In Shadows of the Past in Contemporary British Fiction David Leon Higdon asserts that at some indefinable point after the Second World War contemporary novelists began to develop a different attitude toward the past: "Whereas Victorian fiction focused on the process of experience and modernist fiction concentrated on the moment of epiphany, much contemporary fiction turns to the retrospective dialogue created when an individual confronts his past." In this critical attitudinal shift Hidgon locates a key characteristic of postwar British fiction. Although development of this notion may have provided an even clearer understanding of the qualities of difference, it is merely enunciated and never argued further. Instead Higdon proceeds to identify three major directions of this trend and to undertake a close reading of novels by both "popular and serious" writers: "Waves of Memory" (Hartley, Wilson, Heppenstall, Moore); "Challenged Comparisons" (Fraser, Rhys, Aldiss); and "Rich Evocations of the Past" (Wilson, Drabble, Fowles). Despite an admission that the task of locating a suitable number of supportive texts was a simple matter, Higdon's selection criteria are never revealed. This is especially troubling because some readers might consider Higdon's choices unusual if not mildly eccentric. Such a wide range of divergent styles and literary concerns renders Higdon's vague defense essentially inadequate ("if we are to understand directions in contemporary fiction"); however, the reader quickly discovers that this problem only signals the first of many disappointments.
A fuller elucidation of the notion of past and present might have served as an effective introduction, but Higdon offers the reader only an outline of the project. In the first section Higdon presents a group of novels in which the central character experiences a transformative process via an analysis of past selves. Higdon points out that an intriguing situation results from this act of looking backward in that the individual becomes both subject and object. In "Challenged Comparisons" Higdon offers a straightforward discussion of contemporary works adapted from or parodying earlier works (Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Brontë's Jane Eyre). [End Page 324] In at least the example cited, however, the connection between the two is so well documented that the reader might expect more subtle issues of relatedness to surface; yet Higdon is intent on demonstrating little more than that the Rhys is a compelling outgrowth of the Brontë. The final section, and certainly the most successful, traces a new group of protagonists whose probing analyses of cultural artifacts and relics (in the capacity of historians, archaeologists, and the like) "parallel their search for individual identities and utilize the culture's artifacts as complex metaphors for complex inner processes." Here, in the final chapter on Fowles, one finds the past/present theme superimposed over another dichotomy prevalent in contemporary fiction, the continuous/discontinuous personality. Unfortunately, the interest and complexity arising from this double juxtaposition is atypical. On the whole the structure of the individual close readings is predictable: a brief review of the novel's critical reception, incessant plot synopsis, and the past/present dichotomy (each chapter ultimately arriving at the same shattering conclusion; for example, "By rejection of the present self and excavation and re-evaluation of the past self, Dan is ready to begin to shape his future self"). These readings rarely develop the central thesis any further, and even the distinctions among the three general trends are blurred at times.
The single theme of Higdon's text could, I think, sustain a number of readings, but a disconcerting number of digressions encourages the suspicion that the opposite is true. (How else can we account for the sociological critique of New Towns, the geographical comparison of Niger and Adra, or the information concerning the numerous film adaptations of Jane Eyre or visits to the Brontë parsonage?) Although the idea of pastness in the contemporary British novel is promising, the book cannot be recommended because the analysis fails to deliver.
John Haffenden's Novelists in Interview is...