Friday, 6 April 2012

Class Divide

Michael Holroyd’s introduction to the trilogy is a good one; and he reminds me that Hamilton is a better writer than I remembered – thus his description of Ella’s admirer, Mr Eccles, for example, as “not unlike a parrot diving into its feathers” when looking for his visiting card.  And he is absolutely right about the surface texture: Hamilton catches London pub life between the wars extremely well.  However, his statement about Hamilton’s ability to write about class is questionable:

[H]e is an expert guide to English social distinctions, with all their snobbish mimicry and fortified non-communication.  He describes wonderfully well how the hyphenated upper classes, yelling at their dogs, splashing in their baths like captured seals, and writing their aloof letters in the third person (like broadcasters recounting an athletic event), remain so mysterious to the lesser breeds.  (Introduction to Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky)

Regarding the superficial aspects, yes, indeed.  For here, in these three books, Hamilton is more a painter than a psychologist; which Holroyd also recognises, perhaps unconsciously, by that last reference to the working classes ignorance of their betters; which is a strange way (especially as there are no aristocrats in these novels) of illustrating a point about social distinctions; which you would have thought relied on some knowledge of their differences - how else can such comparisons be made?  Of course, the artist or bohemian is supposed to skip between the two, socialising with both, and understanding them equally…

But Hamilton doesn’t really know these people, doesn’t understand them outside of their behaviour and the small amounts of knowledge they have given him.  At least he cannot really the grasp the otherness of someone like Jenny.  Ella, when he is in better form, recovered after his own rotten love affair, and once again more artist than man, he can understand and depict well – because she is closer to his own experience.  And leads to his key insight, and the one for which he should be remembered: although the working classes are different, they also recognisably the same as those in the middle orders; for so much is overlapped – their moralities, they obsessions with money, their interests, hopes, and desires.  All are human, after all; only a constantly shifting culture divides them; and then not always very clearly.

Hamilton’s lack of psychological insight is reflected in Holroyd’s recognition of Jenny’s shallowness, and the fact that neither women understand their clients: the sex and beer punters.   Jenny is shallow because Hamilton cannot grasp her nature; while the limitations of the two women are the author’s own; class ones, we imagine; creating a distance he cannot cross, though there are times he comes very close.

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