Whether they know it or not (or, indeed, whether they like it or not), those toiling at the “serious” end of the book trade inhabit an intellectual universe heavily indebted to Raymond Williams. A prominent Cambridge academic from a humble background in the Welsh marches, Williams was not just England’s foremost literary critic in the Swinging Sixties, he was an energetic Marxist who had a dominant influence on the ideological shaping of the New Left’s cultural studies agenda.
And of course this agenda, in dilute form, now dominates our liberal-left consensus as to the roles and responsibilities of literature in a progressivist society.
Williams was particularly adept at tracing the evolution of the English pastoral tradition – and, sadly perhaps, few of England’s most-loved 20th Century authors survive his scrutiny. In what was possibly his most important book, The Country and the City, he argued that, by the Edwardian era, the pastoral game was all but up. Here he is formulating his case that, in the late novels of Henry James, something really rather revealing was happening to the country house, as portrayed in literary fiction.
It has been said that James did not know or understand the best country-house in England, but it seems to me that he knew it all too well. For the shell, the façade, of a quite different way of living, was now the reality. It was possible, of course, to seal off the shell, to concentrate, meticulously, on its internal involutions, as in Ivy Compton-Burnett and some other successors. But more commonly the façade has been presented with an increasing grossness, and James’s moral anxieties have been reduced to a mechanical transience and intricacy. Anyone who wanted to isolate human relationships now had this conventionally isolating and theatrical scene in which to perform. There have been some ludicrous examples, in novels offering themselves as serious, into our own generation. There have also been a few consciously reactionary idealisations of this supposed class and its way of life, as in Evelyn Waugh.
But the true fate of the country-house novel was its evolution into the middle-class detective story. It was in its very quality of abstraction, and yet of superficially impressive survival, that the country-house could be made the place of isolated assembly of a group of people whose immediate and transient relations were decipherable by a mode of detection rather than by the full and connected analysis of any more general understanding. Sometimes the formula is merely instrumental, as in Agatha Christie and others. Sometimes, as in Dorothy Sayers, it is combined with middle-class fantasies about the human nature of the traditional inhabitants. But tradition, elsewhere, is reduced to old architecture, old trees and the occasional ghost. It seems to me very fitting that a mode of analysis of human relationships which came out of Baker Street, out of the fogs of the transient city, should find a temporary resting-place in this façade way of life, before it returned eventually to its true place in the streets. For the country-house, while it retained its emotional hold, was indeed a proper setting for an opaqueness that can be penetrated in only a single dimension: all real questions of social and personal relationship left aside except in their capacity to instigate an instrumental deciphering. In very recent times it had been leased again as a centre for criminal planning or espionage or the secret police. But the point is that the country-house, in the twentieth century, has just this quality of abstract disposability and indifference of function. The real houses can be anything from schools and colleges and hospitals to business retreats, estate offices and subsidised museums. In the same way, emotionally, they can be the centres of isolated power, graft or intrigue, or what are called the “status symbols” – meaning the abstractions – of success, power and money which are founded elsewhere but left conveniently out of sight. It is not a sad end; it is a fitting end. The essential features were always there, and much of the history that changed them came out of them, in their original and continuing domination and alienation.
Postscript: the country manor house actually survived in the pages of literary fiction (which is to say, Bookerish books) right up until Valentine’s Day 2013, when it was burned down by Jim Crace.