Sunday, July 17, 2011

Down with the class war

In yesterday's Guardian Susanna Rustin discussed the issue of class in literature, in response to two opposing claims this week: the complaint by author William Nicholson that middle-class people were no longer considered legitimate subjects for literature (although he does qualify his remarks to Rustin), and Scottish writer Alan Warner's identification of a " 'sly, unspoken literary prejudice' against working-class lives and characters".

Honestly, it's enough to make you jump down the rabbit hole - not Rustin's thoughtful article, but this continuing English class war: the prejudices, and/or the perceived prejudices; in any case this whole never-ending and quite frankly Through-the-Looking-Glass English wish to categorise and pigeonhole, and (it seems) wilful blindness to the fact that few of us can truly claim dyed-in-the wool social status. Personally, coming from Wales, where the class system is historically less ingrained - and with ancestors closely related to each other but ranging from farm labourers and servants through shopkeepers to schoolteachers and chapel ministers - I find the whole thing quite confounding, and when I was a young person in England, pretty threatening (I didn't have any group to belong to, and felt subject to the sneers of them all!).

In the novel I've just finished, social mobility and the psychological effects of such categorisation are strong themes. Class is not the only thing confounding the protagonist, but when she is a Welsh child in England as I was, she  wonders about herself and her sister:
What were they, she and Kathy? They were poor, but the rough boys were poorer, and those boys punished Josie and Kathy for being what they called them when they jeered: posh.  So what were they? Poor girls or posh ones..? ...  The girl who sat next to Josie in the big wooden desk, Gillian, was posher ... Josie had been for tea to her house in a leafy older suburb. There were plump furnishings and thick carpets ...  They experienced themselves as strange ... The evening sun tipped away behind the house, tipping away the answers they didn’t ever have when they were asked to account for themselves.
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