the novel (Mellet 45-53).

5 See eighteenth-century essayist George Mason, in his Essay on Design in Gardening: the true genius of landscape must have taste, be trained in the liberal arts (and be a landowner, which makes Robbie ultimately ill-suited to that): ‘Pretending by the glance of an eye to regulate scenery, even of a moderate extent, is a downright species of quackery; and such pretensions have been one of the causes of that amazing difference between the works of the common professor, and those of proprietors of taste’ (quoted in Bending 224).

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Cécile Beaufils, « ‘Moving gently through her thoughts, as one might explore a new garden’ (McEwan 150): The Gardens of Atonement »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 26 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Cécile Beaufils

Cécile Beaufils is Associate Professor (Maître de Conférences) of Contemporary British Literature at Sorbonne Université. Her research focuses on contemporary literature seen through the lens of book studies and cultural studies. She has published peer-reviewed papers on the literary magazine Granta as a cultural phenomenon, and on the recent evolution of publishing in Britain. Her current projects involve nature writing as a publishing phenomenon, as well as the construction of new modes of reading.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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