Middle England: Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s Middle England moving from 2010 until 2018 is a state-of-the-nation novel. The lives of a handful of characters are set against a troubled Britain as the country moves towards (and through) Brexit. The main character here is Benjamin Trotter who also appeared in The Rotter’s Club and  The Closed Circle.. While this is a trilogy, Middle England can be read as a standalone novel. When  Middle England opens, Benjamin, now in his fifties, is attending his mother’s funeral. Benjamin is ‘retired’ after making a bundle from selling his London property. He’s moved to a converted watermill in Shropshire, where he lives alone trying to finish his novel. 

Middle England

The novel spans 8 years in Britain’s history: a short time considering all that has gone before, but what a momentous 8 years it’s been. Other main characters include Benjamin’s university lecturer niece, Sophie and her plebeian husband, driving instructor, Ian–a couple who find themselves on opposite sides of the Brexit divide. There’s also Benjamin’s sister Lois who now works in York while her neglected husband remains in Birmingham. Another character is one of Benjamin’s best friends, Doug Anderton, a journalist who writes political op-ed pieces. He appears at Benjamin’s home on the night of the funeral and opens the subject of the political landscape in Britain.  He notes that Britain is “at a crossroads, “ that there’s a large chunk of the population who are unhappy and resentful, and that the political future in Britain is “volatile.” Doug who’s left-wing and married to an embarrassingly wealthy woman feels he’s “just a spectator” who lives in a “cocoon” of privilege. 

I’m just a spectator. I live in a house in Chelsea worth millions.  My wife’s family own half of the Home Counties. I don’t know what I’m talking about. And it shows up in my writing. Of course it does.

This theme, of being out of touch with the undercurrents of British society, “the sense of simmering injustice,”  runs though the novel. While Doug grasps that politically, Britain is facing change, just what that change will be seems to catch everyone (the politicians especially) off guard. The political scene is presented as it occurs: against the backdrop of life, so we see a timeline of events: the murder of Jo Cox on the news, the rumble of net migration figures. Benjamin, his sister, his niece and his friends are not comfortable with the shifting ‘face’ of Britain. They are upperclass/uppermiddle class. The working class make a slim showing here, and subjects such as Disability Living Allowance and fit-to-work tests are not given a mention–although the Leave promise to send 350,000,000 pounds weekly to the NHS does appear. 

As a novel, Middle England is flawed. The author’s political bias is evident, and while I don’t know quite how you escape that trapdoor when you tackle a subject such as this in a novel, the pro-leave characters are portrayed as rather ignorant repulsive people; the remainers seem stunned and confused (no doubt realistically) by what’s afoot and characters are rather conveniently slotted into “incidents.” The novel is at its strongest (IMO) when characters face an epiphany: such as when Sophie finds herself defending political correctness, publicly, over her husband’s crushed ambitions. This rather interesting scenario is spoiled when later Sophie becomes entangled in an incident involving a transgender student. Would, anyone, after all that is happened, visit the student in hospital? Sophie’s words have already been horrible misinterpreted and twisted once. So that brings me to another question: is the visit logical or does it say something about Sophie’s need to prove that she wasn’t all the things she was accused of.

Middle England is an ambitious novel which attempts to catch the mood of a country as radical changes take place. The novel doesn’t try to present a cogent discussion about immigration or the Brexit decision. Instead it acts as a mirror for the times, and in that sense written from the perspective of characters who are rather privileged, I think it’s a job well done. I watched Brexit from afar. I thought it would happen and it did; I have relatives who live in Britain, Australia, NZ, and Europe, and the latter who left (mainly) due to dissatisfaction with the UK, now are nervous about their future. By taking major political events in a timeline sort-of-way and placing this timeline in the lives of the characters, the novel goes a long way to explaining the mood of residents and an argument for why the Brexit vote passed. In spite of its flaws, I liked the book, and here’s Lisa’s review.

I find myself thinking a lot about the characters who voted to stay in Brexit, who then feel so uncomfortable in their home country that they leave. So on both sides of the Brexit divide, people don’t like what Britain has become. That’s a lot to think about. Finally, loved the Hobbit references which burrowed into the whole Middle Earth/Middle England idea, and the way the Olympics seemed to tap some deep core of patriotism.  

Review Copy

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9 Comments

Filed under Coe Jonathan, Fiction

9 responses to “Middle England: Jonathan Coe

  1. Thanks for the mention:)
    Our two covers are interesting, aren’t they? Mine is nostalgic, in the style of Brian Cook Batsford whereas yours is a photoshopped image ominously proclaiming the way that the symbols that used to unite the UK are now clouded by discord.

  2. I think cover choices are a world in themselves. Sometimes I wonder what were they thinking???

  3. Like you, I was somewhat disappointed with the book for presenting a rather limited view of those years, largely from a comfortable, educated middle class perspective. Social fresco ir certainly is not.

  4. Your thoughts on this novel chime pretty closely with other reviews I’ve seen over the past few months. As you say, it can be tricky for the author to avoid a degree of political bias, especially when the issue is as divisive as this.

    • Marina and Jacqui: There’s a point in one of those 7 up documentaries (one of the later ones–can’t remember which now) when a character defends his privilege. It was something along the lines of it appearing as though everything was handed to him. He said something (paraphrasing very loosely here) about having to work hard for where he was, what he had. I’m not saying he didn’t have to work hard; I’m sure he did, but all I could think of was that doors were opened for him that were slammed in the faces of others. In other words, thanks to his position of privilege, he had no clue, and that wasn’t his fault.
      It’s that sort of thinking that came to me as I read this: there are other attitudes/opinions, which may or may not be wrong, but they exist.

  5. That’s a tricky topic for a book, especially for events so recent (and still ongoing)

    Seeing Brexit from the continent is like watching a bad show.
    At the beginning, I think we were mostly sorry about the outcome of the vote.
    Now, after the way EU citizen are treated, the way UK politicians handle the discussions and the madness, it’s just sadness and a feeling of “let’s get this over with”

  6. I found it disappointing not so much for the political bias as for the feeling that it was schematic, as if he’d made a list of all the potential angles and created a character to represent each. Of course you can do that and it isn’t so obvious if the dynamic of the book overrides it, but I didn’t think that was the case here.

  7. I really enjoyed this book – I really didn’t care about Coe’s own bias, but then I’ve read nearly everything he’s written. He set out to explore Middle England as he saw it, refracted in our turbulent times. There was a distinct thread of, as Pink Floyd put it “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” running through the book, but periodically, it flew – such as everyone’s reactions to the Olympics. I loved the feuding children’s entertainers, and the Whitehall spin doctor. There were some great characters in there among the stock ones.

  8. I’m a bit tired of the whole topic, to be honest. And have t heard of any good recent state-of-the nation novel. They all seem biased. Would be interesting to read a leaver’s perspective. That said, I love Jonathan Coe so might get to this one sooner or later anyway.

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