Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Literary rambles

The low hills of English literature are better for rambling on than the high peaks. They are often a better guide to the culture and history of the times in which they were written and should be more often visited.

A relief map of the twentieth century novel would show clearly, at an elevation of more than two thousand feet, works by Joseph Conrad, H.G.Wells, D.H.Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, E.M.Forster, Graham Greene, George Orwell and William Golding. A mountain has to be more than two thousand feet, unless it is very steep, in which case one thousand feet is enough to qualify. That might let in a few more. Iris Murdoch, Malcolm Lowry, Aldous Huxley. All quite steep in their own way. Serious climbers, add your own favourite peaks.

Rambling is a different kind of pastime. The view from the lower hills is less spectacular, but just as beautiful. You don’t see as far, but you see as much.

Coming in at under a thousand feet and recommended for the serious rambler are, among others, Mary Webb, Constance Holme, Jean Rhys, Louis Golding, T.F.Powys and Walter Greenwood. Serious ramblers may add their own favourites. I have chosen these to make a particular point.

It is that novelists once popular with readers and critics fall out of favour largely as a result of prejudice. The six writers I have chosen illustrate some of those prejudices.

First and perhaps most obvious is the prejudice against popularity itself. Most critics and some readers prefer books that other people find difficult. About half the high peaks come into this category, which is partly why they are there. Serious climbers like a challenge.

Mary Webb and Constance Holme were not just popular, they were rural, their novels set respectively in Shropshire and Westmoreland. Constance Holme’s characters lived in places with names like Sandholes and Marradyke, and said things like, ‘We’ve had t’watter up agen t’wall every night this week.’ Prue Sarn, the narrator of Precious Bane, tells the whole story in Shropshire dialect.

It was at a love-spinning that I saw Kester first, is how she starts. And if, in these new-fangled days, when strange inventions crowd upon us, when I hear tell there is even a machine coming into use in some parts of the country for reaping and mowing, if those that mayhappen will read this don’t know what a love-spinning was, they shall hear in good time. But though it was Jancis Beguildy’s love-spinning, she being three-and-twenty at that time and I being two years less, yet that is not the beginning of the story I have set out to tell.

It made an easy target for Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm. In southern and eastern Europe, where life on the land forms a major thread in the nation’s literature, there would have been nothing to parody. In class conscious England, it was irresistible.

It is telling that D.H.Lawrence, a working class boy from Nottingham, is going out of fashion, at risk of being down-graded from two thousand feet to one. His characters say things like, ‘Th’ gaffer come down to our stall this morning, an’ ’e says, “You know, Walter, this ’ere’ll not do. What about these props?” An’ I says to him, “Why, what art talkin’ about? What d’st mean about th’ props?” “It’ll never do, this ’ere,” ’e says. “You’ll be havin’ th’ roof in, one o’ these days.” An’ I says, “Tha’d better stan’ on a bit o’ clunch, then, an’ hold it up wi’ thy ’ead.” So ’e wor that mad, ’e cossed an’ ’e swore, an’ t’other chaps they did laugh.’

It’s the kind of thing that makes a writer difficult to translate. Leskov, for example, or Verga. It was Lawrence in fact who discovered Verga for the English and made the first translations of some of his short stories, Little Novels of Sicily, and one of his novels, Mastro-Don Gesualdo. Leskov and Verga are better known in England for the operas that Shostakovich and Mascagni made of their short stories, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Cavalleria Rusticana, than for anything of theirs that we have actually read.

Two kinds of prejudice then, each a kind of snobbery, one intellectual, the other social. To these we can add a third, which, like snobbery, takes different forms, but is essentially a prejudice against anyone who does not fit in, anyone who is – how shall we put it? – a bit odd.

T.F.Powys was very odd. His oddness took the form of believing in God and putting Him in his books, something that makes us feel uncomfortable, as we do when someone we pass in the street tries to thrust a religious tract into our hands. He is not the only writer on my list to be known only for one novel, in his case Mr Weston’s Good Wine.

Writing mainly in the 20’s and 30’s, he wrote several novels and numerous short stories, set in more or less fictional villages where men with names like Bottle and Priddle are tempted by girls who set traps for them on their way home from the pub. His rural England pullulates with sin and teeters on the brink of insanity. His stories leave you wondering on which side of the dividing line their author stands.

Jean Rhys was missing presumed dead for several years, during which time her early novels all went out of print, until she turned up again unexpectedly with Wide Sargasso Sea. She was odd too, but in a different way. For her, it was the oddness of not quite belonging, of being the odd one out. Anyone who has read the four novels she wrote before she vanished, while admiring Wide Sargasso Sea, is unlikely to think it her best work. The oddly detached voice that is her single most powerful characteristic struggles sometimes to be heard through the layers of plot with which she saddles herself in this prequel (the first of its kind?) to Jane Eyre. The earlier novels have narrative, but no plot. They have a single compelling voice. Wide Sargasso Sea has two, only one of which is hers. In Good Morning, Midnight, the last novel she wrote before her long silence, she brought that voice to perfection.

Some of Louis Golding’s novels, like Magnolia Street, the only one still in print, are set in the Jewish quarter of Manchester. The Miracle Boy, an early novel that met with no success at all, though Golding considered it his best, is set in the Tyrol and tells the story of a peasant boy who has miraculous powers. Given the various forms of prejudice to which, as a working class Jew from Manchester with an interest in the paranormal, he might have fallen victim, his disappearance from the nation’s bookshelves is hardly surprising, but a loss all the same.

Walter Greenwood wrote about the urban poor, specifically the factory workers of Salford where he grew up. Love on the Dole was a best seller in its day. It was made into a film and is now the only one of his novels still in print. Its unremitting hopelessness makes it a worthy successor to Jude the Obscure, though its urban setting and communist sympathies have more in common with Italian literature than English. For Salford, read Milan.

Some writers go out of fashion because what they wrote about was, like fashion, of its time and is now simply out of date. But in coming to that judgement about any writer, we need to be sure that we are not merely slaves to the fashion of our own time. Today’s map of English literature may tell us more about the prejudices of readers than it does about the quality of writers.

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys

Coming soon – IMAGINATION AND REALITY – If This Is A Man, Mr Emmanuel, Chasing the King of Hearts – three books about the Holocaust by Jewish authors, one Italian, one English, one Polish – read it here on 2 October.

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