resisting (en)closure of rural representation
Surrey Institute of Art & Design University College
In this paper I intend to use Adam Thorpes 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
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 others 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 McHales 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,
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
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:
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)
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 Derridas 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 lovers
poem to read:
rears the golden face of this fair house
Through thunnumbered leaves that trembling start
At your fair hand, when like a vernal breeze
You brush aside their hues, to fleet oer lawns
Towards umbrageous glades, small cots, and fawns. (92)
she teases William, her epistolary lover, we can see the structured binaries
that create traditional notions of the pastoral and its explicit literary
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 Virgils 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)
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:
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 girls cries (of pleasure) were hard to silence.
We tipped over the churn and I lost, I reckon, a half of our butter.
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:
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)
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 administrators
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 Saids
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.
This is a characteriistic dynamic of the expatriot experience. It includes
the notion of a final return to ones source and the idealisation
from afar, that Other of Imperial experience, which makes the articulation
of an imperial modus operandi possible.
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)
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 novels 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. Vivaldis 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,
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
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 Foucaults
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
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 Foucaults 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 Bakthins
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 dont forget easy. Recallin
dont 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 peoples voice:
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, dont 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)
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 Ladybitchs, they call a hermitage, as
werent 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)
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
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 ones mere
presence one ploughs them up willy-nilly to the surface and
thus may be imagined the Harvest to come. (161)
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:
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)
and pastoralism combine in the squires recruiting speech indicating,
after Renan, (Renan, 1990: 11) that much has to be forgotten in order
for a nation to exist:
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)
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 administrators 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)
Percys 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, dont 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 McHales 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:
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)
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 Cromwells 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:
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)
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:
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 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
Labours 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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