Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





Postmodern pastoral: resisting (en)closure of rural representation

Martin Conboy,
Surrey Institute of Art & Design University College

In this paper I intend to use Adam Thorpe’s novel Ulverton (Thorpe, 1994) to explore aspects of contemporary England through its relationship to its rural past. In doing this, I will pay special attention to the pastoral as both a style and a narration of the European sense of belonging and place. In this way, an exploration of literary mode becomes at the same time an investigation of what remains a specific epistemological aspect of the European experience.

Ulverton is a novel divided into twelve chapters. Each of the chapters is narrated within a particular historical setting. The first, set in 1650, deals with the return of a farmer from the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. The last is set in 1988. In between, we are randomly deposited in a variety of times, 1689, 1712, 1743, 1775, 1803, 1830, 1859, 1887, 1914, 1953 and experience a random variety of genre and dialect. Epistolary, folk tale, sermon, art criticism, television documentary script, diary. The novel opens with the return of a farmer to his land and ends with the sound of shepherds’ pipes on a TV documentary script. Throughout, it is largely framed by the devices and traditions of the pastoral.

The pastoral as a mode of writing, according to Ettin, denotes, ‘...like the terms tragedy and comedy... experiences and ideas that are permanent parts of our thinking and writing.’ (Ettin, 1984: 1) It is, moreover, a particularly European mode of writing. Its key elements are identifiable in Homer, first specifically co-ordinated in Theocritus in the 3rd Century BC, through the Eclogues of Virgil to the European Renaissance. Its English genealogy runs from Piers Ploughman through the Elizabethan poets to the nineteenth century English appropriations of Mitford, Cobbett and Tennyson.

There has always been a strong sense of national and territorial associated with the pastoral. As nation states grew to be the rationalised framework for the political organisation of Europe, they depended to a large degree on the ways in which the structures of the state could draw upon appeals to a rural past and notions of authenticity based on the confluence of origin and place. This necessitated an engagement with the pastoral as a factor in the ‘style in which the community was imagined’. (Anderson, 1986: 27)

Tom Nairn has commented that we must now learn to live with nationalism as an inevitable consequence of the political and economic changes of the last decade. (Nairn, 1995: 16) If this is so, Ulverton may allow a problematised reading of this inevitability, even a post-nationalist sensibility which retains an appreciation of the role of place in informing notions of identity.

At first glance, it might appear that the terms traditionally associated with the pastoral – escapism, nostalgia, utopian, essentialist – reflect a symbolic landscape of origin, inscribed in the dominant belief systems in the discourses of Europe ranging from Eden to the rural scene of national and ethnic genesis. Yet the fact that the natural world, foregrounded in the pastoral, remains a social construction would seem to always have the potential to undermine any attempt to construct a sublime encounter with the concept of an irretrievable yet dominant sense of the rural past, as a defining moment of an essential identity.

This is as true in classical models as in the contemporary. As Putnam points out: ‘In Theocritus the city still represents civilization and society complements rather than challenges nature.’ (Putnam, 1970: 5) He is also clear on the structural aspect of the city in constructing classical spaces for pastoral reverie: ‘As the responsibilities of empire grew, the countryside came more and more to symbolize simplicity and other evaporating virtues of a once essentially agricultural populace.’ (Putnam, 1970: 7)

As Helsinger insists in opening up the rural space of the pastoral in nineteenth-century English literature, for the investigation of the construction of specific nationalisms: ‘Rural scenes are instead the site of a contest for possession and definition of the country – in both local and national senses. Conflicting meanings of the land are invoked in a struggle for political representation.’ (Helsinger, 1997: 7)

Although this potential is clearly immanent in the construction of pastoral space in literature, the exploration of the tensions implicit within it has not always been foregrounded. On the contrary, ignoring it is a strategy which facilitates a closure of debate around the twin issues of territory and subjectivity as if one literally grew out of the other, and as if literature could supply both the narrative and descriptive

The political thrust of this paper is implicit in its appropriation of the term postmodern in terms of contestation employed by Diana Coole when she writes of it and its relationship to rationalism playing: ‘... along its boundary ...to destabilize without replacing ... It is the subversive thrust of this process which renders postmodernism political...' (Coole, 1996: 237-8) Therefore, my use of the term postmodern is intended to signal firstly, a departure from the collusion of modernity and the nation, which draw so intrinsically on the necessity for a rural power base for their ideology. Secondly, to situate the postmodern as a crisis of modernity in a positive engagement which seeks to investigate rather than simply celebrate its incongruities in an apolitical fashion.

According to Scott Lash, postmodernism can be characterised by referent and signifiers invading each other’s space. (Lash, 1990: 12) In the case of fiction such as Ulverton, a case can be made that it conforms to this pattern by exploring the specific ways in which the process of bi-lateral invasion unfolds in the representation of a pastoral narrative of the rural past of a particular fictionalised place in a particular country. The place and its representation become problematised. I will therefore define the novel as a postmodern pastoral since this description will enable me to highlight the radical destabilising ways in which the novel contests traditional aspects of historiography and place. Such a contestation, I believe, allows an epistemology of place and belonging to emerge which departs from more closed readings of the pastoral which tend to allow discourses of nationalism to flourish..

While appropriating the term postmodern, I do so while reserving the right to remain sceptical of this description of the crisis in modernity. An insistence on the instabilities of this crisis allows any analysis to retain the sense of flux in McHale’s description of the relationship between ontological and epistemological dominants: ‘Intractable epistemological uncertainty becomes at a certain point ontological plurality or instability... the sequence is not linear and unidirectional, but bidirectional and reversible.’ (McHale, 1987: 9-11)

Ulverton is an important piece in this sense as dialogism functions not only at a stylistic level, it also is embedded within the form of the novel itself, allowing voices and truths to emerge in a contestatory and plural fashion. If we concur with McHale (McHale, 1987:4) that postmodernism has no referent, then a postmodern pastoral is doubly divorced from the world of the real in that its location is clearly marked and destabilised by idealisation, irony and incongruity. It does however remain the case that such imaginary constructions have enormous persuasive power over the real, the imaginary power of community expressed as both pedagogy and performance (Bhabha, 1990: 297-302) Ulverton provides an antidote to the closure around terms Ì such as place and identity which discourses of the nation rely upon. In this way it acts as an argument against the rhetoric of essentialism around land, territory and belonging which supplies a progressive postmodernism in that it, ‘problematises the real as image [and] has a divergent effect on identity with a view to creating new communities of identity.’ (Lash, 1990: 33)

Jacobson has argued that the emergence of new structures of poetics is in fact simply a case of a reshuffling of the poetic pack: ‘In the evolution of poetic form it is not so much a question of the disappearance of certain elements and the emergence of others as it is the question of shifts in the mutual relationship among the diverse components of the system, in other words, a question of the shifting dominant.’ (McHale, 1987, 7-8)

According to this model, the strength of Ulverton as a postmodern strategy lies in its ability to restructure that pastoral dominant in such a way that the social complexities of subjectivity and place emerge as dominant over mystical and sublime appropriations of the mode. The postmodern is also destabilising in that it does not allow that shuttling of sensibilities between these poles to stand still and gather a similar anti-aura.

Such postmodern ontologies, in their mutability and irony, allow the fullest exploration of the full range of complexity of the pastoral exploring what Linda Hutcheon writes of as the ‘ironic discontinuity at the heart of continuity’ (Hutcheon, 1989: 11) This has a resonance for the particularly ironies of the pastoral. As Ettin has pointed out:

The pastoral is an ironic form, based on a perceivable distance between the alleged and the implied. It lets us know either that its point of view is significant largely because it contrasts with some other point of view, or that its real subject is something in addition to (or even instead of) its ostensible subject.. (Ettin, 1984 :12)

Viewed in this way, what the pastoral, in its n stalgic-historic mode, allows the reader to do is to confront the past in terms of a Derridean deconstruction which would allow us to view it through an awareness of the historical traces of the language employed. (Derrida, 1976: 62-70) Nation as well as nature can be added to Derrida’s terms placed under the sign of ‘sous rature’ as they function legibly in discourse while redundant as a referent. For all nations are imaginary locations of community and all nature is a social demarcation from another human activity, technology.

One way in which we can excavate that past is through an engagement with its relics in imaginary form. The idyll of pastoral takes on meanings through the sedimentation of opposites, present or implied. Once the multiplicity of these oppositions are foregrounded, as in Ulverton, it becomes a highly suitable vehicle for the transmission of postmodern aesthetics and poetics and, consequently, a means of questioning the arrangement of those oppositions from a politicised perspective .

As the literary site of the pastoral has such a long European tradition, Ulverton structures itself around the well known markers of the genre. At the opening William, an old shepherd proclaims in the language of the Cromwell revolution, ‘Wars are over...The Kingdom of God on Earth is at hand.’ (13) At the very start of the novel, the Christian paradise is evoked by a shepherd. Later, Parson Brazier, with reference to Eden's pastoral origin, announces to his flock: ‘So it was that Adam awoke in the garden ...that very noon...’ (25) But just as we are constantly encountering a landscape as seen from the political and economic point of view as something to be tamed and opposed, so in religious terms this binary of natural and civilised is accentuated, spiritually, as a cloak of despair and madness against which faith and the ministries of the established church can prevail.

The pastoral romance is played out in a variety of contestatory patterns, each indicating the complexities of the relationships represented. Samuel, hard drinking, plain talking rural labourer, speaking to a traveller in his rough and vulgar dialect, offers country to town, poverty to affluence in a flux which defines as much as it contests the rural scene. The subject of his offered transaction is a women for the night. His similes are drawn from his sense of the everyday: ‘Fine good clean country wenches... see she, like a drowned rat,.... do it wi’ a pig if he paid her . In an out more times nor a nag shot out o’ the shafts.’ (129)

In contrast, there is pastoral as a high sentimentalism, rococo ornamentation and the reading of Crébillon fils which plays out its eroticism against the backdrop of the rural scene as a site of ignorance and even imprisonment. As the lady of the story sighs:‘One is so in the rear here – of the mode.’( 83)

In an example of the literary device of the pastoral poem being inserted into a larger literary structure of the novel, she rewrites her lover’s poem to read:

So rears the golden face of this fair house
Through th’unnumbered leaves that trembling start
At your fair hand, when like a vernal breeze
You brush aside their hues, to fleet o’er lawns
Towards umbrageous glades, small cots, and fawns. (92)

When she teases William, her epistolary lover, we can see the structured binaries that create traditional notions of the pastoral and its explicit literary self-consciousness:

No, I cannot think but that London has tempted you from your greener pangs. You would say to me how you dreamed of these simpler charms – of Virgil’s shepherd lads piping on their reeds, and did sing to me once a pastoral song, and that summer night we did gaze upon the swans from my Dressing Room – there was a moon – they had a radiance from their wings that stopped our hearts – O I have writ a poem on that night – and rent it to shreds and cast it on the fire – and writ another – and folded it in my bosom, where it pricks me still.’ (87)

Plumb, the landowner, goes for a hearty country lass to provide him with an heir that his own wife, who cudgels him for his physical desires, cannot provide. Here, the rural setting and its connection with the real labour of the land is as apparent as the pastoral element and differentiates it from the idealised and spiritualised versions:

In the dairy this afternoon, with the door closed, I sought to seed my heir, against a full churn, her hands still ripe with butter, as a ram tups a ewe, but praying all the time I cast. Lord forgive me. A little rain this first week of April. I do not think anyone heard, although the girl’s cries (of pleasure) were hard to silence. We tipped over the churn and I lost, I reckon, a half of our butter.’ (53)

This description proposes a physical pastoral mingling protestant work ethic, property inheritance and sexual desire explicitly played out in the earthy splendour of the pastoral metaphor.

Chapter eight is constructed as a description of a series of photographic plates. At the same time, the diarist reflects on the artifice and incongruities of capturing the real in any medium, particularly with reference to the specificities of place and country. These issues are foregrounded by notes on photographic composition and the difficulties sometimes entailed in smoothing over the creative edges.

These pictures will be employed to create a flattened heritage past in the pubs of the 1980s and in the visual techniques of contemporary television documentary as in the version of the rural past of the specific site of Ulverton in the final chapter. Once again, the text turns the pastoral mode into a set of signifiers arranged to allow a reflection on the complexities of the determinants of specificity with regards to place and time. It calls into question notions of authenticity and the reality of rural representation as a complex set of ideologically contested signifiers.

The pastoral is variously represented through its classical antecedents and lexis or in a more parochial setting:

I glimpsed Cullurne pouring feed into a tin trough. The sheep... were running towards him... The dust hazed him in a copper-coloured aureole as the autumn sun levelled itself through the leaves of the small wood behind. He saw me, and raised his hand in greeting. I thought how clear and simple that life was, how like the ancient shepherds on the slopes of Attica he must look.’ (242)

A further example illustrates how a specifically English pastoral idyll can be readily manufactured classical paradigms to conform to a nationally specific lexicon: ‘May I add my own small reed upon the altar, with this picture, which has as its protagonists not the Illyrian lords and ladies but the rustics of Arden.’ (169)

This same specificity, played off against the classical references, can be counterpoised through the pastoral to the expatriate colonial administrator’s experience of homeland, reconstructed across memories and idealisations. In this, home acts as the antithesis of Empire and can be evoked in all its pragmatic reality: ‘...in the downland heart of our great and glorious Empire - there are no blazing hearts, but only smoke.’ (177)

In ‘Leeward’ we have an indication of the wealth of England and its provenance. Three blacks are reported to have been seen hanging by the roadside as incidental to the main narrative and Leeward himself is flogged and deported for his part in his mistress's adulterous relationship. What makes the lush green of the pastoral available if not the leisure to experiment and to distance oneself from and enjoy the scene provided by the wealth of an economic system deriving its profit from Empire and slavery. It was this key issue, the possibility of the countryside being an idealised, leisured fantasy available to a privileged and materially differentiated gaze which unites and protects that pastoral space in antiquity and gives it its continuity in the imperial context of this chapter.

These elements are available ‘contrapuntally’ in Said’s term (Said, 1994: 59) to bring them from the background into a discomforting consideration of what makes such pastoral fantasies and rural economies possible. They destabilise the fixtures of home and empire, casting both in a glow of self-conscious artifice. Writing of the attractions of Uverton, the colonial administrator claims: ‘We were stricken by love and vowed to make this ‘our’ England on the final return from India.’ (235)

This is a characteriistic dynamic of the expatriot experience. It includes the notion of a final return to one’s source and the idealisation from afar, that Other of Imperial experience, which makes the articulation of an imperial modus operandi possible.

For England is so very gentle compared to the rest of her Empire. That is the England of forest and stream, of meadow and vale and rolling downland. There her soft breath wafts over us, along with the tinkles of sheep and the high thudding bells of the ancient churches, marking a slower time than that of the outer world of power and striving: a slow pulse which seemed to me then, standing on that high place, eternally beating. (216)

This is a fine expression of the sublime potential of the discourse of the pastoral nation and yet it is skilfully undercut at many intersecting levels by the novel’s contradictory discourses which nevertheless continue pradoxically to underline the importance of place as a factor in the assembly of subjectivity.

The final chapter starts with the dawn chorus and finishes with the sound of shepherds’ pipes, bringing the book to as explicitly a pastoral ending as it has had a beginning. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons provides the flattened, postmodern soundtrack – the collapse of the cultural and the economic, high and popular culture and ironically threaded through the documentary of a country building development which seeks a commercial exploitation of the essence and construction of the country as a national asset and retreat. The power of this final chapter lies not in its ability to present us with a present which somehow defiles notions of a tangible, identifiable real of the national rural past but that it subverts the notion that any representation of that past is closed. In many ways, this chapter narrates in the contemporary realist form of the documentary yet another variation of the commercial appropriation of the land this time through the figure of a property developer.

Ulverton clearly places itself by reference and practice within a pastoral tradition of European literature. It includes all the recognisable characteristics of the mode. Where it differs is in its refusal to return to any sense of origin which is a foundation of the pastoral tradition on which it draws. The pastoral mode pulls the actors into the essentialist drama, yet they resist through heteroglossic discord in truly dialogic and disruptive fashions. This novel narrates and dramatises the impossibility of that return or even of that essence as anything other than a retrospectively and self-consciously constructed utopia. However, it is made problematic by the real depth of the land and its ontological challenge – sometimes witty as in casting up corpses from deep history, or, in sublime moments of subjection to the past, as in the opening of the Egyptian burial chambers.

One of the central strategies in achieving this postmodern pastoral is in the deconstructing of the inevitabilities of monologues and the fixities of essential notions of space-time identification.

... in such a state, things are ‘laid’, ‘placed’, ‘arranged’ in sites so very different from one another that it is impssible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all... Heterotopias are disturbing, probably because they secretly undermine language, because they make it impossible to name this and that, because they destroy ‘syntax’ in advance, and not only the syntax with which we construct sentences but also that less apparent syntax which causes words and things (next to and also opposite to one another) to ‘hold together.' (Foucault, 1970: xviii)

In this definition of deconstruction the meaning of pastoral/national is deferred to an open and endless struggle for its meaning, a fight against the closure of this intimacy of belonging, personally and historically, without it being appropriated for the end game of hierarchies and privileging. Ulverton does not ultimately seek to refute the identification with place and country but seeks to stress the multiplicity of identifications which force nationalist rhetoric to take its contested place among other competing dialogues, bending our ears for loyalties based on belonging and place.

Helsinger argues that: ‘The suffusing green glow, the ideological light, that emanates from the conjunction of ‘England’ with the ‘rural’, obscures historic relations and significant local differences that critical social and rural hisorians have begun to clarify. It may also prevent us from recognising the far less central role of territory (despite the continued prominence of the imagery of the land) in late twentieth century ethnic movements.’ (Helsinger, 1997: 9) Words such as ‘England’ and the ‘rural’ can no longer presume a syntactic coherence. Their relationship is disturbed as in Foucault’s heterotopia . This pastoral is only able to draw on the archive as a self-conscious and foregrounded process not as standing for something else, something essential about the nation-space. It thus contributes to that sense of heterotopia.

Another key word undermined in this syntax is that of ‘nation’. Helsinger describes it as, ‘...an audience to be created by histories, poems, and pictures of a disappearing rural life.’ (Helsinger, 1997: 28) In terms of Foucault’s heterotopia, the national audience, idealised in fiction, is the impossible audience, yet for political reasons it must construct itself in certain discourses as self-legitimating and real.

One means of subverting this syntax of the utopian pastoral is employed to great effect in the novel and can best be described in terms of Bakthin’s heteroglossia. (Bakhtin, 1996) This open play of a range of voices prevents the possibility of dominant discourses emerging, th e rough stylistic différence and thematic variety. This means that although styles and approaches do emerge coherently, they emerge and entwine to such effect that they disrupt any possibility of a continuity of identity or interest emerging as triumphant.

Characters travel with greater accumulation of myth, through the novel. Parson Brazier reemerges as ‘old fool he’. (
62) In chapter three Ann Cobbold begins to appear as a fully fledged witch. Samuel relates his drinking yarns in chapter six for an anonymous but wealthy traveller and claims: ‘We don’t forget easy. Recallin don’t get ramshackle, not round here.’ (118)

Nevertheless, he also indicates that in practice, the dialogic nature of recollection and reception means an opening up not a closing down of local lore, the multiplication of local histories rather than the foundation of a solid and singular past.

By chapter four, the tale of the shepherd and his lover which opens the novel can be seen to have wound and mutated its heteroglossic way through the people’s voice:

I asked the maid to entertain me – she told me of the legend here, of a shepherd who made love with a witch, and she bore a boy-lamb, that he reared as his own son, till it went among the flock by mishap – and the shepherd, he being old and deaf, don’t hear its cries and slew his own son, like Isaac might have done! And the old shepherd haunts the crest still, as apparition, calling out... (195)

This heteroglossia also works around the theme of buildings and their use. Samuel talks of the hermitage from a previous chapter and time:

... an that daft hut of her Ladybitch’s, they call a hermitage, as weren’t ramshackle then as ‘tis now, an were lived in by Old Surley, as was in the military, an had a head as was agoggle from the wars, see, but she thought him parfit, an a-dressed him in a long white gown, like out o’ the Scriptures. (128)

The mocking inversion of pretence and artifice also recalls the carnivalesque element of heteroglossia. But it still does not reduce the tale at any point to a monologic view of some distanced and privileged standpoint, even that of inverted glee in the absurdity of the rural monied classes.

The complexities of issues surrounding the breaking of machines and destruction of the hedgerows are taken, through heteroglossic perspectives, subtly beyond the binary of country and city. This becomes obvious in the variety of use of the word 'country' as national site, specific economic practice and the non-urban. This is because economic and cultural power still reside in this dominant class for all the complexities of its dissemination and maintenance:

Such topsy-turviness makes me fear for the Country, as if every weedy word of these inflammatory pamphlets have seeded themselves deep in the fallow hearts of the peasant classes, and by dint of one’s mere presence one ploughs them up willy-nilly to the surface – and thus may be imagined the Harvest to come. (161)

The complexities of national divisions and therefore contesting narratives of the country are not reducible to urban/rural or any other reassuring simplicity. This is reinforced in the portrait of the local squire which draws out the tensions and contradictions in his relationship to the ruling classes of his own country:

Squire in a heat: thunder on the stair, & in the pantry. In the Riots, he was conciliatory – says Wellington is a ruffian, for Wellington made suggestion that the magistrates hunt them down for sport with horsewhips and fowling pieces. If Squire were to have his way, there wd be Prison only for these fellows. His own farm has lost three ploughmen and a pig-man, two of whom might hang and all are certain to be transported – if the Briefs do their work. I say to him the Law, in this case, must act as the Example to some, and be merciful to others (we cannot have 2,000 guilty – our prisons are already stuffed with them, and there will be more agitation). He says, that is not our way: he blames all on the machines – and certain ‘Radical scoundrels’ & France – and mutters darkly against the tithes – and wd against our local Lord, if he was not enamoured of the dark wine up there.’(129)

Nationalism and pastoralism combine in the squire’s recruiting speech indicating, after Renan, (Renan, 1990: 11) that much has to be forgotten in order for a nation to exist:

The first part of his speech was a comfortable rug woven from the fleece of that familiar flock, consisting of Native Spot, Bosom of the Hills, Lord Nelson, Rich and Happy England....The second part of the speech began to snap and flap a little, holding aloft Valour, Enterprise, Sacrifice, Boadicea, Heroic Zeal, and sundry other gilded sentiments, taking their shine from their proximity to Barbarous Foe, Tyrannical Ambition, and The Hun. (226)

In the context of this novel, heteroglossia works to contest liberal discourses around opposition to nationalism as the retired colonial adminitrator celebrates the place of the country worker in the continuity of England, referring to them as possessing: ‘deference as ingrained as the soil in the furrows of their hands.’ (236) This perspective is undercut in turn by the knowledge that the whole story is about the defiance of one man, Percy Cullurne, who wants to ‘Bide at Home’ and not sign up for the war in France.

The returned colonialist also reassures himself in, ‘the ancient practices of our race’ (217) But we see that the practices of the inhabitants of this narrative are far from homogenous and that these practices are always inscribed within heterogenous and conflicting sets of tradition and knowledge. Yet it serves the administrator’s view and allows him to locate himself unproblematically within an idealised nation to which he has returned. He settles into a long view of the traditions within which he is working rather than being aware of the incongruities of his position and experiences.

Yet the threading of other viewpoints and his own apologetic retrospective add a dimension to the chapter which draw our attention once again to the open-ended, contested nature of such discourses. His retrospective narrative of shame only supports the nationalistic discourse which he claims to reflect upon. Wisdom in hindsight can only bolster the intoxicating effects of patriotism which remain discursively fertile only in the present: ‘ The frumpy old lady to my right leaned across in front of me to the cantankerous gent on my left and whispered, ‘Village Idiot!’ To my shame I did not flick her hat off, but merely wrinkled my nose at the stench of napthalene, and emphatically cleared my throat.’ (232)

Percy’s oppositional stance is recalled as the perverse and negative dialogic of the local community. First they use it as rebuke, ‘Bide at Home’ becomes abbreviated to Bidem, and then it dwindles into the forgetfulness of the communal relation first mentioned explicitly by Samuel. In chapter eleven, as Herbert Bradman and his secretary, Violet Nightingale, catalogue England and Ulverton for posterity, Cullerne is referred to: ‘Old Bidem, don’t know his real name.’ (292) This is the downside, the reactionary element of gossip and heteroglossia. It wipes out and contests indiscriminately. Posterity holds no guarantee that the correct version will emerge triumphant. There are always dialogic struggles over the signifiers and values of nation and community.

This dialogism is extended to the relationship of the author, Adam Thorpe, to his own book and the characters and narratives with in it. He returns to his final chapter, not as a powerful, structuring voice but as an additional player in the text and textually as a disruptive and ironic device indicative of the ontological emphasis of McHale’s postmodern poetics. Inserted as a local activist/historian, attempting to alter the curse of his own fiction after the fact, this strategy fits well with Barthes’ description of the status of the Author in his own text: 'It is not that the Author may not ‘come back’ in the Text, in his text, but he then does so as a ‘guest’. If he is a novelist, he is inscribed in the novel like one of his characters, figured in the carpet; no longer privileged, paternal, aletheological, his inscription is ludic.' (Barthes, 1977: 142)

If postmodernism in its apolitical form simply takes the messy fragments from the margins and in idealised form, peoples the centre ground with them, then Ulverton problematises this process to leave us with truths in t he plural, all with their registers of appeal and authority. None is definitively elevated to a position of truth. Yet it does not dispense with the politics and meanings of that literal ground and the series of narratives which emanate from it. In fact, it may be the unspoken, the unnameable of the land which has the last geological laugh:

The ancient White Horse, which lay then shrouded in a tange of bramble on the scarp below us, was but a second old in comparison with the flesh it had once been cut from.The tesserae of the past – Bronze Age, Roman, mediaeval – thrown up by the coulter are as infant toys to the booming venerableness of the chalk that cradles them. And we – who are we to flail and clamour, to batter and slay, when all that surrounds us tells us of our insignificance, of our infinitessimal capacities, of our inevitable anonymity in the eternal reaches of Time. (246)

Like language, traditions surrounding the land are always contested and need a politicised hegemony to effect change. Sometimes this seems to emerge from the enthusiasms of individuals for the machinery developed by society at large, at other times it is displayed as bitterly contentious and fought against. Nevertheless, this geological/mystical view of the land is also threaded through with a materialist perspective which insists that the land has an economic and political context. Thoughout the novel, the land is represented as in economic crisis, always in the midst of some new convulsion. The continuity of rural idyll is fragmented by the evocation of the diversity and disagreement within the pastoral space of the countryside.

Ulverton opens in the gloom of an English February, a soldier reurning to his land from Cromwell’s war in Ireland. If the time of day is a characteristic pastoral one then the mood is, by contrast, one of economic necessity and the hardship of life on the land. Gabby Cobbold, the shepherd, pronounces: ‘You know the farm was broke. Soldiering was how I would set it right.’ (5)

In the chapter three, Plumm provides a tract on his experiments with efficient, enclosure farming, winnowing machines, irrigation pumps, brick outhouses, profits, progress and reason: ‘Pigeons’ dung I have found to be most advantageous on cold land, where the clay makes it spewy underfoot.’ (45) Plumb reflects on the men in his employ: ‘My labourers claim I am making shepherds out of them, although they too have sheep on their commons. They do not fancy the moving of the fences, I fear.’ (48) But he later insists: ‘The advantages of enclosure are obvious therefore, even to the stubbornest commoner.’ (62) This is an emerging dialogue between discourse of tradition, economics and vested property interests: an ideological struggle with the land as sign/referent.

Treating the country as a politicised economic space at the same time as insisting on the power of local myth and narrative allow Ulverton to explore the complexities of place as well as its attractions as an emotional locus. It constructs a pastoral of complexity and indeterminacy preventing any final closure around what a single set of meanings for the English countryside might be. In these ways Ulverton provides what Helsinger descibes as: ‘...ways of understanding the links between land and subjectivity that may contribute to a future reimagining of social identities both local and more than national.’ (Helsinger, 1997: 36-37)

In so far as locality can be opposed to transcendence and universality, the primacy of place in processes identified as postmodern by authors such as Linda Hutcheon, opens significant potential for the pastoral:

Postmodernist discourse – both theoretical and practical – needs the very myths and conventions they contest and reduce; they do not come to term with either order or disorder but question both in terms of each other. The myths and conventions exist for a re ason and postmodernism investigates that reason... If it finds (such) a vision, it questions how in fact it made it. (Hutcheon, 1989:48)

Ulverton enables an engagement with that mutuality and its conditions of possibility. It examines them with regard to the context of the pastoral which is constituted by the rural scene and its inhabitants and discourses and how these discourses can be used and subverted. Such an investigation in the form of the novel enables the textual process of nationalist revision, so dependent on reinvigorated tropes of the rural nation, to be challenged. This revision is one of the paradoxes of contemporary experience, a heightening of local identification in a world of collapsing spaces and distances described by Harvey: ‘The qualities of place stand thereby to be emphasized in the midst of the increasing abstractions of space. The active production of places with special qualities becomes an important stake in spatial competition between localities, cities, religions, and nations.’ (Harvey, 1987: 295)

Ulverton resists this process by offering such a range of voice, dialect and perspective that it denies the primacy of any reading of that history of place. If the city and the nation state were the topoi of the modern, par excellence, then the imaginary landscapes of the past and its discourses of subjectivity and belonging are the location for the fragmention of that modernity. Not, as Samuel argues, in terms of a conservative exploitation of an authentic past: ‘The primary functions of conservation are consolatory, the attempt to recover a lost sense of something indigenous. It creates a theatre of appearances at the very moment when the substance is slipping from our grasp.’ (Samuel, 1989: 1)

This novel employs the substance of language to make the question of what is indigenous a richer, more plural dialogue. Representation and discourse are substituted for œ the locus of the national in such a way that, mediated through the pastoral mode, they allow a post-national debate to emerge which still pays attention to that imagery of place and the politics of belonging which prove to be far from uniform. Ulverton explores the rural to unravel a whole series of possibilities through which to critique notions of a unified or coherent national identity. It uses the discourse of the rural and the resonances of the pastoral tradition to stress the complexities of the authenticity of experience based in the specifics of place and popular memory.

It is a reassessment of the language and space of the nation-state after the Thatcherite attempt at hegemonic closure. There are clearly other representations of England which do not foreground the country and its past. Yet these are rare in contemporary hegemonic fictions despite New Labour’s attempts to revitalise Britain as a country facing the future.

Literary landscapes are often employed to symbolize and restructure nation. Ulverton is a pastoral in retreat from Empire, nation and those narrative and social histories based on them. It is a counter narrative of weight and complexity. The rural is described as a fragmenting, an unfolding sedimentation, not as a distillation of an essence. In this way it is a contribution to redescribing the European tradition of the pastoral within a radical plural context.


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