A worked-up version of my talk at the ‘Life vs Fiction’ event held on Wednesday 20 March in Brunel University Library. (Note: this includes some points and arguments already made on this blog).
My British Academy funded project, Understanding Social Change through Autobiographical Narrative, asks how do the diaries and memoirs of ordinary British people reflect periods of intense social change? Underpinned by a set of ideas and questions, it sets out to explore the role of narrative self-reflexivity in helping people understand and adapt (sometimes retrospectively) to two key periods of change, 1939-43 and 1981-4, through research into the Mass Observation Archive (Brighton) and the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography (held at Brunel). Today, I’m talking in particular about the Burnett Archive and one of the writers, Harold Heslop, whose typescript autobiography is included within it.
I have discussed working-class autobiography and proletarian autobiografiction in previous posts on this blog. Heslop is one of several writers whose typescripts in the Burnett Archive record the political experience of trade unionism, socialism and communism during the interwar years (in a later post I will discuss the significance of the prevalence of such accounts) but he was also a novelist during this period. A comparison between his autobiography – published as Out of the Old Earth (1994) – and his autobiografictional novels such as The Gate of a Strange Field (1929), The Journey Beyond (1930) and Last Cage Down (1935) suggests some of the significant features of these two self-reflexive narrative forms and how they link together. Specifically, I am interested in how self-reflexive writing feeds back into the life as it is lived; the question of whether self-reflexive writing is a mode of being in the world. In Heslop’s case, it is further intriguing to consider how his fictional self-explorations might have extended his range of experience and shaped his outlook and opinions. In the further research which will eventually appear on this topic, I will feature other writers as well as Heslop, such as Walter Brierley. However, not only did significantly fewer working-class women write autobiographies of the period but also hardly any of them published books in the 1930s; two notable exceptions being the Labour politicians Jennie Lee and Ellen Wilkinson. Perhaps the most published female working-class writer of the period was the best-selling novelist, Ethel Mannin. Mannin’s autobiographies, including Confessions and Impressions (1930) and Privileged Spectator (1939), are included (as is Heslop’s autobiography) in Burnett, Vincent and Mayall’s three-volume critical annotated bibliography, The Autobiography of the Working Class (1984, 1987, 1989) but she is not represented in the Burnett Archive. I don’t have space within the (time) constraints of this (spoken) paper for more than a couple of brief references to her but I will include a more detailed analysis of her work in the eventual full-length version.
‘Autobiografiction’ is an Edwardian term that has been recently revived by Max Saunders. It describes a category of writing which is more than just autobiographical fiction in that it allows writers to transform themselves through their creative practice and not only represent, but also discover, a different, fuller and more complex understanding of selfhood:
Autobiografiction can include material that writers may prefer not to own in their own person; but rather than suggesting that their fiction gives them away, either consciously or unconsciously, they are claiming that the fictional permits a fuller autobiography. This is partly a matter of its being able to include the shameful as well as the honourable, and thus assemble a more complete, more human, picture. (Saunders 2010: 205)
The appearance of autobiografiction over the fin-de-siècle can be related to the changes in subjectivity referenced by Virginia Woolf’s famous declaration in her essay ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown’ that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’. A mixture of technological change, mass education and new thinking (Marx, Darwin, Freud) resulted in the old Victorian hierarchical order tipping over into a fluid modern society. As Woolf noted, one of the key changes was in the experience of working-class women:
The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing-room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more solemn instances of the power of the human race to change?
As Michael Tratner notes, 1910 was the last year in which the Liberal Party won an election. From henceforward there was a political change in human relations so that the Labour Party became the main antagonist of the Conservatives before going on to form their first government in 1924, the year that Woolf wrote ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown’: ‘after 1910, the working class left its obscurity and began to read and write and exercise its own genius in public’ (Tratner 1995: 54). A key component of this change in class consciousness was the rise of ‘proletarian literature’ (here defined broadly as in Hubble 2017 rather than in the narrower ‘Proletkult’ sense), subsequently dated by George Orwell as originating with the meeting between Ford Madox Ford and D.H. Lawrence leading to Ford publishing working-class stories by Lawrence, such as ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ (1911) in the English Review. Lawrence set the template for working-class writers – especially those like Heslop and Brierley who also came from mining communities – to reject autobiography as a means of communicating their experience because as a genre it was too complicit with 19th century discourses of progress and the hierarchical ordering of society.
In Crisis and Criticism, first published in 1937, Alick West identified the question facing modernist writers in the interwar period: “When I do not know any longer who are the “we” to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who ‘I’ am either” (19). As I argue in The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (2017), this is the modernist question and the answer was provided by the self-reflexive intersubjective and intersectional practice of proletarian literature, broadly conceived. What characterises high modernist texts such as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) is the autobiografictional discovery of modern subjectivity through exploring intersubjective relations with the working class, albeit with the suggestion of a conscious-unconscious relationship (i.e., in crude terms, the modernist subject is made conscious of their unconscious through the interaction with the working-class other). On one level, proletarian literature showed (as did Mass Observation) an equally full working-class subjectivity which interacted with the bourgeois individual as other. Furthermore, however, proletarian literature automatically placed the working-class subject in a relationship with other working-class subjects that was not othered but collective; enabling the pronoun ‘we’. We can consider the key works of proletarian literature, alongside those of Woolf and Joyce and some others, as the collective expression of a changed subjectivity that was orientated towards a transformed future (not the Welfare State but one that hasn’t yet come about) which was dependent on an autobiografictional move beyond the limits of the self as defined by the culture of the period.
So if we briefly turn back to Ethel Mannin – ‘Born 1900 in Clapham, South London. One of three children of a letter-sorter in the Civil Service’ (Burnett, Vincent and Mayall 1987: 204) – we see a change of attitude during the 1930s following the publication of her first (very successful) autobiography, Confessions and Impressions, (reissued as a Penguin paperback in January 1937) leading to a transformation in her priorities: ‘The development of a sense of responsibility reaching beyond the individual ego puts an embargo on Hedonism and enlarges the conception of freedom’ (Mannin 1939: 14). This transformation can be traced through her fiction: Crescendo (1929) and Ragged Banners (1931) – autobiografictional novels featuring ‘Mary Thane’ – had been ‘written in … a kind of creative auto-intoxication … It was all flashy and provocative and the succession of books form a more and complete and illuminative record of my mental evolution than any diary could have conveyed.’ (Mannin 1939: 21). As the decade progressed she reworked her autobiographical material firstly to explore her working-class childhood in novels such as Venetian Blinds (1933) and then to allow her ‘political feelings to emerge’ (Mannin 1929: 74) in Cactus (1935), in which ‘Elizabeth Rodney’ is the autobiografictional protagonist. Her fiction was not the vehicle for representing her socialism but the medium through which she developed her own very distinctive approach as reflected in her pacifism, work with the ILP (and her friendship with George Orwell), and her political writing, including Woman and the Revolution (1938). The way that Mannin transformed herself through her autobiografiction can be seen in how she then wrote about her life in her second volume of autobiography, Privileged Spectator.
Heslop’s parallel process of autobiografictional transformation presents an interesting and gendered contrast. Burnett, Vincent and Mayall describe him as a ‘minor novelist’ (1989: 33) alongside his interests (‘reading, gardening and classical music’) rather than occupations, as opposed to Mannin’s unequivocal status as ‘professional author’ (1987: 204). Minor novelist is an old-fashioned designation reflecting a hierarchal perspective no longer found in literary criticism. H. Gustav Klaus made fun of such categories by titling his article on Heslop, originally published in 1982, ‘Harold Heslop: Miner Novelist’ (Klaus 2018: 89-105). But, of course, part of the point of interwar proletarian literature, such as the work of Heslop, was that it contested the literary hierarchies of the time. While, retrospectively, proletarian literature was made fun of in the 1950s and then dismissed as being of any interest whatsoever by Samuel Hynes in his influential The Auden Generation (1972), Alick West argued at the time in the 1930s that ‘the bourgeois attitude to life is unfavourable, and the proletarian favourable, to the creation of good literature’ (1937: 181). This bourgeois attitude was a product of the nineteenth century:
In the nineteenth century, when the antagonism between socialisation of production and capitalist relations had not yet reached the acute stage, when capitalism still seemed to be permanent, the novel in its general construction deals with the direct relations of a limited number of people within bourgeois society, seen from the standpoint of what these relations mean for the hero and the heroine. (West 1937: 164)
For West, modernism in general was a response to the collapse of those apparently stable nineteenth-century social relations but the importance of Joyce’s Ulysses in particular was that it marked a new realisation that: ‘the individual’s world is not within the four walls that protect money, board and bed. His world is his society’ (164). This realisation was an important step towards answering the modernist question of how to relate the ‘I’ to the ‘we’ –indicated by Heslop making Ulysses the subject of the penultimate chapter of Crisis and Criticism – but it was still limited by Joyce’s tendency to focus on acts of consumption while more-or-less ignoring the social relations of the production process and the class conflicts surrounding it. Therefore, West ultimately judges Ulysses to be characterised by weary resentment at, and vengeance against, an array of social forces – capitalism and catholicism – which offer Joyce no sense of social satisfaction: ‘[Ulysses] does not organise social energy; it irritates it, because it gives it no aim it can work for’ (West 1937: 180). As an example of a novel which does organise the social energy of productive activity, West identifies Heslop’s The Gate of a Strange Field, to which he devotes the final chapter of Crisis and Criticism thereby in effect elevating it above Ulysses in literary importance.
When Crisis and Criticism was republished in 1975, at the zenith of critical disregard for the working class and proletarian literature of the interwar years, the final chapter on Heslop was omitted. In The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question, I argued that taking Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair (1932-4) as the next step on from Joyce would have revealed ‘a proletarian-modernist trajectory from the work of Joyce and Lawrence that, unlike the version outlined in West’s Crisis and Criticism as leading to the work of Harold Heslop, would not now appear to be a dead end but actually lead on through Gibbon to contemporary literature in Scotland, such as James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still (2010). (Hubble 2017: 115). Of course, it would be best to have a whole range of books and authors representing the stage ‘beyond’ Joyce in order to demonstrate a ‘proletarian-modernist’ strategy (and in some ways my book was an attempt to map out that range) but I was trying to make the point that if you limit yourself to picking one text, then a Heslop novel might not be the best example. The reason for his unsuitability is that the trajectory of his fiction appears to lead to an almost stereotypically crude version of the worker as all-powerful male hero, such as Jim Cameron, the miner protagonist of Last Cage Down (1935):
The whole being of a man must be in tune with the silver rock before him and the frowning strata about him. He must know when to kirve, when to knick, when to smash down the ‘caunch’. He must make this dead coal speak, speak with many tongues of coal, weep as a woman weeps when she mourns. If he is skilful he will make the coal leap voluntarily from its fastness with a shriek of joy […]. (Heslop 1984: 3)
The only other time Jim Cameron feels like a proper man is when he is with Betty, the barmaid from the Red Lion: ‘She was a likeable lass, one with whom a man could become a man because she was essentially a woman possessed of the rich virtues and treasures of a woman’ (Heslop 1984: 55). Heslop’s frank (for the time) depiction of sex between Jim and Betty provoked Mannin to write to him in admonishment on 7 December 1935:
I thought the incident a mistake, myself, not on moral grounds, but on artistic ones. And dammit, all adult people know how [it’s] done; why go into the details? […] I mean it’s gratuitous. Of course, ‘he went into her.’ [Heslop 1984: 190] What else would he do? If he had done something original it might be worth recording. (qtd Croft 1993: 216)
The criticism here has an edge to it. The subtextual implication is that Heslop could do something more interesting with his portrayal of gender relations alongside the more overt account of class relations in the novel. It is also significant that Mannin is making this criticism on aesthetic grounds; she clearly doesn’t see Heslop as purely a writer of propaganda. One of the reasons that I’m currently working my way through Mannin’s extensive oeuvre of the period is to see if there is a way of reading her work both alongside and against Heslop’s that reveals cultural coordinates invisible to the dominant reception paradigms that have consigned both to relative obscurity (neither are currently in print). However, even before that project is completed, it is possible to revise a stereotypical reading of Heslop by expanding the analysis of Last Cage Down to include his other fiction and comparing to this to the autobiography he wrote in later life. The subject of West’s praise in Crisis and Criticism, The Gate of a Strange Field is now so rare that the only accessible copy I could find was in the British Library). Although Goaf was written earlier and published in Russian translation in the Soviet Union, the (original) English language edition did not appear until 1934, meaning that GSF was Heslop’s first novel to be published in English. GSF is interesting because of its gendered criticisms of male worker subjectivity as predicated on the acceptance of the conditions of capitalism and the British national interest (i.e. there is an implied critique of ‘Labourism’ in the novel). In other words, as we shall see, GSF seems to have more in common with Mannin’s implied position than that which Heslop adopted for LCD. It should also be noted that shifts in the Communist Party line have coloured the reception of Heslop’s novels, which are in fact relatively consistent in their anti-Labourist positions. The critical, proto-intersectional stance of GSF (1929) was seen as undermining proletarian subjectivity and therefore reviewed as ‘social fascist’ in the class against class (third) period; whereas LCD (1935), which Heslop had shaped to avoid the criticisms made of GSF, appeared after the onset of the Popular Front period and therefore was viewed as an attack on social democrats and the unions and so rejected in some quarters as a hangover from the class against class period.
In his autobiography, written in the early 1970s, Heslop refers to a frequent desire to rebel against the social constraints of mining life which he links to his compulsion to write. Describing his experience of returning to mining after service in the First World War (joining up late in 1917, Heslop spent 1918 in a camp at Tidworth and never went overseas) as the ‘utter forlorness that follows after the shearing of individual freedom’, he implies that this depression was only leavened by hope he would regain the urge to write:
Before I enlisted I had responded to an urge to write what I thought might turn out to be a novel. I do not recall that early effort of mine now except the denouement which was a spectacular suicide of the heroine by throwing herself from the topmost tower of Durham Cathedral. I forget it all but that savage ending. And yet the urge was there. I had always wanted to write. All the time I had been at Tidworth the flicker had not died out. I still felt the urge to write even in the furthest reaches of the mine, close against the goaf. Now that I was back where I belonged I might feel the urge again. (Heslop 1994: 146).
It is interesting that this early attempt to write includes one of the two melodramatic elements – suicide and prostitution – that often feature in Heslop’s earlier novels, where they function to enable a break from the constrained structure of feeling or class consciousness inculcated by the Durham minefields. In his autobiography, Heslop relates that restricted consciousness to ‘proletarian dreaming’ (the influence of Lawrence is perhaps discernible here):
The year 1919 was a year of intense proletarian dreaming … Despite the overwhelming victory of Lloyd George and his coalition, the proletarian world of men did not cease to dream. The most outrageous fantasy was the Sankey Commission. … How we gloated over the possibility of the mines becoming nationalised. How we dreamed. How we stretched out our hands towards the towering pit head gearing to take it, and all it signified, into our own dear keeping. Poor, soft, deluded people that we were. (Heslop 1994: 146)
Joe Tarrant, the protagonist of GSF falls prey to such ‘proletarian dreaming’ and ends up a comfortable union representative. In London as an elected representative of the national committee running the General Strike, he spends his time in bed with a prostitute as the Strike falls apart. Unsurprisingly, critics (such as David Bell) have seen the novel as a ‘negative apprenticeship’ in which the protagonist makes all the wrong decisions resulting in personal and political failure and we the reader are supposed to learn the message that we should make the opposite decisions (i.e. think like a Communist, don’t treat strikes as just local issues, don’t fall into proletarian dreamings of Sunday outings etc.). Yet this is not really how the book reads. In fact, the prostitute who Joes meets in London is his wife, Molly. They had (again, with shades of Lawrence) ‘lived a strange, loveless, over-sexed life, each pulling a different way, each so pitiful’ (Heslop 1929: 139) before separating. Joe scandalises the morals of the coalfield by moving in with modern, as signified by her page-boy haircut, Emily Ritter, who represents a very different model of female agency to Molly: ‘Emily Ritter had completely lost her head. She had to smash through all the Northern conception of morals. It could not be said that she went into the matter blind as a mole, for she knew exactly what she was doing.’ (Heslop 1929: 169). Yet, Joe still feels stuck within the conventions of the coalfield even as he flouts them, hence his pleasure in his trips to London on mining union business:
In the parochial wilderness of the North men and women had small minds. In London it was different. There nobody knew anybody else, and so morals did not count. Morals were changing. To blazes with morals. (Heslop 1929: 180)
When Joe ends up in bed with Molly, Heslop is not implying criticism of him for neglecting his proper union business. Indeed, Molly has to remind him that he is still too stuck in the mental outlook of the coalfield: ‘You’re not in the market at Shielding, Joe,’ she said ‘You’re in bed . . . with me.’ (Heslop 1929: 229). Rather, the logic of the novel suggests that a liberalised, transformed and expanded socio-cultural context would liberate not only Joe but Molly and Emily as well. If the novel can’t quite manage to formally resolve all of these possible outcomes it is not for want of Heslop exploring a range of outcomes and subjectivities autobiografictionally.
In Journey Beyond, he took a step further – at least for the opening chapters of the novel by making the autobiografictional protagonist, ‘Martha Drake’, which allows him to directly criticise the patriarchal values of the coalfield:
On the floor were a couple of lead soldiers and a sort of spring cannon that shot matchsticks into the air. That was it! No love. To destroy! It is the only task that man can perform successfully. To kill. To maim. To wound. How man loves such tasks! Brutality rising beyond the heights of fiendishness. . . . With a breaking heart she had gone back home. (Heslop 1930: 11)
Reading between the lines, one can see how Heslop’s experiences of London – living there first while studying on a miners’ scholarship at the Central Labour College from 1924-5 and then permanently from 1928 onwards – changed his attitude to his northern birthplace. The differences are figured through women in particular: ‘A woman of the North has not obtained the outlook of her sisters of the South. She knows neither the clicking of a typewriter nor the eternal cigarette.’ (Heslop 1930: 38). Martha’s experiences in London during the depression turn her to the brink of prostitution and her husband, Russell, to the brink of suicide. Their survival, due to Russell getting a factory job after strikers have been laid off, leads them pondering the question of individualism: ‘I suppose we’re all for ourselves in this world?’ (Heslop 1930: 252). This clearly isn’t Heslop’s position – in the same year as Journey Beyond’s publication he was the sole British delegate to the Second Plenum of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers in Kharkov in the Soviet Union – but it indicates the extent of his exploration of possible subjectivities before returning to the problem of how to build a collective class consciousness that doesn’t simply replicate the constraints that Joe, Molly and Emily kick against in GSF.
Looking again at Last Cage Down from this perspective, it is possible to see that the establishment of Jim at the beginning of the novel as the stereotypical worker-hero of prodigious activity is something of a set-up because the plot of the novel involves him losing everything, including his position as secretary of the miner’s lodge, and going to prison for nine months, during which time his mother is evicted from her cottage. He realises he is wrong about many things and consequently he changes his behaviour in many respects including in relation to Betty:
She nodded. ‘Good,’ she said, rising to her feet. ‘Now, help me to clear away because I’ve got to be up at the Lion in time for six.’
Funny. He’d never done this for his mother in all his life. He had never thought about it. He had always taken it for granted that the clean crockery would be placed before him and the dirty crockery carted away from before him and cleansed. And here he was helping the girl to clear way the dishes. Well . . . he was damned . . . ! (Heslop 1984: 195)
The eventual conclusion of the novel (involving as in GSF and other Heslop novels a mining disaster), in effect, calls for a ‘United Front’ of socialists, communists and trade unionists (as opposed to the broader ‘Popular Front’ of all anti-fascist forces which included liberals and conservatives). Heslop therefore remains opposed to the ‘proletarian dreaming’ implicit to labourism (and as a consequence his books were not compatible with the values of the postwar British state) and committed to an altered form of class consciousness embracing liberated and equal gender relations that he has mapped out through the autobiografictional practice of his writing.
The capacity of a working-class writer such as Heslop (aided of course by his socialist education and values) to free himself from the structure of feeling of his background and understand the extent to which social (i.e. class and gender) relations would change outside the sphere of working-class respectability suggests how proletarian autobiografiction might be seen as a means of understanding and adapting to social change, which at the same time generates new cultural forms and social values. I think my analysis of the fiction of Ethel Mannin, once I’ve completed it, will support this position. However, it’s in any case obvious that the emancipation of women was a key catalyst for the shift from working-class autobiography to proletarian autobiografiction. In terms of Heslop’s texts, this works out in practice through the complex mix of fascination, horror, desire and shame they display towards a female sexuality that is located within the capital in contrast to the ‘respectable’ values of the coalfields. Reading his novels, it is possible to see how taking an autobiografictional approach to his experiences allowed him to discuss (and analyse) parts of his own life in a way that would have been difficult to include in an autobiography at the time. However, the autobiography he did finally write in the early 1970s helps us see how those complex autobiografictional negotiations of intertwined class and gender politics reconciled regional and metropolitan values and pointed the way towards the transformed culture of postwar Britain that would emerge in the 1960s, with its social and sexual (or emotional) revolutions. Not only did writing those novels allow Heslop to produce a fuller autobiography of himself but they also helped him to adapt to, and shape his own role in, the rapid social change of the 1930s and beyond.
Croft, Andy. ‘Ethel Mannin: The Red Rose of Love and the Red Flower of Liberty’ in Angela Ingram, ed., Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals: British Women Writers, 1889-1939, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Heslop, Harold. The Gate of a Strange Field, London: Brentano, 1929.
Heslop, Harold. Journey Beyond, London: Harold Shaylor, 1930.
Heslop, Harold. Last Cage Down, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1984 .
Heslop, Harold. Out of the Old Earth, Newcastle, Bloodaxe, 1994.
Hubble, Nick. The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
Mannin, Ethel. Privileged Spectator, London: Jarrolds, 1939.
Saunders, Max. Self-Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, & the Forms of Modern Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Tratner, Michael. Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
West, Alick. Crisis and Criticism, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1937.