France and the Construction of the Avant-Garde in Britain
Concepts such as ‘nationality’ and the avant-garde need to be handled with caution when they are applied to the history of cultures. They are terms which are frequently used but only infrequently defined. That the values that they suggest, as well as the individuals or groups which they designate, might be subject to change, is an idea rarely entertained. But it seems to be the case that, while the notion of the avant-garde and therefore those allied concepts which define it — the provincial, the metropolitan and the cosmopolitan and so forth — were fairly stable during the last half of the nineteenth century, increasingly during this century they have lost their stability. Historically there is a very strong case for seeing the relationship between the English or British avant-garde and France during the last decades of the nineteenth century in terms of a natural alliance. In the years after 1860 the vanguard of the dominant intellectual, literary and artistic culture of Britain defined itself in terms of a rejection of provincial — that is, basically native — values and (in the term made famous by Matthew Arnold, one of the earliest propagandisers of France in this respect) their accompanying ‘philistinism’; the natural consequence of this refusal of provincialism was the construction of a specific set of values that were exclusively ‘metropolitan’.
KeywordsNineteenth Century National Identity National Culture Literary History Literary Culture
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- 1.Studies of the relationship between individual writers and contemporary French culture in the period I am concerned with are too numerous to list here. The best single general account of attitudes of British writers towards France is still Christophe Campos, The View of France (London: Oxford University Press, 1965). Other relevant general studies includeGoogle Scholar
- Enid Starkie, From Gautier to Eliot (London: Hutchinson, 1960). For a discussion of some of the issues I am concerned with, see alsoGoogle Scholar
- R. Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant Garde (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968).Google Scholar
- 4.Henry James, A Little Tour in France (Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1885) p. 6.Google Scholar
- 7.Letter to Katherine Mansfield, 14 Nov 1919. Quoted in F. A. Lea, The Life of Middleton Murry (London: Methuen, 1960) p. 68.Google Scholar
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