Dominic Head’s Modernity and the English Rural Novel contributes detailed, compelling close readings of understudied novels by twentieth-century English writers H. E. Bates, Adrian Bell, Winifred Holtby, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Leo Walmsley, and Henry Williamson, among others, while theorizing modernity’s imaginings outside of a dominant academic discourse about cosmopolitan modernism. Modernist writer E. M. Forster may frame Head’s discussion at the outset, and postmodernist novelists David Dabydeen, Kazuo Ishiguro, Irish Murdoch, Caryl Phillips, and Graham Swift frame his discussion at the end, but what falls between these modernist treatments defines the project and value of this book. The categories of regionalism, farming, primitivism, and nostalgia organize Head’s investigation into a largely interwar engagement with a rural literary tradition most readily identified with William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy and the criticism of Phyllis Bentley, Raymond Williams, K. D. M. Snell, and Glen Cavaliero. Apart from his excellent Introduction, it is his fourth chapter devoted to examination of the last of these categories, nostalgia, and related ideas of nativism, progress, and preservationist sentiment, that produces his most sophisticated theoretical engagement with contemporary debates about modernity and that promises to generate the most heated discussion about the role of rural writing in twentieth-century literary studies. Head’s aim is to work out the ‘puzzle’ of a growing, living rural tradition within the contexts of ‘recognized artistic responses to modernity’ and a history of increasing industrialism, development, and radical social change. He wants us to understand the rural novel as a ‘discrete phenomenon’, re-valued apart from an inward turn in twentieth-century English literature made popular within the ‘new modernist studies’. This is an important distinction, as it frees Head to closely examine novels by ‘minor’ or ‘middlebrow’ novelists without the anxiety of recuperating them under the banner of experimental modernism or its critical ideologies (p. x). He insists that the apparent disconnection between rural and regional texts and their modern contexts is ‘a considered response to modernity (and often also a critique of it), rather than an attempt to disengage from it’ (p. 3). His book measures the literary effects and responses that result from writers’ and readers’ encounters with ideas about the English countryside and rural life as that life becomes less and less central to the social and cultural relations of a modernizing English economy. Even in the case of the ‘outsider’ farmer writers of his second chapter, men like A. G. Street or H. W. Freeman who wrote in The Endless Furrow and Joseph and His Brethren about the land they farmed, Head’s focus is not so much on the material conditions of production, as it is on the themes of rural writing and the paradoxes of literary relationships between rural and modern, country, and city. The central paradox Head explores—of a persistent attention and attraction to the rural amid a country and culture obsessed with the urban and industrial—leads him to caution us against the kinds of assumptions guiding Martin J. Wiener’s influential thesis on relations between imaginative literature and the decline of the industrial spirit. Head insists, contra Wiener, that ‘rural writing itself stages an investigation of the decline of the industrial spirit, rather than being merely constitutive of it’ (p. 5). Similarly, Head cautions us against the assumption that rural writers are guilty of creating an ideologically suspect ‘timeless countryside’ that can protect modern English folk from urban alienation. Instead, he urges us to attribute to the rural writers equivocal effects and greater nuance ‘than can be accounted for in a straightforward assertion about their ideological influence’ (p. 6). While he also will not ‘exonerate rural fiction from the charge of cultivating potentially retrograde preservationist sentiment’, he insists that modernist writers working outside the rural tradition, as much as the ‘minor’ English writers working inside it, were likely to promote such suspect emotions. As in his critique of Wiener, Head complicates the mainstream equation between modern and traditional, industrial and agricultural, and modernist and minor. And this complication owes much to his nuanced understanding of nostalgia as a literary ‘vehicle’ and ‘impulse’ that writers could manipulate self-consciously for progressive, even radical effects. Building on the contributions of theorists and critics of nostalgia, including Frederic Jameson, Tammy Clewell, Alastair Bonnett, Svetlana Boym, John Su, and Patricia Rae, Head insists on the saving self-reflectiveness of much rural writing, which rarely, if ever, exists in conditions of modernity without worrying about ‘its purchase on the world’ (p. 13). Such worries certainly may register with readers as conservative regret over a way of life now lost, but, as Head wisely points out, they may also manifest an ideologically ambiguous regret ‘for the consequent loss of creative possibilities for this literary form’ (p. 13). Such awareness of the formal demands of a supposedly ‘anachronistic’ strand of modern writing by ‘minor’ novelists makes Head the critic of the majority’s modernist conscience, as he gently demands we account not merely for representation but also representations’ functions and effects. In his fourth chapter, ‘“The Vanished World”: The Appeal of Rural Nostalgia’, Head argues that the nostalgia of the twentieth-century rural novel is often more complicated and more various in kind than the nostalgia of modernist novels. This is because novels in the rural tradition often overemphasize a ‘fixation with place’, producing an effect of fusing place and time rather than emphasizing the difference between them as happens in the historical transformation of nostalgia from pathology to emotion. Framing Head’s analysis of Orwell’s Coming Up for Air and Bates’s The Fallow Land and The Poacher is his affirmation of generative nostalgia, including that animating Raymond Williams’s unfinished novel trilogy People of the Black Mountains. Williams the critic was suspicious of nostalgia as a form of idealization that disregards ‘most people’s needs’ (p. 127). Head protests that ‘What has happened in [Williams’s] analysis is that an earnest political perspective has displaced the personal nostalgia’—the very personal nostalgia that is so crucial to Williams’s and others’ creative output. Generative nostalgia, claims Head, has the potential to protect against the deracinated intellectual: ‘Harnessing that potential is one of the central problems confronted by writers in the rural tradition’ (p. 129). Turning to rural regional writing, Head points out that personal nostalgia, its enrichment by the affection for a place-time remembered, was also public and political. And central to the politics of regional consciousness was its embrace of working class life persisting amid interwar economic hardship. For those who believe that regional rural writing of the working classes fails to confront modernity in the politicized ways of the deracinated intellectual’s discourses of sociology or politics, Head retorts that such a belief assumes ‘that regional writing is just a response to modernity rather than an aspect of it as well’ (p. 129). This argument, along with Head’s speculation in his Afterword that rural fiction has ceded its functions to new forms of nature writing, directs readers ‘back’ to the English rural novel and invites them to self-reflexively examine what might be their own nostalgic yearning for a lost literary form. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 5, 2018
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