• Kendra Fields

You Should've Bought a Cane, George: How the Umbrella Fails to Make George an EnglishMAN

Updated: Feb 22

I know what you are thinking: I don't remember George having an umbrella in Julian Barnes' Arthur and George. In fact, George's umbrella is mentioned just once in Part One of the novel. Barnes writes, "[George] has a respectable moustache, a briefcase, a modest fob chain, and his bowler has been augmented by a straw hat for summer use. He also has an umbrella. He is rather proud of this last possession, often taking it with him in defiance of the barometer" (102). Doesn't it seem strange that out of all his listed possessions that he is most proud of his umbrella? So proud of it that he takes it with him even if there is no rain? For George, then, the umbrella somehow helps his appearance (since he is not using it for a practical purpose). Reading the novel, George is quite concerned with appearing as the Englishman that he is. So why does he think that an umbrella would accomplish securing him an Englishman appearance? We must first took a look at the history of umbrellas to try to find that answer.

Here is a link about the history of umbrellas:

Here is a summary of the article: The umbrella ventured its way into the United Kingdom back in the early 1600's when the Portuguese bride Catharine of Braganza brought her parasol with her to block the sun, thus starting the Restoration Period trend of women copying her. However, women started to use their mobile coverings to also block the rain (probably because they lived in the United Kingdom and all it does there is rain). For about 150 years, the umbrella was used primarily by women and thus seen as an "effeminate" object. But then in the 1750's, Frenchmen started using umbrellas as well. The Englishmen, however, refused to partake in umbrellas until Dr. John Jamieson bought an umbrella in Paris sometime in the 1780's and started using it when he returned back to the United Kingdom. The umbrella trend really didn't gain popularity by both sexes until the later 1700's when umbrellas became smaller and less dangerous (apparently people had tried using umbrellas as parachutes, they were that large. The superstition of opening an umbrella indoors also comes from the initial size. People were breaking their windows opening them inside their house-hence the bad luck).

While using an umbrella would not necessarily emasculate George (since men would have been using umbrellas pretty widely during his time period), umbrellas still had some controversy and certain connotations in 19th century print culture. In her article "Awkward Appendages: Comic Umbrellas in Nineteenth-Century Print Culture," Maria Damkjaer examines how Victorians wrote about/portrayed umbrellas. Using her observations on Nineteenth-Century print culture, I shall explain why George should've bought a cane instead of a ridiculous umbrella if he wanted to appear as an Englishman.

But first, here is a couple visuals of "proper" Victorian attire:

Above is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a very respectable top hat and cane (not an umbrella). It's safe to assume Sir Arthur as the epitome of an Englishmen considering how George reflects how he "regards Sir Arthur as a very official Englishman indeed: his name, his manner, his fame, his air of being absolutely at ease in this grand hotel" (303). Therefore, comparing George's appearance to Sir Arthur is a comparison of who "fakes" being English the best.

Let's be honest. When you think of Victorian English men fashion, you think of Mr. Peanut or the Monopoly Man, both complete with a top hat and a cane. This common conception of what Victorian Englishmen looked like (with a top hat and CANE) could not be so well-known if it was not the popular trend during the time period.

Now that we have the picture of a "proper" Englishman, let's jump back into Damkjaer's article about umbrellas in Victorian print culture and how her observations endorse my thoughts that George shouldn't have carried his umbrella.

-umbrellas were often depicted and treated as unruly sexual symbols. Damkjaer asserts, "Like male genitalia, umbrellas are an extension of the body that potentially extend too far-both are awkward appendages" (476). If George wants to assert himself as a man, an umbrella would apparently be the perfect Victorian symbol for his manhood. In this sense, George carrying around his umbrella is a display of his status as a man, him asserting his masculinity. However, Damkjaer calls an umbrella "awkward," meaning that it just doesn't work right. No matter what you do, umbrellas are awkward. So picking such an awkward symbol his masculinity is George's first mistake. Also, notice how umbrellas can overextend. Considering how much of an outcast George is, I don't think it would be very hard for him to "overextend" and insult people by appearing as an Englishman (even though he is an Englishman).

-Her article sets out to show how umbrellas do not function as an individual identifier but rather a "signifier of a binary: to be, or not to be, a democratic subject" (477). So here I would place George trying to fit in as an Englishman. Umbrellas often hide their owners, thus making them indistinguishable from each other. It's apparent George thinks an umbrella will help him "blend in" to the English culture, but it doesn't really work because umbrellas are, as previously stated, awkward.

-umbrellas are often very unpredictable. For example, they have a habit of turning inside out in wind (see painting at the top). Damkjaer states,

"[Umbrellas] are emblems of reversals in fortune, and they seem to have an uncanny knack for timing" (478). If you look at the placement in the novel, this passage of George boosting about his prized possession precedes his downfall. The next George entry after his umbrella, the horrible letters start again, which then leads to a greater division between George and society, which then leads to his wrongful imprisonment. I'm not saying he was imprisoned for owning an umbrella; I am merely stating that his umbrella does indeed foreshadow his bad fortune.

In short, the umbrella fails in making George an Englishman. It does not gain him respect. It does not help him blend into society. He is still an outlier. He is still targeted. However, I would venture to say that George IS a Victorian umbrella. He is awkward. He doesn't fit in no matter what he does or how hard he tries. He becomes the signifier of what it means to not be a democratic subject. He does have a reversal of fortune. He does have a knack of timing (he keeps account of the train times and also mentions that rhythmic time cycles in prison). George is an awkward appendage that these Englishmen do not know what to do with except to stuff him in a closet (my metaphor for prison).

Here is a link to Damkjaer's article for your own pleasure:

Barnes, Julian. Arthur and George. Vintage 2006.

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