The map on this book’s cover shows a long, curving coastline, interrupted at one point by water and continuing eastward with inlets and islands. The interruption turns out to separate one island from another, with another fairly rugged coast straggling from west to east. Right at the bottom, two peninsulas jut out: these are Kent and East Anglia. The map, rotating the British Isles by ninety degrees, makes them into a stranger entity, which the historian J G A Pocock named ‘the Atlantic archipelago’. A New Zealander by early education, Pocock offered this term back in 1974 as an alternative to ‘British Isles’, a provocative way of rethinking our past at a time when the future seemed to make Britishness problematic. Today, with Northern Ireland transformed, Scotland’s future in question and government pressure for the English to be more English, reimagining our identities is certainly in the air.
John Kerrigan’s rich and remarkable study aims to reorient our understanding of British literary history between Shakespeare and Defoe. Beginning with the theatre of Jacobean London, he moves to Scotland, Ireland and Wales at different points in the seventeenth century, returning at mid-point to the England of Milton and Marvell.