Francis Mulhern, Figures of Catastrophe: The Condition of Culture Novel (London and New York: Verso, 2016).
In 1843 Thomas Carlyle, archetypal Victorian sage, coined the phrase “condition of England.” Its most durable afterlife has been as descriptor for a surprisingly long-loved genre (or genre-lette): “Condition of England novels.” It has lured novelists from Charles Dickens to Benjamin Disraeli all the way up to Ali Smith and John Lanchester: anyone invested in capturing the nation as a messy and discrepant whole–up and downstairs, urban and rural, joyful and wretched.
Francis Mulhern’s thoughtful new book proposes that a significant subsection of that category be cut out and studied on its own terms: “condition of culture” novels. The crucial distinction for Mulhern? In such novels the whole under discussion “is not the social totality. The elective emphasis of the genre is the plane of culture, the social order of meanings and values, and the institutions and practices by which, specifically, these are formed and circulated” (2). From such ur-instances as Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and EM Forster’s Howards End up through Zadie Smith’s 2005 On Beauty—by way of writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Ruth Rendell and Hanif Kureishi—Mulhern assembles novels that are “both synoptic and specific, foregrounding the cultural dimension of the social whole, undertaking a synoptic narrative evaluation of the social relations of culture.” (2)
The account that Mulhern offers is often, as he himself describes it, a “set of elaborations developing, each into the next, by a logic of association” (116): the readings of particular novels tend to range, and to disaggregate from one another. Still, out of those successive if not always sequential readings an argument does emerge. Mulhern discerns a genre devoted to exploring the resisted presence of the working-class within what is understood as normatively a bourgeois culture. By Mulhern’s account, “the condition of culture novel has for a century or more persisted as a complex of narrative conventions by or through which, across a variety of social identifications, a literate middle class could frame or crop, acknowledge, consider and (more often than not) resist the active historical presence of the working class.”
Mulhern offers two extremely thoughtful observations about how the novels he singles out are constructed. One is that he sees these books as “meta-cultural” in the sense that they constantly pick at the scab of culture, throwing names at the reader to be recognized and marked as making one part of the tradition. But he also sees these novels as picking out a space below, an area of “un-culture” into which this sort of novel cannot venture. Why not? Because just below the lower-middle class lies chaos, engulfment, a world where no amount of literary cultural capital will save one (think of the image of the whirlpool or the abyss in novels by E. M. Forster and George Orwell).
Second, Mulhern emphasizes (even perhaps overemphasizes) mandarin nostalgia for a homoegenous and “high” past culture that fortifies the “culture concept” defining the “condition of culture” novel. Thus Mulhern reads Orlando as the implicit defense of an aristocratic and vanishing cultural order against both the middlebrow Victorian world of publishing and the mob below (“Nothing is permitted to inhibit the euphoric affirmation of culture as aristocracy” 47). And by his account Howards End emphatically affirms the creation of a small recuperative agricultural place at its end. He extends that lineage to the reactionary Carlylean dream of bygone totality in Brideshead Revisited and to Ruth Rendell’s 1977 A Judgment in Stone, in which he sees redemption by backwards glance.
I wonder, though, if the story Mulhern had to tell would have changed if rather than Waugh he had focused on a novelist such as Ford Madox Ford, conservative in many ways but also deeply and productively ambivalent about the “organic” English culture that seems to offer solace and redemption. In the Parade’s End tetralogy, for example, the “metacultural” process that Mulhern describes is everywhere apparent. And yet what does it mean that Tietjens begins the novels by correcting the encyclopedia and ends them by trying to cure himself of shell shock by memorizing the very same error-ridden volumes? Certainly Ford means to give less than three cheers for the culture whose condition is under inspection.
By the same token, I am less sure than Mulhern seems to be of the sharp dividing lines in Jude the Obscure. To me, what comes through most strongly is Hardy’s profound ambivalence about the cultural heritage to which Jude painfully (and only intermittently) aspires. Similarly, Sue is a kind of New Woman unable to find the right role in a repressive society, and not simply Arabella’s mirror and foil, the incarnation (as Mulhern says she is) of “frigid high-mindedness”(9). That way of thinking of Sue misreads what she and Jude have in common: that they are unable to find a home in one place or another, that they reject the conventional roles (mason, compliant wife) which are in various ways offered to them. Small wonder Hardy thought of calling the novel “The Recalcitrants”; he does not actually understand his characters Jude or Sue as faced with a choice between being inside culture or out of it. Rather, he develops a systematic account of a culture (in the ethnographic rather than the hoity-toity sense) that forces all characters, high and low, into rigid social forms. Hardy actually unsettles some of Mulhern’s diagnoses of what a “condition of culture” novel can do. Like Ford (and Woolf and Smith and Kureishi, though unlike Waugh and Rendell perhaps) Hardy has a supple and subtle way of noticing how even the highest, most alluring kinds of elite learning are filled with microscopic cracks, and hence tend to crumble under pressure.
With more space, it would be a pleasure to illuminate aspects of the various readings here: Mulhern brings John Fowles’ creepy The Collector as vividly and wonderfully to life as V. S. Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival. The adeptness with which Mulhern folds these disparate novels into a shared account displays an almost Arnoldian capacity for detecting (or failing that, declaring) cultural completeness. Mulhern chooses only English novels; he apologizes for this as a failure of breadth, but he also makes a specific claim for the distinctiveness of what a specifically English condition of culture novel must look like. Specifically, that class must be at its center–the preoccupation I did wonder at times: there is for example certainly a strong focus on racial and religious separation in the novels by Naipaul, Kureishi, and Smith, and I was not always sure Mulhern was right to bracket those other topics. Nonetheless, this is a book that sees certain things wonderfully well and perhaps its acuity requires bracketing out matters that might blur that focus.