Hunger and Love is a semi-autobiographical account of the intellectual development of the working-class orphan Arthur Phelps, who is about sixteen years old at the beginning of the book, and the reader learns almost nothing of his past life. Set entirely in London from 1904 or 1905 to some time during World War I, it records in some detail the extreme poverty of the uneducated Arthur, who starts his working life at a greengrocer’s and then continues by working for several booksellers. Throughout most of the book he has very few friends, and almost all of his contact with others is through his work or by chance encounters in the street. Some of his limited spare time is spent trying to make his meagre earnings last until the end of the week — by, for example, mending his shabby clothes — but most of his time is spent in the manic pursuit of the education he never received as a child. Arthur devours any scraps of knowledge that he can, reading works of science or arts indiscriminately. He buys books from the penny ‘dumps’ on the book barrows that line Farringdon Road, and works his way through the Penny Cyclopaedia and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. The novel details how Arthur takes advantage of any opportunity to increase his learning by reading at work, when sent out on errands, and during his lunch breaks. Periods of unemployment are described, a few political activities, and Arthur’s developing intellectual education arguing with the crowd gathered around Speakers’ Corner. There are also many descriptions of the book trade from a shop assistant’s point of view.
The ‘Hunger’ in the title clearly refers to Arthur’s lack of food, but it also alludes to both sexual and intellectual frustration; the ‘Love’ too refers to sex, as well as to the love of knowledge, and to a much broader love of humanity. The narrator has complete access to Arthur’s thoughts and no one else’s, and frequently addresses him directly in the second person, often to mock him. The world is thus largely seen through Arthur’s (or the narrator’s) consciousness, and the novel contains many unspoken insults directed at the bourgeoisie, the church, the government, or the police. Any figures of authority are the targets, and they are seen not only as impediments to his freedom, but throwbacks to an earlier period of evolution.
The novel is a long inter-war howl of contempt for the rule-makers and the people whom the narrator considers to be the war-mongers, the perpetrators of a vast conspiracy. For these reasons alone, it was inevitable that there would be some hostile reactions to the novel. Britton foresaw this, and joked about it before the novel was published: ‘I don’t think six months in gaol would stop me. Most of my friends say I shall get twenty years. The unkind ones say I shall deserve it’.
Hunger and Love is far from being a straightforward narrative, and a laudatory review by Geoffrey West in the TLS recognizes that Britton is ‘frankly contemptuous of the novel as story’. The novel is didactic, and filled with philosophical and scientific thoughts, becoming more complex as the book develops. Thoughts hold up the story, or rather, thoughts are a large part of the story: sickened by a world where business rules and the rich perpetuate their life-styles through repressing the poor both physically and psychologically, the narrator gradually develops a blueprint for a future ruled by the human mind. His future will be one in which people co-operate with each other instead of competing, and all energies will be devoted to the benefit of the world as a whole. There is no romantic nostalgia for a lost world, and Britton embraces technological progress as a means to a vaguely communistic society — or perhaps anarchistic to be more precise, as there is no support for any political party: Arthur Phelps’s voice is a lonely one.