Dunn, Nell. Poor Cow. Introd. Margaret Drabble. 1967. London: Virago: 2013.
—. Up the Junction. Drawings Susan Benson. Little Brown 1963. Washington: Counterpoint, 2000.
Garnett, Eve. The Family From One End Street. 1937. Introd. Julia Eccleshare, 2004. London: Puffin Modern Classics 2010.
Ten days or so ago as I was wandering along the South Bank, I saw Eve Garnett’s The Family From One End Street in Foyles and snapped it up. I have very happy memories of it being read to us when I was in primary school, and for some reason the episode that occurs in “Lily Rose and the Green Silk Petticoat” has remained with me ever since.
The book’s continued success lies, I suspect, in its joie-de-vivre and its ability to capture a child’s point of view. And, like all good books written for children, it doesn’t write down to the child reader. It is, however, a very class-conscious book, a book written in 1937 by a middle class author who “wanted to give ordinary children from the poorer areas of London some stories which reflected their own way of life” (Eccleshare, Introd. to FFOES). In fact, One End Street isn’t in London; it’s in the fictional Otwell-on-the-Ouse. Whatever its physical setting, The Family From One End Street makes the differences between the lives of the Ruggles family—father a dustman and mother taking in laundry—and of middle class families like the Beasleys or the Lawrences explicit. Except for Kate Ruggles’ passing the eleven plus, there is no suggestion of the possibility of social mobility, and Garnett does not sugar coat the “utter contempt” (145) shown by the “Fierce One,” a boy from a private school, when he encounters John Ruggles in “The Adventure of the Parked Car.”
Perhaps because it is written for children and because Garnett’s intention was to validate working class experience, the book’s overall tone is optimistic. However, the problems of large families, with babies coming almost yearly, of the risks involved with betting, and of the intrusion of authority in the form of the sanitary inspector are delineated quite clearly and sympathetically.
I enjoyed my reconnection with The Family From One End Street, but I was very aware that Garnett was writing from the outside looking in at the Ruggles and not from her own experience. Another reason why I was so interested to find Garnett’s book when I did was because just before I left for Europe, I had been reading Pat Barker’s Union Street, and I found I was making connections between what might seem at first to be two very different books.
I was introduced to Pat Barker through her Regeneration Trilogy and then read her later works. I approached Union Street, therefore, with a heightened anticipation. There is always something about discovering a novelist’s first published novel, something that I can’t quite articulate. Will one be disappointed? Will one see the writer the novelist is going to become, the writer with whom one is familiar? Will the first novel be very different from later work? Lawrence Durrell’s The Black Book (1938) comes to mind. Decades ago, I had just finished reading his Alexandria Quartet when I was given a, possibly illegal at the time, copy of The Black Book (1938) in the Olympia Press edition marked “Not for sale in the U.S.A. or U.K” (I have it still) and discovering that although I found the earlier work somewhat rough around the edges and even somewhat self-indulgent, I could see the beginnings of the writer that Durrell would become.
The situation is different, of course, if one begins at novel one and then follows the writer’s career. But perhaps not. Or perhaps one retains a certain fondness for that first novel, the book that introduced one to a writer. For me, A Summer Bird-Cage, Margaret Drabble’s first novel, is still the novel from among her entire work to which I return with most pleasure. Her later work is perhaps more complex, more sophisticated, even more “literary,” but I still find the tightness of A Summer Bird-Cage, and the empathic relationship created with its narrator intensely satisfying. Then again, perhaps it is my memories of the context in which I first read the novel that contribute to my pleasure. But I digress.
To return to Union Street. From one perspective, one could be forgiven for defining the work as not so much a novel as a collection of connected short stories. In seven chapters, Barker presents the stories of seven women, all of whom live in Union Street, “a big step up”(195) from Wharfe Street, and an improvement on Bute Street where the “the men [are] in prison and the women spending the social security money at the prize Bingo” (191). Young and old, the women confront a world of poverty and violence. Barker focuses on the often brutal physicality of the women’s lives, particularly their sexual lives, which appear somehow joyless and unfulfilling. Unwanted pregnancies are endured or ended with stoicism. To be a woman in Union Street is to be condemned to blood, to pain, to loss. And yet, capturing the strange beauty of industrial slums, Barker’s diction is often lyrical even as it evokes an atmosphere of menace: “beyond the chemical works in the far distance the sun was setting, obscured by columns of drifting brown and yellow smoke. A brutal, bloody disc scored by factory chimneys, it seemed to swell up until it filled half the western sky” (64). While there may be no traditional happy endings in Union Street, Barker celebrates survival, hope, love, acceptance. The seven women ultimately face life on their own terms.
As I considered Barker’s work, I couldn’t help comparing it with two works I’d meant to discuss here last year, Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction and Poor Cow. In works distanced both by time, nearly two decades, and place, London and the North East, both Dunn and Barker present working class women and let them speak for themselves. This is particularly true of Dunn’s works that are written in the first person and depend heavily on highly colloquial dialogue. Perhaps Dunn’s Battersea is slightly more transgressive, more upbeat than Barker’s Union Street, but underneath their exuberance, Dunn’s women are accepting of their lot, define themselves, even in their apparent sexual freedom, by their relationships, however transient, with men.
In her introduction to the Virago edition of Poor Cow, Margaret Drabble comments that we “might well now view Joy [the narrator] not as a symbol of liberation, but as someone to be liberated” (xxi). I agree. One of my concerns with and for the women in Union Street was how similar their situations appeared to those of Dunn’s Battersea women of the sixties, and I realized that in fact the late sixties and the early eighties are actually closer to each other than the early eighties are to today. (Clichés about fleeting time intrude here). In all three works, the women seem incapable of making any substantive social or political change. Their strengths are internal, personal.
Such critique as it is comes not from within the works but from without, from our response to what we read. And here, just as we are with Garnett’s book for children, we are faced with the difficulties of dealing with class. Drabble suggests that “Nell Dunn felt she had discovered a world where women did not depend on male patronage” (PC xv), and Dunn herself writing a Preface to Poor Cow in 2013 recalls that “women really ruled the roost in those days” (x). Here, I disagree. I’m not sure women really did rule their men. Dunn writing from the perspective of someone who was running away from Chelsea, who was “a refugee from smarter and more moneyed circles” (Drabble, PC xiv) had a sense that she was doing something “forbidden” (PC xii). Her work, therefore, no matter how sympathetic with the Battersea women, presents them filtered through the perspective of her own desire for and definition of freedom from middle-class expectations.
Drabble praises Dunn for writing “across the class barrier without indulging in sentimentality or patronage” (PC xv). This is true, as it is true for Barker and Garnett. Nevertheless, all three writers create a world where we are looking in from outside, and at times, this sense of voyeurism, of seeing “how the other half live” is discomforting, and elicits what for want of a better phrase I’d define as “middle class guilt.”
The question of whether such guilt is a luxury or not takes me beyond the realm of a book review.