Ginzburg’s book is a sequence of four connected essays which deal with notions of Englishness in the literature of More, early Elizabethan poets, Sterne and RL Stevenson. Each essay is a delicious treat in its own right. Ginzburg is the kind of scholar who relishes the task of uncovering connections that shed light on his subject. Stevenson and Balzac, More and Lucian, Sterne and the arcane dictionary of the 18th c Frenchman, Pierre Bayle. The erudition on display is dazzling, but it’s always there to serve the writer’s thesis, not merely to show off.
Ginzburg’s thesis is that literature and national identity are interwoven, something most people would accept. However, a work of literature would appear to be a rounded thing, whole in itself. Tristam Shandy might be as English as they come, but what Ginzburg does is reveal the influences that helped to shape these seemingly ready-made objects. The book beautifully explores the links between continental and European thought. Hence, perhaps the title. No matter how much the British might seek to view themselves as a self-contained literary world, Ginzburg’s essays demonstrate that this identity is contingent on a broader intellectual context. This might, in the case of the renaissance poets, involve a rejection of continental forms, but even this is part of a binary relationship which evolves out of a common heritage.
This is a slim volume, but each essay has the density of a small, digestible book in itself. There is no better time to explore what it means to talk of “British” anything, and British literature, that foundation stone of identity, in particular. This erudite Italians brief guide is as good as anything I’ve read on the subject.