literature & immigration

Bee's picture
Tue, 04/05/2011 - 12:08 -- Bee

When I am not working or seeing friends I walk around London, for hours and miles every day, listening to recordings of Nancy Mitford books.

It is absolutely true that I moved away from the United States because I wanted to live in a place where everyone has equal access to health care. But why England, specifically, when I could have chosen any country in Europe?

Blame George Orwell. Or any of his peers; from the earliest age I have been enamoured of English literature. I love a disproportionate number of British writers, both famous and obscure, but more significantly, the style, crossing social divide and centuries and somehow remaining solid and. . . of itself. Even Isherwood in Berlin or Hollywood was so particularly British in his eccentricities.

My children share this fascination - from the obvious like Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, and J.K. Rowling to authors less well known in the states like Diana Wynne-Jones and E. Nesbit, we were all Anglophile in our infancy. After 9/11 my household kept P. G. Wodehouse tapes playing on repeat twenty-four hours a day.

One day in the spring of 2004 my thirteen year old daughter was reading the New York Times when she encountered an article describing how the His Dark Materials novels had been translated to "American English" and she started screaming at top volume that she hated hated hated the United States where everyone is so stupid. Her rant encompassed the inadequacies of the education system and the profound horror of war but ranged comprehensively across all manner of social injustice; she has always been such a bright child.

I stood there listening as she continued "I hate this country! I want to move to England!"

Just then the phone rang, and I (for once) picked it up.

Byron was on the line, connecting from Europe with the completely unexpected question "How would you like to move to England?"

I turned to my child, still fulminating and wrathful, and posed the question to her.

She didn't even think about it, just dashed away her tears and said "YES."

I asked "Will you hate me forever if I make your wish come true?" and she said "NO." I asked - "Pinky swear?" and she held our her smallest finger to seal the deal.

Returning to the transatlantic phone call, I gave my consent to the plan, and within five weeks, we flew away.

The younger child, at the somber age of seven, was not consulted and did not approve. Despite a marked tendency to wear suits and bow-ties, he never did settle in the new home. He endured but did not love his Church of England education, playing on the Jesus Green, picnics in Grantchester, choral concerts, boating on the Cam. More than half of his life has been conducted in England but he has the merest trace of a British accent, and that was already present before we arrived, courtesy of the indoctrination of literature.

And in this stalwart refusal to assimilate he is of course more British than American.

Mitford offers a caricature of the three types of expatriate Americans, capturing in her novels of the 1950's exactly what I see, what I am, in 2011. I won't spoil the surprise: you should read the books.

If I had read Love in a Cold Climate before the move it would not have deterred me, but I might have been less surprised by the punishing social regime of the grand old university towns. I might have been slightly more prepared, might have anticipated that I would prefer the consolations of London.

Walking aimlessly I am entranced by new construction, old cemeteries, blue plaques, monuments, parks and plague pits, history underfoot and all around: a city built with haste and determination, bombed and burned and built again, changing every day.