I have yet to read John Lanchester’s Capital or, indeed, any of his other books, but will probably do so in the next few weeks. However, I was intrigued by the heading to the review of his novel in the Guardian. The online edition merely said Capital by John Lanchester – review. However, the print edition said The Hunt for the Great British Novel. This raises a few points. Firstly, nowhere in Theo Tait’s review does it mention the Great British Novel, either suggesting Capital is the Great British Novel or discussing the concept. Secondly, what it does do is say if you want to read John Lanchester’s great London novel, then read Mr Phillips. I will ignore the sub’s giant leap from Tait’s suggestion of John Lanchester‘s great London novel to the Great British Novel in general but find it interesting that the assumption is that the Great British Novel may well be the Great London Novel (or vice versa). As I will shortly show, this is very much not the case. Thirdly, there is the interesting idea of the Great British Novel. The concept comes, of course, from the Great American Novel, on which I have a relatively long page on my website. The US literary world is moderately obsessed with this idea and it comes up frequently in US literary discourse, most recently after the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as well as the debate on sexism in the litcrit world. Indeed, as my page shows, there are several novels published in the US called The Great American Novel, most famously Philip Roth’s. Further down on my page, I have links to discussions of other Great…Novels but there is none relating to the Great British Novel. If you google the term, you will find a few hits, such as the Guardian’s very brief intro to the idea and a very feeble attempt to have a joint effort to write the Great British Novel, which leads to a now defunct site. But on the whole, we Brits don’t seem too keen on the concept though we have contributed to various best of lists .
So is there a Great British Novel? Firstly, we need to start with the word British. As I mentioned above, saying that the Great British Novel and the Great London Novel are synonymous is wrong not just because many great English novels were written away from and about other regions of England, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish might be even more upset by the idea. So let’s divide the Great British Novel into the Great English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Novels. So let’s start with the Scots. For me, the Scots Quair is the easy winner, though a case could be made for Lanark as well as for Kidnapped, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Waverley (or other Scott novels). My Scotland home page has various lists with suggestions.
Wales is trickier. The two obvious choices are not novels. The Mabinogion is definitely the Welsh classic but it is a collection of legendary tales, not a novel. Under Milk Wood is a radio drama, later made into a film but not a novel. It is, however, the 20th century Welsh classic. While there are a lot of fine Welsh novels, I cannot say that any one is the Great Welsh Novel, not least because the Welsh, like many other nationalities, have been more interested in poetry than prose, as Harri Webb’s poem shows.
Northern Ireland is going to have to go the same route as Wales, as its great novel is not a novel but a legend, namely The Táin Bó Cúalnge (Cattle Raid at Cooley). Some (particularly the Protestants) may argue that this should be associated with the Republic of Ireland but it was very much part of the Ulster Cycle when Ulster played a major role in pre-Protestant, pre-Cromwell history. Apart from that, At Swim Two Birds might be a possibility, as O’Brien was born in what is now Northern Ireland but I am not sure that he would have wanted to be associated with what we now call Northern Ireland. There are other fine novels from Northern Ireland but probably none could be considered the Great Northern Irish Novel.
Which brings us to England. The 20th/21st centuries are singularly lacking in Great Novels. Brideshead Revisited could possibly be a candidate, as could Mrs. Dalloway or Heart of Darkness. I would stake a claim for Crash though I am not sure many would agree. However, it is probably to the 19th century that we should turn for the Great English Novel. While Mrs. Dalloway is set in London, it is hardly a London novel. The same could be said for Crash. The other two certainly are not, set primarily in Oxford/Yorkshire (given that Brideshead is based on Castle Howard) and the Congo, respectively. The best 19th century novels are even less London novels.
You can see what I consider to be the best 19th century English novels as they are in my Best 19th century novels list. Beauchamp’s Career and Vanity Fair are set partially in London and partially elsewhere. Bleak House and the Palliser novels are set in London. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, Lavengro, Middlemarch and Erewhon are not. All have claim to be the Great English Novel but I would be hard pressed to pick one as the Great English Novel.
Part of the issue with Capital is that, because of the current situation, the Great British/English Novel should be about finance and, for that reason, Capital has been put forward. Till I have read it, I will be unable to say for sure but, I suspect, it is no more worthy of the title than A Week in December, Other People’s Money and other recent financial novels. I will probably come back to this topic of the great British/English novel but let me just conclude by saying that a) it is not clear what is, if any, the Great British/English Novel and b) it is certain that, as yet, no 20th or 21st century novel can lay claim to the title.