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Christine Berberich. The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature: Englishness and Nostalgia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008). Pp. 1+218. Hardback: £50.00. ISBN 978-0-7546-6126-9.

Given the centrality of the ideal of the gentleman to (self-)definitions of English identity, an examination of the way they inform each other in twentieth-century literary practice has until the publication of the study under review been long overdue. The inextricable ties binding the concept of Englishness to the ideal of aristocratic masculinity render the object of the present enquiry an almost vestigial function. For only in England did the character of ‘gentleman’ forge itself into a national type, acquiring a mythical aura…in national and ‘hypernational’ terms. A modern development of Anglican extraction, gentlemanliness has, for the larger part, formed the province of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies. Premised on the potency of this cultural category in evoking the English difference, Christine Berberich embarks upon an explorative analysis of its avatars as reflected in canonical works of the twentieth century. Organised around the productive dialogue between conceptions of the gentleman figure in gender studies and its depictions in literature, the study engages Englishness and gentlemanhood as literary tropes and as enduring cultural myths. A preliminary section, “The Gentleman, Englishness and Nostalgia: Approaches, Explanations, Definitions” is thus devoted to an ample consideration of the attributes that convey the national, class, gender specific identity of the notion. In a meticulous survey of mentalities from chivalric to Victorian times, Berberich offers a synthetic and telling account of dominant views on the gentleman through the ages. Creating a congenial background for the ensuing textual analyses, Chapter 2, “From Knight to Public-School Boy” brings to the fore a vast array of variegated vistas, understandings and definitions of the gentleman. A comprehensive perspective on the evolution of the category is articulated here, Berberich providing a balanced overview of the shifting absolute and relative criteria, moral and personal codes, inner virtues and outward civilities constitutive of the notion. As well as the sum of norms, clichés, prejudices, and patterns of conformity involving lineage, wealth, codes of honour, manners, upbringing and propriety, conduct, etiquette and religion, the critic looks at the in-built traits that make the ‘natural’ gentleman and the attributes granted by external title. Berberich establishes thus a polarity between gentlemanhood as an inborn or an acquired quality, external title versus inner merit. As part of a panoply of hypostases exemplifying gentlemanhood, moral responsibility, ‘duty before personal interest’ (10), emerges as a timeless shared code, transcending the norms of gentility and ancestry the gentlemanly status originally imbued. Opportunely concluding Part I is a review chapter observing the gentleman motif in literary history. It carries a distinct interpretive weight as it combines aspects of culture history and theory with a view to unpick ‘commenting’ and ‘defining’ characteristics of the gentleman. A sociological framework for the discussion of the imbrications of power discourse and class and gender consciousness is delineated here, a medley of Foucaultian and Raymond Williamsian ideas being brought to bear upon the changing makeup of the notion of the gentleman in modern and contemporary age.

Covering the ground from the historical development of the prototype of English gentleman to the category of gentlemanliness, in Part II of the study, “Of Heroes, Survivors and Dinosaurs: the Gentleman in Twentieth-Century Literature,” Berberich thematises nostalgia and gentlemanliness as dramatised in the writing of Siegfried Sassoon, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Building on the explorations of the gentleman as a cultural and literary ideal in the opening sections of the book, the close readings conducted here contribute an insightful vision of perceptions of gentlemanliness and Englishness. Berberich crystallises a panoramic rendition of the gentlemanly ideal from the ‘sporting’ and pastoral versions, as a ‘relic of chivalry’, ‘seriously repressed by his own ideals’ (160), to the self-deluding individual that fails to move with the times. Challenging the viewing of the gentleman as an endangered or ‘extinct’ species, the chapter illustrates the endurance and continuing relevance of the notion in the twentieth century. A recurrent theme running through the textual analyses is that of Englishness and gentlemanliness as forms of yearning for the past, of cultivated remembrance of bygone grandeur and convenient forgetfulness of present ignobleness.

Adding to the main corpus of authors under scrutiny, the references to John Fowles, Alan Hollinghurst, William Boyd, and Peter Ackroyd, complexify the literary map of Englishness that Berberich traces. Reiterating common misconceptions about Englishness, the above study succeeds in reinforcing the chameleon, versatile quality of Englishness. In lucid and astute interpretations, Berberich foregrounds literary texts as repository of both stereotypical ideas of Englishness and commonalities inherent in the English character. Equally, the book has the merit of marrying structure and content, rigor and empathy, eloquence and systematicity. Its didactic and methodical character recommends it as a suitable coursework bibliography. Further developments of the theme may benefit from an examination of a more markedly religious and spiritual-allegorical dimension of gentlemanliness as embodied in the works of Greene, Golding, Durrell, and perhaps in various traditions of women writers.

abeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca


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