When I first went to college to study English I thought that if I could only convince my fellow students to read Terry Eagleton’s introductions to literary theory and Marxist literary criticism, they would all become Marxists overnight. ‘Forget your lectures,’ I would say. ‘Read Eagleton instead!’
As it turned out, this proved rather an over-optimistic view of the power of witty and lucid arguments about literature to convert people to revolutionary socialism. Yet for many students attending old-fashioned, conservative arts courses, critics like Eagleton still opened a door to an exciting world where literary theory could be used to challenge a stale and boring establishment approach that had dominated the academies for decades. The ensuing clash was caricatured as the ‘theorists’ against the ‘traditionalists’, and it was the former who won out in the end.
The many pioneers of ‘theory’ have, no doubt, helped to modernise university courses since then, introducing a whole range of new and varied ways to read and study literature, but the rise of postmodernism has meant that Marxism, and the ‘political criticism’ that Eagleton argued for over 20 years ago, have remained on the margins. Thankfully, however, Eagleton himself hasn’t wavered, as his new book The English Novel: An Introduction will hopefully prove to a new generation of students. Unlike most examples of that yawn-inducing genre, the textbook, this is not a dreary, didactic plod through all the main points garnered from revered critics through the ages. Eagleton takes his audience seriously, attempting to tease out the concerns and contradictions of the key writers that make up the ‘English literary canon’, from Defoe and Swift through to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
In each chapter we are presented with a detailed analysis of the work of the novelists, drawing out the main themes of their novels, but also indicating how these themes relate to the world the authors lived in. Unlike the old-fashioned criticism that seeks to narrow the focus of study, to talk about what is ‘literary’ in literature, or a myriad of jargon-laden approaches that get bogged down in theoretical speculations, Eagleton is interested in discussing everything that interests the writers themselves, be it art, morality, nationalism, philosophy or, of course, politics.
One line running through his analysis is that many of the great literary figures now taken to mean so much for ‘English’ culture are in fact émigrés of some sort or another: in some cases, ‘metaphorical émigrés’, in the sense of writers born in Britain, but for a variety of reasons outside the mainstream of their class and society – and in others literal émigrés, like Henry James and Joseph Conrad (an American and a Pole) – adopting England as their country. In different ways the situation of these writers, not quite insiders but not totally excluded either, gave them a more acute sense of the contradictions of the social world they inhabited, leading to the development of a novel form that aspired to represent life in all its complexity. On the one hand writers were intimately involved with emergent bourgeois society, but on the other, being partial outsiders as well, they could also be brutally honest about its shortcomings, hypocrisies and pretensions.
This analysis is often supported by a discussion of the worldviews, or ideologies, of the writers concerned, whether it is the conservative Jane Austen acting as a watchdog for the morality of the landed gentry at a time of social upheaval but in the process exposing their many moral failures, or the liberal intellectual George Eliot meticulously recording the stifling society of parochial England and ultimately finding it too claustrophobic and oppressive, a world to escape from in order to breathe freely.
Throughout, we see the strengths of a straightforward Marxist approach to literature – in an accessible and entertaining style, Eagleton refreshingly demystifies the cult of the ‘great writer’. A fine example of this is with the chapter on DH Lawrence, where he broaches the thorny subject of the relationship of politics to literature. It is, I think, a definitive summary, and one that explains how it is possible to reject a writer’s reactionary views but at the same time appreciate what is best in their art. Lawrence, a misogynist and anti-Semite who flirted with fascist ideology, was a right wing radical who was nevertheless intensely critical of the establishment and existing society. He was also, at times, a fine writer who demonstrated a rare ability to represent, in an unsentimental way, life in the working class community of the Nottingham that he grew up in.
Another assumption of the ‘English’ literary canon that is gleefully undermined by Eagleton is the implied nationalism. These icons of English culture are often brutally critical of it, and sometimes, like Eliot and Lawrence, end up wanting to get out altogether. A good number of others aren’t even English!
When dealing with James Joyce, the novelist that Eagleton seems to admire the most, any pretence of discussing him as an ‘English’ writer is dispensed with altogether. As an Irish critic you can almost sense Eagleton’s incredulity and outrage that British intellectuals can try and co-opt Joyce (who never lived in England, and was an anti-imperialist) into the ‘English’ cultural heritage. What follows is an illuminating discussion of life in colonial Ireland, of the reality of national oppression and an appraisal of Joyce’s relationship to Irish nationalism, and how that shaped and informed his development as a writer. It is an analysis you would be unlikely to find in any assessment of Joyce written from an ‘English’ perspective.
So, in an introduction to the ‘English’ novel, an Irish novelist emerges as perhaps the greatest exponent, a conclusion that stretches the remit of the textbook about as far as it can go. The only criticism I can make of this book, then, is not really a criticism at all. Rather it is a complaint about the narrow restrictions of the literary canon itself. It is a shame that, due to these restrictions, we don’t get equally useful introductions to other European and American novelists alongside the ones included, but the book is already 350 pages long so perhaps this is asking too much.
After reading this book, which is incidentally the funniest textbook I have ever read, I felt the need to reread some of the novelists I already knew, but also to pick up the works of those I didn’t. For students of literature, I recommend buying this book instead of going to lectures, and use the time freed up to convince others to become revolutionary socialists!
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