9 February 2009

The Work of Lionel Britton: Conclusion

Until recently, most of the internal working-class writers of the inter-war years had long been forgotten; with the exception of Robert Tressell, whose only novel was published slightly before this period, perhaps the only widely known authors were Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Walter Greenwood and James Hanley. Twenty years ago, in a review of the multi-authored The British Working-Class Novel in the Twentieth Century edited by Jeremy Hawthorn, Christopher Pawling expressed his disapproval of the existence of a canon of working-class novels — such as the well-known ones by some of the writers above — because it ‘might prove as restrictive in its own way as Leavis’s “Great Tradition”’, and agrees with Graham Holderness that ‘until the texts of working-class novels […] are reprinted and educationally mobilized on a much larger scale, there can be no effective general recovery to shift radically the political balance of the literary tradition’ (1). Possibly taking a cue from the forgotten women writers being published by Virago Press, in the second half of the twentieth century there was a revival of interest in forgotten working-class literature, and in the fiction of the inter-war years in particular. Several working-class novels had already been re-published before Pawling’s article appeared, although a far greater number have been re-issued since. In addition, over the last thirty years a number of critical books and articles dedicated exclusively to working-class literature have been written: along with the working-class canon mentioned above, readers and researchers have become acquainted with many of the more obscure internal working-class writers. And although there has been no re-publication of any work by F. C. Boden, James Halward, Jack Hilton or James Welsh, for instance, all of these writers have been acknowledged in some of these critical works.

Lionel Britton’s work has not been re-published either, and he is also an exception in that there is virtually no mention of him in the recent critical publications; on the rare occasions when Britton is mentioned at all, it is usually only in a few words in passing, and even this information very often contains errors. Nevertheless, he was a fairly well-known figure in the early 1930s, and was probably better known at the time than many other working-class authors. By mentioning Britton’s name to director Sir Barry Jackson, Bernard Shaw was instrumental in making the theatrical performance of Brain possible; Bertrand Russell also helped Britton a great deal by writing a five-page Introduction to Hunger and Love, which reviewers noted extensively and enthusiastically; and Britton’s name was frequently spoken of at the same time as some of the canonical working-class writers. In addition, many reviews of the novel were very positive, with several people suggesting that the novel was a work of genius; Arnold Bennett wrote a pastiche of Britton’s writing style in what became his final review for the Evening Standard, and several other reviewers predicted great success for him. For a brief time Britton was frequently in the news, became drama critic at the New Clarion, and was in strong demand to make public appearances. The chapters in Hunger and Love which deal with bookshop assistant Arthur Phelps struggling to educate himself in spite of the colossal odds against him are vivid and highly memorable, and Philip Henderson says that ‘[Britton’s] picture of the struggle for life of the orphan errand-boy […] gives his work the quality of an epic’. Even Rebecca West, one of the book’s greatest detractors, felt forced to say that she had a ‘soft spot’ for Arthur. But clearly, and despite the fact that there was nothing lacking in Britton’s ability to depict a vividly sympathetic character, it is a memory which has not endured: after 1935, no more imaginative works of Britton’s were published and he rapidly slipped into public oblivion.

The reasons for Britton’s obscurity are many. The nature of Hunger and Love itself, a very long novel without a plot and with hundreds of pages of scientific and philosophical digressions, is not an obvious foundation for widespread or lasting interest; Britton constantly used to revise his manuscripts and consequently had difficulty satisfactorily completing any of his work; his chosen sub-genres, the working-class novel and science fiction drama, encompass two very different areas of literature which are quite apart from the mainstream; there were considerable publishing difficulties during World War II; and his relationship with publishers could be very strained.

This last detail, especially his refusal to allow publishers to cut or in any other way alter any of his material, was undoubtedly the greatest stumbling block to Britton’s publishing career. For several years Britton had difficulties finding a publisher for his novel, and although Constable initially showed interest, they were not prepared to accept it without substantial emendations. Nevertheless, Constant Huntington did recognize Hunger and Love as a significant work of its kind, and accepted the book for publication under Britton’s stringent conditions. And on receiving permission from Putnam to proceed as he wished, Britton began systematically emending the typescript to include stronger language than it had previously contained. His intentions were essentially twofold: to make the language of the book a more authentic reflection of the language used at the time, and to make it reflect his anger with bourgeois society. Hunger and Love is quite possibly unique in the history of a major publishing house — especially for a first novel — in that no words or punctuation marks (with the almost inevitable exceptions of typesetting errors) were changed from Britton’s final submission of the typescript to the date of publication. In spite of any possible objections to the rather strong language for the time, and regardless of any factual or typographical errors there may have been, Hunger and Love reached the bookshops as Britton was determined it would. The result of this is that Britton believed that he had finally triumphed over the bourgeois world, and that he had written a major working-class work, one untainted by bourgeois lies and designed as a hammer blow against the middle class.
Plainly, the above circumstances make Hunger and Love very unusual and therefore very interesting, but the book is more than merely a fascinating oddity. It deserves recognition for its originality and for its literary achievement. Hunger and Love is a remarkable experimental working-class novel, and one of very few such books in that sub-genre. But in a number of ways it is also — and this is perhaps another reason for its neglect — a novel that differs greatly from the working-class fiction of the day.

One of the main differences is that Britton’s novel not only depicts, often in graphic detail, the world of an unfortunate member of the working classes and the appalling conditions in which he lives and works, but it also traces the intellectual development of this young man over about ten years, and the reader follows this development as if through the mind of Arthur, pursuing his many mental digressions and learning of his fears, desires, doubts, disappointments and joys. Plot is sacrificed to intellectual truth.

This is what Britton means when he speaks of ‘the truth’, and his ideology of the overarching importance of this truth in his writing is similar to B. S. Johnson’s observations on the relationship between writing and ‘life’: ‘Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories is really telling lies’ (2). Britton too wanted to convey a similar chaos, fluidity and randomness; he was not interested in telling stories, but in telling the truth as he saw it.

Hunger and Love, then, is in many ways a modernist work, or at least an outsider modernist work, which is directly intended to reveal the thoughts of its outsider protagonist. Mainstream modernist techniques are the means by which Britton conveys these thoughts, but the aesthetic is different: as a work of outsider modernism it has a political agenda, which is to vilify the middle-class status quo. The book has many qualities: the vividness of its detail, the power of the expression of the narrator’s anger, and a number of perhaps surprisingly poetical passages. Many such pieces stand out as modernist in construction, such as the passage in which Arthur Phelps walks home down Putney Hill with its musical expression and its cinematic use of words, all blending into a criticism of the status quo; equally vivid is the paragraph when Arthur is forced out of his home, with its revelation of the workings of his mind when tying his belongings together; and also of note is the scene in which the reified he-Arthur of the world of trade becomes ontologically transformed into the self-contained you-Arthur.

The narrator’s anger is the anger of the outsider or the alienated individual, of someone who does not belong because to belong means to accept the lie that the bourgeois option is the only possible one. Arthur is alienated first of all because he is a member of the working classes, and one of the lowest groups within those classes; but he is also alienated from his own class because he does not accept his position, and even worsens his situation by educating himself out of his class to the extent that virtually no one in his class can understand him, although he in turn appears not to want to understand them. A notable instance of Arthur’s alienation is in the longest sentence in the book, with its lack of definite articles and reduced punctuation, expressing anger with the world of trade, capitalism being the enemy as opposed to the co-operation of socialism or anarchism. Significantly, though, Britton does belong to a much wider group of outsiders beyond the working classes, such as writers representing minority groups such as homosexuals, non-whites, and independent women.

Many works of outsider literature culminate in a vision of utopia, usually in the far future: working-class novels often envisage a socialist or communist utopia, and novels, such as those mentioned above, written by feminists, homosexuals or non-whites, for example, often look forward to a future in which there is complete tolerance of their particular minority group. Brain examines the failure of a kind of anarchist utopia, and the play depicts the execution of the ideas broached in Hunger and Love, only via the very unusual medium of science fiction drama. Ultimately, through criticism of society as it was then, and through hope for the future, a new society is envisaged.

To exclude Lionel Britton from discussions of internal working-class literature is a serious omission. It would be far more encouraging for Hunger and Love in particular to join the large number of other re-publications that have recently been made in this area. And it would perhaps be almost as encouraging to see a critical biography of Britton, and even the appearance of his later written unpublished works, all of which are held at the Lionel Britton Collection at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Lionel Britton’s voice belongs to working-class fiction and is in many ways unique to the sub-genre: it has, at the very least, as much right to be heard as the other voices expressed in the recovery of the literature.

(1) Christopher Pawling, ‘Jeremy Hawthorn, (ed.) The British Working-Class Novel in the Twentieth Century’,
Literature and History, 12:1 (1986), pp. 134–35 (p. 135).

(2) Literature: And a Changing Civilisation, p. 144.

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