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Mournful Histories: Narratives of Postimperial Melancholy

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 1996
pp. 259-288 | 10.1353/mfs.1995.0101

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Modern Fiction Studies 42.2 (1996) 259-288

Mournful Histories: Narratives of Postimperial Melancholy

I lived with the idea of decay. (I had always lived with this idea. It was like my curse: the idea, which I had had even as a child in Trinidad, that I had come into a world past its peak). . . . I grew to feel that the grandeur belonged to the past; that I had come to England at the wrong time; that I had come too late to find the England, the heart of empire, which (like a provincial, from a far corner of the empire) I had created in my fantasy.

--V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival

Reminds me of a man who lives by exhibiting to travelers his grandmother's corpse.

--James Joyce, qtd. in Ellman

On the evening of the 28th of October, 1988, Prince Charles appeared on BBC's Omnibus program to share with the English people his "Vision of Britain." "Sometime during this century," the Prince informed his audience, "something went wrong. For various complicated reasons we allowed a terrible damage to be inflicted on parts of this country's unique landscape and townscape" (HRH The Prince of Wales 21). In the minutes of the program which followed, and on the pages of the book published as a companion piece to his film, the Prince exhibited a catalogue of those architectural horrors visited upon the people of England sometime during this century -- the fifties and sixties, he subsequently avers, were the guilty decades -- and conducted his viewers and readers on a tour of that noble architecture of the English past which had managed, somehow, to survive the devastations of the present age. What emerges from this catalogue and tour is quite evident: a recoiling before the wounded surface of postwar England's architectural page and a yearning for the nobly-built but crumbling spaces of the island kingdom's past. Though the Prince, in his book and film, represents himself as something of a voice crying in the wilderness, the longing which he expresses for a lost or vanishing country-house England is not unique to his vision of Britain. Indeed, such agonistic yearnings subtend any number of recent English cultural productions (a cursory list of which might include the television serialization of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited; the Merchant-Ivory productions of Forster's Howard's End and A Room With a View; and the National Gallery's massive 1986 exhibition, "The Treasure Houses of Britain") in which the country house, and that moment in England's cultural history which it synecdochically locates, has been rediscovered and fetishized.

For a fetish it has become: a cultural artifact, a spectacular arrangement of built space, valued less for itself than for the absence or lack which it at once covers and names. Neither the identity of that desired object nor its reasons for disappearance are immediately evident in either the Prince's mournful catalogue and tour or in the narratives of these other works. But clearly these cultural works are animated by what, in a related context, V. S. Naipaul has called a "sense of wrongness" in postwar British culture (Enigma 33). That "something" for which Prince Charles and so many Britons have apparently been yearning as they reverentially inspect the architecture of an age before things went wrong might become clear if we consider the emergence, contemporaneous to the appearance of this nostalgia boomlet, of what Salman Rushdie has called a Raj Revival. In his essay "Outside the Whale," published a few years before the Prince of Wales appeared before his television audience, Rushdie examines the belated and ghostly "twitchings" of what, with ghoulish wit, he calls the "amputated limbs" of empire. He discerns, in the television and filmic productions of The Far Pavilions, The Jewel in the Crown, Gandhi, and A Passage to India, a fantasy of return to the pleasures of the imperial past, a nostalgic turning of English men and women's eyes to "the lost hour of their precedence" (Rushdie, Imaginary 92).

This imaginative return to the glories of imperial dominance and the mournful wanderings through the lapsing architectures of the English past are not...


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