Praseeda Gopinath, Scarecrows of Chivalry: English Masculinities after Empire.
On 29 April 2014, Country Life magazine, ever the arbiter of an upper-middle-class aspirational lifestyle, announced the launch of its first 'Gentleman of the Year' award. The magazine boldly claims that 'Gentlemanliness is, without a doubt, Britain's most enduring export' and states that, traditionally, it has always been innately understood what the concept means. For Country Life, however, the notion of 'gentlemanliness' needs some 'dusting off to bring it up to date' in line with twenty-first-century society and the magazine's 'gentlemanly commandments': their guide includes such common-sense points as always being on time and considering one's word as one's bond but also some incongruous details such as 'a gentleman makes love on his elbows' or 'a gentleman [never] owns a cat'. Towards the end of the article, the magazine calls for nominations for the 'Gentleman of the Year' award, honouring those men 'in the public eye who embody the spirit of gentlemanliness'. (1) According to Country Life, the notion of the gentleman is still alive and well in British society but needs more publicity --and Praseeda Gopinath's 2013 book Scarecrows of Chivalry: English Masculinities after Empire, dedicated to twentieth- and twenty-first-century manifestations of gentlemanliness in British literature, is thus a timely contribution to the debate.
Gopinath's lively discussion focuses on authors as diverse as Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Philip Larkin, John Wain, Ian Fleming, A.S. Byatt and Barbara Pym. It assesses English masculinities and argues that 'alterations in the ideal of the gentleman, forged in the interstices of metropole and colony, are fundamental to the formation of metropolitan Englishness post-1945' (p. 4). Gopinath states that masculinity throughout the twentieth century was inextricably linked to notions of nationhood as well as a specific Englishness and that 'as the nation changes, so does national masculinity' (p. 7)--points that few would surely take issue with. She contends that the notion of the gentleman is replaced, particularly in the run up to and in the aftermath of the Second World War, by the idea of the 'decent man', an 'Orwellian invention' that was (p. 8), however, firmly based on traditional notions of gentlemanliness--a potentially troubling development as these notions were deeply steeped in Imperial ideology. Gopinath terms this new version of the old gentleman the 'post-gentleman' but points out that this '"new man" is not new, but rather a reconfiguration of the old dominant ideals' (pp. 9-10). Gopinath's aim to be assessing this 'post-gentleman' from a broader and post-colonial angle to remove it from the purely insular and personal assessments that have been done before is ambitious and promises a unique and original contribution to existing scholarship on gentlemanliness. However, in that context her choice of authors seems ambiguous.
A case in point is the chapter dedicated to Evelyn Waugh. Tellingly entitled 'Out of Place: Evelyn Waugh and the Retreating Gentleman', it highlights Waugh's unquestionable engagement with the gentlemanly ideal, focusing largely on his satirical style. Gopinath correctly points out that 'Evelyn Waugh's entire oeuvre--from Decline and Fall (1928) to the epic saga about English involvement in the Second World War, The Sword of Honour Trilogy (1952-61)--explores the demise of the gentleman within the context of dying traditions and changes in the empire' (p. 42). Waugh's early work certainly displays an irreverent and satirical engagement with the traditional gentleman, showing him more often than not as an endearing but simultaneously infuriating, bumbling caricature, often taken advantage of by 'predatory' modern women. Waugh does, indeed, as Gopinath states, show that the 'public school gentleman, for all his virtues, ... is dysfunctional and inadequate in post-World War I England' (p. 45)--a fact emphasised by the ensuing close-reading of Waugh's 1937 novel Scoop. While Waugh's early work undoubtedly mocked the traditional gentleman and his place in an increasingly cut-throat world, he abandoned that playful and irreverent tone in his later work: A Handful of Dust of 1934 already shows a move towards the more serious and nostalgic while Brideshead Revisited of 1945 demonstrates a clear shift towards the more elegiac, mournful and certainly reactionary Waugh, who uncritically bemoaned the demise of the traditional gentleman ideal at the expense of what he spitefully and snobbishly termed 'the Common Man'. As a reader, then, one has to wonder what this discussion of Waugh's early work actually contributes to Gopinath's overarching argument about the 'post-gentleman'--Waugh certainly does not offer alternatives or new approaches to gentlemanliness. Instead, his character Guy Crouchback in the Sword of Honour trilogy clearly shows that Waugh's views in the later stages of his career were firmly entrenched in an old-fashioned worldview that condemned modernity and its upcoming new men. From Waugh's perspective, the age of the 'post-gentleman' had certainly arrived--but, different to Gopinath, he would have understood the term to be one signalling the resounding end of all gentlemanliness.
The following chapters on Orwell, Wain, Fleming, Byatt and Pym work more towards establishing what this new post-gentlemanly gentlemanliness should entail and Orwell is certainly a good case study to show that values such as common sense, decency and fair play are not limited to the upper classes. However, statements such as 'in reinventing himself as George Orwell, he abstracted the ideals of gentlemanliness from its middle- and upper-middle-class moorings and remade them into those of the ordinary, decent Englishman, who was apparently classless but grounded in the heteronormative traditions of Englishness' (p. 67) need to be taken with a pinch of salt. What Orwell did was certainly not new, given that those very ideas had in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries already been 'abstracted' from their originally purely upper-class context to be adopted but, importantly, also adapted by the rising middle classes. Historically, the notion of gentlemanliness has consequently transcended class boundaries, as nineteenth-century 'nature versus nurture' debates also evidence. In this context it should also be remembered that, despite his careful self-fashioning as a man of the people, Orwell himself was, quite firmly, middle class, having enjoyed a privileged education at the country's most prestigious public school.
At the end of her study, Gopinath concludes that her book has 'examined literary iterations of the simultaneous disintegration and mutation of the gentlemanly ideal in the immediate post-war period as the imperial nation redefined and rediscovered itself' (p. 205). This sentence sums up the potential problem with the book overall--the problem to turn this 'simultaneous disintegration and mutation' into a consistent and original argument. The ideal of the gentleman, as has been argued elsewhere, has over the centuries been adopted, changed and amended. It is this very adaptability that has ensured its survival. Nevertheless, Gopinath's epilogue, which focuses on the imperial Indian gentleman, offers a tantalising glimpse of a future original contribution to work on gentlemanliness that really will transcend the boundaries of the purely personal and insular.
University of Portsmouth
(1) See http://www.countrylife.co.uk/countryside/article/532370/Are-you-a-modern-daygentleman-.html.
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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