Nicola Wilson. Home in British Working-Class Fiction.
It is hardly coincidental--if a tad ironic--that this study's author was introduced to working-class writing while initially undertaking graduate training in women's studies, as opposed to the fields of history or literature. For despite the fact that academic feminism well over a decade ago still subordinated class within its matrix of concerns, it acquainted her with a specific (and neglected) sub-genre, working-class women's autobiographies, and more broadly handed her the critical tools to reconsider during her doctoral studies what had been an often masculinist--yet equally neglected--"canon" of working-class literature. As Nicola Wilson observes in her preface, "[t]here is something odd, but no doubt typical, about my particular schooling and academic training in English Literature which meant that I didn't come across the idea of working-class writing until my early 20s." She hopes to combat her country's post-Thatcher "cultural amnesia" about the working class by joining other previous scholars who have challenged narrow definitions of, and outmoded critical approaches to, this surprisingly resilient body of literary texts, and fortunately for us, she does so by decoding their representations of domestic space.
Other feminist critics have taken up many of the novels surveyed in Home in British Working-Class Fiction and have even addressed their varied renditions of the public/private spatial divide. Yet no other study of this particular set of works (to my knowledge) has made the concept of "home" its hermeneutic centerpiece. As Nancy Armstrong first documented in Desire and Domestic Fiction, the novel's own history as a genre has been laden with descriptions of houses--architectural spaces--and the ideologies of "home" that they embody. Wilson proceeds to remind us of literary studies' persistent devaluing of this subject, arguing that "[t] he detailed narratology of home and domestic space, part and parcel of developments in the method and techniques of narrative realism, has often been described in terms of a conservative, pedestrian aesthetic strategy. Yet.... [a]n increased concern with the materiality of domestic life need not necessarily be inward-looking or parochial." Indeed, as "a part of civic and public society," home, and its figuring in this book's objects of study, has "much to reveal about class, race and nation, about gender, sexuality and familial relations." This claim may now appear commonplace when discussing the grand country houses as well as respectable middle-class dwellings of traditional British fiction, but Wilson shifts our attention to the starkly different rendering of working-class living spaces, where "home is ... hard-wrought and precarious ... a place that needs cleaning and slaving, where the weekly wage-packet is crucial to make ends meet and stave off ... homelessness." Such vulnerability invests these representations--and the texts that feature them--with more, not less, intricacies that register material changes in British daily life over the course of the twentieth century as well as subtler psychological and ideological states encompassing "performative space; a projection of fears and desires; ... character (a focal and constitutive part of the plot); and ... a space of non-narration." Significantly, Wilson also expands this body of material to include fiction by im/migrant colonial and postcolonial writers.
To eke out this reading, Home both centers and interrogates the invasive institutional "gaze" that has long informed dominant cultural indices of class difference via governmental "visitors," philanthropists, reformers, and journalists' reports on actual poor and working-class housing (from Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor to Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier). Wilson notes that many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century working-class novels captured such scenes, resulting in a fraught kind of exposure that on the one hand could establish a working-class family's "decency" (such as in Gaskell's Mary Barton ) yet on the other hand could also reveal their indignities or, alternatively, function as a protest against their unjust living conditions, as in Walter Brierley's Means-Test Man (1935), where the "inspector's presence ... is presented as a violation at the heart of domestic life." As she pauses before a series of interior "shots" or views, Wilson strategically positions her reader (and later herself) as another "outsider" whose gaze inherently reflects a mixture of voyeurism and sympathy, as well as perhaps a degree of disdain for strains of nostalgia that may run through some texts' depictions of the family home. Moreover, that specular act isn't simply classed, but gendered and racialized. The book offers its most cogent readings of male writers' projections of sentimentalism and idealism in both working-class and middle-class literature and reportage, tracing an arc from Chartist poetry and prose to the novels of Robert Tressell and Robert Greenwood, to the cultural criticism of Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy. But I found her analyses of Buchi Emecheta's early 1970s feminist novels about Nigerian immigrant life in working-class London even more valuable, as they model a distinctly different way of reading this writer's work beyond a strictly postcolonial frame--or more precisely, a new lens through which to understand postcolonialism as well as "the" British working class experience with the welfare state.
As hinted above, Wilson refreshingly implicates herself as she takes on the academy's equally compromised and often distanced view of fictional working-class interiors (along with these literary texts as a whole). In the Afterword, she confesses, "this book is complicit in that long history of looking whereby the working classes ... are positioned as ethnographic subjects of knowledge" and admits that in her "own act of voyeurism there are contradictions and tensions: parts of the texts overlooked in favour of other scenes and narratives, important novels and groups of novels left out of this history and re-telling." One additional blind spot, however, is the implication that all academics are, in fact, "outsiders" to working and poverty class life. An unsettling "we" takes over her final pages: "So we turn to George Orwell or George Gissing ... to conjure up the working-class interior instead of some of the authors considered in this book"; "we have readings of working-class fiction that" privilege "depictions of strikes and workplace culture rather than domestic and familial settings." Even the positing of a collective cultural imaginary--"our literary and cultural-historical memory"--can be problematic in this context if some scholars of working-class backgrounds can remember, say, an older relative reading aloud from The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists or have themselves lived in such "alien" spaces, the object of a government worker's pitying stare. (Carolyn Steedman's work has established one powerful prototype of this latter perspective.) This is not to suggest that such academics are immune to institutionalized elitism or even the vagaries of individual memory but to acknowledge the possibility of a counter view that looks, with intimate knowledge, "from below" as well as "above."
Yet in her crafting of a more inclusive archive that expands the "tradition" of British working-class literature, Wilson does introduce a rather startling test case that confirms, as well as complicates, this insider/outsider classed gaze. In addition to texts that strike a balance between the more usual suspects of this genre and previously marginalized contributors--Greenwood's Love on the Dole, Braine's Room at the Top (both novel and film), Barker's Union Street and Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit--D.H. Lawrence's work makes a rare appearance. He might be the most recognized and feted literary figure born to a British coal miner, but as Wilson outlines, tensions continue to swirl around his status as a "working class writer": in Raymond Williams' words, he sought '"escape and flight'" from his class origins and preferred, according to Ian Haywood, '"bourgeois individualism'" over more public and collective modes of identity. Lawrence, she charges, "has been regularly rejected" from the working-class literary tradition for "writing the home as a place of individual and familial strife," writ large in his infamous statement (made after visiting Eastwood during the General Strike), "'I find I can be at home anywhere, except at home.'" Home's own deft readings of domestic scenes in Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow attest to the novels' dense, overdetermined figuring of "home space." And I appreciate her (re)positioning of this acclaimed writer in order to reveal fault lines within critical debates concerning class authenticity. I only wish that the study's revisionist analyses of his early novels had engaged with more of the massive critical apparatus accompanying Lawrence's oeuvre, if only to recharge thinking about this writer's notions of women, men, and the working-class home itself.
Home in British Working-Class Fiction ensures that "we"--all those who have (differing) investments in this field--must reckon with literary representations of working/poverty class houses and homes by probing the relationship between the domestic interior and psychic interiority, as well as between the now tired tropes of "private" and "public." Nicola Wilson has provided a critical blueprint that remaps both the boundaries of working-class literature as a genre and the very ways that we navigate its textual spaces.
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|Publication:||D.H. Lawrence Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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