The English Imagination: Bravo for British Books!

Of all the cultures in the world, there is one that seems to endear itself to readers everywhere: British culture. (I will here on use the word “English” though it is inaccurate, because it refers to the language as well as England, where many writers from Great Britain based themselves.) The tradition of English literature is long and vast, starting all the way back from the time of The Canterbury Tales, through the development of the novel in the 1700s, into the beloved Victorian period, and even through the 20th century with canonical classics like 1984. And the love of the English novel has been rekindled in the 21st century with the Harry Potter series, spreading globally like a wildfire.

Given this centuries-long, global mania that has touched the lives of literally millions, if not hundreds of millions, we must simply ask, Why? What is it about the English imagination that captivates us so?

Here are some possible reasons:
-The English have an imagination. This tautology might at first strike the reader as silly, but we need to acknowledge that the English have given us fanciful settings like in A Clockwork Orange, imaginary characters, talking and anthropomorphized animals like Winnie the Pooh, creatures that can perform magical spells, and even myths and legends like King Arthur. The presence of the Celts is certainly one factor in the English collective imagination. The isolation of an island nation may be another, for in an isolated setting, one must create and invent stories and fantasies to keep oneself entertained. Also, in a culture of rigid social hierarchy, the imagination is what makes one free.

-The English have royalty. Kings, queens, dukes, and duchesses, nobility, palaces, and their courts–there is plenty of glamour, intrigue, history, and power struggles that keep the reader entertained. Royalty = continuity, both in terms of a dynasty and a place. Place is very important to royals, as they are defined by the land they own.

-The landscape. There are the seacoast, lakes, stately homes on grand parks with magnificent gardens. There are parlors warm and cozy in which to do needlework while it is cold and dreary outside. There are beautiful spring days in the unparalleled English countryside in which to have a tryst, as Julia and Winston do in 1984. By contrast, there are the industrial wastelands, belching smoke and coated in grime, the sad byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. There is Dickens’s London, squalid and overcrowded. And of course, one cannot discuss the English landscape without including the gloomy, tempestuous Moors as in Wuthering Heights, a setting that is perhaps the original “dark and stormy night.”

-A sense of mysticism. Someone (likely JB Priestley) said that the English are “reasonable, not rational,” which can be interpreted as that the English are willing to entertain ideas that are not entirely pragmatic and realistic. Anglicanism embraces a sense of mysticism, and as mentioned above, the culture of the Celts and pagan traditions embrace gods and goddesses, fairies, et cetera. There might be trolls, wizards, signs, and omens. None of these are considered too far-fetched or outlandish, though Continental readers might find it so.

-Women sometimes feature prominently. While I think it is very wrong to look back on centuries of literature through a modern lens of political correctness and gender studies, we cannot fail to note that English literature has quite frequently featured female protagonists or major characters. This includes characters by both male and female authors. Jane Eyre, Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth Bowen’s Stella in The Heat of the Day, Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion, Virginia Woolf’s women and especially A Room of One’s Own, even Lewis Carroll’s children’s book character Alice – the list goes on and on. This is not to deny the sexism and secondary status of women through the history of English literature; rather, there has been a significant presence of women that is indeed influential.

-Colonialism. Needless to say, this has been an atrocious facet of history that still has a negative impact today. But strictly from a literary point of view, it broadened the scope of literature. Jane Eyre features the exotic subplot of Mr. Rochester’s time in the Caribbean and his marriage to the tempestuous Bertha. Kipling, for however politically incorrect he is now, set works in India, and one of his most vocal critics, George Orwell, spent time in India and in Burma, the latter providing fodder for his work.
Ironically, it is those who have grown up in former British colonies who read primarily British literature and have a great affinity and even affection for it. Global powerhouse Salman Rushdie has spoken of his love for The Lord of the Rings and Wodehouse. Ask a typical Indian reader (not a current literary scholar or writer) whom s/he admires, and you may very likely hear “Dickens.” Nobel laureate St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott has spoken of his very English education and influence by British poets and writers.

-The class system. Another skeleton in England’s closet, in addition to colonialism, the stratified class society of England has made for very important themes that entrance the reader, namely from low-high. Austen’s novels prominently feature poor women marrying wealthier men. Jane Eyre is a penniless orphan who marries the rich man in the stately home who favors her over the glamorous Lady. The foundlings on the doorstep turn out to be kings–or at least, they marry well. Shakespeare abounds with this theme, in works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (recall a character named “Bottom”).  High-to low, and vice-versa, makes for a thrilling story.

-A sense of decorum. This relates to in some degree the previous point about class. The stiff upper lip and social conventions expected of people can be both a source of humor, as we see in Wodehouse or Pride and Prejudice, as well as a source of discomfort and tension, as in Great Expectations. Impropriety makes for good humor or good stories, as it is a form of transgression. How does it get resolved? This is a key question that keeps the reader engaged.

Here’s to hoping that England will continue to produce more writers that capture our imaginations and our hearts through the 21st century and centuries to come!

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