Englishness Elsewhere: Contemporary English Travel Novel seminar

Wednesday 14th November, 4.00pm – 5.15pm
Wells Street, room 106

Bianca Leggett (Birkbeck College, University of London)
Englishness Elsewhere: Exploring Parochialism in the Contemporary English Travel Novel

Ever since the days of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, English fiction has repeatedly portrayed travelling protagonists who feel possessed by the need to be English elsewhere, that is, to travel. Terry Eagleton has suggested that the ‘striking number of contemporary novels written in England but set in some non-English locale suggests ‘a sense that from the viewpoint of “creative” writing there is something peculiarly unpropitious about the typical social experience of an industrially declining, culturally parochial, post-imperial nation.’ This paper traces the historical and cultural origins of the myth of the English as a nation that both loves travel and yet remains staunchly parochial, suggesting that contemporary Crusoe-stories are part of how the English have attempted to understand their role in a post-war postcolonial world. It considers how this myth is revisited and revised in three stories of Englishmen in Continental Europe, Ian McEwan’s The Innocent (1990), Julian Barnes’s Metroland (1980) and Geoff Dyer’s Paris Trance (1998). While each novel comments on historically distinct moments in English attitudes to European identity, their similarities suggest a shared desire to critique English insularity. Finally, the paper asks whether the portrait of Englishness which finally emerges is more ambivalent than it first appears, suggesting that its admonitory messages are tempered by elements of postcolonial melancholia and nostalgia.

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