I look at two stories of twentieth-century working-class lives this month - Raymond Williams's 1960 novel, Border Country, and Dorothy Whipple's High Wages. Williams explore the lives of a family living in a small rural community on the borders of Wales and England, and Whipple looks at the challenges faced by an ambitious shop assistant in a Lancashire town.
Border Country, Raymond Williams (Chatto & Windus, 1960)
The borders in Raymond Williams’s fine novel are geographic, emotional,
social and existential. Geographically, it is situated in the Welsh marches in
Glynmawr, a fictitious Welsh village so close to England its inhabitants can
nip over for a drink on Sundays, when pubs in Wales are closed. The characters
also cross other borders: Matthew Price, son of a working class couple, was brought
up in Glynmawr but is now a university lecturer living in London. Summoned to
his father’s sick bed, he returns to his home country, where he finds the dissonance
between his present and past life hard to adjust to.
Matthew’s father, Harry, lies on the border between life and death. We follow Harry’s life story in a series of flashbacks. As a young man, he moves to the valley to take up a post as a railway signalman. He is married to Ellen; she is English but she too is from the marches: her home town and Harry’s are both close to the Welsh-English border.
Harry, steadfast and self-contained, is the dominant presence. There is a
remoteness about him that is established very early on: his features have a “curious
stillness” and there is “distance and withdrawal in the very deep blue eyes”. Those
eyes frequently express his withdrawal, becoming distant and clouded when he is
challenged. He exudes an air of not needing other people: he gets on well
enough with the men at work, but he doesn’t socialise after work. Harry’s independence
and integrity are fine traits; at least in his relations between men, and it is
these that other men praise. “He lived direct, never by any other standard at
all” says his friend Morgan Rosser, trade unionist turned entrepreneur. In the
domestic sphere and his relations with his wife, though, there is something rather
chilling about his immovability.
The novel establishes from the start that everything is done his way:
“Ellen understood the life that Harry was making, for she had known his family
at home, and they had always lived like this.” Busy working at his job and his
gardens, he spends little time in the house and Ellen is often left on her own;
she knows she can’t change this. When she doesn’t want to move house while she
is pregnant, he simply goes ahead and rents the new house anyway: “Ellen
accepted the decision, once it was made. She had periods of crying...” When she
has just given birth to Matthew and says she wants to name him Will, Harry registers
his own choice “Matthew Henry”. Once again, Ellen gives in, though thankfully
she isn’t all that intimidated: “He is Will whatever,” she insists, and Will he
is – to both parents – throughout his childhood.
These incidents occurring at the beginning of their life in Glynmawr seem
to establish a pattern: there are few, if any, further clashes between them. One
does occur some years later. When some money Matthew is thought to have lost is
discovered never to have been in his possession, Harry’s response to his son’s
vindication is “withdrawal and anger”. Like Ellen, I found his anger hard to
fathom: “she had expected pleasure, or at least relief”. Perhaps it is because
he has been put to trouble and anxiety to look for and then replace the money,
or possibly because he was ashamed of himself for not believing his son when he
said he never had it in the first place. Whatever the cause of his upset, Harry
resorts to the silent treatment as usual, refuses to discuss it, and closes the
subject by issuing an order to his wife: “ ‘I’ll hear no more about it. Now get
the lamp lit, and we’ll have some food.’ Ellen, suddenly quiet, obeyed.”
It is as if the wife’s obedience is the corner stone of the marriage. This
would, after all, be no more than a reflection of the structure of working
class marriages, where the male’s status as breadwinner privileges him in the
home; a status that women’s suffrage campaigners often challenged. But one of
the great strengths of this novel is its recognition of the complexity of
family relations, not only between father and son, but also husband and wife. On
the face of it, quiet, obedient Ellen would seem to be utterly cowed, yet she
has ways of asserting her independence that her husband respects and recognises.
When she tells him that she will not have any more children he replies, “That’s
your affair”. Typically, Harry won’t discuss the subject and goes out to work
in the garden, but before he leaves for work he kisses Ellen goodbye. Clearly,
there’s a lot going on in this scene, but my point here is that it’s a far cry
from the stereotype of the working class wife worn out by childbearing.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that commenting on the patriarchy is an
explicit concern of the novel, or that it gives much space to the woman’s point
of view. For all that, many aspects of the book resonated with me. Harry and
Ellen’s relationship often put me in mind of my grandparents’ marriage: how my
grandfather had the same way of talking to his wife (“go and get me dinner”); how domestic arrangements – meals and so on –
revolved around his shifts; his mysterious comings and goings; his taciturnity;
the self-reliant way he, like Harry, valued gardening, growing food, mending
and making things. Like Harry, he never said much; he seemed to me a gruff,
forbidding, hard man. But she just got on with things: husbands, like the
weather, were things you couldn’t change. And yet their marriage lasted for
years; she was “me pal”, and without her at the end he seemed to fade away.
While Border Country evocatively captures aspects of working class life, it also upends the very idea of class. “What do class matter?” asks Harry. “I’m saying what sort of man is he…?” It’s a good question, and one of many posed by this absorbing novel.
Border Country has been republished by Parthian in the Library of Wales series - https://www.parthianbooks.com/products/border-country
I also read…
High Wages by Dorothy Whipple (Persephone Books, 2020, first
I’m busy working my way through Persephone’s catalogue of Dorothy Whipple
books (I wrote about They Were Sisters here).
High Wages is the story of shop
assistant Jane Carter who has ambitions to rise in the retail fashion trade. The
story of her progress is wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed it, along with reflections
on clothes as markers of class, style and personality, not to mention
oppressive working practices, along the way. Then there’s a love story…which is
where, I have to admit, the novel lost some of its interest for me. Still, it’s
Dorothy Whipple, and that means it’s well told, page-turning and witty. I’ve
already read and loved Greenbanks. Now on to the next one…