O’Rourke and Cherry, in their detailed and comprehensive studies, embark on an exercise in feminist historiography where they set out to find evidence of working-class women’s writing and illustrate that it deserves recognition. O’Rourke’s research reveals a handful of women novelists, including Ethel Mannin, Kate Roberts, and Margaret Penn. Cherry’s research further adds to this list - Ethel Carnie; an early Trade Unionist, Ellen Wilkinson; a Labour M.P., and later writers Jessie Kesson and Catherine Cookson.
Apart from the novel, other sources yield evidence, though meagre, of working-class women’s writing. O’Rourke finds a dozen pieces from sources such as the co-operative women’s guilds and small literary and political magazines like Left Review. The most consistent themes are pregnancy, making do and a strand of utopian writing imagining and inspiring a better life.
O'Rourke and Cherry also highlight the documentary as a powerful and popular form in the 1930s and as one of the most bountiful sources for accounts of working-class women’s lives. However, the documentary is an ambivalent source. A positive aspect is that it relies on oral testimonies, many of which originated in Fabian women’s concerns around social welfare that prioritised working-class women’s experience. On the other hand, the lives of working-class women are analysed by middle-class researchers who take what they need for an article or a book and then move on. Although they may carry this out with positive intentions: to change the adverse conditions in which working-class women live, the problem is that they can distort the concerns and preoccupations of the people they represent.
Autobiography and memoirs are also fruitful sources of working-class women’s writing where the stories told present vivid pictures of working-class women’s everyday lives and emotions. In this respect, they are often valued as historical records. However, this placement in the context of social history rather than literature impedes the recognition of working-class women’s writing. Furthermore, the autobiography is given short shrift by the literary establishment, where it occupies a low place in the hierarchy of genres. It offered working-class women a form that did not involve claims to high artistic aspiration.
'Working-Class Novelists 1930-1950’ - Howard Slater’s research pamphlet - catalogues British male novelists. He describes it as an invaluable list that ‘the history of literature overlooks but gives an insight into working-class life and culture that is not available elsewhere.’ Slater’s research not only brings to the fore forgotten or undervalued writers but also highlights the apparent men-only world of working-class novelists, together with the lack of books by working-class women.
Subsequent academics embarking on the historical study of working-class women’s writing have found a fundamental obstacle to their research is the problem of its apparent non-existence.
In ‘Were there no Women? British Working-Class Writing in the Inter-War Period’, Rebecca O’Rourke, attests to the male monopoly on authorship in the 1930s and complains that it is impossible to debate or discuss working-class women’s writing simply because there is so little evidence of it.
Merylyn Cherry echoes O’Rourke regarding the lack of working-class women writers. In ‘Towards a Recognition of Working-Class Women Writers’, she notes the lack of historical British working-class women writers on her degree course. Furthermore, the feminist movement and feminist literary criticism do not recognise them either. Cherry argues that although there were women in the writers’ lives and in the books that made the tradition of working-class writing, and although there were working-class women in literary life, they are generally ignored in critical texts and literary representations. For example, a common theme of working-class writing is unemployment. And women were substantially workers; but, in the novels, men are the unemployed, and unemployment does not happen to women.
Since working-class literature affords invaluable insight into working-class life and culture, a male-only perspective gives a distorted and misrepresentation of reality.
My brief review of the historical production of working-class literature highlights the fact that the self-expression of working-class lives is a relatively recent phenomenon: the late 1800s, the 1930s, the 1950s and 60s, and the 1980s were notable periods for the resurgence of working-class literature.
These periods apparently correspond with the developing and fluctuating fortunes of capitalism, and is in consonance with the notion that working-class literature comes about as a reaction to events and as a shared experience - such as periods of acute unemployment and poverty.
In talking about working-class literature, critics have invariably drawn upon and exemplified working-class literature by men, which is invariably about men - their jobs, their money or lack of it, and their sexual relations with women. Indeed, in the course of my studies, it was not until the 1980s that reference was made to noteworthy working-class women writers; which led me to wonder why working-class women’s fiction has been absent for so long?
So, where have they all been?
Where are the working-class women writers ?
iv) The 1980s
The term ‘underclass’ was widely used during the 1980s as economic recession, de-industrialisation and cuts in welfare benefits dramatically increased the number of unemployed and poor in Britain, to such an extent that it seemed Britain was experiencing a crisis similar to the 1930s.
The premiership of Margaret Thatcher promoted the efforts of competing individuals in place of the welfare state. Thatcherism introduced an ethos of competitive self-advantage into British life, undermining social cohesion.
It also brought a new agenda of economic and cultural policies which altered fiction, particularly the representations of gender and gender relations.
Literary anthologies cite the1980s as a significant period in British history, one that reshaped British culture forever. Novelists vilified the Thatcher era, responding to new levels of inequality and potentially damaging social disjunction. Authors lamented the imminent collapse of the welfare state and wrote about a new age of inequality and social division.
Novels that span the decade depict a society wracked by moral and social decay, chaos and confusion, a loss of community and an emphasis on personal attainment - for example, Martin Amis, Money (1984), Pat Barker, The Centuries Daughter (1986), and Carol Birch, Life in the Palace (1988).
The 1980s also witnessed a feminisation of working-class literature. The changes wrought by Thatcherism particularly inform Livi Michael’s fiction and the writing of Pat Barker. The profound pessimism of their novels is a testament to the bleakness of the industrial landscape in post-war decline.
iii) The 1950s and 60s
The Butler Education Act of 1944 promised secondary education for everyone. It attempted to achieve this goal by raising the school leaving age to fifteen and dividing elementary education – till now all ages 5-14 - into primary and secondary schools, providing school meals and milk and admitting state pupils to grammar school on scholarships.
The Act offered opportunities for working-class pupils: gave them access to grammar schools, and opened the door to university for some. Notable working-class beneficiaries included Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, responsible for founding cultural studies, and the social historian E.P. Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963).
Despite these advances, education was still very much classed-based, and working-class students were in the minority: only one in ten children of unskilled manual workers was successful in the eleven plus examination.
The working-class novelist is still an exceptional figure. However, notable working-class writers of this period are Alan Sillitoe, David Storey, Barry Hines and John Braine. Their novels, set in the North of England, are famed for their gritty realism and portrayal of angry young working-class men.
During the 1960s, many films placed characters in working-class settings and reproduced the surface of working-class life. However, the problems of working-class characters are seen in personal terms rather than because of structural inequalities - which had the effect of suppressing class issues while staging it.
The increasing migration from one class to another during the 1960s suggested that class barriers were crumbling, and it seemed Britain was making significant progress towards becoming a classless society. Sociologists Michael Young and Peter Wilmott analysed the effects of social mobility on traditional working-class communities in the study, ‘Family and Kinship in East London’ (1957). They attested to the breakdown of conventional working-class communities and the loss of a dense network of family and friends.
People expressed their identity through consumerism, and others valued them through their possessions. Consequently, the relationship between the individual and society - a central theme of the nineteenth-century novel - had become the relation between the individual and their class: specifically the struggle to escape it. For example, the characterisation of Joe Lampton, the hero of Braine’s novel Room at the Top (1959), perceives his class difference in purely economic terms and will go to any lengths to acquire the material accoutrements of the middle class.
While Billy, the young protagonist of Hines’s novel Kestrel for a Knave (1968), is a symbol of those outside the affluent society, where the deprivation of his physical environment matches the poverty of his emotional one. Trapped in his class, Billy is not working-class but part of an emerging ‘underclass’.
The 1930s was a critical period in terms of class identity and politics. And for the production of working-class writing. Male members of the working class appropriated the bourgeois novel, and the fact that it is the working class who are writing about the conditions of the workers is a new and vital development. Many working-class stories of this period have urban settings where issues of unemployment and the effects of poverty are central themes, as seen in the novels of Walter Greenwood, Walter Brierly and Jack Jones.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the British financial crisis of 1931 resulted in high unemployment and seemed to indicate that capitalism was near to collapse. Exponents of modern art based their assumptions on the idea that conventional forms of representation cannot capture the complex nature of reality. However, this modernist concern with the self seemed inappropriate in an age of acute material issues: mass unemployment, poverty and social conflict. These issues needed to be confronted, which required concentration on external events, not internal processes, and commitment to making people more aware of the world and its problems. A crucial part of this process was challenging conventional representations of the working class as the comedy relief, the buffoon, the idiots or the servants - particularly seen in films.
A discrete working-class literary heritage emerged, where worker-writer organisations and worker-education movements began to publish more assuredly and created a left-wing literary formation. The concept of working-class culture was consolidated and became more visible in post-war discourse. In 1934, the writer's congress in the Soviet Union coined the new aesthetic of 'socialist realism.' In Britain, George Orwell detailed an account of working-class life and analysed the relations between the classes in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In 1938 the 'Left Book Club' was founded by Victor Gollancz, and one of its aims was to provide the indispensable basis of knowledge that would help create a better social and economic system.
The Nineteenth Century
Industrialisation heralded significant developments in working-class writing. A new militancy developed among the working class, resulting increased political tracts and essays. And for the first time, there was a mass readership of the radical press. At the same time, middle-class writers showed an awareness of working-class conditions, and the 1840s saw the advent of the English industrial novel. However, these were written by sympathetic middle-class observers and not by working-class members. Authors such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell were popular. However, middle-class writers, lacking experience or knowledge, were typically unable to describe the reality of working-class life, so the majority were often romanticised and stereotypical portrayals of working-class people.
However, two notable working-class writers of novels did emerge at the turn of the century - Robert Tressell and D.H. Lawrence, although their styles differed considerably. In many respects, Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) connects with the older model of aA sympathetic observer, but a participating and exposed observer whose narrative and commentary on the ills of capitalism can be read as an instruction manual of socialism. Whereas Lawrence writes about characters immersed in the actual experience of working-class life and its immediacies of family, friends, and places. Consequently, what emerges in his novels is not simply a reductive depiction of class but a collage of working-class existence.
Since the onset of the industrial revolution, the working class have historically made up about three-quarters of the population. However, the representation of their experiences has been conspicuously absent in literature. But working-class writers have not been silent; they have always produced literature, although its forms, structural elements and purposes have differed from the dominant forms of the past two hundred and fifty years.
We must employ a broader understanding when considering working-class literature, such as: in what forms, on what themes, in what circumstances, and to what ends have working-class people told their stories? Since many storytellers and their audiences were illiterate, working-class literature has often taken oral forms. Moreover, it has been created and related in group situations, such as churches, meeting halls and pickets lines - not in the privacy of a study as with their middle-class counterparts. Therefore, it is rooted in the experience of a particular group of people facing a specific problem at a certain time: within the context of shared experience where ‘artist’ and ‘audience’ share a common reality.
Since it is produced and written in the present context, traditional notions about literature - such as looking for the timeless and transcendent, contemplation as an end, metaphysical complexity of language, and ironies of tone - are not conducive to approaching working-class literature.
In addition, the available forms of the novel and its conventional themes did not offer a point of entry for working-class writers. For example, the nineteenth-century bourgeois concern with the problems of the inheritance of private property and propertied marriages did not apply to working-class experience. It was not something with which working-class writers could relate. There is evidence of many talented working-class writers in the nineteenth century, but most turned their attention to writing autobiographies and memoirs rather than the novel.
i) Working Class
The working class are those people who sell their labour for wages, and in Marx's terms, they create in that labour "surplus value", which the capitalists take from them. As a result, workers have relatively little control over the nature or products of their work.
Since Marx, the decline of the traditional manufacturing industries and the growth of the service economy have blurred the old class division between manual and non-manual labour. Moreover, consumerism has also dissolved the conventional links between class and culture by appropriating elements associated with different groups. As a result, it is challenging to discern outward differences based on class.
However, the working class still exists and includes white-collar employees since they too produce surplus value for the capitalists. Although it is possible to argue about the exact composition of these classes, there is a dominant class with the capacity to create and maintain conditions under which it can appropriate surplus labour from a subordinate class. In Marxist terms, it is this relation that is the source of poverty and inequality.
Wealth determines how far people can participate in society, but it also has profound intrinsic effects. This notion reiterates a phenomenon of class difference observed by George Orwell in his journalistic foray into the working-class territory of the industrial North, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In the book, Orwell testifies that 'nearly everything I think and do is the results of class-distinctions… the products of a special kind of upbringing and a special niche about halfway up the social hierarchy.'
This idea likely derived from Marx, who theorised a difference in consciousness based on accessibility to knowledge, cultural forms, and bourgeois language through his observations of middle-class English society.
All of this indicates that social class is more than an objective entity and that it has a fundamental impact on identity affecting our emotions, values and perceptions. So although you might consider yourself middle class, you can never escape your class roots.
At 14:30, 14th August 2009, I had an epiphany. It was a great day. I was researching in the library, and serendipitously there it was: the life-changing text, closeted away on 35mm micro-film. Life-changing for the better? Well, not yet, maybe never. But that's the nature of the beast, and it depends what you mean by 'better'.
In any case, it got me thinking: yes, this - this is why I'm here.
I wanted more.
It was the beginning of my journey into a subject and field of knowledge sorely lacking. One that was crying out for people like me: authentic, passionate and dedicated - people prepared to make sacrifices - as many writers/researchers do in pursuit of their passions make sacrifices. But (due to the nature of this particular beast), this required more sacrifice than most.
It led to my reading many subversive texts: socialist, feminist, literary, memoirs and autobiographies, and stories - fact and fiction - by authors from history who wrote about their struggles and experiences and certain kinds of protagonists for whom life is not a beach or one long party. People who fought against the unfairness that life had dealt them: some winning, some coming to terms with their incapacity in the scheme of things, and others just telling their own unremarkable stories for the sake of telling, but unwittingly writing themselves into history.
Texts I identified with: recognised the struggle, the anger, the desire and yes, the despair.
I needed these books in my life.
But that which inspired and motivated me those years ago has also hampered me. And the irony hasn't escaped me. But at least I now know I was shackled from the start.
And the life-changing text?