Embarrassingly English

01 August 2011
Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel can be recommended sincerely, particularly to those “with an eye for English things”.

A LONE CENSORIOUS VOICE stood out from the chorus of acclamation for Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty (2004). For all its elegant prose and vivid renderings of England in the Margaret Thatcher years, said a reviewer in Kolkata’s The Telegraph, it was a “provincial novel, mired in a sort of semi-precious Englishness”.

An audacious judgment, it inspires a certain frisson. How often does a novelist from the imperial metropole get labelled “provincial” by a critic from the colonies? It also suggests a promising line of thought: namely, what is a provincial novel? And why is it to be despised?

Perhaps the essential consideration is geographical, in which case what makes Hollinghurst’s writing—populated by Oxford aesthetes, Conservative politicians and trendy Londoners, all of whom holiday in the south of France—provincial is simply the narrowness of its geographical reach. But surely the greatest of English novels—Emma, Middlemarch, Ulysses—have had a similarly narrow geographical reach. So have Oliver Twist, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as well as others lower down the canonical hierarchy: Howards End, Brideshead Revisited, The Go-Between. It cannot, then, by itself be a legitimate criticism of The Line of Beauty that it is about English people living in a particular time and place. If anything, it is a sign of an established novelistic culture, and one where the landscapes of fiction correspond exactly with the worlds inhabited by its principal readership. There is nothing at all contemptible in the innocent fact of English readers wanting to read about English characters, and consequently, in English writers writing novels for English readers.

Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Keywords: fiction modernism Alan Hollinghurst irony The Strangers Child