Academic journal article Antipodes

The Rhetoric of Personal Address in Michael Wilding's Short Fiction

Academic journal article Antipodes

The Rhetoric of Personal Address in Michael Wilding's Short Fiction

Article excerpt

"Back in London, where the English Enigma of Class presents itself once more."- Emma Tennant

MICHAEL WILDING'S PROLIFIC SHORT STORY OUTPUT, SPANning over forty years, employs numerous innovative techniques, including stream of consciousness, metafictional self-reflexivity, collage, and many other forms of narrative strategy. But in some of his stories he utilizes an approach that seems to be unique. This is the technique of personal address, and it is on full display in his story "Class Feeling." A close analysis of this story shows the rhetoric of personal address in its richest form, though there are other stories that display partial deployments of such a strategy.

"Class Feeling" is an early Wilding story, written in 1963, the year he first came to Australia. It deals with his English experience, though there is a definite Australian perspective at one juncture in the story. "Class Feeling" was not published, however, until twenty-one years later, in the collection Reading the Signs (1984). Then two years later it appeared in the literary periodical Stand, published in England. The story was re-collected in Wilding's Somewhere New, 1996, and afterwards translated into Chinese and Punjabi.

For those who have not read it in English, Chinese, or Punjabi, here is a brief plot summary. A boy in an English grammar school leaves school one day to catch the bus home. Nearing the bus stop, he sees his father riding a bicycle home from work, dressed in clothes made grimy by his job at the local iron works. Aware that a prefect of the school is standing nearby, the boy pretends that he does not see his father in order not to disclose his class background. The father sees what has happened and though he never says anything about the denial and betrayal to his son, he knows and the boy knows. It is not a thing one forgets. The story ends with the detail that years later, at Oxford, upon filling out the entrance forms, in the place of father's occupation, the boy wrote "iron-moulder," but he is hilly aware that this act is too late to repair that early betrayal. Thus we can see, and feel, the full force of "class feeling"- one of the central themes of Wilding's English upbringing and probably the most determinative fact in British history and culture: Class. The story as summarized here is a straightforward narration of a type that might be called detached autobiography and/or observer narration. These are but two of the eleven types of point of view set forth in a useful anthology of short fiction titled Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories (Revised ed., by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny, 1995).

The autobiographical roots of "Class Feeling" are apparent from comments made by Wilding in a 1997 interview. Here is what he said about his upbringing: "I was born in Worcester in the English west midlands in 1942. My father was an iron moulder. A skilled but very dirty job. [. . .] My mother came from a family of servants to the aristocracy, her father was head groom to a brewing lord. [. . .] I won a scholarship to the local grammar school and then to Oxford. It was a privileged education but you- or I, anyway- always felt conscious of being on the outside of that world of privilege" (Syson 280). One litetat y source for "Class Feeling" may well be a passage in Lady Chatterley's Lover. Early in the novel, Connie Chatterley is having a conversation with an intellectual with whom she has a brief affair. Here is the pertinent passage: "Now she and Michaelis sat on opposite sides of the fire and talked. She asked him about himself, his mother and father, his brothers [. . .] other people were always something of a wonder to het, and when her sympathy was awakened she was quite devoid of class feeling" (26). The context and phrasing are highly relevant to Wilding's story, but almost everything in modem British literature is centrally about "class feeling."

The plot summary, which hews closely to the basic facts of Wilding's education and his father's working-class job, only accounts for half of the story, however. …

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