Middle England is a “Condition of England” novel, rather as James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still was a “Condition of Scotland” one. It’s a familiar type of novel, dating back to the 1840s at least, to the novels of Disraeli, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens and, later, Trollope. One may think they had it easier than a novelist attempting this sort of thing today. The Victorian novelists had more freedom to invent; they were scarcely even loosely chained to actuality. They could, for instance, give a Prime Minister a fictional name. Dickens could set Hard Times in “Coketown”. Today the novelist – Jonathan Coe in this case – is a prisoner of the Information Age. His fictional characters must respond to real-life events: the general election which led to the Conservative/LibDem coalition and the programme of austerity, the city riots of 2012, the London Olympics, the 2015 election, the 2016 EU referendum. How they respond, what their responses tell us about the Condition of England, this is what must concern the novelist.
Happily, Coe is also a traditional novelist. By this I mean he is interested in character and plot. His principal characters – the middle-aged ones anyway – have been resurrected from The Rotters’ Club, his excellent comic novels of middle-class upbringing, and the first chapter re-introduces them at the funeral of Benjamin Trotter’s mother. This takes place in the weeks before the 2010 election, and Benjamin’s old schoolfriend Doug, a columnist on a paper much like the Guardian, tells him he believes “we’re at a cross-roads… People are so angry just now and nobody knows what to do about it.” The anger will simmer throughout the years that follow, sometimes bursting forth.
Benjamin’s niece, Sophie, is a central figure in the novel. An art historian, aged 27 in 2010, with a gay Sri Lankan academic as her best friend, she is the very model of what will be the self-consciously civilised Remainer. But she makes a surprising marriage, her husband Ian being Birmingham middle-class, a driving instructor and Sunday golfer. When he is injured in the riots and Sophie drives his mother to the hospital, she is horrified to hear her quote Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech with approval. Later, Ian and friends will express their resentment of political correctness – and indeed Sophie will herself fall victim to this when a jocular remark to a transgender student is wilfully misunderstood.
Coe skilfully contrives to keep a balance between the individual stories of his large cast of characters and his general Condition of England themes. There is little doubt where his sympathies lie. One of the few characters to be treated with dislike is another schoolmate of Benjamin’s and Doug’s back in the 1970s, now a very rich man financing what passes as a think-tank but exists principally to funnel cash into the Brexit campaign. At the same time, Coe recognizes that much of the anger at political correctness and the resentment of people who feel no longer at home in their own country aren’t unjustified, can’t simply be swept aside. When Ian will come to tell Sophie how much he resents her assumption of moral superiority, Coe is generous enough to make it clear that he has a point.
Yet when some look back nostalgically to the Seventies as a time when the English were at ease with each other, Coe reminds us of just how divided and in many respects censorious the country was then. Moreover, even individual families have their divisions, resentments and hatreds. Benjamin who, perhaps more than any other character, may be held to speak for the author, has a brother whom he refuses to exchange a word with even at their mother’s funeral. If, as a character reflects, “it was tempting to think, at times like this, that some bizarre hysteria had gripped the British people,” Coe reminds us that individuals and families may likewise fall victim to equally bizarre hysterical moments.
It’s natural to talk about the themes and arguments of a novel like this, but the point must also be made that Middle England is much more than a treatment of public affairs, not a succession of opinion page columns. On the contrary, it has all the human interest which led DH Lawrence to call the novel “the Great Book of Life”. Coe can make you smile, sigh, laugh; he has abundant sympathy for his characters, even those, like Ian’s mother, whose attitudes and opinions may be deplorable to him.
Middle England, by Jonathan Coe, 432pp, Viking, £16.99