‘England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole Island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world’s fleet accompanying her towards eternity?’
Forster’s vision of England ‘lying as a jewel in a silver sea’ is inherited from Shakespeare’s Richard The Second. In a long speech, John of Gaunt presents an exalted vision of England, ‘This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall.’ In using the image of ‘This precious stone,’ Forster is demonstrating the importance of cultural inheritance; he is emphasizing continuity by re-using established cultural sources.
Cultural inheritance is important in any art form. It seems that publishers are looking back to literature from a bygone age to reprint – it will be interesting to know how the sales for ‘The Bloomsbury Group’ will compare with some contemporary authors on their list. Writers already look back to other authors, Ian McEwan looked to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as inspiration for his novel Saturday as he charted one day in London. In fact he went further, into the realms of Matthew Arnold and the belief in the transformative power of culture.
In a time of such economic uncertainty and change this extract from Howards End is extremely poignant as Forster questions who ‘owns’ England. Those who ‘moulded her and made her feared by other lands’ or those who are part of the rich and diverse cultural make up of Britain who are not the politicians or bankers who ‘added to her power’?
Nostalgia has its place but society changes and that is what makes it exciting, as McEwan achieved in Saturday, readers and writers should look back only in order to move forward and explore current issues. With this in mind, I will be reading ‘The Bloomsbury Group’ as well as contemporary fiction which may expose the grittier aspects of the way we live now. As much as I may want to, I can’t bury my head.