As the last century ended, representations of Britain and Britishness became increasingly contradictory. While the United Kingdom’s tourist image was still dominated by images of sleepy villages and ancient castles, a new government celebrated “Cool Britannia” and the Prime Minister schmoozed with the likes of Oasis and Damien Hirst. Britain’s imperial history was also in flux: 1997 witnessed withdrawal from Hong Kong and the beginning of an ongoing process of political devolution—the creation of a quasi-federal system that many commentators saw as presaging the “Death of Britain.”
With one eye on these broad cultural and political changes, this class will examine Britain and Britishness in twentieth-century novels, poems, films, and essays. We will begin with the exhaustion of Victorian cultural confidence in the World War 1 era, reading novels by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford; poems by T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy, Hugh MacDiarmid, and David Jones; and the explosive avant-garde manifestoes of the Blast group. We will then turn to mid- century writings by authors like Evelyn Waugh, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, George Orwell, and Doris Lessing, asking about Britain’s domestic profile and international role at a time when resistance to Hitler—celebrated by Churchill as the country’s “finest hour”—was accompanied by the inevitable decline of the largest Empire in history. Finally, we will focus on the case of Scotland within postmodern Britain, reading novels by Alisdair Gray and short stories by James Kelman; watching cinematic treatments of Scottishness, from Mrs Brown to Trainspotting; and asking whether a devolved Scottish assembly presages a new confidence in Scotland’s culture, or just more of the same.