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The English Gentleman in a Postimperial World

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 412-420 | 10.1353/cli.2014.0020

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The production of Englishness in relation to Britain’s imperial history (and the subsequent decline of empire) has become something of a critical truism in scholarship on English national identity. Simon Gikandi’s 1996 Maps of Englishness was one of the first monographs to document the way “the [ostensibly] minor narratives of empire play a constitutive role in the remaking of Englishness.” Ian Baucom’s Out of Place (1999), Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island (2004), Wendy Webster’s Englishness and Empire, 1939–1965 (2005), and Peter J. Kalliney’s Cities of Affluence and Anger (2006) all follow this inaugural paradigm in their analyses of the systemic imbrications between national and imperial subjectivities. Given this rich body of scholarship, Praseeda Gopinath’s Scarecrows of Chivalry: English Masculinities after Empire may initially come across as a belated enterprise, yet another study of Englishness that joins an already exhaustive list. But Gopinath capably meets the challenge of reframing a long-standing issue through the lens of gender, offering a refreshingly new and welcome perspective on how the shaping of Englishness is connected to changing modes of masculinity—in particular, to the familiar figure of the English gentleman as both national icon and cultural export. In this respect, Gopinath’s intervention into the field shares similarities with Kalliney’s: if Kalliney reoriented the terms of analysis by foregrounding how the forgotten structures of class are essential to transformations of Englishness, Gopinath’s study foregrounds the previously elided frame of gender and gentlemanliness that has always underpinned unspoken definitions of national and class identities.

Scarecrows of Chivalry hews most closely to the premises of Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island, which argued that Britain’s impending loss of empire proved intensely generative for late modernists, allowing writers and thinkers such as Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, T. S. Eliot, and John Maynard Keynes to shift their attention from the cosmopolitan landscapes of empire to the domestic spaces of the nation. A “shrinking” empire, then, speaks not simply of a narrative of imperial decline, but of an “anthropological turn” that substituted “Anglocentric representations of meaningful time and bounded space” for “metropolitan themes and techniques” (Esty 7). Like Esty, Gopinath is interested in tracking the impact of the retreat of empire on Englishness—specifically, on the English gentleman whose scope for self-fashioning narrowed from the theaters of empire to the domestic borders of the postwar welfare state. And, like Esty, Gopinath reads this constriction not just as an index of loss but as a historical opening for changing forms of masculinity. The shift from imperial to postimperial nation, she argues, is metonymically signified by the shift from gentleman to “the post-gentleman” (9). Gopinath’s introductory chapter sets up the main contours of her argument: for her, English national culture is inextricable from the script of gender and the politics of masculinity. Englishness is defined in terms of a “hegemonic masculinity”—a concept she takes from R. W. Connell—comprising “the gendered norms that are held as the most valuable by the politically dominant class, which, in turn, authorize and legitimate its power and status” (6). The figure embodying this hegemonic masculinity is, of course, the English gentleman, but Gopinath is interested in tracing this figure as a dynamic ideological construct that alters as Britain changes from a hierarchical, albeit decaying, empire in the early twentieth century to a more egalitarian, welfare-secure, consumerist society in the postwar era. Scarecrows of Chivalry mostly centers on the 1930s through the 1960s, though it is bookended by brief readings of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), gesturing at a broader timeline that allows Gopinath to track both continuity and change to the gentlemanly ideal over the twentieth century and thereby refute the commonplace assumption of a 1945 rupture in literary and sociocultural genealogies. For, importantly, she sees this ideal as a complex formation that neither remains static nor is rendered obsolete under new historical conditions. Instead, new expressions of postwar masculinity—the post-gentleman—rework older codes of gentlemanliness for a more democratic age, demonstrating the persistent tenacity of these codes, even as they simultaneously cue...


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