Almost four years ago, I included a review of Pat Barker’s first novel Union Street in my post “Rambles in Dead End Streets.” Today, I’m considering her third novel. The copy I have from my local library is the original Virago edition with the title The Century’s Daughter. You may also find the work under its later title Liza’s England.
Set in a northern English town, the novel begins when Stephen a community social worker attempts to persuade Liza Wright “née Jarrett” (5) to move from the house where she has lived since 1922 to sheltered accommodation. Liza is the only remaining resident in the street, which is slated for demolition, and Stephen knows his task is almost impossible. Liza is adamant she will not move. What follows is a double narrative driven at first by Liza and Stephen’s conversations and then moving easily among Liza’s memories, her present, and Stephen’s own present. Liza tells the young man about being born at exactly the same moment as the twentieth century and so earning the name “The century’s daughter.” Much of the novel relates what brought Liza to be the lone hanger on in her street, but it also follows Stephen, separated from his roots by his education and by his, unstated to his parents, homosexuality.
As Liza and Stephen come to know and like each other, Barker draws a sensitive, empathic picture of English working-class life from the beginning of the twentieth century to the days of Thatcherism. Where there was once thriving industry, there is now unemployment. Stephen’s prime focus in his job is “to try to get things going for unemployed youngsters.” Those “things” do not include jobs, only “ways of passing the time” (38) for “Dole-queue wallahs built like their steel-making and ship-building fathers, resembling them in this, if in nothing else” (71).
The world into which Liza was born is totally devasted, laid waste around her, destroyed possibly more by the economic situation than it ever was by two world wars. What has been lost is not only the bricks and mortar of the old narrow terraces with their crowded houses, but the sense of neighbourhood or community that once made Liza’s neighbourhood a vibrant, connected place.
The jacket blurb of describes the characters in The Century’s Daughter as “people who have had short shrift both in literature and in life.” This description caught my attention. Barker’s novel goes some way towards addressing this neglect. Written without condescension, The Century’s Daughter provides an empathic appreciation of how one segment of society survived and adapted to the challenges of the twentieth century. Arguably, the situation in Britain has not improved much since 1986. The blast furnaces no longer roar to make steel; whole mining villages are gone; the world of work has shifted. Where once people milled steel, spun cotton, sewed clothing, built ships, the buildings stand empty or gentrified into luxury apartments. Un or under employment is the ongoing lot of many, not only in Britain. Many of Barker’s later books—I’m thinking here of The Regeneration Trilogy and of Life Class,Toby’s Room, and Noonday—are sequentially connected, and I am sorely tempted to wonder what she might envision if she were to address where Stephen’s life might be now: better or worse? I shall not give in to that temptation. Rather, I shall use the thoughts elected by the novel to think a little about literature about people often given “short shrift” in life and in literature.
For the most part, English literary fiction has, indeed, tended not to valorise the lives of the poor. Even in novels that one might define as including social critique, the people who labour tend to appear as supporting characters. Think about Gaskell’s North and South, or Brontë’s Shirleyor Jane Eyre, for example. I might argue that on occasion Dickens and Hardy sometimes present a broader view. There was, of course, what one might call a surge of working-class “heroes” in the mid-fifties to mid-sixties, but then what? You might be interested in re/(?)reading Tim Lott’s article in The Guardianfrom February 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/07/loneliness-working-class-writer-english-novelists.
Lott makes a distinction between English writers and others writing in English: Scots such as Ali Smith and Irvine Welsh, for example. He further distinguishes writers such as Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, and Hanif Kureishi as “post-colonial voices.” For me, his article raised a lot of questions about the definitions of Englishness, Britishness, and class. Just where today are the divides between the working and the middle and upper classes? Do we look at income, occupation, family background, location, ethnicity, or aesthetic values? Or at that great British divide: vowel sounds? Often what separates people is access to education and the effects of education. These questions obviously go beyond the scope of a short blog post; however, I would argue that the fact that reading Barker’s novel elicits these kinds of questions and set me looking for other commentary on working class literature further testifies to the strength of that novel