Contribution by Dominic Head
Several of the contributions so far have touched on the topic of the backward look, and the problem of learning from the past without dismissing new technologies. And a nostalgic sense of rural experience is never too distant in such testimonies. I’d like to offer some thoughts on this from my own experience working on novels of rural life, where the problem of nostalgia is often to be reckoned with.
Rural novels have generally had a poor reputation over the past century or so. Sometimes these judgements are unfair, based on a misperception of nostalgia. I’d like to suggest some reasons why understanding the function of nostalgia in fiction has a bearing on our perception of the rural environment, and also on our consciousness of how looking backwards can also be a useful way of looking forwards.
Academics of my generation – I was born in 1962 – tend to be sceptical of nostalgia, often with good reason. It can be a suspect emotion, harnessed for dubious political ends. And the bad connotations can also be used as a weapon against environmental movements/ideas, so that environmentalists seem to stand in the way of progress. But understood in more complex ways, nostalgia emerges as a valuable source of intervention.
To illustrate how the backward look can illuminate the present, I’ll turn to the key moment in a well-known example of the new nature writing, Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm, and his memory of driving (or being driven) on summer nights in the 1950s and 1960s, when a blizzard of moths and other insects would obscure the view (and, I remember, block car radiator grills).
The reminder of such lost abundance (as a consequence of pesticide use and habitat destruction) provokes an acute form of nostalgia in people in their fifties and sixties, in the form of the desire to bear witness, and to take action. Central to this bearing witness is the desire to combat ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, by which checks on the depredation of the nonhuman are not based on what has actually been lost, but merely on what can be remembered by the current human actors.
The equivalent of the new nature writing in the interwar years was the English vogue for the rural in fiction, a mode usually dismissed as problematically nostalgic, perceived to be hankering for an idyllic version of verdant England that never was. The received view is this: where the formal innovations of the major modernist authors, inflected by urban concerns, established the important literary trends of the twentieth century and beyond, the rural novel was a middlebrow throwback, overtaken by the modernity it couldn’t embrace.
There are certainly examples of interwar writing that can illustrate this view; and there are writers who cultivated more dubious (and sometimes pernicious) forms of nationalistic nostalgia refracted through the lens of an appealing rural scene. But the more interesting interwar rural writers found ways of engaging with modernity, and of staging the complex business of human/nonhuman interactions. The question of belonging in place is invariably the means by which the treatment of the rural is highlighted; and questions of nostalgia often have a bearing on the issue of human investment, if only implicitly. All of this is important because echoes of these concerns are still heard in the novel today.
Such writing can be difficult to interpret, as shown by Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Sussex Gorse (1916), a key twentieth-century English rural novel, which anticipates some of the interwar fiction. It is a difficult and compelling examination of the psychology of farming, focused on the career of its protagonist Reuben Backfield, and his life-long obsession with Boarzell Heath. He is driven by the desire to tame this inhospitable environment, and to subordinate the lives of his family members to his cruel and ruthless project. But Backfield is not King Lear, whose tragic flaw will reveal to us his moral failings. On the contrary, Kaye-Smith persists with the unflinching portrayal, so that we are forced to wonder whether the flaw is also a strength after all. We are presented with a different kind of fulfilment to that which we expect to see in the novel, with its social orientations. There’s a human cost of identifying with one place, over a lifetime, which emerges as a way of disregarding the new contingencies of life, and Backfield’s obsession is not presented as something to emulate. But it represents an extreme version of the kind of novel in which the nostalgia encourages identification with rural experience, from which something might be recuperated.
The more complex form of rural literary nostalgia is epitomized in the work of H. E. Bates, notably in the troubling and brooding provincial novel, Spella Ho (1938), where Bates inverts the Country House novel. Spella Ho(use) is not used to foreground the social mores and class dynamics of the Country House as an institution. It stands empty at the beginning of the novel and is not made representative of any particular social moment: its lure is the generalized sense of grandeur it embodies, a shorthand for the long period of industrial modernity which Bates’s protagonist, Bruno Shadbolt, comes to embody.
It is he who eventually becomes the owner of the house, and at the end of the book character and house merge. The outsider takes possession of the compelling edifice, in an ambivalent moment of class mobility: Shadbolt improves living standards in his town, but in the process he is responsible for increased pollution, and the destruction of rural land through unplanned, piecemeal development. An improvement in standards of living comes at the cost of the despoliation of the landscape, and by sapping the vitality of the traditional rural worker. But Bates was not a sentimentalist: he registers change as unstoppable. Spella Ho invites us to ponder the problem of meaningful existence in place within the flux of modernity, forcing us to see the disconnect between native home and sustaining identity. Yet, at the same time, the appeal of such a sustaining investment in place is still in play in Bates’s imaginary, so that the value of the past is held in tension with questions of progress, provoking the kind of debate we are engaged with here.
Much useful literary nostalgia works in this way, reflecting on what it means to live well, and to inhabit places in worthwhile ways. Such nostalgia holds up images of a world we know to be lost, but which might still have elements of value we can reclaim.