I hope I mentioned at some point I love lists, because here is another and I’m too bored to write an exciting introduction to lists. They’re neat. Let’s move on.
A List of Quintessentially English Authors I Like For No Earthly Reason:
1) Enid Blyton: Um, yes. She is unabashedly racists, sexist, xenophobic, and simple. Even for a children’s writer, her style borders on laughably limited. Every story she ever wrote has at least one of these things:
- a girl being told she can’t do several things because she is a girl, by boys who are her peers, and her accepting it or at best, rejecting it but only because her helpless struggle against the patriarchy is such an excellent source of humour.
- a disparaging remark being made about foreigners of any and every category
- stereotypes being perpetuated for any and every category of people that are not English, and/or are the lower classes, other races and women.
- straight out declarations of the superiority of the English
- absolute skin crawling racism
BUT I LOVE HER. SO HELP ME GOD.
2) Roald Dahl: Much better. He’s excellent, a very good writer and really comparatively lacking in overt sexism, racism, and classism. But really, you know, all his stories are set in England and feature little English boy and girl protagonists. The whole set up is so alien to anything I ever knew. So it’s really a mystery that I felt so violently in love with his books.
3) Agatha Christie: OK, so you could argue that her books have a universal appeal. The plots are brilliantly intricate and deliciously shocking even today. In a way, her style provides this quaint little window to the past, to this long gone era of little old ladies, war time rations, English manors and manners, and the colonies. All very satisfying. IF you happen to be white, anyway.
But I’m not white. I’m brown. I have no place in this beautiful golden era she describes. I’m not one of ‘us’. I’m the ‘them’. What drew me to her books, yes, were the amazing plots. But why have I gone out of my way to read every single thing she ever wrote? Why have I re-read my favourite Christies multiple times? Why is it that reading her books, including the racism and sexism and classism and god-awful hypocrites reaping the benefits of the blood-soaked tyranny of colonization , make me feel so…nostalgic? It’s nothing to do with me, except in the most distant and negative terms. I could and probably never will be a part of that world. So why is that I love it so? Why is it that I find myself wanting more and more and more from that period, knowing that it’s all just a fantasy that never really existed anyway?
Gah. Hence this stupid list.
4) P.G. Wodehouse: Same period as above, but oh, infinitely more justified in enjoying! For one thing, it’s all parody in his world. No holds barred. Pokes fun at any and every aspect of English livin’. For another, he is a genius. The quality of his writing is nothing short of sublime. And the subject he chose is the perfect instrument to convey that sublime, perfect language.
And yet you know…
I know nothing IRL of what he speaks. What do I know about the people he is making fun of? I’m not in on the joke, not at all. So why am I laughing?
5) Jane Austen: She is so English. Loving Jane Austen is what white girls with English degrees and brains but no curiosity or guts do. So what am I doing, loving her? What does she have to say to me or to my experience in life, that I should love her enough to seriously consider devoting my life to her work? Do you know how much imagination it required, getting into the mindspace of those Bennet girls? Do you know how much I was hurt, when, later, I learnt that it was these same people in these novels who sent their brothers and husbands and fathers to systematically exploit, loot and drain the wealth of my ancestors?
So why is it that I continue to love these authors, none of whom ever paused to consider that a young brown-skinned Indian girl might someday read their work. None of whom thought of how their words might shape her life. None of whom probably could imagine the natives to actually have intellectual and emotional depths, or consider them equal.
The truth is, I got invested in their world. The English idyll: manners, conversation, tea, and a beautiful country day. Honour, courage, drive, and honesty. The lovely, beautiful English language and wealth of English tradition and culture. But this world that I love so much, it isn’t real. It’s a fantasy. A fantasy that was rudely shattered the day I started doing modern history when I was 13. Because the same civilization I so love and want to be a part of, rejected me long before I was born. The manners and the tea and the values and the culture were all created to keep me, and people like me, separate.
Is it possible, for me, to extract the goodness from the horror and thus adore it? Or is the goodness too inextricably tied to the horror: to adore one is to condone the other and commit an unforgivable blasphemy towards my dead, colonized ancestors, not to mention display a perverse kind of masochism?
In any case, I do adore that particular brand of Englishness. In spite of everything and it’s post-colonial cousin, I do. Inexplicable stuff, what?