No sneezing please, we're British

Paul Binding reflects on the significance of hay fever and the shortcomings of the Condition-of-England novel
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The Independent Culture
Every year, at the end of July, I am afflicted with hay fever, and very ill I often feel. At least, I think during these miserable weeks, I don't have to sit examinations any more, remembering that one of my texts for A-Level English Literature actually took in the subject of hay- fever. In Forster's Howards End, the Wilcoxes, representatives of the philistine, uncaring business and official classes, suffer from it. Out of doors they go to practise their hearty sports, only to fall a-sneezing: their allergy compels them to retreat inside. Only Mrs Wilcox, the magna mater, is exempted. As I have no doubt I wrote in my 'A' Level paper, Forster shows us the essential rootlessness of the male Wilcoxes - their profound severance from Nature - by giving them hay-fever.

Howards End is a condition-of-England novel, ending with a set-piece: the big meadow at Howards End is being cut "and it'll be such a crop of hay as never". (In fact hay as such rarely brings on hay-fever; it certainly doesn't mine.) We are obviously invited here to be present at the harvesting, the desirable inheriting, of England herself. Mr Wilcox, senior member of his tribe, is sneezing away indoors, while another hay-fever sufferer (Charles Wilcox) has been locked up in gaol. Howards End and its meadow (ie England) will eventually pass, the book's last pages make clear, to Helen Schlegel's son who won't have a drop of Wilcox blood in him and therefore no chances at all of the allergy.

I will admit that, with streaming eyes and red nose, I make an unappealing figure; but I can't help feeling it's a bit tough that my affliction debars me from being one of the inheritors of my own country. But even in my sixth-form days, I realised that the England Forster was so concerned to build was tilted in favour of the fine, strong and handsome, even though he was physically no great shakes himself. The Longest Journey is another condition-of-England novel, moving through a paradigmatic landscape, from prehistoric rings and ancient downlands where we find shepherds (about whom Forster knew next-to-nothing) to Home Counties, Empire-feeding public schools (about which he knew all too much). The inheritor of England here is Stephen Wonham, a child of Nature who is apt to chuck clods of earth at you to attract your attention, as he does at the novel's representative of Cambridge humanist ethics, Ansell.

The condition-of-England novel once represented the fictional mainstream: such works, from The Way We Live Now to Hard Times to Vanity Fair, were the ocean-going liners of Victorian fiction. But along with the dislocations of modernism and the decline of imperialist visions came a distaste for such vast panoramic endeavours. But now, it seems, the condition-of-England novel is creeping back. Ever since Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities offered a vision of New York from top to bottom, from Wall Street to the Bronx, literary commentators have wondered where the London equivalent is coming from. Margaret Drabble tried to provide it, with The Radiant Way and its sequels. Her sister A. S. Byatt's most recent book Babel Tower was an ambitious anatomising of the soul of Sixties Britain. The critic and novelist D.J. Taylor, in A Vain Conceit, tut-tutted over the lack of socially prescriptive novels, then supplied his own earlier this year in English Settlement.

But is the genre such an attractive prospect? The trouble with condition-of-England novels is that, of their nature, they can't accept pluralism, the inconsistencies of diversity. Contemporary writers who, from an understandable aversion to post-Thatcherism, create admonitory fictive metaphors for England, should attend to the dangers of the genre: imaginative totalitarianism, personal prejudice masquerading as beneficial blueprint. Forster is by no means the only guilty party in this tradition.

"Curiously, I like England again now"; "I know that we could, if we would, establish little by little a true democracy in England" These are from the letters of D.H. Lawrence when at work on the first versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover, the true subject of which, appearances and notoriety to the contrary, is the regeneration of England. Lady Chatterley is a far richer and more thoroughly imagined novel than it's usually given credit for being, but the author cannot keep his prejudices at bay, cannot resist elevating them until they seem indispensable for a nation's health. Woe unto England, he says, if you are a writer; all writers, from Sir Clifford Chatterley, that de facto member of the Sitwell family, downwards, are effete, attention-seeking and money-grubbing. There's only one writer England can do with, Lawrence suggests - the invisible but by no means inaudible yours truly. Woe unto England, on the other hand, if you shift your interests to the technical and scientific, as Sir Clifford does. "(It was) as if really the devil himself had lent fiend's wits to the technical scientists of industry...these self-made men were of a mental age of about 13, feeble boys." Whereas Forster admitted women with reluctance into his ideal England, with Lawrence it's the other way about: almost any man who doesn't emanate from his unconscious becomes an enemy sooner or later.

In many ways Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited is a mirror-reflection of Lady Chatterley's Lover, each book born of its author's perceptions of the death of England after a major war and of his hopes for its rebirth. Both novels start socially at the top, but in the case of the later novel, the top is where it wants to stay, especially as the great family, whom the post-war country has (partially) shorn of its glory, has the additional merit of having held on, century after century, to the Old Faith. Whereas the Chatterleys can be rejuvenated by a soldier promoted to lieutenant but now a gamekeeper, the admirer of the Marchmains has to confront the young officer Hooper, who becomes a symbol to him "of Young England...I sometimes pondered 'Hooper Rallies', 'Hooper Hostels', 'International Hooper Co-operation' and 'the Religion of Hooper'. He was the acid test of these alloys." Hooper has a flat Midlands accent, has his hair combed back without a parting and wears woollen gloves. He's "no romantic", has never "as a child ridden with Rupert's horse". You can see what a come-down it is for the narrator to find himself in a society where such an individual is dominant, when you recall the kind of talk he was used to when hob-nobbing with the great and good- looking - like this, between himself and the young Lord Sebastian: "It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle." "Like a leprechaun." "Dappled, in a tapestry meadow." "Like a flute by still water." It is a strange feature of post-war England that it has taken to its heart a vision that suggests England can be redeemed by long-lineaged multi-millionaires uninterested in anybody beyond their social circle but keeping the flame of Catholicism alight in rococo chapels into which they admit the odd pious nanny or family servant.

There are, however, novels to which our present condition-of-Englanders might look which lack the crypto-Fascist exclusiveness predominant in the genre. William Golding's Lord of the Flies is far more satisfactory as a survey of England after the war than as a parable of Nazism or original sin. The representative of traditional English values, Ralph is shown as inadequate to the chaos he has to face, yet he is also good, decent, feeling. At the close, he is able to grieve for the dead asthmatic, embryonic scientist Piggy, for the vivid, imaginative Simon, for all the less remarkable boys who went under. This is the kind of inclusive charity our riven society needs, not the authoritarianism that comes from the writer's conviction of his own superiority.