I love the word quintessentially. It sounds like such an English word itself, so when used to describe something very much English I feel like dressing in tweed and plaid, and having a cup of afternoon tea. (Have actually just polished off a cup of Earl Grey. Oh and I’ve discovered Tetley tea in my local Spanish supermarket. EXCITING TIMES). I also wouldn’t mind a scone…
Anyways before I start daydreaming about all the British foods I’ve been missing, I feel like my blog posts recently have mainly been all about Burgos. Which isn’t bad. But I also like writing posts where I simply tell people “Go read this book!” So you’re in luck. This post is of a handful of books that I feel sum up England pretty damn well, and reading them is like experiencing the mild weather, the people, and the cities and countryside as though these authors have managed to breathe England onto paper.
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
I feel like any of his novels that are set in England give off a beautiful English mood and tone, but this one shines. Told by an elderly butler in a post-war England, it explores with both nostalgia and optimism the changing identity of England from aristocracy to more socialist ideals. The narrator travels across the country, and Ishiguro’s depiction of characters and landscape captures what it means to be English in the beautiful poetic language I adore from this author.
Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
Hardy seemingly wrote this novel with a determination to portray the Wessex farming countryside he knew and adored so much. And it shows, as the language he uses to describe the countryside evokes romantic sensations and appreciation of what is all around us, that you may want to go outside and feel the rain fall on you, or like Gabriel Oak be able to look at the sky and know what time it is. Or perhaps milk a cow, whatever floats your boat. Either way, this novel admires an agricultural way of life so deeply integrated into English identity.
One Day – David Nicholls
Moving away from the countryside and into English city life: this novel is a sweet but honest portrayal of aspirations regarding love, careers and life meeting reality, and sometimes painfully meeting. I could relate with the character Emma, not only because she is from Leeds, but because her self pride combined with self doubt made her completely believable. And her worry that London had swallowed her up, well, anybody can find the capital overwhelming at times. A modern novel of modern English people, and not a novel to be left forgotten on bookshelves.
Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
Another novel depicting modern life (or, modern life in London in the 90s), and so brilliantly funny it makes you proud of the British wit. This shows what being a Londoner really is: not Made in Chelsea, or being able to afford to get on the property ladder, but living being in a pokey flat with nothing but a hangover and cheese in your fridge. I exaggerate, but whereas some novels boast characters of good fortune, manners and usually quite glamorous lives – Fielding reminds us what it means, and what it’s like, to be human. In other words, suspicious of being a disappointment to your mother.
Union Street – Pat Barker
Perhaps the most unheard of from this list to finish things off (because why not be hipster and all “oh it’s a great novel, but you probably haven’t heard of it”). I studied this novel at university for a module in modern realist literature, which consisted mostly of gritty, working class northerners. In other words I loved it. This novel depicts the lives of women of all ages living on one working class street in the North East of England. Worlds away from the poetic beauty of The Remains of the Day and Far From the Madding Crowd, but still the same country that is shaped by many identities. This novel characterises the many hardships faced by the working classes, and by women of England – revealing the country not just to be one of countryside, tea and royalty, but also of problems including social and economic inequality. Yet found within this bleak outlook is the appreciation of simple things, and most importantly – community.
So, do you agree? Any other deeply English novels to recommend, or better yet, what novels do you feel depict other countries with beautiful accuracy? It’s an economic and interesting way to learn about other cultures through literature!