Corinne Fowler on how writers and writing explore the colonial histories of the English countryside.
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Researchers and commentators have long observed that the English countryside embodies influential ideals of Englishness. This history of ideas is driven by literary culture. There are four hundred years of writing by people who lived through different phases of the British Empire. Unsurprisingly, colonial networks, trade, wealth and abuses are recurring themes of English rural writing. Yet the idea that England’s countryside is in any sense “colonial” is strangely alien to us today. Previous generations of writers have linked rural England with colonial activity but, more recently, British Black and British Asian writers have reaffirmed the links between pastoral England and colonial rule.
Sixteenth-century English poets were inspired by ancient Greek and Roman verse, which gave them modes of writing called the pastoral and the georgic. The pastoral features shepherds conversing about work and love, whilst the georgic provides a more practical focus on agriculture – albeit by gentleman farmers or poets, onlookers from the side-lines. A particularly influential text is Idylls (c.316-206 BCE) by Theocritus. This gave us the notion of the rural idyll, the countryside as a place of retreat from the everyday clamour, a place of repose, or where you could pursue gentlemanly leisure activities such as hunting. Another important text is Virgil’s Eclogues, which inspired Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580), characterised by nostalgia for a lost golden age. This, of course, is another theme which we have inherited. The recurring idea of nostalgia was identified, and soundly critiqued, by Raymond Williams in his book The Country and the City (1973). The irony was not lost on Williams, for example, that Arcadia was penned on an estate which was created by evicting the locals and enclosing an entire village.
There are many layers to unpeel. We now know a lot more about the links of such places to colonial activity. We know that influential colonial administrators lived at places like Dyrham Park, near Bristol, and Hardwick Hall, in the Midlands. Many of the people with colonial wealth were changing the countryside’s social order, like MP and banker Alexander Barings of Northington Grange. Such changes are lamented by William Cobbett, in his Rural Rides of the 1820s, where he complains that the trees are too tall on the Barings country estate. There are connections between rural poverty and empire, too. Raymond Williams was interested, back in the 1970s, in the hypocrisy and artifice of the rural idyll. Behind the façade were armies of concealed, and sometimes displaced, workers. Many of the men who owned plantations worked by enslaved Africans also took full advantage of the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, against which there were local riots in protest at the confiscation of common land. The men who owned plantations or were returnee East India Company officials were sometimes the men who restricted people’s access to common land. Rural industries, such as copper mining, were also umbilically connected to the trade in enslaved people on the West African coast. As the book Slave Wales (2010)records, the Welsh copper industry produced copper rods that went by the trade name ‘Negroes’, which were exchanged for human lives along the Bight of Biafra. All in all, it is impossible to think of country estates, agricultural sites or rural mines as strictly local places. They are fundamentally global in nature, connected in all sorts of ways – both typical and unique – to colonial trade and colonial wealth.
England’s writers are no strangers to the countryside’s colonial aspects. It is unsurprising that writers who lived during four centuries of colonial activity habitually explored aspects of the empire. There are the seventeenth-century references to pepper in a poem dedicated to a man who invested in a commercial rival to the East India Company. There is the eighteenth-century play The West Indian, and an early nineteenth-century play, The Nabob, by Samuel Foote. There are the Antiguan sugar plantations of Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), the creole wife in Jane Eyre (1847), and a diamond stolen by an East India Company official in The Moonstone (1868). Meanwhile, as the Austen expert Margaret Doody observes, Austen names many of her most annoying characters after English slave-traders such as ‘Hawkins’, ‘Norris’ and ‘Elton’. Empire was everywhere.
There is a long list of contemporary writers who have taken up the theme of rural England and empire. Among the most prominent are V.S. Naipaul and Grace Nichols, who each explore rural England through the lens of the pastoral writing that they encountered as part of their colonial education: daffodils and rolling hills. There is David Dabydeen’s brilliant deconstruction of a cottage garden and its global origins in his novel Disappearance (2005) and his satirical take on abolitionists’ double standards in A Harlot’s Progress (1999). Recent writing, especially, has turned to historical work for inspiration. There is Caryl Phillip’s novel The Lost Child (2015), which draws from local historical work to imagine that Heathcliff was born of an enslaved African mother. Concentrating on different sites of rural England – villages, country estates and moorlands – these writers have redrawn the lines between empire and rural England.
It is difficult to understand the history of rural England without looking at the literature which has shaped prevailing ideas about the countryside. By opening up the colonial and postcolonial histories of the countryside, we do not merely understand and interrogate our ideas about rural England, but about Englishness itself.
Professor Corinne Fowler leads ‘Colonial Countryside: National Trust Houses Reinterpreted’ and co-edited the National Trust’s 2020 report on its houses’ links to empire. She is author of Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections (Peepal Tree Press, 2020).