The Uses of History in Swift's Works

Part 2 of "History and "Englishness" in Graham Swift's Last Orders"

Heike Hartung-Brückner, Institut für Englische Philologie, Freie Universität Berlin

Last Orders is Graham Swift's sixth novel, for which he received the Booker Prize in 1996. It has become obvious that a central concern both of the content and the form of all of his novels is history. History is presented on a seemingly small scale, as personal history which is linked with broader, national and international contexts. And the novels are concerned with history as representation: The narrativization of history is linked with the existential need to tell stories - or one's story - and the different possible ways of telling them.

A look at the various narrators of Swift's previous novels will serve to illustrate this point and will also demonstrate some of the related themes.

The Sweet Shop Owner (1980), Swift's first novel, narrates the last day in the life of the shop-keeper Will Chapman. The narrative focuses on Will's memories, recalling four decades of family history, presented mainly in interior monologue. The event that motivates Will's recollections is a letter by his daughter Dorothy, in which she tells him that she intends to break off all contact with him. The letter states that she has received her inheritance after her mother's death.

Will's confrontation with his life-story, with his own past and the people involved in it, is significantly linked with the letter that shocks him into awareness. Similarly, the attempts of Swift's other narrators to analyse and explain their own histories are linked with experiences of crisis, of loss, or of change.

Will Chapman's look back on his past reveals the overwhelming and paralyzing force of daily routines and patterns in his life. Here, history is presented in its fossilizing aspects. By contrast, Prentis's concern with his father's history in Shuttlecock (1982) leads him back to the problems of his own life and to his present. Here, history is seen in its therapeutic aspects. Prentis works in a police archive for dead crimes in London, where he encounters documents that question the image he has built of his father as a war hero. Since the father has retreated into silence after a nervous breakdown, which has left him the long-time patient of a psychiatric ward, Prentis compares the documents with his father's memoir, entitled "Shuttlecock: The Story of a Secret Agent". His growing obsession with this historical research is gradually transformed into a search for his own identity. He finally embraces the ambiguities of history when he destroys a secret file that is supposed to clarify whether his father was a hero or a coward.

The recurring concern with a reconstruction of family history highlights the longing for continuity and communication between the generations and the sexes, both of which relationships are presented as contested, problematical, or even impossible.

Again, in Waterland (1983), the point of departure for story-telling and the presentation of history is one of personal crisis: Tom Crick, a history teacher in London, is involved in a scandal leading to his imminent early retirement, since his wife has "stolen" a baby from a local supermarket. Crick reconstructs what has gone wrong in their common histories, excavating and presenting in the process a history of the Fens and of his family from the 17th century to the second world war to his pupils.

While Waterland performs a variety of modes of the presentation of history, - from oral story-telling to narrative and structural history - Out of this World (1988) moves on to the visual medium of photography. The two narrators of this novel - Harry and Sophie, father and daughter - reflect on different aspects of their respective lives without communicating with each other. Both narratives are motivated by the same traumatic event - by the violent death of Robert Beech, Harry's father and Sophie's grandfather, who - as a representative of the war industry - became the victim of a bomb attempt. Both Harry and Sophie witness the explosion, which becomes a turning point in their lives. Harry Beech, a well known war photographer who quits his job after the event, addresses his recollections to the persons absent from his life - his daughter Sophie, his father and his wife, both of whom are dead. Sophie, who has moved to America with her husband after the assassination, tells her story to her analyst, which revolves - like Harry's - around absences: around the violent death of her grandfather and around the absence of both her mother - who died in her early childhood - and her father. In both narratives the effects of photography on the perception and presentation of history are repeatedly discussed, and the traumatic effects of events and their photographic representation are juxtaposed with the structure of memory, and the need for and the uses of its narration.

Ever After (1992) again presents a narrator who self-consciously links the telling of his story with history. Bill Unwin, a literary historian, edits the diary of a distant relative, the Victorian Matthew Pearce. Matthew's religious doubts are paralleled by Bill's crisis of identity. Again, the concern with and the narrating of history is connected with critical events and fulfills a therapeutic function: Bill has lost his wife and his sense of identity - his story opens with a recollection of his failed attempt at suicide.

This outline shows that in Swift`s narrators the two contradictory forces I described at the beginning can be seen as operating in a paradoxical synthesis. The awareness of historical forces, in their complexity and diversity, is linked in Swift's novels with experiences of crisis, with a loss of unity.

History and "Englishness" in Graham Swift's Last Orders


Swift, G.: The Sweet Shop Owner. London 1980

Swift, G.: Shuttlecock. London 1981

Swift, G.: Waterland. London 1983

Swift, G.: Out of This World. London 1988

Swift, G.: Ever After. London 1992

Swift, G.: Last Orders. London 1996

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Swift OV Last Orders Overview