SNF-Project 'British Literary and Cultural Discourses of Europe'

Prof. Ina Habermann, Centre of Competence Cultural Topographies / Department of English, University of Basel

Time: 01.01.2014 – 31.12.2016


3 PhD Research Grants

We are offering 3 PhD positions, starting January 1, 2014.

Apart from the work on individual projects, there will be regular colloquia with the project team and conferences with network partners. Prospective graduate students will receive a three-year grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation; they will need to become members of the “Doktoratsprogramm Literaturwissenschaft” at the University of Basel and will be supervised by Prof. Ina Habermann.

Successful candidates must have an excellent MA in English or equivalent. In order to apply, please send a CV with copies of your diploma, a letter of motivation and a writing sample (for example a chapter of your MA-thesis of 15 to 30 pages) to Prof. Ina Habermann  until November 17, 2013.


Project Summary

This project analyses twentieth-century British literary and cultural discourses of Europe. In the present crisis of the Euro, we seek to contribute to a better understanding of how contemporary notions of Europe have been shaped. Since Britain finds itself, and has placed itself, on the margins of Europe, it will be highly instructive to study British projections of Europe over time and in various types of writing as well as in institutional discourses. The project was developed within the framework of the Centre of Competence Cultural Topographies at the University of Basel. The Centre’s research focuses on ‘boundaries of Europe’, both geographical, and imagined or discursive. While important work at the Centre is concerned with the Eastern boundaries of Europe, the present project looks towards the Western margins, asking about the various ‘Europes’ that have been constructed in Britain, both in terms of participation as well as in processes of othering. The focus will be on cultural and particularly on literary discourses, which are multi-layered and at times self-reflexive, thus offering a representative basis for an analysis of complex cultural identities.

Even though we are concerned with, and about, the contemporary situation, we suggest that it can only be understood adequately by taking a longer view, beginning after the great chasm of World War I and taking into account the interwar period and the build-up to World War II, the War itself as well as the Cold War period, and post-reunification Europe. This time frame of roughly ninety years, or three generations, corresponds to Jan and Aleida Assmann’s notion of the contemporary, shaped by “communicative memory”, a “synchronic memory-space” (J. Assmann 2006: 8) defined by a specific relation between personal communication and representation through media as well as cultural artefacts (such as letters, photographs etc.).

Our project is divided into three PhD research projects. In selecting these, we focussed on literary and cultural discourses which transcend the boundaries of the nation state rather than on bilateral relations between Britain and other European nations. In order to ensure a coherent approach and representative results, our point of departure is the British Council as a representative cultural institution, and we will look at the images and discourses of Europe on which the Council has based its policies and activities. Related to this, two ‘cultural topographies’ have been selected which appear to be particularly resonant with regard to European discourses: the chiastic construction of East and West in Britain’s image of Europe (“Europe East and West: Literary Negotiations of a Blurry Borderline”), and the South of Europe as defined by the Mediterranean Sea (“South: Between the Pillars of Hercules and the Hellespont”).

Links between these projects are manifold – they are historical, conceptual and topographical as well as topological, both in terms of geo-political constellations which structure the perception of Europe, and in terms of personal networks of relations, featuring such figures as Lawrence Durrell, poet, author of fiction and travel writer, who worked for the British Council and the Foreign Office in various capacities during World War II and the Cold War period and wrote extensively about Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. In terms of the relevance of our inquiry, we do not propose to conduct an empirical analysis of collective opinions, but we maintain that the imagery used and the views expressed in fiction and various forms of popular writing offer an adequate and representative reflection of the cultural imaginary of the nation, and of the important issues at stake. We hope to contribute to a more thorough understanding of Britain’s position towards a Europe where the ‘British stranger’ (Wall 2008) has taken residence, and we also feel that we are ideally placed to undertake such an investigation in Switzerland, a country that shares Britain’s marginality with regard to Europe and thus provides the instructive and in some respects privileged view of the stranger within.


Sub-Project I: Projecting Britain to Europe: the British Council

This sub-project is concerned with the notions of Europe which have informed the British Council’s European activities. The British Council, a British public body devoted to the promotion of cultural relations, ‘cultural diplomacy’ or ‘cultural propaganda’, was founded in 1934 as the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries and was granted a royal charter in 1940. Today the Council defines itself as a major international organisation promoting international relations, present in dozens of countries and cooperating with a large network of partner organisations. Despite reluctance to use the term now, the projection of Britain still appears to be a major aim of the Council, in line with the Government’s notion of ‘British Soft Power’, the emphasis having shifted to global players other than Europe, which also shows in the much-reduced presence of the Council in European countries, especially in the North and West.

While a study of 1920s and 1930s travel writing provides a cultural and historical context for the Council’s foundation, and its role in wartime propaganda needs to be attended to, particular attention should be given in this sub-project to the Council’s Home Division during World War II, which made it its business to befriend the refugees from Europe with the aim to make them go home to their countries after the War with a good impression of Britain. The impact of the presence of so many Continental Europeans in Britain on British perceptions of Europe needs to be studied further, in dialogue with the impressions that the many unofficial British (Council) ambassadors – writers, politicians, intellectuals, and academics – took away from their extended travels in Europe, especially the South-East, which would not have been a mainstream holiday destination.

After a process of preliminary reading (2-3 months), research should start with a collection of archival material which should take approximately three months, looking for example at the records of the tours Lord Lloyd took in the Near East in the late 1930s in order to identify the need for Council activities, as well as the records of several sub-committees such as the Lectures Committee, the Fine Arts Committee, the Music Committee, and the Books and Periodicals Committee, run by the poet Laureate John Masefield and the publisher Stanley Unwin, thence moving on to the records of the Home Division. The first year will be taken up with collecting, selecting and reading the material, followed in the second year by the composition of draft chapters. It would be helpful if the graduate student to undertake this project had also studied history, although this is not essential. Adjustments to the project design according to personal preferences can of course be made.


Sub-Project II:Europe East and West: Literary Negotiations of a Blurry Borderline

This sub-project investigates British representations of Eastern Europe and their meaning in the context of Western identity construction. A more or less vague and imaginary ‘Eastern Europe’ has long been popular as a setting for British literature, the best known examples including Dracula’s Transylvania as well as ‘Ruritania’, providing a setting for popular romance in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Goldsworthy 1998). These are expressions of a mind-set, to be investigated in more detail, which has been characterized as ‘balkanism’ (Todorova 1997, Hammond 2010; see also Wolff 1994).

The graduate student will look at the work of British writers who travelled in ‘Eastern Europe’, often on the initiative of the British Council, to analyse the ‘Europes of the mind’ which they created out of a mixture of preconceptions, literary tropes and experiences. Supported by our research on the British Council’s Home Division (see Sub-Project I), this will be contrasted with the output of Continental European immigrants to Britain, famous examples being George Mikes’s How to be an Alien (1946) or the work of Arthur Koestler, in order to highlight the contribution of Eastern European authors to negotiations of British identity. It will be fascinating to discover how the dominant discourses of the 1930s and 1940s compare, across the gap of the Cold War, with recent developments, given the attention that British writers paid to the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s and the wealth of literary, dramatic and other representations of Eastern Europeans which accompany the recent influx of these immigrants to Britain and Ireland (Korte et al. 2010).

While fictions of the ‘James Bond’-type can be seen as popularisations of a Cold War mind-set, we will ask which British fictions may today be taken to epitomize Britain’s negotiation of the Eastern European Other. Has the EU now taken over the role of the totalitarian enemy who must be defeated by British individualist liberalism? Texts to be considered include recent contributions to the spy novel genre such as John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor (2010), as well as Tim Parks’s Europa (1998) and Nicholas Shakespeare’s Snowleg (2004). After preliminary reading about balkanism and travel writing (2-3 months), attention should first be given to the travel writing of the interwar period, then moving on, in collaboration with the British Council project, to World War II and the Cold War. Adjustments to the project design according to personal preferences can of course be made.


Sub-Project III: South – Between the Pillars of Hercules and the Hellespont

This sub-project analyses British discourses of Europe focussed on the Mediterranean. While the graduate student will look at fiction which uses the Mediterranean as setting or projected space, the main focus should be on travel writing. It will be crucial to pay close attention to the kinds of European imaginary spaces created, and to the cultural positioning of both writers and implied readers. In this context, the notion of a ‘spirit of a place’ provides a good starting point, since the phrase denotes a potent mixture of topographical experience, sensory perceptions, preconceptions and fantasies which can contribute to an understanding of Europe as a ‘feeling’ or an emotional quality, even where the word itself is not mentioned. This kind of emotional investment can create a feeling of belonging which is as hard to pin down as it is crucial to the construction of identity.

Paul Fussell’s classic work Abroad. British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (1980) will be the starting point for the sub-project as regards the early twentieth century, both because Fussell mentions a wealth of material that should be analysed further and because he makes important points about travel writing and genre, discussing it in terms of essay writing as well as the romance and the quest and thus highlighting its power to shape the cultural imaginary. Authors worth looking at include Norman Douglas (author of the popular classic South Wind, 1917, and many influential travel books), Lawrence Durrell, a distinguished travel writer who worked for British Embassies and the British Council, Rebecca West, who travelled for the British Council and wrote Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote travel accounts of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople and worked for Special Operations Executive in Crete during World War II, Compton Mackenzie, who wrote accounts of his work for British Intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Olivia Manning, author of the Fortunes of War novel series (1960) based on her travels with her husband Reginald Smith, a British Council lecturer.

Regarding contemporary discourses of Southern Europe, the sub-project should consider travel guides such as the DK Eye Witness Guide Europe and the Lonely Planet Guides as well as popular writing (f. ex. Stephen Grady, Gardens of Stone:My Boyhood in the French Resistance, 2013; Gavin James, Ariadne’s Thread, 2011) and literary travel writing, perhaps with an emphasis on Jan Morris’s important work (f. ex. Fifty Years of Europe: an Album, 1997). Middlebrow writing and ‘holiday novels’ will be of crucial importance, since we consider it culturally significant and representative of people’s projections of Southern Europe. In line with the topological approach which forms the basis of our inquiry, the sub-project should also include writing in English from Gibraltar (Mary Chiappe, M.G. Sanchez, Sam Benady; see also Constantine 2009), a place inviting self-conscious reflections about its identity as a South-western European outpost of Britain. The graduate student will read Fussell and other accounts of travel writing (preliminary reading and compilation of bibliography 2-3 months) and then spend the rest of the first year selecting and organizing the material. After a process of selection and structuring in dialogue with the other two sub-projects, the second year will be devoted to exemplary analyses and the composition of draft chapters. Adjustments to the project design according to personal preferences can of course be made.



Assmann, Jan. Religion and Cultural Memory, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006.

Fussell, Paul. Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Goldsworthy, Vesna. Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Hammond, Andrew. British Literature and the Balkans. Themes and Contexts, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

Korte, Barbara, Eva Ulrike Pirker and Sissy Helff (eds.) Facing the East in the West. Images of Eastern Europe in British Literature, Film and Culture, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

Todorova, Maria. Imagining the Balkans, Oxford: OUP, 1997.

Wall, Stephen. A Stranger in Europe. Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair, Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Wolff, Larry. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford: Stanford UP 1994.



Prof. Dr. Ina Habermann

Englisches Seminar
Nadelberg 6
CH-4051 Basel

+41 (0)61 207 27 87