In the first episode of the BBC programme Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture Warwick Deeping is cast as the villain, snobbishly loathing the working-classes who are Bragg’s heroes. Bragg quotes a passage from Sorrell and Son that comes when Christopher(son of the impoverished ex-officer who now works as a hotel porter) is beaten up by boys from the local council school:
For Sorrell had seen that these sons of working men hated the son of the ex-officer. They hated his face, his voice, his pride, his very good temper. They hated him for his differences, his innocent superiorities.
Hatred, a cheaply educated hatred was loose in the world.
Bragg treats this passage as a disgraceful libel on the sons of toil (who were, according to his version of social history, likely to be keen on choirs, brass bands and ballroom dancing). For many of Deeping’s readers it would have had the ring of truth. Maybe Bragg should visit one of the less high-flying comprehensive schools in today’s England, to note the treatment meted to students who are considered to have affectations, and are labelled ‘swots’ or ‘boffs’. ‘Cheaply educated hatred’ lives on.
Yes, Deeping definitely does show an animus towards the lower classes. Yet Mary Grover in her very good book The Ordeal of Warwick Deeping, explains that this is only half of the picture:
Christopher Sorrell suffers as much humiliation at the hands of the public school headmaster as he does from the kicks of the boys in the playground of the town school.
This headmaster kicks Christopher out (sending an ‘ingenious and patronising’ letter of pretend-regret) as soon as he hears of the father’s occupation. The boy had already been roughed up in the dormitory by superior types. It makes at least as much sense to accuse Deeping of prejudice against the superior classes as against the lower orders.
Mary Grover’s study finds that the theme running through Deeping’s novels is a fierce desire for autonomy – not to be ruled, regulated and defined by anyone else. In a difficult world his heroes try desperately to make a space where they can be themselves. It is a world of Darwinian struggle, and, as Mary Grover points out, a godless one. Vicars in Deeping tend to be nice chaps, but religion is never a solution to life’s problems. The protagonists have to sort things out for themselves, finding their own way, and fighting their own battles ruthlessly, against others and sometimes against themselves.
In Sorrell and Son the final triumph of autonomy is one that many might still find controversial. Sorrell, dying of cancer, asks his doctor son to kill him:
“Make it a strong one, old chap,” said the voice from the bed.
Kit was rather a long while filling the syringe, for he was smothering tears. Yet, that last act was done quickly, with an almost fierce and eager gladness. Kit rubbed gently with a finger on the loose skin of his father’s wasted arm.
“That will put you to sleep, pater. I will come in again soon.”
“Thanks, old chap.”
“Shall I turn out the light?”
Kit bent down and kissed his father on the forehead, turned out the light and went softly out of the room.
But in that other room he broke down.
“I–I’ve done it–an overdose.”
At the end, as through the struggle of his life, Sorrell has managed to go his own way on his own terms, not following the rules prescribed by others.
Mary Grover shows how Deeping’s preoccupations come from his own personal and social uncertainties, but also how they resonated with a wide section of the population in the interwar years, especially with the lower middle classes, whose social position was uncertain, and who could trust neither the upper classes (who wanted to keep them down) or the lower classes (who seemed to be conspiring to keep them from rising). Deeping’s depiction of the social world as a site of savage struggle, and his presentation troubled men fighting for their own destiny (usually a modest destiny – a home of one’s own, a garden) appealed where flashier or more socially compassionate visions did not.
Mary Grover links Deeping’s uncertainties to his dubious status as a best-seller, whose name was often on the cover of down-market fiction magazines. Academic and belletristic guardians of taste were wary of him, especially after the astonishing success of Sorrell and Son. Deeping’s values resonated with his readers, but they were precisely the ones that bright young upwardly-mobile literary types wanted to get away from. Yet there is an irony in the rejection of Deeping by modernists for whom a main requirement of any text should be that it is disturbing. Few novelists are more disturbing than Deeping, especially when you find him stirring up prejudices you hoped you had outgrown. A few years ago, I described it here as ‘such a cloying book – emotionally powerful, cleverly written, but you feel you’re being dragged to places you’d rather not go.’
Is Deeping a good novelist? Not really. The characters are mostly too melodramatically black or white. In Sorrell and Son, Christopher is utterly unbelievable, a saintly boy who goes through all sorts of tribulations, without once complaining or rebelling.
But then, Sorrell and Son is best read not as a novel, but as a powerful fantasy. It was published in 1925, and its time-scheme is peculiar. The first chapters are set three years after Captain Sorrell’s demobilisation – say, 1922. Then comes the period of his greatest degradation and humiliation, a few years that take us up to the time when the book was written. After that, however, things gradually get better, and Sorrell’s life and his son’s career progress happily into the peaceful 1940s. the book therefore offered its early readers not only an image of life’s struggle that they could recognise, but also a hope that they too could come through it with self-respect intact.