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The proletarian answer to the modernist question was not the welfare state. The 1945 political settlement ushered in a period in which neither proletarian literature nor modernism flourished. The hopes of writers such as Mitchison, Gibbon, Lawrence and Woolf for moving beyond patriarchal binary thought were not achieved. The ‘old pastoral’ form of British postwar culture had more in common with the music-hall modernism and Edwardian pastoral of an earlier generation of writers such as Wells, Galsworthy and Ford. Orwell harked back to these models in works like The Road to Wigan Pier and The Lion and the Unicorn. This is not to say that the period covered by the first three or four postwar decades was a ‘bad one to live in’ (Orwell 1998: 102). The positive aspects of this period included the centrality of public representations of workingclass collectivity, which included some space for the expression of working women's desires and agency as expressed in certain popular works of proletarian literature, such as Greenwood's Love on the Dole and Sommerfield's Trouble in Porter Street. The political legacy of that period lies in the various equalities legislation it gave rise to, including the 1970 Equal Pay Act. However, there is also another legacy of that period, which dates back to the proletarian-modernist literature of the late 1930s. The spread of self-reflexivity in the private sphere, as shown in Mass- Observation diaries, was a testament to both the democratising of culture embodied by the public visibility of proletarian literature in the 1930s and the influence of modernist writers, such as Woolf. As Hinton notes, The Common Reader, Orlando and A Room of One's Own were all published by Penguin during the period 1939–45: ‘Virginia Woolf, we might argue, did more to construct modern selfhood than a far more widely read writer like J. B. Priestley, despite the latter's mastery of the means of mass communication’ (Hinton 2008: 219).
In 2017 we have reached a point where the basic features of the welfare state – full employment, paid holidays, family allowances and proper healthcare – are now either gone or under threat.
In February 1935, the month that he died, Gibbon contributed to the discussion in Left Review, on the statement of aims of the Writers International (British Section) – notionally the parent body of the journal – by describing its claims, that English literature and theatre had been decadent for the past twenty years and showed a culture in collapse, as ‘bolshevik blah’: ‘Neither in fiction, sociological writing, biography (to take only three departments) was there work done half so well in any Victorian or Edwardian period of equal length’ (Gibbon 1935: 179). He castigated ‘revolutionary’ writers for not only failing to read their contemporaries but nonetheless still criticising them with ‘bad Marxian patter and the single adjective “bourgeois”’; before adding ‘Not all revolutionary writers (I am a revolutionary writer) are cretins’ (Gibbon 1935: 179). Instead of organising writers into the three categories suggested in the statement of aims – anti-fascists, those expressing the class struggle, and those defending the Soviet Union – he suggested restricting membership of a union of revolutionary writers to those who could prove their work was of literary value and then setting them the task of properly analysing contemporary literature and its constituent movements. Ironically, ten pages further on in the same issue, Gibbon's Grey Granite (1934) was being praised by John Lehmann as ‘an extremely remarkable and courageous attempt’ by a ‘bourgeois intellectual’ to write proletarian literature (Lehmann 1935: 190).
Gibbon was in fact the son of a crofter who identified himself as being of ‘peasant stock’ (Gibbon 2001: 83) but because he was not from the industrial proletariat, a rigid binary perspective would situate him as bourgeois. As an exception to Andy Croft's argument that the term ‘proletarian literature’ was not generally used by communists and their allies by 1935, Lehmann's review is a useful indicator of the persistence of such binary viewpoints, and the confusion they created, on the left following the 1934 Soviet Congress's adoption of the concept of ‘socialist realism’. For he clearly sees the novel as an almost exemplary committed account of the class struggle by a bourgeois writer that appears ‘intensely real and authentic’ (Lehmann 1935: 191).
Some day men will cultivate their happiness in gardens
Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. (Lawrence 1994: 5)
The opening of Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) encapsulates something of the magnitude of the change to consciousness that happened over the early part of the twentieth century even though many tried to carry on as before. Paul Mason cites this passage in connection to the English aristocracy retreating shattered into its stately homes after 1918 as a comparison for the behaviour of the global financial elite after the catastrophe of 2008, equally determined to carry on as before and ignore the fact that the whole global economic system was now on borrowed time (Mason 2015: 258). The defining feature of such tragic/catastrophic situations is that they cannot be negotiated with respect to the past because the problem is precisely that the past order has collapsed beyond salvage. There needs to be a sense of the future to provide a perspective and this is present in Lady Chatterley's Lover in the reconfigured gender and class relations that Lawrence imagines at the end of the novel:
If the men wore scarlet trousers, as I said, they wouldn't think so much of money: if they could dance or hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash. And amuse the women themselves, and be amused by the women. (Lawrence 1994: 299)
Both this passage and Lady Chatterley's Lover itself have been the subject of a fair amount of amusement over the years, which has tended to undermine the radical nature of Lawrence's utopian imagination and the logic of his argument. It is the possibility of this implicitly classless and not-sexually-repressed future that opens up the prospect at the end of the novel of Lady Constance Chatterley being able to live happily in a mutually consensual relationship with ‘her husband's gamekeeper’ Oliver Mellors on a small farm.
In 1940, Virginia Woolf defended the Bloomsbury Group from an accusation of elitism by noting:
I never went to school or college. My father spent perhaps £100 on my education. When I was a young woman I tried to share the fruits of that very imperfect education with the working classes by teaching literature at Morley College; by holding a Womens Cooperative Guild meeting weekly; and, politically by working for the vote…. I did my best to make them [her books] reach a far wider circle than a little private circle of exquisite and cultivated people. And to some extent I succeeded. (Woolf, qtd in Snaith 2000a: 8)
As Anna Snaith suggests, Woolf's confidence in that ‘wider circle’ was probably based on the eighty-two letters she received from readers of Three Guineas (1938), which were eventually collected by Snaith and published in the Woolf Studies Annual. While only three correspondents explicitly identified themselves as working class, and another three said they were from a different class background to Woolf, the letters represented a diverse range of response and proof that working women could get hold of her books through libraries. They also indicate that the arguments of Three Guineas, which were driven by Woolf's own feminist and pacifist concerns, connected with women in society. Eight years earlier, Woolf had written in her introductory letter (dated May 1930) to Margaret Llewelyn Davies's edited collection of the autobiographical experiences of members of the Women's Co-operative Guild, Life as We Have Known It (1931), that:
These voices are beginning only now to emerge from silence into half articulate speech. These lives are still half hidden in profound obscurity. To express even what is expressed here has been a work of labour and difficulty. The writing has been done in kitchens, at odds and ends of leisure, in the midst of distractions and obstacles […] (Woolf 1975: xxxix)
In this letter, Woolf writes an account of her own interaction with the working women of the Guild beginning with her attendance at a Guild Congress in Newcastle in June 1913 and sitting through speech after speech in the knowledge that she was personally untouched and therefore only had an altruistic interest in ‘questions of sanitation and education and wages’.
In Crisis and Criticism, first published in 1937, Alick West identified the question facing modernist writers in the interwar period: ‘When I do not know any longer who are the “we” to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who “I” am either’ (West 1975: 19). This book will argue that much British proletarian literature of the 1930s may be seen as a response to this ‘modernist question’ of the relationship between the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ and took the form, as suggested by West, of an expansion of modernist techniques and scope rather than a rejection of them. In applying his diagnosis specifically to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) at the beginning of his book, West was identifying what we might now term ‘high modernism’ as the symptom of the crisis rather than the solution. The implication is that work such as Eliot's reflected the collapse of relatively stable nineteenthcentury conceptions of the relationship between the individual and society amongst the ongoing crisis of capitalist relations that led to the First World War and the Russian Revolution without being able to free itself of those relations. West goes on to distinguish James Joyce's Ulysses from this critical judgement by arguing that the significance of its stylistic innovation was that it expressed a new realisation that: ‘the individual's world is not within the four walls that protect money, board and bed. His world is his society’ (West 1975: 117). However, from West's communist perspective, the limitation of Joyce's social world was that it ignored production, and the conflicts surrounding it, and consisted only of ‘numberless acts of consuming, spending, enjoying of things that are already there’ (West 1975: 120–1). The goal of the interwar years, according to this reading, was for writers to resolve the problem of how to relate ‘I’ to ‘we’ byextending the modernist trajectory established in the succession from Eliot to Joyce to represent the widest possible range of intersubjective relationships – incorporating individual, class, gender, societal, colonial, media, and mechanised production relationships – characteristic of the modern mass society which became dominant in the West following the First World War.
Ford Madox Ford and the origins of proletarian literature
In ‘The Proletarian Writer’, Orwell argues that proletarian literature ‘started just before the last war, when Ford Madox Ford, the editor of the English Review, met D. H. Lawrence and saw in him the portent of a new class finding expression in literature’ (Orwell 2000a: 295).1 Ford's own account in Portraits from Life (1937), states that he first came across Lawrence through reading the manuscript of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ and realising after the first paragraph that he had a genius who could write about the lives of the other half (see Ford 1987). Max Saunders suggests, following the argument of Lawrence's biographer John Worthen, that in reality they met before this occasion and that it was Ford who suggested to Lawrence that he should write from his knowledge of the mining community when writing ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ and his first play, A Collier's Friday Night: ‘Their subject-matter and use of dialect are almost unprecedented in his oeuvre, but characterize his major subsequent work’ (Saunders 1996: 325). Much could be said about this – not least that Lawrence, like those successful working-class writers who followed him, captured the reality of that experience not by recourse to his own authenticity but by recognising and then fully mapping out the extent of his own differences from working-class life. However, it can also be argued that the origins of what Orwell meant by proletarian literature lie in Ford's writing, itself, independently of Lawrence and it was precisely this already existing tendency which allowed him to ‘discover’ Lawrence.
There is an extraordinary passage in the first chapter of The Soul of London (1905) in which Ford describes how the successful internalisation of the city's ceaseless routine completes the process by which a typical young provincial is transformed into a Londoner: ‘Daily details will have merged as it were into his bodily functions, and will have ceased to distract his attention’ (Ford 2003: 10). London, Ford argues, is experienced unconsciously by its inhabitants: ‘a matter so much more of masses than of individuals’ that ‘it can only be treated as a ground bass, a drone, on top of which one pipes one's own small individual melody’ (Ford 2003: 11). Here, he repeats a metaphor from the book's ‘Introductory’, in which historic London is described as ‘like a constant ground bass beneath the higher notes of the Present’ (Ford 2003: 4).
The everyday consciousness that things could be different
John Sommerfield's May Day (1936) may be considered as the culmination of the trend of proletarian literature, by writers such as Gibbon, Greenwood, Lawrence, Mitchison and Wilkinson, considered so far in this book. One of the key contexts remains the General Strike of 1926 and the central concern is as much with gender relations as those of class. Unlike those other writers, Sommerfield was a communist who went on to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Furthermore, May Day includes relatively extensive scenes set in the factory workplace it is centred around; in contrast, we merely learn in The First Lady Chatterley that Parkin is working in a Steel Mill, we never see inside the factory gates in Grey Granite, and although we hear about Harry Hardcastle's joy at becoming a lathe operator, little action is set inside the factory in Love on the Dole. In this respect, the depiction of active class struggle in May Day represents an intensification of the conflict that features in these earlier novels. However, as Stuart Laing notes, the fates of the two Seton brothers in May Day parallel those of Greenwood's and Gibbon's characters:
In the May Day march which forms the climax of the novel one brother (like Larry in Love on the Dole) dies after being struck by a policeman, while the other (like Ewan in Grey Granite) simultaneously takes a leading part and finds his uncertain political commitment becoming firm. (Laing 1980: 147)
While the focus on the significance of May Day itself as a temporal rallying point for the dream of the classless society to come is also a feature of Mitchison's We Have Been Warned (see Mitchison 2012: 172–87), May Day is actually a transitional novel marking the point at which the proletarian literature of the decade following the General Strike switches from dealing with the aftermath of defeat to encompassing the rapid social change of the 1930s and anticipating the politics and representational forms of the Popular Front, which would dominate the second half of the decade.
The action of May Day, as a prefatory note to the novel informs us, ‘takes place between the morning of April the twenty-ninth and the early afternoon of May the first a few years hence’ (Sommerfield 1936: ix).
Chests, especially small caskets, over which we have more complete mastery, are objects that may be opened. When a casket is closed, it is returned to the general community of objects; it takes its place in exterior space. But it opens!
In discussing Freud's Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria in Chapter 2, I alluded to Gaston Bachelard's phenomenological appraisal of hidingplaces in The Poetics of Space, his study of the ‘topography of our intimate beings’ as mapped out in the structure of the house. Some of his further remarks on this subject make for a suggestive starting-point for the chapter to follow. Bachelard sees small containers as concentrated points of intimate expression, evidence of the human ‘need for secrecy’ but also of the human need to uncover secrets; these containers, we are told, are ‘unforgettable for us but also unforgettable for those to whom we are going to give our treasures’. This chapter will focus on the dynamics of containment and disclosure enacted through the more specific framework of the portable casket or case, often foregrounded as a source of intrigue in modernist writing in offering a point of access to a character in transit. Part of what made luggage an apposite index of character was its frequent fabrication, during this period, from the skin of an animal, whether cowhide or crocodile skin. This was a disconcerting human affinity certain writers hinted at and one neatly articulated by early-twentiethcentury French diplomat, writer and perpetual traveller Paul Morand: ‘When I die, I'd like them to make a trunk from my skin.’ Luggage can be seen thus to represent both the materialisation and the mobilisation of the private space of the self in a number of modernist texts, capturing the intimate being in motion but also under an unpredictable form of public scrutiny. Intrigue is the keynote in the game of concealment and revelation recurrently played out. The luxury luggage designer Louis Vuitton astutely exploited the playful aspect of this game of intrigue in the slogan ‘Montre-moi tes bagages et je te dirai qui tu es’/’Show me your luggage and I'll tell you who you are’, used for a 1921 advertising campaign.
And then Mrs Brown faced the dreadful revelation. She took her heroic decision. Early, before dawn, she packed her bag and carried it herself to the station. She would not let Smith touch it. She was wounded in her pride, unmoored from her anchorage; she came of gentlefolks who kept servants – but details could wait. The important thing was to realize her character, to steep oneself in her atmosphere. I had no time to explain why I felt it somewhat tragic, heroic, yet with a dash of the flighty, and fantastic, before the train stopped, and I watched her disappear, carrying her bag, into the vast blazing station. She looked very small, very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic. And I have never seen her again, and I shall never know what became of her.
‘[D]etails could wait’, Virginia Woolf interjects in the culminating image of her version of the Mrs Brown story, as recounted in her well-known 1923 essay on the subject of character in fiction. She immediately adds that ‘the story ends without any point to it’. However, she does pointedly draw attention to one particular detail: the fact that Mrs Brown carries her own bag. It is a fact she states twice in quick succession, though it is a detail tellingly overlooked by her imagined Edwardian literary counterparts, in the versions of Mrs Brown respectively allotted to each. Why is this detail worth repeating, while others can wait? Why does Woolf stress Mrs Brown's adamant refusal to let Mr Smith touch her bag, and what does this gesture imply? Why is it something only she purports to notice? And since this is, to all intents and purposes, a discussion of the changing approach to fictional character, and thus to fiction itself, in the early twentieth century, what does this particular detail add to that particular discussion?
This chapter contends that the woman's bag became a central symbolic point of focus and literary motif in portrayals of shifting gender relations during the modern period, dating back to the emergence of literature by and about ‘New Women’ at the fin de siècle. Chapter 1 showed that the ‘Woman Question’ and the thorny issue of women's desires persistently surface as key contributing factors in the declining relevance of the house in the earlytwentieth- century literary imagination.
There can be no doubt but that the love of money was the pre-dominant feeling in Sweeney Todd's intellectual organization and that, by the amount it would bring him, or the amount it would deprive him of, he measured everything.
With such a man, then, no question of morality or ordinary feeling could arise, and there can be no doubt but that he would quite willingly have sacrificed the whole human race, if, by doing so, he could have achieved any of the objects of his ambition.
And so on his road homeward, he probably made up his mind to plunge still deeper into criminality; and perchance to indulge in acts that a man not already so deeply versed in iniquity would have shrunk from with the most positive terror.
And by a strange style of reasoning, such men as Sweeney Todd reconcile themselves to the most heinous crimes upon the ground of what they call policy.
The abject experience of London – in London, for London, through London, despite London, chewed up and spit out by London – ties literary culture across a very long nineteenth century to an even longer lineage in Defoe and others who remarked on its cultural habits in prior centuries. This multi-period history is likewise a cross-genre exploration in which the very grounds of the literary often factor – authorship, style, innovation and reception are but a few of the considerations. London, with its ghastly horrors, also becomes a character in its own right in works such as Poe's ‘Man of the Crowd’, through Dickens's works and the popular penny fictions produced in London's presses, as well as in Bram Stoker's Dracula and later works. This lineage shows a recurring fascination with the mysterious, dark depths of the city's condensed streets and routines. These stories were fed by a rich history of crime fiction – urban and rural – and owed a considerable debt to eighteenthcentury nonfiction accounts of famous criminals executed in London like Jack Sheppard.