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?

A single topic occupies our minds.
’Tis hinted at or boldly blazoned in
Our accents, clothes, and ways of eating fish,
And being introduced and taking leave ...
That topic all-absorbing, as it was,
Is now and ever shall be, to us – CLASS.

The tone there, to be sure, is pseudo-ingratiating, dropping – perhaps deliberately – the wonderful zany spontaneity of Betjeman’s social démarches. But the interesting thing is that the poetry’s tone invites us deliberately, perhaps irritatingly so, to take the whole thing on a poetic level. Class can be seen as an aspect of literature rather than of our daily behaviour. And indeed that is a very good way to look at it, because poetry and the novel would be all the poorer without the reader grasping their multitude of class nuances; and being ‘perpetually concerned’, as Lionel Trilling put it, ‘to catch the meaning of every dim implicit hint’.

And this brings us right up against the real problem. Since literature is about human variety, it is inevitably about attitudes taken to that variety, and it is in the nature of literature that these should be more exact, more sharp and more meticulous than any we take in life. We become snobs by reading novels, even if we were not snobbish before, because otherwise we are missing a very great deal. It would be idle to deny that Hardy and Lawrence, and their readers, are not absorbed in the social position of Tess and Mellors and Lady Chatterley, as well as all its sexual and other implications. In order to perceive the writer’s attitudes, the reader has to get in with them and sympathise with them. But if in so doing he is drawn into all the ramifications of snobbery, he need only become, as it were, a notional snob, and to be a notional snob may well be the best sort of inoculation or therapy against the real thing.

Betjeman’s snobbery is like his enthusiasm for churches – an emotional and aesthetic passion. As Proust says, snobs are often poets, in whose breasts a whole springtide of social flowers are bursting. He should know – he was one himself. But if one defines a snob as one who takes what seems to others an excessive interest in class – the unmentionable topic – then it is surely better that it should be taken openly and lyrically, like an enthusiasm for punk rock or motor-cycles or the history of the musical. Class enthusiasts rarely suffer from the symptoms of snobbery that connect it with all the other real vices: the cruelty and aggression of insecurity, for instance. They are rarely serious competitors in the deadly business of oneupmanship. Proust or Somerset Maugham may have been the exceptions, but like most good novelists they are preoccupied as much with power as with class.

Furbank mentions some lord who said it was ‘middle-class not to decant champagne’. Attitudes to this pronouncement might be taken as a good instance of the difference between ‘unholy pleasure’ and true snobbery. As in the case of the fishknives, most people would be moderately fascinated by the relation between what is or was ‘done’ in the best circles, and what is effective or sensible in terms of gastronomic practice. Our participation in the idea would be a case of literary or notional snobbery. A few persons, on the other hand, might be genuinely pierced by the imputation, and decide – though obviously without drawing attention to the reason why – either to decant their champagne in future, or negligently to suggest that they preferred to ignore the practice in the interest of keeping their liquor fizzy and cold. They would be practical snobs, of the kind who over the years have altered social custom, and who still tend to determine who goes where, who does which, and who wears what. The example is a frivolous one, but it illustrates the actual dynamics of class practice, and how social oneupmanship operates, and perhaps always will operate, in a nominally egalitarian society, whether in Russia or the West or anywhere else.

However disagreeable the social tyranny of what was worn or not worn, done or not done, it was as nothing by comparison with the social pressures exerted by the modern Communist or theocratic state. And so strong are the instincts involved that people in a free society will play at conformity even when there is no need to practise it. That seems to be the real impulse behind radical chic, and the social attitudes mocked in a New Statesman competition.

Now, Justin and Cressida, listen to mummy.
Tomorrow you start at the Junior Mixed.
Both daddy and I feel that children should try
To interrelate before life-styles get fixed.

The children were further exhorted to ‘wear their ecology badges, and play with the ethnics no matter what sort’. It was a witty little poem, but the significant thing, as I recall, was the setter’s reference to ‘this very SDP couple’, who were making an elaborate charade of doing what to genuine Labour voters came naturally and instinctively. One of the ‘unholy pleasures’ on the increase today is for the political parties to mock each other’s lifestyles, hypocrisies, inverted snobberies.

This goes with the lingering assumption that there is some escape route, perhaps via politics, from the states of competitive insecurity produced by class-consciousness. The New Statesman, oddly enough, was implying something very like the idea of the gentleman – nature’s gentlemen – in suggesting that artificial preoccupation with proper lifestyles and enlightened behaviour was characteristic of bogus movements like the SDP. Justin and Cressida’s parents were being sneered at for having the right ideas, but flaunting them as ostentatiously as the Veneerings and the Verdurins used to flaunt the wrong ones. It seems unfair, because to hold the right ideas, even for snobbish reasons, may lead to the genuine practice of them, but there is no fairness in class politics. And by invoking the true gentleman line, even if only tacitly, Labour orthodoxy is doing exactly what the Victorians did: using the gentleman, with his instinctive rightness and his total indifference to social stigmas and anxieties, as a way of escape from class imbecilities. An ideal gentleman has never heard of class, or if he has he ignores it.

‘And please try to call it the loo not the toilet,’ implores mummy as Justin and Cressida embark on democratic education. You could get a gentleman in trouble on this right away, for even he must presumably call it something? However satisfactory as an ideal, gentlemanliness turns out in practical matters to be something of a mirage. To the pure all things are pure, and we should just continue using whatever terms and accents we grew up with, but in practice there are snags. We all know that the lord who called it middle-class not to decant champagne was no gentleman, because his remark shows him to belong to the all-too-conscious and class-ridden majority. Thackeray and Trollope and Meredith all strove hard in their novels to illustrate and embody the gentleman ideal, but Furbank is surely right in saying that consciousness, and their self-consciousness, prevent them by definition from doing so. In her excellent book Trollope and the Idea of the Gentleman Shirley Letwin showed how Trollope came closest of the Victorian authors to creating a picture of social morality based on that ideal, but that was because he was less worried than the others about its possible application to himself.

Meredith, by contrast, was obsessed with it. The son of a tailor, he was determined to be not only a gentleman but a prince in disguise – one of nature’s princes, as it were. The novelist is not excluded from such personal ambitions and anxieties by his office. His participation in them may indeed give its particular bite and personality to his fantasy, as in the case of Evelyn Waugh, or it may impose limitations on his sense of reality, as Furbank feels it does in the case of Meredith and Thackeray. (There is even something self-limiting about Tom Jones as a novel – for the same kind of reason?) As Furbank points out, the novels of Thackeray, Meredith and Trollope frequently take their very form from a social absolute – who is and who isn’t – which must be fundamentally unreal. ‘Evan Harrington is, in its structure, a suspense story about gentility. It shows how, through many testings, Evan manages ultimately to prove himself a “gentleman” while ... his sister the Countess, for all her Napoleonic social strivings, is never even for a moment on the track of being a “lady”.’ The ultimate mauvaise foi here is the collusion – quite a cosy one in its way – between novelist and reader. Since the reader is reading, enjoying and understanding the novel he must be a gentleman, because he and the author are capable of deciding together who is and who isn’t. But surely the flaw here, which Furbank misses, is that no true lady or gent does pass such a judgment on the subject on others? Logically, therefore, no reader or writer of these novels can be a gentleman.

Not a bad thing either, perhaps. Dickens ignored the sanctity of the term, which upset the gentleman who thought he could not portray one. Furbank quotes G.K. Chesterton on the point: ‘When people say that Dickens could not describe a gentleman ... they mean he did not describe a gentleman as gentlemen feel a gentleman. He described them in the way he described waiters, or railway guards, or men drawing with chalk on the pavement ... He described them ... from the outside, as he described any other oddity or special trade.’ Chesterton puts his finger on the fact that gentlemen are normally described ‘from the point of view of one who either belongs to, or is interested in perpetuating, that type’. Sir Leicester Dedlock, or little Twemlow and Eugene Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend, are brilliantly observed objective specimens, done by a writer who had all the confidence of the class without giving a damn about belonging to it. Oddly enough, Henry James was in the same position because, as Ralph Touchett says, ‘being an American here, you don’t belong to any class.’ The Portrait of a Lady is not about a lady in the English sense, but about a specimen of a particular sort of American girlhood, done as objectively as Dickens’s ladies and gentlemen, and finally acquiring, through dignity and self-sacrifice, something of the status which the English class implicitly claims for itself. Part of James’s intention seems to be to show that a girl who doesn’t ‘belong to any class’ can none the less behave in accordance with a particularly superior class ideal. James became a kind of objective snob, independent of class conditioning and prejudice.

Furbank even manages to find new and interesting things to say about Marx – quite an achievement – and he is illuminating when discussing the class-consciousness of Nietzsche and the permutations of the honnête homme and the bourgeoisie. But he is best of all on the novel, and particularly on the contribution of Modernism to the novel’s escape from the bonds of social class and its unholy pleasures. This is so instructive as to amount to a wholly new theory of what Modernism was up to, whether on purpose or unintentionally, and it depends on Modernism’s experiment with the emancipated consciousness, uncontrolled by social exigence and speaking to us out of its own privacy. The techniques, and particularly the interior monologue, ‘militate against social absolutes and work strongly in favour of egalitarianism, indeed almost compel it’. If Virginia Woolf had used the interior monologue more radically and consistently, she would not be the snob in her writing that is sometimes revealed. Those critics ab extra, the author and his reader, would necessarily be dissolved into an impersonal continuum of multiple intimacy, the intimacy which Hannah Arendt claimed as a comparatively recent invention, and one which the novel was only just learning how to use and embody.

Novelists, says Furbank, have steadily grown more intimate with their characters, and ‘it is above all to intimacy that “class-distinctions” are a barrier. “Class” is a barrier phenomenon, a concept only experienced vividly by people when in the presence of a barrier.’ Now that the forms of the novel require extended intimacy rather than discriminatory processes of distinguishing and judging, it also begins to offer a genuine escape route from ‘class’. Instead of the novelist and his reader ‘opting out’ of the class struggle by their licence to belong, like Lawrence, ‘absolutely to no class’, the novel’s appeal will be to human solidarity and to a kind of communal self-scrutiny, an introspection that will ‘unthink’ the preoccupations of class.

Is there an element of wish-fulfilment, even naivety, about this? Possibly, and yet the idea is so interesting, and in a sense so promising, because it enables Furbank to sidetrack the old argument that class of some sort is a constant factor in any society, and that – as Thackeray implies – ‘to be concerned with “snobbery” is itself snobbish, so that there is an infinite regress and no escape.’ It also leads Furbank to a startlingly novel interpretation of Proust’s method, which he reckons, like that of Joyce, to be ‘profoundly egalitarian’. I fancy he is right, on his own terms. Proust is not running a competition, and no social judgment is ever passed on his characters by his method of describing them. Nor need we disbelieve Marcel when he tells us that he ‘has never made distinctions between classes’. As in Joyce, the impersonal and relative method places the reader among the characters as he might be placed in an ideal society, where we participate without either standing aside or having to conform.

But, as important as it is, this is surely only half the picture. Though Furbank ingeniously urges the idea that impersonality in Modernist art can lead us to communal intimacy, the prospect is not necessarily a very alluring one. Proust and Joyce are all very well, but the depersonalisation of so much modern art – particularly the visual arts – has a depressingness about it closely related to its avoidance of those myriad individual nuances which are the groundwork of personal taste and response, and hence of all the factors that make up social distinction. Class distinction is the price we pay in the West for our freedom to be socially different from other people: and our art – above all, the novel – has always encouraged an awareness of such differences. Besides, to stress the impersonality of Proust and Joyce must in the end be very perverse. Not only do they create characters with whom we have a highly personal relation, just as we do with the denizens of other novels, but they are themselves constantly subject, by virtue of their individual genius, to the kinds of personal appraisal and criticism that we bestow upon everybody else. We can look into their vanities and weaknesses, and congratulate ourselves on doing so, just as we do with other persons in society – except that a novelist who is a great genius is also specially interesting to get to know as a human being. The novelist’s true destiny is to give himself away and not care that he does so. In class matters, that is perhaps what we should all do.