The English novel is essentially middle-class, a novel on the defensive, conservative, attempting to protect the English way of life, the English country way of life, against town life and against cosmopolitanism. By nature it is defence of English roots, a discussion of what is right and wrong in terms of manners, not of good and evil in terms of metaphysics.
Angus Wilson at 1962 Edinburgh Festival writers’ conference
Barely anybody attempted to define what Englishness was: a few suggested football, queuing and tea.
Owen Jones: The incoherence of Englishness, and why Ed Miliband’s England is a lost country
If England was what England seems
An’ not the England of our dreams,
But only putty, brass, an’ paint,
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er! But she ain’t!
As the Owen Jones’ quote above shows, no-one is really sure what Englishness is, though, as with art, they probably think that they know it when they see it. It is complicated by trying to distinguish between Englishness and Britishness. The concept certainly exists, as you can see if you search for it on a search engine. My spell checker accepts it but does not like Britishness, offering (ha! ha!) brutishness instead. So what is it about? Other -nesses exist. You can successfully search for Americanness, Frenchness and Germanness but you will get far more hits for Englishness than for the others (though, for example, you will get far more hits for francité than anglicité and for deutschtum than englischtum). Englishness is back in fashion for two reasons. The first is, as always, for sporting events, though Britishness can come to the fore, e.g. for the Olympics. Secondly, the rise of Welsh and Scottish nationalism has led to something of a backlash and target=” -blank”>not just from the loony right. So what is Englishness? Well, I have an idea but it may not be your idea nor anyone else’s idea so this list is a list of books on this site that, in my view, explore, consciously or not, the idea of Englishness and English identity. I will leave it to these writers to explain the concept far better than I can.
Peter Ackroyd: English Music
Ackroyd goes beyond his usual themes to look at the idea of Englishness, through English art (in the widest sense) and the English countryside
Jez Butterworth: Jerusalem
No, of course it’s not a novel but it is one of the finest plays to be written in England in many a year and gives an astounding view of Englishness, in the form of one man who is a rebel against English convention and it is that rebellious spirit that helped formed England and Englishness.
Mary Butts: Ashe of Rings
Mary Butts’ wonderful novel on the struggle for England’s past and England’s values.
A S Byatt: The Virgin in the Garden
A S Byatt takes a complex look at English culture and Englishness, around the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Jonathan Coe: What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy)
Coe’s take on one aspect of England – Thatcherism – with Ealing comedies and mad families thrown in. What could be more English?
Ford Madox Ford: Parade’s End
I could have picked one of several of Ford’s novels but his brilliant tetralogy, also one of the great World War I novels, shows best the English values that, in Ford’s view, were lost following World War I.
E. M. Forster: Howards End
Forster’s best novel deals with a new (for the time) aspect of Englishness – the rise of the commercial classes and the demise of the literary leisure class. Forster backs the losing side.
L P Hartley: The Go-Between
A novel about sexual hypocrisy among the upper classes in the summer. What could be more English than that?
Aldous Huxley: Antic Hay
The post-World War I generation and their disillusionment but also their attempts to find a meaning in their English lives.
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
Country houses do not represent England but the upstairs-downstairs relationship and the impending doom of war mean that this novel has to be on this list.
John Lanchester: Capital
London is not England but insofar as it represents a chunk of England, this novels shows this chunk.
Colin MacInnes: The London Novels
Another London novel but this one treats that very English subject of race relations, with law’n’order, prostitution and teddy boys adding to its English identity.
Anthony Powell: Dance to the Music of Time
Powell’s portrait of the well-to-do from 1921 to 1971 shows a segment of English society, warts and all.
Andrew Sinclair: Gog and King Ludd
Sinclair takes us on a romp through legendary and actual English history, through the figure of the legendary Gog.
Zadie Smith: White Teeth
Of course, Englishness of modern times depends very much on multiculturalism and no-one does it better than Zadie Smith.
Graham Swift: Waterland
I should perhaps have more regional novels on this list but this one is one of the best, as we see the heart of England through one of its regions, with legend, individuals and history.
Adam Thorpe: Ulverton
Of course, Englishness is about its history and this book shows the history of a small village and its rural proletariat which certainly is a key facet of Englshness.
Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited
Religion, war, sexual hypocrisy and the crumbling upper classes. Englishness at its best.
Henry Williamson: The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight
If I had to nominate only one novel (series) as representing Englishness, this would be it, telling the story of an Englishman, primarily rural but also somewhat urban, and encapsulating English values.
Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway
Mrs. Dalloway is a very English woman though, at the same time, like many women elsewhere However, no list of books on Englishness could be considered complete without her view of England and English life.