England, England

by Julian Barnes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

Another well-received novel, this one more traditional than Flaubert’s Parrot, England, England deals with the themes of what is authentic, what is unreal or a replica, what the nature of “Englishness” might be, and with the idea that anything can become a commodity, even history. It is an angry satire in three distinct parts. The opening and closing segments deal with Martha Cochran, first as a young girl of promise and later as a beaten-down, tired, disillusioned woman returned through a fablelike set of circumstances to preindustrial England.

The middle section depicts Martha when she is an ambitious manager, working for Sir Jack Pitman, a billionaire who is making one last bid for immortality, having already gained everything he needed in life. He is counting on adding to his fortunes to sate his need for power and wealth. He purchases the Isle of Wight and constructs a theme park, a regional Disneyland that has all the major and cultural attractions of England: Buckingham Palace in half-scale, Robin Hood confined to a single forest (his bad deeds taking a backseat to his good ones), a double-decker bus, a black cab, warm beer, Anne Hathaway’s cottage, Devonshire cream teas, the Manchester United soccer team, the white cliffs of Dover, and the Battle of Britain reenacted at regular intervals. Visitors can go to the Tower of London and stop for shopping and lunch at Harrod’s department store on the top floor.

The park makes inconvenient locales more convenient, with no wasted money, no long-distance travel, no ill-kempt people, streets, or buildings to offend the affluent traveler. It is a place where actors are much gentler than their real counterparts. The featured lunch with Samuel Johnson is scrapped when the actor who depicts Johnson proves to be too closely modeled after the original in a certain boorishness of personality. He smells, has poor table manners, is depressing, irritable, asthmatic, makes fun of participants’ homelands, and sulks.

In constructing this England, the architects need to deconstruct. Pitman’s intent is to create a past that is more palatable to modern tastes by making everything more pleasant, conveniently located, easier to experience. He believes that replicas become more real than the actual thing. People are happy as long as they are never subjected to something they do not already know. The park is more in tune with the conventions of the day, having a well-balanced ethnicity, no gender bias, and no offensive inhabitants. In other words, the replica becomes the real, the preferred history. This is history remade; simulacra takes the place of reality and copies supplant originals.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (March 1, 1999): 1102.

The Economist 348 (October 10, 1998): 89.

Library Journal 124 (April 15, 1999): 142.

National Review 51 (August 30, 1999): 48.

New Statesman 127 (September 11, 1998): 44.

Publishers Weekly 246 (April 12, 1999): 54.

Time 153 (June 14, 1999): 238.

The Times Literary Supplement, August 28, 1998, p. 22.

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