Keeping up with the novelists

John Bayley

  • Unholy Pleasure: The Idea of Social Class by P.N Furbank
    Oxford, 154 pp, £9.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 19 215955 0

None of us, individually, it may be, want to be caring or cultured or classless, or to belong to a particular class. The three C’s are for other people. In repudiating the categories, we repudiate, in one sense, the society we live in – a very practical example of Marxian alienation. And a significant one, because caring, culture and class are all more or less modern concepts. ‘Caring’, the imperative now laid on all persons in the community, has taken over from the social responsibilities that went with rank and status. Culture is a 19th-century invention designed to inculcate a national and racial heritage of art and literature on an egalitarian basis. And class was invented in an age of nominal equalities to put our differences on a comfortably scientific and sociological basis.

But class paradoxically became a far more emotive affair than degrees and ranks had been. A natural result of the 19th-century process, which in its turn provokes the repudiation and alienation found, characteristically, in D.H. Lawrence’s autobiographical sketch: ‘One can belong absolutely to no class.’ All classes are prisons. But it may give cachet to have belonged to one, to the working class especially, as it does to have been at a war, or in a real prison. It is commonplace today, among politicians and others, to boast of coming from ‘good working-class stock’. This implies ‘good’ because working-class, though it includes coming from a warm responsible caring family instead of one that was depraved, careless or ignorant. It might make sense to speak of coming from good middle-class stock, or even a good upper-class one, yet such claims are now rarely if ever put forward. The working class, which is never nowadays called the lower class, is the only one still licensed to boast about its culture and virtues. Other classes, though readily recognisable to the observer in terms of their behaviour and aspirations, do not talk about these things in class terms. The working class is also the only one whose representatives are entitled to talk about the class struggle, meaning, not the progress towards a vague egalitarianism, but a victory for their own class and its values.

Since the individual rarely admits that he is involved in the business at all, it is not the easiest of topics to involve oneself in by writing about. One can take a romantic historical view (The Making of the English Working Class), a facetious one – ‘unholy pleasure’, as P.N. Furbank reprovingly calls it – or attempt a pose of scientific detachment. Each has its limitations. Furbank tries to be himself, as it were, but he cannot refrain from taking the proper line by pointing out that ‘the chatter grows slightly odious,’ and ‘people in Britain at the moment talk much too much about “class”.’ His last chapter begins: ‘There is no doubt that hearing too much talk about “class”, and all the more writing a book about it, gives one a longing for escape.’ Then why write the book, and seek to sterilise the hated subject with single inverted commas? Pleasure in and love for a subject are usually considered the best qualifications for writing about it. One would hardly wish to read a book on wine by a man who disliked and distrusted the stuff and called it ‘wine’.

Indeed the bien-pensants still take a stern view, as once about sex, on the proper way to approach the topic. Dr Paul Fussell, who recently wrote a light-hearted book on the American class system, got some very stuffy reviews. ‘Decent people know about these things but don’t talk about them’ still seems surprisingly the accepted thing, observed in their different ways by all classes, and Furbank himself seems surprised by the fact that frankness and open talk, which should normally be all to the good, in this case ‘grow slightly odious’. So on occasion does sexual frankness, but nowadays we are not allowed to say so. Furbank seems to be falling here into the same trap, as he calls it, as Lady Longford did in a radio interview which he quotes from.

Interviewer: Would it be right to say you come from a comfortable middle-class family?

Lady Longford Upper middle class ... That was what we were told. I never knew what it meant. I investigated later, but I could never find out. It doesn’t exist.

Funny thing. She knew all about it, but when she went into the matter it didn’t exist. A very proper attitude, not so dissimilar from Furbank’s need to dissociate himself from any appearance of fascination with class, or Fussell’s engaging discovery of a 13th (or was it 14th) category to which we can all belong, because it escapes the characteristics of all the other ones.

Granted that jokiness on the subject always has something a bit disingenuous behind it, it seems unnecessarily severe to call such humour ‘malodorous’. Need we feel superior about Betjeman’s verses about ‘Phone for the fishknives, Norman,’ or about the lines in his Summoned by Bells that Furbank quotes?

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in