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HO Janice, Nation and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century British Novel

Cambridge: CUP, 2015 (229 p.). ISBN 978-1-107-08446-9
Laurent Mellet
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Janice Ho, Nation and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century British Novel, Cambridge: CUP, 2015 (229 p.). ISBN 978-1-107-08446-9

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1Nation and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century British Novel addresses the ways modern novels represent or imagine new forms of citizenship and posits that literature can foresee major historical or political changes, as well as inscribe national developments at the heart of characterisation and narrative strategies. By looking at novels by E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Sam Selvon, Buchi Emecheta and Salman Rushdie, Janice Ho shows that British literature interrogates philosophical or political concepts—here, nation and citizenship—in more ways than through the standards of the Condition-of-England novel only, and charts the liberal, social-democratic and multicultural history of Britain in its literary representations and visions of citizenship. In her introduction, ‘On Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Britain’, Ho explains that she considers ‘[h]ow citizenship, both as a form of political selfhood and as the shape of a larger national community, was aesthetically re-envisioned in the twentieth-century British novel’ (2). Her main methodological framework testifies to a conviction that ‘literary and cultural spheres act as symbolic sites where such contestations are staged. The novel, a genre preoccupied with the relationship between the protagonist and the social contexts in which he or she exists, is a singularly apt vehicle for charting the vicissitudes of citizenship, a concept that likewise denotes the relationship between the individual citizen and the national collective’ (3). A range of recent studies on Englishness is referenced to buttress Ho’s argument that ‘how the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are respectively claimed and imposed in different discursive domains’ (5) constitutes a new way of defining nationhood. Drawing on Jürgen Habermas’s distinction between citizenship (demos) and nationality (ethnos) and on Étienne Balibar’s work on the individual and collective quandaries of the citizen, Ho writes that she aims to study the literary inscriptions of some liberal principles of citizenship (‘liberty, democratic equality, self-determination, and agency’ [10]) as a narrative framework for her theory. Her contention is that the novel ‘is particularly well-suited for mapping the changing forms of citizenship, given its concern for the intersections between the individual subject and the social collective’ (15).

2The first chapter, ‘Democratic Friends in E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey and Howards End’, opens with a reference to the 1918 Representation of the People Act. Ho argues that Forster’s 1907 and 1910 novels are informed by the political and social background that led to enfranchisement. She shows that Forster’s take on friendship and Hellenism helps him to imagine narrative expressions of his liberal belief in personal relations and what she calls ‘affiliative citizenship’ (27). In The Longest Journey, Ho writes, Forster invents democratic forms of citizenship running counter to biology and marriage. In Howards End: ‘Forster not only suggests that genuine democratic equality for women necessitates a radical reorientation of sexual relations, but also reconfigures the private home as a space of public significance, thus imagining a model of gendered citizenship in which the personal is inextricably bound up with the political’ (44). Ho claims that the novel does not eschew the realities of suffragette politics but locates them in the domestic sphere the better to infuse its plot, characterisation and topographies with new aspects of democratic equality. In chapter 2, ‘Toward Social Citizenship in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’, Ho reads the novel as a historical signpost towards new collective and social structures of citizenship in the context of increasing state interventionism. Borrowing the phrase ‘social citizenship’ from sociologist T. H. Marshall, she argues that Woolf invents ‘a set of imaginative affiliations between strangers from different social backgrounds’ (59) in a Modernist rejuvenation of the Condition-of-England novel. ‘Social imaginaries’ (Charles Taylor) perform these affiliations in the narrative structure of the book and its connecting topographies, in which ‘engaging with the sufferings of another’ (75) becomes a token of civic but also aesthetic solidarity. Chapter 3, ‘Citizenship, Character and World War II in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day’, examines the novel’s response ‘to a wartime discourse of good citizenship that curtailed private freedom in the name of collective security and that aimed to regulate the political and sexual virtues of citizens through an all-encompassing language of national character’ (87). Ho shows that Bowen resorts to indeterminate characterisation as an aesthetic form of resistance to the imposed responsibilities of collective good and the diminishment of individual freedoms.

3In the next chapter, ‘Authoring Citizenship in Sam Selvon and Buchi Emecheta’s Immigrant Fictions’, Ho turns to the impact on literature of multiculturalism and of the shift of emphasis from assimilation to exclusion. This time taking the 1948 British Nationality Act as a historical landmark, she studies two examples of black British writing (The Lonely Londoners [1958] and Second-Class Citizen [1974]) to argue that ‘the desire for authorship in these migrant narratives is inextricable from the socio-political inequities of citizenship that fuel such desires’ (118). She shows that the acts of self-narration and self-authorship betray civic and political undertones, which she unravels so as to suggest that these two novels exemplify a subversion of the Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman traditions and demand a redefinition of the connections between authorship and citizenship. Taking her lead from Habermas’s view on political action in the public sphere, she shows that both authors ‘are engaged in different ways with the project of collectivizing the possessive individualism of authorship’ (122). Both novels rethink individualism and ‘the ethical imperatives of collective emancipation’ (146). Chapter 5, ‘Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the Politics of Extremity’, opens with the evolutions in immigration policies in the 1970s and 1980s. Ho contends that the ‘politics of extremity’ were fashioned by ethnic minorities ‘as a challenge to a tradition of English liberalism that inversely upheld the virtues of moderation and compromise from which the principles of multiculturalism were derived’ (150), and then provides a reading of The Satanic Verses and its own forms of extremity to look at these minorities’ attempt ‘to carve out political spaces for themselves as citizens’ (150) and at the dangers of betraying the essence of politics by opting for too much consensus. Taking up Slavoj Zizek’s defence of ‘the return of the political proper’ (176), she argues in favour of a resurgence of conflict in both contemporary literature and society as a form of revitalisation of the origins and raison d’être of citizenship. In her epilogue, ‘Citizenship in an Age of Transnationalism in Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen’, Ho discusses Ali’s 2009 novel and its negotiation of ‘the rights of others’ (Seyla Benhabib) in the age of globalisation, neoliberal deregulation and threats to citizenship, and ‘an intensified interchange between fiction and citizenship wherein storytelling can materially effect the passage from stateless refugee to legal citizen’ (189).

4Janice Ho’s book is a wide-ranging study of twentieth-century Britain, extremely well informed and documented, adding much to studies of both Modernist and contemporary novels. One of its greatest assets is its focus on British politics as much as on literature in order to map out a conceptual but also factual history of citizenship and its national and artistic imaginings. Nation and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century British Novel convinces by the impressive critical and theoretical scope by which it is buoyed up, strengthening its arguments and gesturing towards innovative ways of studying literature in its interrelation with politics, and this is where the book’s major contribution to scholarship lies. Ho’s analysis of her Modernist corpus is really thought-provoking, and perhaps more persuasive than her last chapters. Yet it must be said that her approach to literary fiction is most of the time limited by a restricted focus on representation, plot and characterisation, which sometimes leads her to critical shortcuts (such as characters embodying reforms in Mrs Dalloway [67]), or results in a psychological approach to the ‘instabilities of novelistic character’ (101) in The Heat of the Day. Readers might feel frustrated by lack of space accorded to the aesthetics and stylistics of prose fiction. Similarly, when, for instance, suggesting that literature may presage or influence the course of history and politics, Ho abides by the rules of literary contextualisation (though running the risk of anachronism) but does not theorise the ethical and political roles of modern fiction. This is usually more implied than asserted, for instance on the subject of solidarity (75), or when Ho mentions Benedict Anderson’s emphasis on ‘style’ (8) or writes about ‘the reclamation of the political’ as ‘the domain of citizenship’ (177), without really interrogating its literary and formal manifestations. In her last sentence, she claims that ‘reading and listening can be ethical responsibilities’ and that ‘narrative itself can be a form of political praxis’, yet she also repeats that she has been dealing with ‘acts of representation’ (190)—looking into recent work on the ethics and politics of literature might have been a way to present fiction as more than representation. Despite these reservations, the book is, without doubt, an impressive and stimulating work thanks to which readers and researchers interested in the history, politics and literature of twentieth-century Britain will learn much.

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Laurent Mellet, « HO Janice, Nation and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century British Novel », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 12 décembre 2018. URL :

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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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