Tag Archives: social class
It’s my third time participating in one of Simon and Karen’s reading weeks (after last year’s 1920 Club and 1956 Club). Like last time, I made things easy for myself by choosing two classics of novella length – as opposed to South Riding, another 1936 book on my shelves. They also both happen to be theatrical in nature.
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
At about the time her memoir came out, I remember Jeanette Winterson describing this as her gateway drug into literature: she went to the library and picked it out for her mother, thinking it was just another murder mystery, and ended up devouring it herself. It is in fact a play about the assassination of Thomas à Becket, a medieval archbishop of Canterbury. The last time I read a play was probably eight years ago, when I was on an Alan Ayckbourn kick; before that, I likely hadn’t read one since my college Shakespeare class. And indeed, this wasn’t dissimilar to Shakespeare’s histories (or tragedies) in content and tone. It is mostly in verse, with some rhyming couplets, offset by a couple of long prose passages.
I struggled mostly because of complete unfamiliarity with the context, though some liberal Googling would probably be enough to set anyone straight. The action takes place in December 1170 and is in two long acts, separated by an interlude in which Thomas gives a Christmas sermon. The main characters besides Thomas are three priests who try to protect him and a chorus of local women who lament his fate. In Part I there are four tempters who, like Satan to Jesus in the desert, come to taunt Thomas with the lure of political power – upon being named archbishop, he resigned his chancellorship. The four knights, who replace the tempters in Part II and ultimately kill Thomas, feel that he betrayed King Henry and the nation by not keeping both roles and thus linking Church and state.
Most extraordinary is the knights’ prose defence late in the second act, in which they claim to have been completely “disinterested” in killing Thomas and that it was his own fault – to the extent that his death might as well be deemed a suicide. I always appreciate a first-person plural chorus, and I love Eliot’s poetry in general: there are some of his lines I keep almost as mantras, and more I read nearly 20 years ago that still resonate. I expected notable quotes here, but there were no familiar lines. As usually is the case with plays, this probably works better on stage. A nice touch was that my 1938 Faber copy, acquired from the free bookshop we used to have in our local mall, was owned by two fellows of St. Chad’s College, Durham, whose names appear one after the other in blue ink on the flyleaf. One of them added in marginal notes relating to how the play was performed by the Pilgrim Players in March 1941.
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
I was glad to have an excuse to read this beloved children’s classic. Like many older books and films geared towards children, it’s a realistic fantasy about orphans finding affection and success. Great-Uncle Matthew (“Gum”) goes hunting for fossils around the world and has a peculiar habit of finding unwanted babies that are to be raised by his niece, Sylvia (“Garnie”), and a nursemaid, Nana. He names the three girls he has magically acquired Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, and gifts them all the surname Fossil. When Gum goes back out on his travels, the money soon runs out and the girls’ schooling takes a backseat to the need for money. Sylvia takes in lodgers and the girls are accepted to attend a dance and theatre academy for free.
Every year, the sisters vow to do all they can to get the Fossil name in history books – and this on their own merit, not based on anything their (unknown) ancestors have done – and to get as much household money for Garnie as possible. Pauline is a gifted actress and Posy a talented dancer, but Petrova knows the performing world is not for her; she’d rather learn about how machines work, and operate cars and airplanes. While beautiful blonde Pauline plays the lead role in Alice in Wonderland and one of the princes in Richard III, Petrova is happy to stay in the background as a fairy or a page in Shakespeare productions.
I found the social history particularly interesting here. The family seems upper class by nature, yet a lack of money means they find it a challenge to keep the girls in an appropriate wardrobe. There is much counting of guineas and shillings, with Pauline the chief household earner. Acting in plays and films is no mere hobby for her. The same goes for Winifred, who auditions opposite Pauline for Alice but doesn’t get the part – even though she is the better actress and needs the money to care for her ill father and five younger siblings – because she’s not as pretty. Pauline and Petrova also notice that child actors with cockney accents don’t get picked for the best roles. The Fossils sometimes feel compassion for those children worse off than themselves, but at other times let their achievements go to their heads.
At a certain point, I wearied of the recurring money, wardrobe, and audition issues, but I still found this a charming book about how luck and skill combine as girls dream about who they want to be when they grow up. There are also some cosy and witty turns of phrase, like “She was in that state of having a cold when nothing is very nice to do … she felt hot, and not very much like eating toffee, and what is the fun of making toffee unless you want to eat it.” I daresay if I had encountered this at age seven instead of 37, it would have been a favourite.
“Do you remember what that summer was like? – how much more beautiful than any since?”
These two slightly under-the-radar classics made for perfect heatwave reading over the past couple of weeks: very English and very much of the historical periods that they evoke, they are nostalgic works remembering one summer when everything changed – or could have.
A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr (1980)
Summer 1920, North Yorkshire. Tom Birkin, a First World War veteran whose wife has left him, arrives in Oxgodby to uncover the local church’s wall painting of the Judgment Day, assumed to be the work of a medieval monk and long since whitewashed over. With nothing waiting for him back in London and no plans beyond this commission, he gives himself over to the daily rhythms of working, eating and sleeping – “There was so much time that marvelous summer.” This simple life is punctuated by occasional incidents like a Sunday school hayride and picnic, and filling in as a lay preacher at a nearby chapel. Also embarked on a quest into the past is Charles Moon, who is searching for the grave of their patroness’ ancestor in the churchyard. Moon, too, has a war history he’d rather forget.
Though it barely exceeds 100 pages, this novella is full of surprises – about Moon, about the presumed identity and fate of the centuries-dead figures he and Birkin come to be obsessed with, and about the emotional connection that builds between Birkin and Reverend Keach’s wife, Alice. “It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies,” Birkin declares, but did he take his own advice? There is something achingly gorgeous about this not-quite-love story, as evanescent as ideal summer days. Carr writes in a foreword that he intended to write “a rural idyll along the lines of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.” He indeed created something Hardyesque with this tragicomic rustic romance; I was also reminded of another very English classic I reviewed earlier in the year: Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.
Source: Free bookshop
A contemporary readalike: The Offing by Benjamin Myers
The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley (1953)
Summer 1900, Norfolk. Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited to spend the several July weeks leading up to his birthday at his school friend Marcus Maudsley’s home, Brandham Hall. Although the fatherless boy is keenly aware of the class difference between their families, in a year of learning to evade bullies he’s developed some confidence in his skills and pluck, fancying himself an amateur magician and gifted singer. Being useful makes him feel less like a charity case, so he eagerly agrees to act as “postman” for Marcus’s older sister, Marian, who exchanges frequent letters with their tenant farmer, Ted Burgess. Marian, engaged to Hugh, a viscount and injured Boer War veteran, insists the correspondence is purely business-related, but Leo suspects he’s abetting trysts the family would disapprove of.
Leo is right on the cusp of adolescence, a moment of transition that mirrors the crossing into a new century. As he glories in the summer’s mounting heat, “a liberating power with its own laws,” and mentally goads the weather into hitting ever greater extremes, he pushes against the limits of his innocence, begging Ted to tell him about “spooning” (that is, the facts of life). The heat becomes a character in its own right, gloweringly presiding over the emotional tension caused by secrets, spells and betrayals. And yet this is also a very funny novel: I loved Leo’s Franglais conversations with Marcus, and the confusion over mispronouncing “Hugh” as “you.” In places the tone even reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm.
Like A Month in the Country, this autobiographical story is an old man’s reminiscences, going back half a century in memory – but here Leo gets the chance to go back in person as well, seeing what has become of Brandham Hall and meeting one of the major players from that summer drama that branded him for life. I thought this masterfully done in every way: the class divide, the picture of childhood tipping over into the teenage years, the oppressive atmosphere, the comical touches. You know from the famous first line onwards (“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”) that this will juxtapose past and present – which, of course, has now become past and further past – in a powerful way, similar to Moon Tiger, my favorite fiction read of last year. I’ll be exploring more of Hartley’s work.
(Note: Although I am a firm advocate of DNFing if a book is not working for you, I would also like to put in a good word for trying a book again another time. Ironically, this had been a DNF for me last summer: I found the prologue, with all its talk of the zodiac, utterly dull. I had the same problem with Cold Comfort Farm, literally trying about three times to get through the prologue and failing. So, for both, I eventually let myself skip the prologue, read the whole novel, and then go back to the prologue. Worked a treat.)
Source: Ex-library copy bought from Lambeth Library when I worked in London
A contemporary readalike: Atonement by Ian McEwan
If you were a fan of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, then debut author Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, deserves to be on your radar too. Smarsh comes from five generations of Kansas wheat farmers and worked hard to step outside of the vicious cycle that held back the women on her mother’s side of the family: poverty, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, broken marriages, a lack of job security, and moving all the time. Like Mamaw in Vance’s book, Grandma Betty is the star of the show here: a source of pure love, she played a major role in raising Smarsh. The rundown of Betty’s life is sobering: her father was abusive and her mother had schizophrenia; she got pregnant at 16; and she racked up six divorces and countless addresses. This passage about her paycheck and diet jumped out at me:
Each month, after she paid the rent and utilities, and the landlady for watching Jeannie, Betty had $27 left. She budgeted some of it for cigarettes and gas. The rest went to groceries from the little store around the corner. The store sold frozen pot pies, five for a dollar. She’d buy twenty-five of them, beef and chicken flavor, and that would be her dinner all month. Every day, a candy bar for lunch at work and a frozen pot pie for dinner at home.
It’s a sad state of affairs when fatty processed foods are cheaper than healthy ones, and this is still the case today: the underprivileged are more likely to subsist on McDonald’s than on vegetables. Heartland is full of these kinds of contradictions. For instance, in the Reagan years the country shifted rightwards and working-class Catholics like Smarsh’s mother started voting Republican – in contravention of the traditional understanding that the Democrats were for the poor and the Republicans were for the rich. Smarsh followed her mother’s lead by casting her first-ever vote for George W. Bush in 2000, but her views changed in college when she learned how conservative fiscal policies keep people poor.
This isn’t a straightforward, chronological family story; it jumps through time and between characters. You might think of reading it as like joining Smarsh for an amble around the farm or a flip through a photograph album. Its vignettes are vivid, if sometimes hard to join into a cohesive story line in the mind. Some of the scenes that stood out to me were being pulled by truck through the snow on a canoe, helping Grandma Betty move into a house in Wichita but high-tailing it out of there when they realized it was infested by cockroaches, and the irony of winning a speech contest about drug addiction when her stepmother was hooked on opioids.
Heartland serves as a personal tour through some of the persistent trials of working-class life in the American Midwest: urbanization and the death of the family farm, an inability to afford health insurance and the threat of toxins encountered in the workplace, and the elusive dream of home ownership. Like Vance, Smarsh has escaped most of the worst possibilities through determination and education, so is able to bring an outsider’s clarity to the issues. At times she has a tendency to harp on the same points, though, adding in generalizations about the effects of poverty rather than just letting her family’s stories speak for themselves.
The oddest thing about Smarsh’s memoir – and I am certainly not the first reviewer to mention this since the book’s U.S. release in September – is who it’s directed to: her never-to-be-born daughter, “August”. Teen pregnancy was the family curse Smarsh was most desperate to avoid, and even now that she’s in her late thirties, a journalist and academic returned to Kansas after years on the East Coast, she remains childless. August is who Smarsh had in mind while working two or more jobs all through high school, earning higher degrees and buying her dream home. All along she was saving August from the hardships of a poor upbringing. While the unborn child is a potent symbol, it can be disorienting after pages of “I” to come across a “you” and have to readjust to who is being addressed.
Heartland is a striking book, not without its challenges to the reader, but one that I ultimately found rewarding to read in short bursts of 10 to 20 pages at a time. It’s worthwhile for anyone interested in what it’s really like to be poor in America.
A favorite passage:
“My life has been a bridge between two places: the working poor and ‘higher’ economic classes. The city and the country. College-educated coworkers and disenfranchised loved ones. A somewhat conservative upbringing and a liberal adulthood. Home in the middle of the country and work on the East Coast. The physical world where I talk to people and the formless dimension where I talk to you.”
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth was published by Scribe UK on November 8th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.