restricted access Refiguring National Character: The Remains of the British Estate Novel
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 552-580



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Refiguring National Character:
The Remains of the British Estate Novel

John J. Su


The simultaneity of the Nation—its contemporaneity—can only be articulated in the language of archaism, as a ghostly repetition; a gothic production of past-presentness.

—Homi Bhabha, "A Question of Survival:
Nations and Psychic States"

The lesson of the Falklands is that Britain has not changed and that this nation still has those sterling qualities which shine through our history.

—Margaret Thatcher, Speech to Conservative
Rally at Cheltenham

The State of the Estate

The decay of the English country estate in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited (1944) and Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day (1989) evokes a powerful yearning for lost national glory. Brideshead, in Waugh's novel, [End Page 552] has been requisitioned as a temporary military barracks in preparation for the war against Hitler, all but the first floor sealed off, the estate fountain fenced in and filled with the cigarette butts of soldiers. Shortly following the war, Darlington Hall, in Ishiguro's novel, has been purchased by an American, Mr. Farraday, its staff cut from eighteen to four; the house itself is empty and hardly used, no longer the gathering place of the wealthy and influential. Indeed, the diminished condition of the estate is taken to be emblematic of the nation as a whole. The casual disdain for Brideshead and the general sense of purposelessness among the soldiers under the command of Captain Charles Ryder are of a piece. Ryder finds himself lamenting: "it was not as it had been" (5). Ishiguro's Mr. Stevens, butler of Darlington Hall, finds a similarly faltering commitment on the part of his younger colleagues, who lack the dignity appropriate to their stations. The English character, like the estates that are the definitive places of England for Ryder and Stevens, has been neglected, uncultivated, and left to decay in the postwar period.

The nostalgia in Brideshead Revisited and The Remains of the Day is so intriguing because both novels invoke a tradition within the English novel that had previously degenerated into satire: the "crisis of inheritance" narrative that reads the fate of the nation through the condition of the English country estate. Even by the 1920s, the linkage between nation and estate is ridiculed by novels like Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow (1921) and D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928). Waugh himself satirizes the tradition in his earlier novel, Handful of Dust (1934). Yet, by 1944 he would insist that the English ancestral seats were "our chief national achievement," and he mourned their decay (qtd. in Gill 211). Ishiguro, too, makes a notable, though certainly less startling, departure from his earlier work in Remains of the Day. His interest in Darlington Hall and its butler Mr. Stevens bears little topical similarity to his previous explorations of Japanese immigrants in postwar England in A Pale View of Hills and the guilt experienced by postwar Japanese in An Artist of the Floating World. 1 The Remains of the Day, like Brideshead Revisited, appears to hearken back to the novels of Jane Austen, Henry James, and E. M. Forster with its interest in the grand country estate and questions of what constitutes English character.

My question is why two authors writing forty-five years apart and with such different social, cultural, economic, and religious backgrounds [End Page 553] would both feel compelled to revive a dying genre. Particularly in Ishiguro's case, it is not obvious why a Japanese immigrant born long after the apex of the country house would revisit such a quintessentially English literary form. My question assumes greater significance in light of the immense popularity enjoyed by both Brideshead Revisited and The Remains of the Day, for their continuing success implies that they respond to a national longing in postimperial Great Britain. Both novels have inspired popular film and television adaptations; Remains of the Day captured the prestigious Booker Prize in 1989; and historical studies of the English country house cite...


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