16 February 2009

The Work of Lionel Britton: Chapter I: Hunger and Love and the Critics

This chapter concerns the critics’ reactions to Hunger and Love, and in it I examine a number of critics who wrote about Lionel Britton’s work at the time of its publication in 1931. Before looking at some of the contemporary criticisms of Hunger and Love, though, an understanding of the observations made would be facilitated by a synopsis of the novel.

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’.1

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’.2 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.

It is clear, then, that the book is set in a battle context, as Arthur is constantly pointing out. He bemoans, for instance, the fact that work is taking his life away: ‘what is there in this future that will compensate you now for this […] almost total surrender of your life’ (p. 206). As the book draws to a close, a far more sinister threat than Phelps’s struggle for economic survival develops as preparations are made for war; the propaganda increases, and the pressure on Arthur to enlist for World War I becomes increasingly strong.

Although the narrator assumes that Arthur Phelps dies at the end of the book, it is by no means certain if he enlists in the army, is hit by shrapnel during an air raid, or dies in another way. All the reader is told is ‘Whether you stay at home or go and fight — life is coming to a close’, and ‘I don’t know where you are, but I think it is the end’ (pp. 691, 703). Herbert Marshall, who in his review of the novel seamlessly drifts between his own writing style and Brittonese, had evidently read a proof copy of the book, although he rather oddly speaks of ‘Private Phelps, lost among the war-murdered millions’, and reviewer C. H. Norman also mentions Phelps being ‘blown to bits by a shell on the battlefield’.3 Thoughts of joining the war certainly occur to Phelps, although only fleetingly, and only as murderous thoughts might easily briefly occur to a confirmed pacifist: if Phelps had been killed as an active member of the armed forces it would have been a psychological victory for the governing class, and it seems doubtful that this is the impression that the narrator wants to convey. It would be far more in keeping with Arthur’s ideas if he died in England, and if he continued to refuse to fight for a cause that he was incapable of identifying as his own. George Rees’s interpretation of the ending is much less assured than either Marshall’s or Norman’s; he does not even believe the assumptions of the narrator:

'In the end we simply lose sight of him. He disappears in wartime, and we are left to guess whether he is driven through the power of Parliament, press and pulpit, to join and thus forsake his principles; or whether, stoically enduring the opprobrium of the lickspittle bourgeois mob, he resolutely refuses to be a hired butcher, and lives until the world madness has passed'.4

Rees’s lack of conviction is an appealing interpretation, and the ending of the novel is perhaps better for its ambiguity.

Below, I mention several people who commended Britton’s Brain of the previous year because the reception of this work obviously affected the way Hunger and Love was anticipated and received: the interest generated by Brain prepared the ground for the interest in the novel, and even the negative reviews of Hunger and Love were lengthy. The fact that Shaw was instrumental in having the play performed is significant, as are his comments on Britton: he said that the play had ‘good vocal writing and natural theatre sense’, and ‘it is clear he can deliver the goods’, which was reproduced in many newspapers and magazines. But Shaw’s qualification of this remark, ‘as soon as he settles down into an established line of business, unless, ass [sic] seems probable, he starves in the meantime’, was omitted, as were his other reservations.5

Drama critic Hannen Swaffer was one of Britton’s greatest champions, and defended him against other critics who attacked his work. At the back of Hunger and Love, Putnam reproduced impressive snippets from Swaffer’s Daily Express review of Brain: ‘The most highbrow play ever produced in England…Had more thought in it than any other play for years…May be acted in every capital in the world…I prophesy for Lionel Britton a brilliant future’ [p. 707]. Britton was grateful for his support and wrote a letter to him from which Swaffer quoted in the Express: ‘Thanks for the courage with which you stood up against the whole pack of them’.6 Other reviews were also highly complimentary. In The Manchester Guardian ‘R. H. T.’ says ‘Many great men have amused themselves by forecasting the future of mankind. It seems to the present reviewer that Lionel Britton leaves them all a very long way behind’.7 He concludes by proclaiming Brain ‘a work of genius’. C. E. M. Joad also calls Britton a genius in a long review of Brain in The Sunday Referee, but it was perhaps the Introduction to Hunger and Love by another philosopher — Bertrand Russell — which more than anything else generated such interest in the novel.

There were many reviews of Hunger and Love, some positive, some negative, and some mixed. Nevertheless, and perhaps surprisingly for such an anti-Establishment work, hardly any review seems to have been unreservedly negative. Today Britton’s name is almost forgotten, with the occasional exceptions of entries in encyclopaedias or bibliographies of science fiction, utopias or computer science, and a very encouraging recent review by Adam Daly; but he was once very briefly a relatively well-known writer: in her biography of Virginia Woolf, for example, Winifred Holtby lists him alongside other working-class authors, all of whom are far better known today than Britton: James Hanley, Sean O’Casey and W. H. Davies.8

Frank Swinnerton’s reaction to Hunger and Love, full of anger at Arthur Phelps for having the gall to ‘steal’ from his employers’ time, is very negative. He says of the young worker: ‘His notion of his own greatness is such that he exploits his employers and then savages them […] because they dismiss him ’.9 Swinnerton was obviously proud of having worked his way up from office boy to editor of Chatto & Windus to emerge as a staunch member of the Establishment that Britton is attacking. And although self-deprecating about his own intellectual credentials, Swinnerton strongly resents the idea of the working classes becoming intellectuals:

'Mr. Russell calls Mr. Britton "a highly intellectual proletarian." What a description! And what a terrifying portent! The highbrow sustained by the parental dole is familiar to us but if the slums are also to send us highbrows the end of the world is overdue.'

Swinnerton nevertheless sees a number of positive points in the book, although none in Arthur, whom he finds selfish: the main argument in Hunger and Love is that it is the bourgeoisie who are selfish.

Rebecca West also has some positive things to say about Hunger and Love, and even admits that ‘One would have to be cold and a cad not to have a warm corner in one’s heart for Arthur Phelps’.10 However, she continues by saying that ‘Since Mr. Britton is cut off from his fellow creatures by this wall of hatred he has learned nothing about [others in a similar situation to himself]. He has written a book about the destiny of man without knowing anything about man.’

Harold Nicolson is more offended by Hunger and Love. He concedes that the book is interesting, but only as a ‘specimen’: ‘it is bottled life, preserved in vinegar’.11 He continues by denouncing Britton as ‘glum and humourless, and he likes to snarl’, adding that if the novel were intended as a satire on the self-educated it was a work of genius, but that he does not think that this is the case. Nicolson’s main complaint is that the book is dangerous because it is about class hatred.

Bernard Shaw’s assessment of Hunger and Love appears to be lost, although a comment on the front cover of the dust jacket of the New Zealander John E. Lee’s Children of the Poor states ‘A whopper. In its intensity I can only compare it with Lionel Britton’s Hunger and Love’.12

In an edition of the Johannesburg Sunday Times (Britton subscribed to press cutting agencies and collected many reviews of his books from around the world) ‘J. L. L.’ is slightly equivocal about the novel. He calls Britton’s book ‘amazing’, and adds that ‘All the destructive criticism in the world cannot rob “Hunger and Love” of a certain brilliance, or the author of intellectual endowments and a general knowledge of no mean quality.’13 But not many people would have understood the concluding remark: ‘If it were not for the fact that the author is obviously sincere and has given us much that reaches high levels of excellence, one would be inclined to use the title of his 31st chapter [‘All Balls’] as a tabloid description of his book.’

Arnold Bennett’s reaction to the novel was not as ambivalent as this, and he was even moved to write a pastiche of Britton’s style:

'Now Lionel Britton’s book. Very Long. Introduction by Bertrand Russell. Yes, by Bertrand Russell. […] I read and read. […] I was continually moving my arms, together with all the nerves, tendons, ganglions, veins, arteries, bones, concealed beneath my seven skins.

'The day wore on. Curtains. Bourgeois electricity. The surface of the planet on which I sat had moved several thousand miles, not counting its movement round the sun, nor its vaster movement as part of the ever-shifting solar system. Indeed I didn’t know where I was in spacetime. …

'Bourgeois dinner. Next day I resumed. Page after big page. I reached page 705. The last. But why the last? "Well", said I, to the invisible Lionel Britton, who was rushing through the ether as inconceivably fast as I was, "I’ve read your novel, Lionel Britton"'.14

Hunger and Love was the last book that Bennett reviewed for the Evening Standard, and in the article he also describes both his impression of Britton on the two occasions he met him, as well as his review of the novel, written in his own usual style. Bennett sat next to Britton during the premiere of Brain, and although he did not like the play, he was too polite to say so. However, had the invisible Lionel Britton mentioned in the quotation above actually been present at the time that Bennett finished reading Hunger and Love, there would have been no such embarrassment: Bennett enjoyed ‘a great deal of the book’, says that it has ‘genuine force’, that it is ‘not a book to be ignored’ and recommends it ‘to the stout-hearted’. It is evident that the review was written with a considerable degree of affection for the novel; he calls it ‘propaganda, strident as a brass band’, but although he does not mind propaganda, feels that Britton ‘frequently forgets that he is telling a story’. It must be said, though, that Britton would not have disagreed with Bennett’s criticism — in a ‘Caution to the Reader’ which was perhaps originally designed as an Introduction to the novel, Britton freely admits that the book has ‘not, strictly speaking, a story’, with ‘nothing of what is usually understood as characters’.15

This is one of the negative aspects that Orwell saw in the novel, and his comments on it are interesting. He calls the book ‘entirely sound’ as a ‘social document’, but (rather like Britton himself) fails to recognize it as a novel as such: it is more of ‘a kind of monologue on poverty’.16 But like a number of other reviewers, he finds the repetitions annoying. Nevertheless, as mentioned below in Chapter 3, the book (which Orwell stressed was ‘unusual’), certainly made a lasting impression on him, and almost certainly had an influence on Orwell’s work.

Hunger and Love attracted rather more negative criticism from Stephen Garry’s article in the Daily Worker; at the time, ‘socialist realism’ (though not used as an expression until about 1932) was all important to the Communist Party of Great Britain’s approach to fiction, although the degree of its inclusiveness of ‘acceptable’ authors varied considerably through the years.17 Garry’s article seems to represent the fierce strain of criticism of the time; he has obviously realized that the novel is largely autobiographical, and taking the cue from Britton he addresses him as the dead Arthur Phelps, playing on the word ‘dead’ to mean unthinking, and using the second person throughout. In a manner rather similar to the first section of Bennett’s review, although without any admiration — this is parody rather than pastiche — Garry begins with: ‘And so, Arthur Phelps, my boy, you are dead! And no wonder!’18 Garry has understood the book well, and his main argument is that if Phelps/Britton had spent more time in ideological struggle instead of forming lofty ideas about utopia, he would have arrived at the ‘correct’ way of thinking.

But interestingly, if the Communist Party of Great Britain (via the Daily Worker) did not approve of Hunger and Love, other reviewers on the left certainly did, and it is significant that one of the most enthusiastic reviews of it was in in the anarchist weekly Freedom. After giving his appreciation of the late Arnold Bennett, ‘B. M.’ says that ‘Lionel Britton’s work is fated to arouse violent and acrimonious discussion and resentment. People who are positive and have something to say infuriate authority’.19 The reviewer continues: ‘In my view it is a work of genius and of high literary quality.’ And his final words on Britton’s book are similar to Russell’s: ‘I cannot too strongly urge the claims of this book upon you.’

Another person on the left, J. F. Horrabin, calls Britton’s book ‘A Real Proletarian Novel’, and is almost as enthusiastic as ‘B. M’. He thinks that Britton should have done some editing of the book because he appears to have unloaded all the fruits of his self-education into it in a haphazard fashion, but says that it is ‘dead right in observation, magnificent in passion. Let no one be frightened off reading it by anything I have said above’.20

The Marxist Philip Henderson was also impressed: ‘Britton has written a work of undisciplined, elemental power. Its protest against the moral degradation that makes human life dependent upon possession of money, stands out like a huge volcanic rock in the polite literary world of our time’.21 Henderson claims that Britton’s depiction of Phelps ‘gives his work the quality of an epic’, and also mentions Bennett for having ‘the courage to hail the book as a work of genius’, but disagrees with him saying that Hunger and Love is better than Ulysses. Unfortunately, he does not give his source, although Bennett certainly said neither of these things in his Evening Standard review.

Geoffrey West’s review of Hunger and Love in the Times Literary Supplement is also highly complimentary, speaking of Britton’s ‘ambitious attempt to synthesize all relevant knowledge in a single coherent attitude to society and the universe at large’.22 He concludes: ‘Mr. Lionel Britton has written a remarkable work; if the term “work of genius” is due to originality in purpose and plan, to industry and vitality in execution on a large scale, then it is difficult to withhold it from “Hunger and Love.”’

Another very positive review of Hunger and Love, and certainly one of the last in a newspaper, was by the above mentioned George Rees in the Egyptian Gazette. In this, he understands Britton’s aim as being to destroy the status quo and begin an egalitarian society, and is obviously in full agreement with him. He is annoyed that the Book Society omitted it from their monthly bulletin, and like Britton, he rails against ‘the bourgeoisie and their system of plunder’ with apparently equal — and personally felt, the reader is bound to conclude — venom:

'One can understand now, perhaps, why the Society refused to recommend this novel; why, also, the fatly comfortable Gerald Goulds and James Agates have utterly ignored, in their recapitulation of the year’s best books, a work of striking beauty and originality'.23

Finally, a word must be said about Bertrand Russell’s Introduction to the novel. Russell calls Hunger and Love ‘a very remarkable piece of work’, ‘filled with a splendid rage against the humbug, the cruelty, and the moral degradation of the possessing classes’.24 He has doubts about Britton’s vision working in practice, but ends by saying that ‘Mr. Britton has portrayed his world with passion, with vividness, with a wealth of illustrative detail, and with a considerable power of generalising thought. […] I am convinced that his book deserves to be widely read’ (p. xi). Russell was one of the very few people who had any idea of how much effort had been put into the book, and one of the few to know that a considerable effort had also been put into finding a publisher for it.

1Lionel Britton, letter, ‘Should Authors Be Paid?’, Everyman, 4 December 1930, [n. p.], [n. pg.], LBC, Box 12, Folder 10.

2[Geoffrey West], ‘Hunger and Love by Lionel Britton’, 19 February 1931, TLS, 131.

3H. P. J. Marshall, ‘Towards the Human: Lionel Britton — A New Force in the World of Thought’, New World, May 1930, p. 10, LBC, Box 12, Folder 11, (also Box 6, unnumbered folder); C. H. Norman, ‘The Revolutionary Spirit in Modern Literature and Drama — XII’, Saturday Review, 26 November 1936, p. 3, LBC, Box 12, Folder 10.

4George Rees, ‘An Epic of Hatred’, Egyptian Gazette, 28 January 1932, [n. pg.], LBC, Box 12, Folder 10.

5Bernard Shaw, letter to Sir Barry Jackson, 16 September 1929, LBC, Box 2, Folder.

6Hannen Swaffer, ‘Brain a Book Now’, [Daily Express], [1930], [n. pg.], in the possession of the present author.

7‘R. H. T.’, ‘Brain’, Manchester Guardian, 26 June 1930, [n. pg.], LBC, Box 13, Folder 15.

8Lyman Tower Sargent, British and American Utopian Literature, 1516–1985: An Annotated, Chronological Bibliography (Boston, MA: Hall, 1979; repr. New York: Garland, 1988), p. 188; Everett F. Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years: A Full Description of More Than 3,000 Science-Fiction Stories from the Earliest Times to the Appearance of the Genre Magazines in 1930 (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 1990), p. 85; John Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1993; rev. 1995), p. 161; Anthony Ralston, Edwin D. Reilly and David Hemmendinger, eds, Encyclopedia of Computer Science, 4th ed (New York: Grove’s Dictionaries, 2000), p. 706; Adam Daly, ‘The Lost Genius of Lionel Britton’, Wormwood, 6 (2006), pp. 47–57; Winifred Holtby, Virginia Woolf (London: Wishart, 1932), p. 58.

9Frank Swinnerton, ‘A Hero of Colossal Cheek!’, [n. pub.], [n. pg.], LBC, Box 12, Folder 11.

10Rebecca West, ‘The Exasperating Egotism of Lionel Britton’, Daily Telegraph, 20 February 1931, [n. pg.], LBC, Box 12, Folder 11.

11Harold Nicolson, ‘Nightmare Novel of an Author Who “Likes to Snarl”’, Daily Express, 19 February 1931, [n. pg.], LBC, Box 12, Folder 11.

12John A. Lee, Children of the Poor (London: Laurie, 1934; repr. Henry, 1949), front cover of dust jacket.

13‘J. L. L.’, ‘Hunger and Love: By Lionel Britton’, Johannesburg Sunday Times, 19 April 1931, [n. pg.], LBC, Box 12, Folder 10.

14Arnold Bennett, ‘Young Man’s Novel Slaps Your Cheek: Ferocious Hatred’, Evening Standard, 26 February 1931, [n. pg.], LBC, Box 18, Folder 3.

15Lionel Britton, ‘Caution to the Reader’, [n. d.], LBC, Series II: Drafts, Box 2, Folder 1.

16The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. by Peter Davison, 20 vols (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986–1998; rev. and updated 2000), A Patriot After All: 1940–1941, pp. 203–05. (Originally published as ‘Poverty — Plain and Coloured’ by ‘Eric Blair’, Adelphi, April 1931, pp. 80–82.)

17Andy Croft, Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), pp. 59–95.

18Stephen Garry, ‘“Hunger and Love”: The Story of a DEAD Worker’, Daily Worker, 28 March 1931, [n. pg.], LBC, Box 12, Folder 10.

19‘B. M.’, ‘Books to Buy’, Freedom: A Journal of Libertarian Thought, Work and Literature, May 1931, pp. 6–7.

20J. F. Horrabin, ‘“Hunger and Love”: A Real Proletarian Novel’, Plebs, September 1931, pp. 210–11 (p. 211).

21Philip Henderson, Literature: And a Changing Civilisation (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1935), pp. 143­–44.

22‘Hunger and Love by Lionel Britton’.

23‘An Epic of Hatred’.

24Bertrand Russell, Introduction, Hunger and Love, pp. vii–xi (p. vii).

(Hereafter all page references to Hunger and Love are given in parentheses following the quotation.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks this has really helped with my history presentation!