Fictions of Class and Community in Henry Green's Living

By Hentea, Marius | Studies in the Novel, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
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Fictions of Class and Community in Henry Green's Living

Hentea, Marius, Studies in the Novel

When Christopher Isherwood called Living "the best proletarian novel ever written," (Green, Surviving 247) Henry Green dryly noted that he was unaware that his friend had ever worked in a factory (Green, Surviving 247). This dismissal implies that, for its author, Living should be judged by its authenticity to working-class life; moreover, this could only come from inside the whale, as he had done in "twenty-four months" (Green, Pack My Bag 208) of "a forty-eight hour week first in the stores, then as a pattern maker, then in the ironfoundry, in the brassfoundry, and finally as a coppersmith" (232) at his family's Farringdon Works in Birmingham.

This article argues that Living (1929) cannot be divorced from that exhausting list of labor in Birmingham. This position is counter to the prevailing approach to Green, which holds that his fiction is anti-mimetic and abstracted from society. Critics speak of his "lack of concern for the verities of the objective world" (Brothers 864); his desire "to create a prose so pure as to be abstracted from history itself" (Gorra 23) and his lack of interest "in a specific, contemporary set of conditions" (Stokes 17); his novels do not "create a world that [is] fully particularized" (Gibson 121) and are "bare of sociological ... implication" (Russell 13); and any "correspondences between Green's language and empirical reality" (Holmesland 16) are without interest. Given this starting point, it is unsurprising that critics have not posed the question of Living's engagement with its local context. While seemingly timeless in its presentation ("And now time is passing" [266] is a repetitive trope in the novel), Living is intimately linked to its times, chronicling the economic depression of industrial areas in the mid- 1920s and subtly portraying Birmingham's working-class culture. (1)

The significance of Living extends beyond Green's oeuvre in helping expand our understanding of modernism's geographical ambit and relationship to the working class. Modernism has traditionally been seen as "an international, urban, and yet placeless, phenomenon" (Davis and Jenkins 3) tied to cities of "high activity and great reputation as centres of intellectual and cultural exchange" (Bradbury 96). While studies on regional modernism have challenged this orthodoxy, these have focused on a limited number of regions (the American Midwest and South, the New Jersey of William Carlos Williams), and British regions have remained relatively untapped (Wade 7-8). The resurgence of the British regional novel in the 1930s was strongly linked to the pastoral, as regionalism seemed to exclude urban settings and formal experimentation (Foote 3; see Bentley and Morgan). In terms of modernism's class content, John Carey has persuasively argued that the proletariat was seen as a threat to civilized values and high culture (21). For George Orwell, in the history of the novel the urban working classes were invariably treated as "objects of pity or ... comic relief" (1:455-56).

Living follows an ensemble cast of workers, neighbors, and families linked to the Dupret factory. Two characters stand out: Dick Dupret, the son of the factory's owner, and Lily Gates, a young woman who dreams of babies and running away. Dick is a detached young man often seen sitting on a sofa, picking his nose under the cover of an appointment book. He wants a greater role in the firm, but that only comes to him when his father dies--and when he arrives as its head, there is little he can do, like Larkin's character in "Livings":

   ... I drowse
   between ex-Army sheets, wondering why
   I think it's worthwhile coming. Father's dead:
   He used to, but the business now is mine.
   It's time for a change, in nineteen twenty-nine
      (186, I, lines 20-24) (2)

Lily Gates also wants a job, but for her it is a question of economic need as well as self-assertion against the constraints of domestic life.

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