«TWILIGHT OF THE TOFFS: FALL OF A CASTE, RISE OF A MYTH Carlos Sanchez Fernandez M.A. by Research University of East Anglia - UEA Faculty of Arts and ...»
TWILIGHT OF THE TOFFS: FALL OF A CASTE, RISE OF A MYTH
Carlos Sanchez Fernandez
M.A. by Research
University of East Anglia - UEA
Faculty of Arts and Humanities
School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing (LDC)
Submission Date: January 2013
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Carlos Sanchez Fernandez Submission Year: 2013 Thesis Title: Twilight of the Toffs: Fall of a Caste, Rise of a Myth
This dissertation deals with the representation of the interwar upper classes (above all, the aristocracy) in the contemporary English novel. I have chosen three novels for my study: Ian McEwan‟s Atonement (2001), Kazuo Ishiguro‟s The Remains of the Day (1989) and Evelyn Waugh‟s Brideshead Revisited (1945).
My main critical perspective is a structuralist one, namely that of Roland Barthes in his Mythologies (1956). I show how, notwithstanding the period in which they were written, their aesthetic orientation, or their authors‟ personal stand concerning their society, the chosen novels, spanning six decades, can be analyzed by applying the same „figures of myth‟, according to Barthes‟s terminology.
To facilitate a better understanding of this literature, I have also connected it with a common historical and ideological background, that of the interwar period.
Moreover, as Barthes‟s ideological stand is a Marxist one, if heterodoxically so, I will be relating the novels to a number of Marxist concepts, such as hegemony, dominant and residual cultures, or false consciousness. Concepts from other fields of contemporary intellectual history, such as psychoanalysis, will also be featured for the same purpose. Finally, I have also given a prominent role to social history in my analysis.
My main conclusion will be that myth has superseded factual representation of the traditional landed aristocracy, turning it into a category that is still operative in the domain of fiction, informing the international reading public‟s views of British society and culture, even after the historical demise of that social class.
- GERALD: Harfords, Lord Illingworth?
- LORD ILLINGWORTH: That is my family name. You should study the Peerage, Gerald. It is the one book a young man about town should know thoroughly, and it is the best thing in fiction the English have ever done.
Oscar Wilde, A Woman of no Importance, in The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, ed.
by Peter Raby, Oxford World‟s Classics, Oxford English Drama Series (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1998; first publ. 1995), pp. 93-157 (p. 134, emphasis mine).
Table of Contents
Conclusions: Oxford as the Ephebate; Effete Aristocrats, Virile Mesocrats 113 The Recusant Instinct: Martyrs for God and Country; A Neo-Feudal Ideal 117
A box-office hit in 2007-2008, the film Atonement, directed by Joe Wright after a screenplay based on the novel by Ian McEwan, may be considered the latest major title in the British upper-class, period film. 2 This cinematic genre and its impact on the public, known by some as the Ivory Merchant syndrome, had as its initiator the Oscar-awarded Chariots of Fire, released in 1981.3 That very same year, British audiences could enjoy the Granada TV production of Brideshead Revisited, an adaptation of the novel by Evelyn Waugh, now a legend (Childs, „Heritage‟, 212). 4 Since then, this kind of cinema and TV series has captured the imagination of massive audiences the world over, inevitably attracted by a bygone world of caste and privilege: the world of the English ruling classes of the late Victorian, Edwardian, Georgian and inter-war periods.
Starting to recover from the troubled 1970s, the British public seems to have developed a fascination, partly out of nostalgia, partly out of sensationalist allure for this still relatively recent, but by then seemingly defunct world of the traditional ruling upper classes, the toffs. Overseas, especially in America, the young, democratic society without an aristocracy proper, a strong demand has made it possible for these fictional accounts of the toff world to develop into a characteristic genre with its own distinctive iconography and discourse.5 Peter Childs, „The English Heritage Industry and Other Trends in the Novel at the Millennium‟, in A Companion to the British and Irish Novel 1945-2000, ed. by Brian W. Shaffer, Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 210-24 (pp. 211Atonement. Dir. Joe Wright. Universal. 2007, in FII http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:fii&rft_id=xri:fii:film:00821062 [accessed 28 June 2012] Susie O'Brien, „Serving a New World Order: Postcolonial Politics in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day‟, Modern Fiction Studies, 42.4 (1996), 787-806 (p. 787).
Chariots of Fire. Dir. Hugh Hudson. Enigma Productions, 20th-Century Fox, Allied Stars. 1981, in FII http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:fii&rft_id=xri:fii:film:00060706 [accessed 29 May 2012] Brideshead Revisited. Dir. Charles Sturridge. Granada TV. 1981.
See, e.g., Martin Stannard, „Waugh, Evelyn Arthur St John (1903–1966)‟, in ODNB, ed. by H. C. G.
Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004), online edn by Lawrence Goldman, May 2011 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36788 [accessed 28 May 2012] [para. 23 of 39] Childs, „Heritage‟, p. 212.
The reasons for this fascination, both in the UK and abroad, might be put down to the glamour of refined photography, costumes and atmosphere, with gorgeous country and stately houses galore, immaculate lawns, dinner jackets and gleaming white frocks, while having tea and scones in a rose garden or roast beef and port in a neoGothic dining hall. Beyond these formal attractions, there beats the heart of a legendary creature, the English gentleman, the typical specimen of a race of empirebuilders, athletes, soldiers and sometimes even aesthetes. A caste of morally superior men, brought up in a spirit of Christian humanism, their task is to manage and rule the greater part of the Earth‟s surface under the Union Jack; sometimes, however, it is also to oppose this righteous programme by secretly living homosocial desire or homosexual love in an exclusive, all-male world of public school, Oxbridge college, London club and officers‟ mess. In any case, this is a world of long-running traditions, secret codes and odd habits now become one of post-imperial Britain‟s few solid sources of prestige, ideological influence and even revenue through the culture industry.
A Modern Mythology
Running strong for thirty years, this branch of the culture industry has given birth to a whole corpus of mythology. By mythology, I am referring to what Roland Barthes describes in his Mythologies as a second-order semiological system, whereby what he calls form, a sign whose nature is that of an image and whose structure consists of its own signifier (for example, a stately house in the English countryside or sitting down to dinner after Latin prayers in a 15th century Oxford dining hall) and signified (e.g., belonging to a certain social, academic and or economic caste or class), becomes in turn the signifier for a second signified, both ultimately constituting a second sign, myth proper, a mode of signification.6 What lies behind the transfer from form to signification is a certain motivation, a concept, both historical and intentional. This conceptual intention defines myth, and is revealed by its potential repetition through almost an infinity of possible forms or Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. by Annette Lavers (New York: The Noonday Press, 1972), pp.
111-15, 107 (emphasis mine).
embodiments, which allows recognition and interpretation through reading or deciphering. This interpretation is all the more necessary since in myth the concept always distorts and alienates the meaning, making what is historical and situational pass for something natural, pre-ordained, necessary, ineluctable, unchangeable (Mythol., 116-17, 113, 121, 128, emphasis mine).
Thus, in the mythology of the modern English upper classes, the main signified would be the following: the English upper classes are a special human category, adapted and evolved to be the most natural and humanely desirable group of military, political and economic rulers that the world has ever known or will ever know. 7 The literary critic should therefore be alert to recognize this discursive operation, understanding the distortion, unmasking the myth, denouncing it as an imposture, making a stand against its expansive ambiguity (Mythol., 123, 127, emphasis mine).
The fact that Barthes‟s book was first published in 1957, under the sign of then ragingly fashionable Structuralism and from a certain left-wing perspective, typical of the continental intelligentsia of the time, cannot detract from its value as an insightful, thought-provoking analysis of many half-hidden meanings that still inadvertently pass for flesh-and-bone realities in everyday life. Not in vain, myth‟s ultimate aim and essential function is the naturalization of the concept it signifies, the pretension of transcending itself into a factual system. The fact that, in our little toff domain, this is achieved through the wrapping of ideas in the most polished and glamorous forms, being experienced as innocent speech (in our case, for instance, by the evocation of languidly decadent, homoerotic idylls experienced by the age-old stones of transplanted Italian baroque fountains), only enhances myth‟s power to reach and corrupt anything (130, 132-33, emphasis mine).
From our historical, post-modern vantage point, substituting wealthy, cultured, upper-class for oppressors, and lower-class, unaware and uneducated for oppressed, we could assert what Barthes, from a Marxist point of view, puts this way: the oppressors‟ speech is „plenary, intransitive, gestural, theatrical‟; that of the oppressed For the rule of the landed upper classes as a part of „the natural order of things‟, see David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), p. 15 (emphasis mine).
can only be „poor, monotonous, immediate‟. If we substitute „English upper classes‟ for „bourgeoisie‟ (the privileged social agent of historical change in modern France and Barthes‟s main social target in his analysis of myth), we can also share his warning against the dangers of mythical glamour: we are dealing with a social formation that is „constantly absorbing into its ideology a whole section of humanity which does not have its basic status and cannot live up to it, except in imagination‟ (148, 150, 140, emphasis mine). Mythology can be the opiate of the people in a similar way to religion. 8 Certainly, myth is stronger than rational explanation and much likelier to develop into a full-blown iconic, aesthetic system whose potentialities reach beyond its original social function: ideological control of the many by the few (Mythol., 128Thus understood, the signifying power of the toff myth has projected well beyond its historical moment, to the point of surviving the original social formation of which it was a predicate well into our times. Literature has been instrumental in this.
Nature Imitating Art
An explanation for this might be that the signifying processes unchained by a mythical corpus as the one analyzed here, as long as distributed and supported by formal, aesthetic institutions of great social and ideological significance such as literature and cinema, can be revived in every single instance of reading or viewing, deepening time‟s proper dimensions as a limiting coordinate of human experience.
Hence, we can still let ourselves be drawn into the ideological and discursive universe of, for instance, a bunch of young, upper-class athletes training for the 1924 Olympic Games, jogging along an English beach, the Union Jack on their immaculate white shirts, sons of Oxbridge and Empire. It does not matter if we know that this is just a representational illusion or if we realize the anachronistic character of the synthesizer soundtrack emotionally underlining the elitist values and ideals of Jonathan Wolff, „Karl Marx‟, in SEP, ed. by Edward N. Zalta, online edn, Summer 2011 http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/marx/ [accessed 7 January 2011] [para. 8 of 48] these young men. Thus, we pass from athletics to essential Englishness through Parry‟s musical rendering of Blake‟s Jerusalem as appropriated by the toff establishment.9 In fact, what we have to face in cases like this is quite simply that, as Barthes puts it, a social formation, as an ideological fact, can obliterate its name in passing „from reality to representation, from economic man to mental man‟, at no risk at all. In his words, „everything in everyday life is dependent on the representation‟ that the upper classes (or any other influential, socially distinct group) „have and make us have of the relations between man and the world.‟ (Mythol., 137-39, emphasis mine).
Literature has thus eventually managed to invert the terms of the equation whereby it purports to reproduce reality by mimesis, according to an age-old theoretical tradition. Snugly installed in the literary canon, regardless of the recent date of some of its exponents, toff literature has been able to re-create history, making life adapt to literature rather than the other way round. Literature has transformed the reality of a bygone world, turning it into an image of the world, history transformed into an unchangeable nature, a world of essences and types (140-41, 156). 10 Stately houses, whether or not under the aegis of the National Trust, are all part of a metaphysical realm of quintessential Englishness as defined by aristocratic ideals and rituals. A whole worldview is thus contained and conveyed by this literature and subtly smuggled into the minds of several generations of readers and viewers.
The Inter-War Period: Nostalgia, Suspicion, Doom, Spectacle