Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Early Twentieth Century: Uniformity, Drudgery and Economics ALLAN SIMMONS St. Mary's University College - The Representation of Business in English Literature
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The Early Twentieth Century: Uniformity, Drudgery and Economics ALLAN SIMMONS St. Mary’s University College - Arthur Pollard, The Representation of Business in English Literature 
The Representation of Business in English Literature, edited and with an Introduction by Arthur Pollard. Foreword by John Blundell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009).
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The Early Twentieth Century: Uniformity, Drudgery and Economics
T. S. Eliot’s damning portrayal of the power of economic forces, in the opening section of The Waste Land, is illustrative of how business is represented in the literature of the early twentieth century. The dehumanising daily routine, that drains these workers of life and renders them anonymous, is reinforced by a host of poetic devices ranging from simple repetition (“Un-real,” “Un-der,” “un-done”; “so many”), through half-rhyme (“brown,” “dawn”; “crowd,” “flowed”), alliteration (“death,” “undone”; “fixed,” “feet”), and sibilance (“Sighs,” “short,” “exhaled”), to passive constructions (“were exhaled”). The effect of these literary techniques is to underscore the sense of drudgery in the lives of workers, caught up in the homogenising rituals of labour. For this is the age of the faceless multitudes of office-bound clerical-workers whose entrapment within a dehumanising and impenetrable “system” is captured in the novels of Franz Kafka. Thus, in his description of workers, which associates them, by allusion, with the dead in Dante’s Inferno, Eliot might be said to be responding to a key feature of the age: this is the age of Modernism, the age of the masses, and the age of the “anonymous” worker. As John Carey observes in The Intellectuals and the Masses:
Between 1860 and 1910 the section of the middle and lower-middle class employed in commerce, banks, insurance and real estate increased markedly in all Western European countries, as a result of the emergence of the imperialist and international economy of the late nineteenth century. In England by 1911 the clerical profession, including 124,000 women, was one of the most rapidly expanding occupational groups.2
Whilst attempts to date literary movements are notoriously imprecise, it is helpful to think of the movement we call “Modernism” as extending, roughly, from 1880 to 1930. If art reflects and passes comment upon the prevailing philosophies and mores of the moment in which it is written, then Modernism captures the vulnerabilities and scepticism associated with the abandonment of comforting certainties of the Victorian period in the wake of the combined impact of thinkers such as Freud, Marx, and Darwin. The challenges their theories posed for man’s settled sense of self, his place within a social order, and his place within a divinely arranged scheme, inform all the arts in this period. The formal experiments in such literary works as Ulysses and The Waste Land are of a piece with those in, say, the paintings of Picasso and Braque, or the music of Stravinsky. In each case, the artist’s experiments with technique reveal a quest for new ways in which to communicate with an audience, whilst simultaneously suggesting a new uncertainty about the power to communicate unambiguous, objective truth.
Essentially, Modern literature is a literature of doubt. It questions the ideas by which Victorian man oriented himself with respect to the world and, through this, the very ideas that sustain Western civilisation. The anxieties of the age are reflected in the stylistic features which typify the literature of the period: Henry James’s labyrinthine sentences enact the problems of communication, Joseph Conrad’s time-shifts serve to place the reader in the disorientated predicament of his characters, and James Joyce’s attempts to present the inner life of his characters trace both the randomness of thought associations and the infinite complexity of other minds. Unsurprisingly, the vulnerability and lack of surety that typify this age—whose central historical event, the First World War, provides the ultimate example of mankind’s loss of confidence in itself and its systems—finds some of its most profound expression in the presentation of man within the context of economic forces. Thus, whilst the literature of the period confronts the unavoidable economic plight of the individual with realism—as H. G. Wells’s young draper’s shopman, Artie Kipps, is informed: “we’re in a blessed drain-pipe, and we’ve got to crawl along it till we die”3 —its presentation of the individual as disorientated and victimised by forces beyond his or her control reflects the scepticism and vulnerability that characterise the age of Modernism.
To consider the representation of business in the literature of the period, this chapter will commence with a brief survey of prevailing attitudes towards business in the literature of the period, across the genres of poetry, drama, and prose. Then, I shall turn to the work of four novelists, whose representations of business are at once more thorough and more realistic than those of their contemporaries: H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Joseph Conrad.
SURVEY OF THE LITERATURE OF THE AGE
Virginia Woolf voices her economic awareness of the age when she advocates for the aspirant female novelist, hoping to compare with her male counterpart, “a room of her own and five hundred a year.”4 This balance between art and life is not always reflected in the literature of the time, though, and some writers seem almost wilfully detached from economic necessity. W. B. Yeats, for instance, seems wholly oblivious at times of the economic plight of the Dublin shopkeepers whom he berates in his poetry for their failure to respond to his call to art as the way to find a sense of Irishness rooted in the collective memory of Celtic myths and legends. Yeats’s name for the petty huckster is “paudeen,” whom he characterises as having “fumbling wits” and “obscure spite” (“Paudeen”). There is little redemptive in Yeats’s portrait of paudeens who “fumble in a greasy till / And add the halfpence to the pence,” oblivious of any finer motive for life than “to pray and save” (“September 1913”). The usual interpretation of Yeats’s sneering tone and his portrait of the small trader as mindless, material, and money grubbing, is that he is behaving like the stereotypical “other-worldly” poet, who transforms everything he touches into symbol. From this angle, Yeats might be said to voice the rather simplistic view of the romantic generally: that material gain necessarily involves spiritual loss. As we shall see, much Modern literature concerns itself with the spiritual loss rather than the material gain. Looked at from another angle, however, Yeats’s view is wilfully escapist and blinkered. Whilst promoting art and culture as the means by which the fragmented elements of Ireland could be reunited, he seems to be consistently oblivious of the economic plight of his countrymen: at the time, Dublin’s slums were among the worst in Europe.
Initially, Yeats’s countryman, George Bernard Shaw, seems to offer a more realistic treatment of the economic plight of his characters. Shaw makes no secret of his Ibsenite leanings. For example, he says in his Dedicatory Letter to Man and Superman: “it annoys me to see people comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable; and I insist on making them think in order to bring them to conviction of sin.”5 Thus, Shaw’s first play, Widowers’ Houses (1892), deals with tainted money and slum landlords. More pertinent for our purposes, though, is his third play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which was written in 1894 but banned by the British censor until 1926. Mrs. Warren’s “profession” is, of course, prostitution: she is a brothel-keeper. In his Preface to the play, Shaw lays the blame for her plight squarely at the door of economics:
Mrs. Warren’s Profession was written in 1894 to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together.6
Much of the economic and social criticism in the play emerges in Mrs. Warren’s justification of her profession to her daughter, Vivie, whom she asks, rhetorically: “Do you think I did what I did because I liked it, or thought it right, or wouldn’t rather have gone to college and been a lady if I’d had the chance?” (309). But the force of the social message in such presentations of the individual determined by the crude reality of financial forces beyond her control is occasionally blunted by the sheer vitality and hyperbole of Shaw’s comic irreverence. This happens in Major Barbara (1905), for example, where Shaw reverses the expectation that an armaments manufacturer will be morally inferior to a Salvation Army officer.
The role of money in Major Barbara assumes prominence immediately: the play opens with Lady Britomart wishing to provide financially for the future of her grown-up children and, without the resources to do this herself, sends for her estranged husband, the children’s father, Andrew Undershaft, a millionaire who has made his fortune out of the manufacture of armaments. Undershaft’s visit initiates a trial of strength between himself, as arms merchant, and his daughter Barbara, a major in the Salvation Army. In essence, the play contrasts idealism and realism: Barbara and her fiancé, Adolphus Cusins, are “converted” to Undershaft’s “religion” and come to see money and power as the weapons by which evil can best be defeated:
“Excuse me: is there any place in your religion for honour, justice, truth, love, mercy and so forth?”
“Yes: they are the graces and luxuries of a rich, strong, and safe life.”
“Suppose one is forced to choose between them and money or gunpowder?”
“Choose money and gunpowder; for without enough of both you cannot afford the others.”
“That is your religion?”
In other words, Undershaft’s “religion” is the social dream of satisfying the material needs of his workers. In the play, it is Mammon, and not God, who triumphs, as the Salvation Army is shown to be dependent upon Undershaft’s funds to keep its shelters open during the winter and Barbara is made to realise that, in order to help the poor, charities have to rely upon the tainted money of Undershaft and Bodger, a liquor manufacturer.
The play contrasts the two “kingdoms” (and, as Undershaft’s very name suggests, the religious allegory is intentional): first, Undershaft visits the Salvation Army shelter, where he witnesses his daughter dealing with the bully, Bill Walker, then the whole family visit the Undershaft factory and the workers’ town in Perivale. By contrast with the tawdriness of the Salvation Army shelter, the kingdom over which Undershaft presides is a workers’ paradise. However, given the starkness of such a contrast, one wonders whether the Shavian approach to business is any more satisfactory than Yeats’s. Implicit in Major Barbara’s suggestion that the struggle to save souls from evil must begin by saving bodies from poverty is the claim that the Salvation Army, in particular, and religion, in general, have missed the point about the business of salvation. At crucial points in the play, the sheer exaggeration of Undershaft’s outbursts serve to make the audience wary of this message. Here, for instance, is his description of poverty: “. . . the worst of crimes. All the others are virtues beside it: all the others are chivalry itself by comparison. Poverty blights whole cities” (172). Whilst such a tide of rhetoric may make Shaw’s social points through hyperbole, we need to look elsewhere for a realistic portrayal of business.
The social criticism of George Bernard Shaw’s plays finds an echo in the many novels of the period which address the changing face of British society through tales of small businessmen. In Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), for instance, the histories of Constance and Sophia Baines unfold against the backdrop of irrevocable economic forces which transform the life of St. Luke’s Square. The steady erosion of traditional crafts and small independent businesses in the Five Towns, by mass production and chain-stores, occurs with a remorseless and inevitable logic, in which even the central characters are implicated. In his funeral eulogy for John Baines, Charles Critchlow praises his friend’s conservative regard for “the wise old English maxims of commerce and the avoidance of dangerous modern methods.”8 But part of the novel’s point is that commerce is a dynamic rather than a static force. Thus, we see John Baines’s own daughter, Constance, and her future husband, Samuel Povey, designing advertisements to drum up trade:
Those two, without knowing or guessing it, were making history—the history of commerce. They had no suspicion that they were the forces of the future insidiously at work to destroy what the forces of the past had created, but such was the case. (119)
For his part, it is Critchlow himself who will purchase the draper’s business when the Baineses’ lease expires and, in his turn, will sell it to the Midland Clothiers Company “which was establishing branches throughout Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and adjacent counties” (601).
A criticism levelled at Bennett’s portrayal of the economic realities of the Staffordshire Potteries in this novel, that spans the period from 1860 to 1906, is that his picture of the rise of economic monopoly is historically incomplete as it omits the rise of the Labour movement.9 One might argue, however, that this limitation is a deliberate consequence of restricting us to Constance’s view of the changing face of Bursley. Significantly, Bennett’s clearest comment upon the changing face of business comes in the form of a lament as Sophia, having finally returned to her birthplace from Paris, looks out at the Square again:
The heaven of thick smoke over the Square, the black deposit on painted woodwork, the intermittent hooting of the steam sirens, showed that the wholesale trade of Bursley still flourished. But Sophia had no memories of the wholesale trade of Bursley; it meant nothing to the youth of her heart; she was attached by intimate links to the retail traffic of Bursley, and as a mart old Bursley was done for. (511)
In this shift from retail to wholesale trade, the scale of problem is presented: mass production has brought with it the end of the small trader, and, with his demise, business has lost its human face. Bennett’s narrow concentration upon the sisters, rather than upon the broader picture of social life, in this novel might be read as the sincerest expression of lament for this lost age.
In her essay entitled “Modern Fiction,” Virginia Woolf links Arnold Bennett with John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells, disparagingly calling them “materialists,” by which she means that “they write of unimportant things . . . they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.”10 But, whilst it is true that these novelists have not endured to form part of the “canon” of Modern literature in the way that, say, Hardy or Conrad have, their attention to the “unimportant things” does at least ensure a context of economic realism in their novels through the practical concerns of business. There are a number of reasons why these novelists failed to create works of enduring importance: at one extreme, one may identify their inability to convince the reader that the plight of an individual character, like Constance Baines, is representative of the plight of human beings generally; at the other, characters, particularly those of H. G. Wells, are often little more than mouthpieces for his points of view about politics, history, and society, as well as economics. If Bennett’s presentation of economic development in the Five Towns through the eyes of a few characters proves to be a limitation in The Old Wives’ Tale, obscuring the broader picture, Wells’s novels suffer from the opposite defect: their emphasis upon ideas rather than character as the mainspring of plot means that the characters are so easily forgettable. What R. C. Churchill says of Ann Veronica (1909) can be adapted, mutatis mutandis, to much of Wells’s writing: “We remember Ann Veronica as a novel about the condition-of-woman question; it is difficult to recall anything about Ann Veronica Stanley as an individual woman.”11 Allowing for this criticism, though, H. G. Wells synthesises and develops the attitudes towards business that have emerged in the work of writers we have been considering. Given their concentration upon ideas, where Wells’s novels do impinge upon the world of business, they might be thought of as economic parables about business in the early twentieth century.
At the age of fourteen, H. G. Wells (1866-1946) was apprenticed to Rodgers and Benyer, Drapers, of Windsor, and, a year later, to Southsea Drapery Emporium. He draws on these early experiences for the social comedies, Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910). In both novels, the protagonists, themselves assistant drapers, are shown to transcend the drudgery of their “clipped and limited lives,”12 but only through legacies. As such, the novels appear to offer escapist fantasies in the manner of the Victorian novel of “expectations,” and yet Wells succeeds in tempering this escapism with a degree of realism: money, per se, brings happiness to neither Kipps nor Polly. Rather than freeing the protagonists from the need to work, their legacies offer them the chance to choose their form of occupation. Thus, through a large, unexpected legacy from his grandfather, Kipps is able to progress from the Folkestone Drapery Bazaar of Mr. Shalford, at the beginning of the novel, to owning his own small bookshop, at the end. A much smaller legacy, from his father, enables Mr. Polly to set up as a small outfitter at Fishbourne, from which he escapes, by means of an insurance scam after a botched suicide attempt, to become the resident handyman at the Potwell Inn. These are novels of self-development rather than escapist fantasies: neither of Wells’s heroes ends up outside the system of work. Instead, Wells uses the forum of retail business to demonstrate the degree to which individual choice is a product of social institutions. Thus, beneath the social comedy, his message would seem to be that reconstituting the individual depends, ultimately, upon restructuring these institutions themselves.
In the social commentary they provide, Wells’s parables of liberation are founded on his own escape from life as a draper’s assistant, by winning a scholarship to study science at Imperial College in Kensington. Here Wells came under the influence of T. E. Huxley whose Darwinist beliefs would profoundly influence his own thinking about social evolution. Both Kipps and The History of Mr. Polly might be said to reflect this influence in the refusal of their central characters to accept the limitations of their comparable social stations, together with the idea (implicit in their attempts to better themselves) that people are capable of progressing beyond these limits. In these novels, the essential entrapment of the individual—and the quashing of individual effort—is traced, by and large, to business, the “system,” that, according to one of Kipps’s fellow-apprentices, Minton, is “a blessed drainpipe, and we’ve got to crawl along it till we die” (34). Of course, it is not only their apprenticeships that enslave Kipps and Polly: in Kipps, for instance, Wells traces the limitations imposed upon individual potential to such causes as social class, too. In fact, nowhere is the image of stifled and frustrated potential better expressed than in the gift the young Kipps receives from his aunt: “Once his aunt gave him a trumpet if he would promise faithfully not to blow it, and afterwards took it away again” (5). More usually—and more perversely—it is business itself that checks individual effort, as Parsons demonstrates in The History of Mr. Polly when his attempts to advertise the store’s wares more imaginatively lead to a fracas with his employer, which culminates in his arrest and dismissal.
Both Kipps and The History of Mr. Polly present the drive towards business efficiency as somehow excluding the eponymous young apprentices. In this, Wells suggests an inverse relationship between financial gain and spiritual loss. Tied to Mr. Shalford by means of “antique and complex” indentures, and, more particularly, to Mr. Shalford’s credo of “System. System everywhere. Fishency,” the young Kipps comes to the conclusion that “save for a miracle, the brief tragedy of his life was over” (28, 27, 36). Of course, the legacy that rescues Kipps from this plight is little short of “a miracle” and it is Wells’s point that this financial miracle, by means of the comic topsy-turveydom it suggests, should subvert the very system that has thus far entrapped Kipps. As Sid Pornick says:
“Who’s going to work and case in a muddle like this? Here, first you do—something anyhow—of the world’s work and it pays you hardly anything, and then it invites you to do nothing, nothing whatever, and pays you twelve hundred pounds a year. Who’s going to respect laws and customs when they come to damn silliness like that? . . . It’s not you I’m thinking of, o’ man; it’s the system. Better you than most people. Still—.” (161)
That Kipps’s fortune is subsequently embezzled by Walshingham and then partially restored by the improbable success of Chitterlow’s play, Pestered Butterfly, further confirms the subversion of the system by forces alien to but dependent upon it. Even more subversive in this respect is the manner in which Polly secures his release from the drudgery of “zealacious commerciality”:13 saddled with a wife and business he doesn’t want, and having reached the end of his tether, he decides upon suicide as a way out both for himself and for Miriam, who will benefit from his insurance policies. Although Polly botches his suicide attempt, he succeeds in starting “the great Fishbourne fire” in which his own shop and those of neighbouring retailers are destroyed. One of the great comic moments in the novel ensues when Polly’s fellow traders hail him as a hero, ostensibly because of his daring rescue of his neighbour’s mother-in-law, but actually because of their chance to claim damages from their respective insurance companies and so escape their collective plight:
Not one of those excellent men but was already realising that a great door had opened, as it were, in the opaque fabric of destiny, that they were to get their money again that had seemed sunken for ever beyond any hope in the deeps of retail trade. Life was already in their imagination rising like a Phoenix from the flames. (133-34)
The fact that one business—insurance—thus provides a hitherto unimaginable escape from the drudgery of another—the retail trade—seems designed to suggest the comic futility of the economic system as a whole.
The indigestion from which Polly suffers until his escape functions as a comic indicator of the “pathology of business”: as Wells sees it, business threatens the very well-being of the individual. Initially, the desire of both Polly and Kipps to escape from the routine of business is expressed in such activities as Polly’s reading about (rather than living out) “the wonder of life” (101) and Kipps’s introduction to “old Methusaleh” whisky under Chitterlow’s influence. When escape comes, in the form of Polly’s insurance money and Kipps’s legacy, it transforms the static lives of the heroes: Polly’s picaresque wanderings, with the sense of freedom these connote, provide a literal counterpart to the abstract mobility of Kipps through the class system. Such transformation suggests that, in Wells’s view, the stability necessary for business is limiting to, or at odds with, the desire and growth of the individual spirit.
In Tono-Bungay (1909), Wells’s focus broadens from the comedies of self-improvement offered in Kipps and The History of Mr. Polly to a consideration of the state of England, as reflected in its business and commerce. In the novel, Wells questions where the relentless pursuit of wealth leads and reveals how, left unchecked through English history, this pursuit has had degenerative effects upon individuals, communities, and environments alike. For an example of the breadth of vision in Tono-Bungay, this is how the narrator, George Ponderevo, describes the London docks:
One goes down the widening reaches through a monstrous variety of shipping, great steamers, great sailing-ships, trailing the flags of all the world, a monstrous confusion of lighters, witches’ conferences of brown-sailed barges, wallowing tugs, a tumultuous crowding and jostling of cranes and spars, and wharves and stores, and assertive inscriptions. Huge vistas of dock open right and left of one, and here and there beyond and amidst it all are church towers, little patches of indescribably old-fashioned and worn-out houses, riverside pubs and the like, vestiges of townships that were long since torn to fragments and submerged in these new growths. And amidst it all no plan appears, no intention, no comprehensive desire.14
Here, the implied critique of the current state of England—and of the forces of commercialism which drive English society—extends to the imperial impulse behind the British Empire itself. The description of London in the novel also provides a fitting correlative for the unplanned chaos of George Ponderevo’s path through life and love. His utter disillusionment with the state of England by the end of the novel is fittingly reflected in his eventual profession: he is a military engineer, building naval destroyers.
Tono-Bungay is another of Wells’s parables about the place of the individual within the world of business, only here, Wells’s focus turns from the plight of the individual to the flawed mechanics of the commercial system. The novel charts the financial rise and collapse of the business empire of the narrator’s uncle, Edward Ponderevo, a failed pharmacist, who makes a fortune overnight when he foists his quack patent medicine, the “Tono-Bungay” of the title, upon the gullible public through skillful marketing. Reviewing the affair, the narrator comes to view his uncle and himself as “no more than specimens of a modern species of brigand, wasting the savings of the public out of the sheer wantonness of enterprise” (335). As a comment upon twentieth-century Britain, this notion that business success depends upon advertising rather than upon the product advertised, that it is an idea without substance, is damning. Granted his “near view of the machinery by which our astounding Empire is run,” the narrator sees England as “the most unpremeditated, subtle, successful and aimless plutocracy that ever encumbered the destinies of mankind,” where the establishment actually encourages his uncle’s “almost naked dishonesty of method” (231-32). This image of the prevailing economic condition as one of unchecked, opportunist profiteering reaches its comic climax in the episode of the, appropriately named, “quap,” which George Ponderevo steals from a West African republic to stave off financial ruin. The quap, however, is a radioactive substance and, having first harmed the workers involved in its retrieval, it then destroys the ship in which it is being transported back to England. To the narrator, the analogy between quap and the diseased state of England is obvious: radioactivity, he says, “is in matter exactly what the decay of our old culture is in society, a loss of traditions and distinctions and assured reactions” (297).
BUSINESS AND TRADE IN HARDY, LAWRENCE, AND CONRAD
Whilst the idea of business-as-decay lies behind the comedy in Wells’s novels, the fact that these are comedies, and the fact that they propose no real alternative to the economic system they satirise, suggests that, for all its degenerative side-effects, there is no better model of the economic system than that portrayed. But if even a social critic like Wells merely uses business as a convenient structure on which to hang his ideas, are there any early-twentieth-century authors who approach business and commerce in a manner which foregrounds business and its concerns? I suggest that the work of Hardy, Lawrence, and Conrad offers such an approach and I shall now discuss the work of each of them in turn. I shall argue that the sense of work as an imprisoning routine in Modern literature commences with the disorientation caused by the migration from rus to urbs, as reflected in the novels of Thomas Hardy, and continues through the entrapment and victimisation of the individual through industrialism in D. H. Lawrence’s presentation of the Nottinghamshire colliers, and into the clear-eyed view of the unglamorous necessity of trade in the work of Joseph Conrad.
All ages are “ages of change” and it is, thus, facile to attribute the character of an age to a single cause. Yet, were one seeking to identify the single element that best characterises British culture in the Modern age, this element would undoubtedly be the transformation of a predominantly rural society into a predominantly urban society. In the middle of the nineteenth century, only half of the population was urban; at the beginning of the twentieth century the modern city was home to most of the population: “Of the forty-five million inhabitants of the United Kingdom in 1911 (an increase of fourteen million in forty years), nearly 80 per cent lived in England and Wales; and, of these, again, roughly 80 per cent came to live in urban districts.”15 The social consequences of this shift in population in the second half of the nineteenth century cannot be overstated. With the loss of rural traditions was lost a way of life, at once individuating and definitive in its communal values, and a major consequence of the urbanisation that followed was to define the workforce in purely financial terms as the self-supporting cottager was transformed into a consumer:
. . . what emerged was a new ethic, familiar enough by then in the towns but less known in the country, the ethic of competition. The effect of this was to reduce man to the level of economic man, one whose community relationships were at the mercy of the cash nexus and whose psychological motivations were thought of largely in terms of self interest.16
The age of the masses had arrived and, in the face of the complexities of urbanised society, writers like Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Joseph Conrad evoked simpler, organic communities—the pastoral community in Hardy’s novels and the ship’s crew in Conrad’s novels, for instance. However, there is nothing escapist in this evocation: each author addresses the role of the individual in relation to the cash nexus with a refreshing dry-eyed realism.
The novels of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) provide a record of a vanishing way of life as the invention of Wessex enables the contrast between rus and urbs. Indeed, the use of Wessex across the novels themselves reflects the inescapable influence of urbanisation upon rural society: from its invention in Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), the rhythms and pastoral traditions of the Wessex landscape come to dominate novels like Far from the Madding Crowd (1874); place itself comes to assume the importance of a central character in The Return of the Native (1878) and The Woodlanders (1887), through the evocation of Egdon Heath and the Hintock Woods as respective presiding spirits; The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), with its predominantly urban setting, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892), through its contrasted rural settings, dramatise the presence of unsettling, and mainly economic, new forces at work in the countryside; until, finally, in Jude the Obscure (1896), the Wessex landscape itself is present only in muted form. Hardy’s chief interest for us in this study lies in his representation of agriculture as a business and, for Hardy, the business of farming is ultimately dependent upon the relationship between the worker and his or her environment.
Hardy uses landscape and region to promote human values, and, generally speaking, the genius loci, which reveals the degree to which an individual comes to be defined by his way of life and environment, is revealed to be hopelessly at odds with the prevailing spirit of social change. Hardy’s novels endorse values that Modern man is in danger of forgetting; the implication is that man obtains civilisation at the expense of his organic contacts. In this organically composed world, the life of Old John South can be determined by that of an elm tree, in The Woodlanders. The permanence of nature and of traditional working methods, as embodied in such characters as Gabriel Oak, Diggory Venn, Giles Winterborne, and Marty South, is reflected in the very landscapes which define them. Thus we learn in the opening chapter of The Return of the Native that “The sea changed, the fields changed, the rivers, the villages and the people changed, but Egdon remained.”17 This sense of the immutability of nature is further emphasised by its extension to the lives of those “in tune” with it:
The citizen’s Then is the rustic’s Now. In London, twenty or thirty years ago are old times; in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than half a century set a mark on its face or tone.18
Such sharp distinction encourages the reader to contrast those characters who work “in tune” with their natural surroundings with those interlopers who bring subversive new attitudes and values. Thus, for instance, we are led to contrast Diggory Venn with Damon Wildeve, Gabriel Oak with Sergeant Troy, the Stokeses with the Durbeyfields, and Giles Winterborne and Marty South with Edred Fitzpiers and Felice Charmond. In each case, the organic stoicism of the former throws into stark relief the dislocation of the latter.
The structure of Far from the Madding Crowd, like the pace of life of its characters, is governed by the pastoral rhythms of lambing and shearing: the progress of the novel derives not from the usual demands of plot but from the rhythms of the seasons and the farming year. Within this structure, individuals seem to lose their separate identities as they work, suggesting that they form a logical extension of their (natural) activity. In the great shearing scene, for instance, not only do the shearers “not require definition by name” (137), but the barn itself is compared to a church to suggest that the needs of the body and the needs of the soul cannot be differentiated. In this organic unity “the barn was natural to the shearers and the shearers were in harmony with the barn” (139). The innate wisdom associated with a life lived in harmony with nature is present in the sixth sense of Gabriel Oak, whose very name combines the connotations of watchfulness and stolidity on which Bathsheba Everdene will come to depend. Thus, Oak is able to predict the impending storm by “reading” the behaviour of rooks, sheep, horses, toads, and slugs, as messages “from the Great Mother” (216). The simple juxtaposition of Troy, who has sunk into a drunken stupor at this point, and Oak is felt most keenly in the latter’s estimated value of Bathsheba’s wheat and barley that need covering to protect it from the storm:
5 × 30 = 150 quarters = 500l.
3 × 40 = 120 quarters = 250l.
Seven hundred and fifty pounds in the divinest form that money can wear—that of necessary food for man and beast. (217-18)
This simple formulation not only distinguishes between Troy and Oak in terms of their attitudes to money—Troy is a consumer and Oak a producer—it also carries a significant endorsement of a definitive feature of rural “business”: here the workers are not separated from the end product of their labours. This point is repeated during the Talbothays Dairy sequence, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in the discussion between Tess and Angel about who will drink the milk they have just loaded onto the train:
“Londoners will drink it at their breakfasts to-morrow, won’t they?” she asked. “Strange people that we have never seen.”
“Yes—I suppose they will. Though not as we send it. When its strength has been lowered, so that it may not get up into their heads.”
“Noble men and noble women, ambassadors and centurions, ladies and tradeswomen, and babies who have never seen a cow.”
“Well, yes; perhaps; particularly centurions.”
“Who don’t know anything of us, and where it comes from; or think how we two drove miles across the moor to-night in the rain that it might reach ’em in time.”19
Such emphasis upon the organic, communal nature of rural work, however, might lead one to suspect that Hardy’s novels present the rural environment as a time capsule, immune from the demands of the real, changing world. So, can one defend Hardy from the charge of escapism that this suspicion raises?
Hardy writes novels that endorse values that modern man is forgetting, yet, in the natural world of which he writes, both the man-trap, in The Woodlanders, and the pastoral tragedy that determines Gabriel Oak’s fate in Far from the Madding Crowd, have their place. In keeping with this, Hardy’s presentation of the business that constitutes the rural economy is anything but escapist. As the eponymous hero, Jude, learns to his cost, there is little room for sentiment in a world where “Pigs must be killed” because “Poor folks must live.”20 Increasingly in Hardy’s novels, the nature of rural work is shown to be arduous, physical, and, often, exploitative. The nature of farming as a business, and of labour as a commodity to be bought, is graphically demonstrated in chapter 6 of Far from the Madding Crowd where Gabriel Oak, now unemployed, joins the throng of would-be labourers hoping to be selected at the annual hiring fair at Casterbridge. Hardy expressed his views on the subject of hiring fairs more fully in an essay entitled “The Dorsetshire Labourer,” published ten years after Far from the Madding Crowd.21 His sympathy and admiration for the labourers are quickly in evidence:
To see the Dorset labourer at his worst and saddest time, he should be viewed when attending a wet hiring-fair at Candlemas, in search of a new master. His natural cheerfulness bravely struggles against the weather and the incertitude; but as the day passes on, and his clothes get wet through, and he is still unhired, there does appear a factitiousness in the smile which, with a self-repressing mannerliness hardly to be found among any other class, he yet has ready when he encounters and talks with friends who have been more fortunate. (257)
Even though the life-style of people working close to nature is sometimes idealised, “The Dorsetshire Labourer” makes clear Hardy’s unease with this system of securing labour. Interestingly, though, he is not advocating its abolition. Rather, what seems to exercise Hardy is that, in the market-place, individuality gives way to uniformity, as evidenced in the loss of the traditional dress which once individuated the shepherds, carters, thatchers, and so on, from each other:
Formerly they came in smock-frocks and gaiters, the shepherds with their crooks, the carters with a zone of whipcord round their hats, thatchers with a straw tucked into the brim, and so on. Now, with the exception of the crook in the hands of an occasional old shepherd, there is no mark of speciality in the groups, who might be tailors or undertakers’ men, for what they exhibit externally. (258)
Developing this idea, Hardy’s novels reflect a transitional period on the land that might be thought of in terms of a transformation in agriculture from an occupation that individuates to an occupation that renders its workers anonymous. We should note here that, unlike, say, Wells, Hardy does not fight shy of the need for agriculture to be run as a business; his concern is with the passing of “natural” values. Hardy is dry-eyed in his observation of farming as a business and the workforce as a commodity. He bemoans the lost sense of contact with the land consequent upon the “increasing nomadic habit of the labourer” (263), yet recognises that the rural workforce must follow the demand for labour. As Hardy dramatises in the plight of the Durbeyfield family after John’s death, his sympathies are with the labouring families, rendered increasingly vulnerable as their cottages are leased to them for the duration of their employment and can be just as easily reclaimed from them on Lady Day. Nevertheless, he is alive, too, both to the inevitability of change and to the fact that change “is also a sort of education”:
Many advantages accrue to the labourers from the varied experience it brings, apart from the best market for their abilities. . . . It is only the old story that progress and picturesqueness do not harmonise. They are losing their individuality, but they are widening the range of their ideas, and gaining in freedom. (262)
This capacity to present rural life and work as it is and not as he would like it to be, makes Hardy a realist, and it is his realism that enables him to see both the comforting and the malignant side of rural work, and this nowhere better than in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Her locale provides an index to the emotional state of Tess Durbeyfield: at Talbothays Dairy, her relationship with Angel Clare burgeons “at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilisation” (155), whilst the description of the swede-field at Flintcomb-Ash Farm as “a complexion without features” (273) perfectly reflects the bleakness of her prospects after Angel has abandoned her. But work is a function of locale in Hardy’s novels and is, thus, also used to reflect in miniature an important transitional stage in the countryside: the increasing mechanisation. In the harvesting scene, in chapter 14 of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the mechanical reaper, whose noise resembles “the love-making of a grasshopper,” is followed by women whose movements gathering and binding draw them together “like dancers in a quadrille” (102, 104). How different this is from the threshing-machine, in chapter 47, which is described in terms which emphasise dominance and subservience:
Close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barely visible, was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve—a timber-framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining—the threshing machine which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves. (309)
With its emphasis on women serving the machine, this embodiment of new forces on the land is couched in sexual terms. Tess is thus representative of woman’s lot in the face of nineteenth-century patriarchy both as woman and as woman-worker. In “The Dorsetshire Labourer,” Hardy observes that women’s labour “is highly in request, for a woman who, like a boy, fills the place of a man at half the wages, can be better depended on for steadiness” (267). Hardy’s presentation of Wessex across his novels is, thus, simultaneously a representation of the changing face of farming as a business, run for profit, and his greatness as a novelist may well lie in his courageous recognition that, despite his own personal sympathies, this business like any other needs to move with the times.
Like Hardy, D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) addresses the dehumanising effects of new working practices, but his concern is predominantly with industrialism, for which the mining country of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire where he grew up provides the perfect setting. In his essay, part-autobiography, part-polemic, “Nottingham and the Mining Countryside,” Lawrence, at once more angry and impassioned than Hardy, presents an emotional rather than an intellectual case against the loss of the countryside in the face of industry-led urban expansion:
The Englishman still likes to think of himself as a “cottager”—“my home, my garden.” But it is puerile. Even the farm-labourer today is psychologically a town-bird. The English are town-birds through and through, today, as the inevitable result of their complete industrialisation. . . . England is a mean and petty scrabble of paltry dwellings called “homes.” I believe in their heart of hearts all Englishmen loathe their little homes . . . And the promoter of industry, a hundred years ago, dared to perpetrate the ugliness of my native village. And still more monstrous, promoters of industry today are scrabbling over the face of England with miles and miles of red-brick “homes,” like horrible scabs.22
In this essay, Lawrence rages against what he sees as the ugliness of England and of English life, an ugliness that, once again, he lays at the door of industry:
The great crime which the moneyed classes and promoters of industry committed in the palmy Victorian days was the condemning of the workers to ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meanness and formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hope, ugly love, ugly clothes, ugly furniture, ugly houses, ugly relationship between workers and employers. The human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread. (138)
But whilst the mining industry provides Lawrence with an easy target for his attack on materialism generally in this essay, it is employed in his fiction more subtly than this. His short story, “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” provides a good illustration. The tale commences with a brief description of the ineffectuality of mechanisation as a colt outdistances a passing locomotive engine “at a canter.”23 But the blight of industry is present in the countryside:
In the open, the smoke from the engine sank and cleaved to the rough grass. The fields were dreary and forsaken, and in the marshy strip that led to the whimsey, a reedy pit-pond, the fowls had already abandoned their run among the alders, to roost in the tarred fowl-house. The pit-bank loomed up beyond the pond, flames like red sores licking its ash sides, in the afternoon’s stagnant light. (283)
Nature itself seems unable to compete with the forces of industry. This sterility announces the corrosive potential of industry, that spreads from the pit to the countryside and, ultimately, into the Bateses’ marriage itself. To complete this picture, an unidentified woman stands, “insignificantly trapped between the jolting black waggons and the hedge,” as the locomotive passes by (283). Through this detail, designed to suggest that industry hems in the lives of those associated with it, Lawrence adumbrates the death of Walter Bates, significantly, by asphyxiation, in a mining accident. At this point, it is tempting to see Lawrence’s portrayal of the mining industry as simply reductive. But, however prevalent in his work are the related themes of Nature, including human nature, tainted by mechanisation, and the constrictions of the material world upon instinctual life, Lawrence is attracted, too, to the fellowship and community fostered by the colliers’ work. In “Nottingham and the Mining Countryside” he claims that
the miners worked underground as a sort of intimate community, they knew each other practically naked, and with curious close intimacy, and the darkness and the underground remoteness of the pit “stall,” and the continual presence of danger, made the physical instinctive, and intuitional contact between men very highly developed, a contact almost as close as touch, very real and very powerful. (135-36)
This curious fascination with what repels him is of a piece with some of the lingering, almost loving, descriptions of, say, Dickens in the presentation of “Tom-all-Alone’s” in Bleak House, and it hints at the complexities and contradictions within Lawrence’s own approach to industrialism. Interestingly, this same mixture of attraction and revulsion defines the attitude of Gudrun Brangwen towards the Beldover colliers in Women in Love:
It was the same every evening when she came home, she seemed to move through a wave of disruptive force, that was given off from the presence of thousands of vigorous, under-world, half-automatised colliers, and which went to the brain and the heart, awaking a fatal desire, and a fatal callousness.24
Similarly, in The Rainbow, the feelings of Winifred Inger for Ursula’s uncle, Tom Brangwen, are contradictory: “She was afraid of him, repelled by him and yet attracted.”25 Such contradiction extends to the couple’s perverse fascination and acceptance of the plight of the Wiggiston colliers: Winifred and Tom are described as “cynically reviling the monstrous state and yet adhering to it, like a man who reviles his mistress, yet who is in love with her” (349). Lawrence seems to suggest that it is only through such emotional confusion that the system can be perpetuated, believing that civilisation had corrupted the natural behaviour of men and women. As he said in a letter to Ernest Collings, dated 17 January 1913:
My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and bridle. What do I care about knowledge. All I want is to answer to my blood, direct.26
It is in the light of such claims that we read such works as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with their emphasis upon the re-discovery of a passionate, impulsive life that has been suppressed by the evasions and pretence of the Modern world. The degree to which D. H. Lawrence believed that this instinctual life of mankind had been suppressed by industry is apparent in his presentation of business in the two novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, that evolved out of the projected single novel, The Sisters, begun in 1913.
The Rainbow (published in 1915 and immediately suppressed on sexual and political grounds) is a family chronicle that charts the history of three generations of the Brangwen family and culminates in the successful struggle of Ursula Brangwen to make her way in a male-dominated world. By contrast, Women in Love (written in 1916-17 and published in 1922) is an apocalyptic novel: written under the spirit of the First World War, it charts the fortunes of two couples against the backdrop of an increasing pessimism in the social world. Not unnaturally, given British participation in the First World War, the novels of this period reflect a national self-consciousness of the idea and state of British society. Such novels belong to a genre known as “condition of England” novels and include such examples as Wells’s Tono-Bungay (1909) and E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910). Lawrence’s survey of English life, Women in Love, belongs to this tradition.
The pastoral rhythms of the world of the Brangwens are inscribed in the very tissue of the prose at the beginning of The Rainbow, where the lyricism and repetitions combine to suggest the continuity of this world:
The young corn waved and was silken, and the lustre slid along the limbs of the men who saw it. They took the udder of the cows, the cows yielded milk and pulse against the hands of the men, the pulse of the blood of the teats of the cows beat into the pulse of the hands of the men. (2)
Across the two novels, the destruction of this pastoral world is registered in the stylistic transformation from rhythmical prose like this, that reinforces the sense of organic unity between man and his environment, to the fragmentary style of Women in Love, whose chapters read like a series of discrete short stories, mirroring the discontinuities of the age. Nowhere is the progressively bleak note that is sounded about the fate of society in these two novels heard to more effect than in Lawrence’s presentation of the mines and the miners: industry might be said to provide the index to the state of English society.
Chronologically, the sweep of The Rainbow is significant: the novel begins in the late-Victorian period and ends in the Boer War. In other words, The Rainbow commences in semi-rural England and, through its presentation of the mining industry in particular, examines the influence of the large-scale industrialisation which characterised this period. Even before the birth of Ursula’s grandfather, Tom Brangwen, whose marriage to Lydia Lensky occupies the first third of the novel, new forces are gaining purchase around Marsh Farm:
About 1840, a canal was constructed across the meadows of the Marsh Farm, connecting the newly-opened collieries of the Erewash Valley. A high embankment travelled along the fields to carry the canal, which passed close to the homestead, and, reaching the road, went over in a heavy bridge.
So the Marsh was shut off from Ilkeston, and enclosed in the small valley bed, which ended in a bushy hill and the village spire of Cossethay. . . . looking from the garden gate down the road to the right, there, through the dark archway of the canal’s square aqueduct, was a colliery spinning away in the near distance, and further, red, crude houses plastered on the valley in masses, and beyond all, the dim smoking hill of the town.
The homestead was just on the safe side of civilisation, outside the gate. (6)
Symbolically, the canal that supplies the mines also both hems in the lives of the Brangwens and separates their old rural way of life from the new mechanised way of life. Further, in a novel where the past is important, as each generation inherits traits from its predecessors, this “new” force on the land will itself have a consequence: many years later, Tom Brangwen will be drowned when this same canal bursts its (man-made) banks. Tom is the last of the Brangwen farmers so his death carries the suggestion that industry has now succeeded in replacing agriculture as the local business. Further, his physical death can be seen, in part at least, as an embodiment of the spiritual deaths of the miners, who are identified as the real victims of the forces of social and economic change in the novel.
Another way of saying that the Modern age reflects the migration from rus to urbs, is to say simply that this is “the age of the masses.” Indeed, M. D. Biddiss’s book on the period has this phrase as its title (1977). But, within the mass production, mass culture, and mass communication, that characterise the age, lies the cause of much of Lawrence’s disquiet: the loss of individualism. His novels in general, and The Rainbow, in particular, contrast the uniqueness of the individual with the sameness of the mechanical world. In the reduction of the individual to something mechanical lies the true “ugliness” of industrialism for Lawrence. Thus, Wiggiston is described in terms that accentuate its utilitarian sterility:
The streets were like visions of pure ugliness; a grey-black, macadamized road, asphalt causeways, held in between a flat succession of wall, window, and door, a new-brick channel began nowhere, and ended nowhere. Everything was amorphous, yet everything repeated itself endlessly. . . . The rigidity of the blank streets, the homogeneous amorphous sterility of the whole suggested death rather than life. (344)
In his description of the miners’ subordination to the pit, “the great mistress,” uncle Tom Brangwen, the mine manager, paints a stark picture of the degree to which the industry has destroyed any sense of individuality in their lives: “Every man his own little side show, his home, but the pit owns every man. The women have what’s left of this man, or of that—it doesn’t matter altogether. The pit takes all that really matters” (348). In The Rainbow, this sense of the industrial machine as the only reality gains as we see its influence—and corrosive power—extend to other areas of life. For instance, disillusioned with her studies, Ursula has a vision of her college as a mere adjunct of commerce: “It was a little apprentice-shop where one was further equipped for making money. The college itself was a little, slovenly laboratory for the factory” (435). In Women in Love, Lawrence satirically extends his consideration of industry’s dehumanising effect to reveal its influence upon the lives of the mine owners.
Women in Love is set in the years immediately preceding the First World War and, by concentrating upon two contrasted couples, it traces the prevailing mood of social and cultural crisis to the area of emotional and sexual relationships. Whilst it is a much bleaker work than The Rainbow, it too affirms the claims of instinctual over industrial life, but with the difference that the argument it offers for this is less arbitrary than that offered by its predecessor. Ursula’s hopeful “rainbow vision” provides The Rainbow with an up-beat ending that its social context does not really justify. Given the same context, the hope offered by the relationship between Ursula and Rupert Birkin in Women in Love is more coherent in that it depends upon their abandoning this context altogether: for them a new life, ultimately, beckons beyond the ties of home, family, and possessions. Such belief in an individual—rather than a social—code of conduct distinguishes Birkin from the other central male character in the novel, Gerald Crich. At the wedding reception of Gerald’s sister, Laura, Birkin says that he should like people “to like the purely individual thing in themselves, which makes them act in singleness. And they only like to do the collective thing.” Gerald replies that he “shouldn’t like to be in a world of people who acted individually and spontaneously” (27), a response which allies him with Anton Skrebensky in The Rainbow, who tells Ursula: “I belong to the nation and must do my duty by the nation” (309). He sees himself as “just a brick in the whole great social fabric” (326).
In the “Coal Dust” chapter of Women in Love, Gerald, the mine-owner’s son, is seen exerting a wilful mastery over the Arab mare he is riding as it tries to escape the clamour caused by an approaching colliery train. The nearer the train gets, the more frantic become the horse’s struggles:
She began to wince away, as if hurt by the unknown noise. But Gerald pulled her back and held her head to the gate. The sharp blasts of the chuffing engine broke with more and more force on her. The repeated sharp blows of unknown, terrifying noise struck through her till she was rocking with terror. She recoiled like a spring let go. But a glistening, half-smiling look came into Gerald’s face. He brought her back again, inevitably. (103)
Of course, the horse is emblematic of the natural impulse that is quashed in the service of industry, whose relentlessness is perfectly captured in that post-positioned adverb, “inevitably.” In Women in Love, Lawrence’s concern extends beyond the plight of the mine-worker to include the nature of mine-management itself.
The presentation of the Crich family reveals the changing face of the industrial magnate as control of the mine passes from old Thomas Crich, a second-generation mine-owner, to his son, Gerald. Between them, father and son represent a crucial shift in the nature of the relationships between employer and employee. Thomas Crich’s sentimental paternalism exists within an inherent contradiction: “He wanted to be a pure Christian, one and equal with all men. He even wanted to give away all he had, to the poor. Yet he was a great promoter of industry, and he knew perfectly that he must keep his goods and keep his authority” (219). By contrast, Gerald is not exercised by any such qualms—“He abandoned the whole democratic-equality problem as a problem of silliness. What mattered was the great social productive machine” (219)—instead, he is driven by the simple obsession to rationalise the mines and to make them more efficient:
The working of the pits was thoroughly changed, all the control was taken out of the hands of the miners, the butty system was abolished. Everything was run on the most accurate and delicate scientific method, educated and expert men were in control everywhere, the miners were reduced to mere mechanical instruments. They had to work hard, much harder than before, the work was terrible and heart-breaking in its mechanicalness. (223)
But, in an amusing paradox, once he has “converted the industry into a new and terrible purity,” with himself as “the God of the machine” (224, 220), Gerald finds that the “machine” runs by itself: so successful has been his rationalisation that he has succeeded in making himself surplus to requirements. It is part of Lawrence’s point about industrialism that Gerald is then shown to lack the inner resources necessary to sustain him.
With grim irony, the improved fortunes of the Criches’ family business coincide with the deterioration of the family: Thomas Crich dies after a long, lingering illness. This association of business with death is central to Lawrence’s presentation of Gerald, the industrial magnate par excellence in the novel: not only is Gerald responsible for the deaths of his brother (in a shooting accident) and sister (who drowns at the water party he is supervising), but he is repeatedly described in terms that emphasise his coldness—he is “an arctic thing,” “a ray of cold sunshine,” and so on (9, 105), and when he dies, it is in his “element,” in the snow-bound wastes of the Swiss Alps. This suggestion that business has, at its core, an inherent “death-wish,” is of a piece with the narrative suggestion that, taken to its extreme, industrial efficiency “kills” the individual worker by reducing him to something mechanical. This idea might thus be construed as a bout of wish-fulfilment on Lawrence’s part. None the less, in its presentation of the deleterious effects of industrialism in areas of life as diverse as sexual relations and art, Women in Love sees business as perpetuating the crisis of culture to which early-twentieth-century writers were responding. Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence concentrate, respectively, upon rural and industrial economies, and thus, by and large, attend to this crisis of values “from within” the milieu of English society: their works voice the sadness and anger at the breakdown of the pre-industrial way of life in English society. It was left to another writer, an immigrant, to offer a complementary view of this crisis “from without” by placing it in an international context.
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) was the adopted, anglicised version of the name of Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski. Born of ardent Polish patriots (his father was sent to a Russian penal colony for his views), Conrad left Poland at the age of seventeen for Marseilles to become a trainee seaman in the French Merchant Service, before transferring to British ships in 1878 and working his way up through the ranks to obtain his Master’s Certificate in 1886. A sailor in the last great age of sailing ships, Conrad’s travels took him round the world and these experiences furnished him with material for the sea-fiction. After Conrad’s sea career ended in 1894 (with a brief cross-Channel voyage on the Adowa), he committed himself to writing novels for a living and, although writing in his third language, he quickly earned his place among the foremost novelists of the age. Indeed, F. R. Leavis saw Conrad as the successor to Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James in the “great tradition” of the English novel.
In his early novels, Conrad, like Hardy, describes humanity as a prolongation of the natural world. Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), earned him the sobriquet “the Kipling of the Malay Archipelago.”27 In Almayer’s Folly, Conrad uses trade to pass an ironic comment upon Dutch colonialism. Set in the village of Sambir, the fictional counterpart of Tanjong Redeb on the Berau River in North Borneo, the novel charts the declining fortunes of the resident Westerner, Kaspar Almayer, a failed trader who is outsmarted by his native counterparts. Almayer’s assumed cultural superiority leads him to dismiss the natives as inferior, yet Conrad reveals how the same impulses motivate both the European and the Malays, and the image of Almayer, toward the end of the novel, in an opium daze and being led about by his pet monkey provides a humorous picture of the would-be supremacist descending the evolutionary ladder.
Almayer’s Folly might be thought of as a debasement of the theme of Madame Bovary: the novel offers a study in disintegration in the person of the déclassé Almayer, whose cheap dream of riches makes of him a metaphor for failure. Ironically, Almayer’s plan to flee Sambir and to introduce his daughter, Nina, into Amsterdam society entails a journey into the interior to collect gold and diamonds. Thus, Almayer hopes to assert his Dutch identity by travelling deeper into the heart of Borneo! The link between commerce and cultural diversity is best made when Abdulla, who has quickly become the foremost trader in Sambir, visits Almayer with an offer to buy Nina as “a favourite wife” for his nephew, Reshid.28 Whilst the proposal itself deeply offends Almayer’s assumed cultural superiority, the material advantages that Abdulla promises hint at the very connotators of European civilisation for which Almayer yearns:
“You know, Tuan,” he said, in conclusion, “the other women would be her slaves, and Reshid’s house is great. From Bombay he has brought great divans, and costly carpets, and European furniture. There is also a great looking-glass in a frame shining like gold. What could a girl want more?” (45)
Part of Conrad’s point in the novel is the blindness of colonialism to the shabbiness of its own motives. Thus, the reader and not the protagonist is aware of Abdulla’s vested economic interests and how these are ranged against Almayer, outsmarting him at every turn. According to Cedric Watts, this provides the novel with a “covert plot.”29 I suggest that this idea of naked financial interest parading as something finer becomes something of a feature of Conrad’s presentation of business and money in his subsequent novels.
In Heart of Darkness (1899), colonial expansion itself is exposed as little more than European greed masquerading as philanthropy. Drawing upon his own visit to the Congo Free State in 1890, Conrad paints a grim picture of imperialism that, by drawing attention to the cruelty of its methods, stresses its purely economic basis:
“It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a grand scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.”30
Within the narrative, the civilising “idea” behind the venture is debunked by Marlow’s observations of the lust for ivory in Africa. In a letter to Arthur Conan Doyle (dated 7 October 1909), E. D. Morel, the founder of the Congo Reform Association, called Heart of Darkness “the most powerful thing ever written on the subject.”31 It was first published in Blackwood’s magazine, in serial form, from February to April 1899, and, subsequently, in book form, in Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories, in 1902. In other words, Conrad’s novella, expressing disillusionment with the imperial achievement, is published against an historical backdrop which includes the death of Queen Victoria and the outbreak of the Boer War. At the time of publication, Britain was still the banker of the world: “in 1901 the British were still considerably the world’s largest exporters of manufactured goods and by far the leading trading nation, accounting for some twenty five per cent of the world’s trade.”32 However, in various ways, Britain was showing signs of vulnerability: the first stirrings of nationalism were making themselves felt in far-flung corners of the Empire whilst, economically, her maritime advantage was being eroded by America.33
In the novel, the idea behind European involvement in Africa is voiced by Marlow’s aunt as “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways” (59). The yawning divide between such superficial sentiment and the manifestation of business in its crudest form advertises the blindness of colonial enterprise. In an interesting reversal, whilst business is disguised as colonialism in Heart of Darkness, in Conrad’s great metropolitan novel, The Secret Agent (1907), it is Verloc’s small business that provides the cover for his activities as a double agent. In keeping with the fact that Verloc’s activities involve secrecy, his trade is in “shady wares.”34 In these narratives, it is as though Conrad is suggesting that business per se entails some degree of subterfuge. Inevitably, one thinks of The End of the Tether (1902), where Captain Whalley continues to pilot the Sofala, in order to provide for his daughter, even though his blindness makes him unfit to do so. A variation on the theme of subterfuge—which may well owe something to H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay—comes in Chance, published in 1914, in which the central figure, Flora de Barral, is victimised largely because of the collapse of her father’s business empire that is discovered to consist of little beyond the advertising:
One remembers his first modest advertisements headed with the magic word Thrift, Thrift, Thrift, thrice repeated; promising ten per cent on all deposits and giving the address of the Thrift and Independence Aid Association in Vauxhall Bridge Road. Apparently nothing more was necessary. He didn’t even explain what he meant to do with the money he asked the public to pour into his lap. Of course he meant to lend it out at high rates of interest. He did so—but he did it without system, plan, foresight or judgment. And as he frittered away the sums that flowed in, he advertised for more—and got it. During a period of general business prosperity he set up The Orb Bank and The Sceptre Trust, simply, it seems, for advertising purposes. They were mere names.35
Capturing the mood of the time in which it was written, this is a novel about women’s struggle to get their voices heard in a world dominated by men. Thus, the fact that the male world of her father’s business, upon which the young Flora depends for her security, is shown to be a sham, is simultaneously a criticism of the world of business and the subjugation of women. Ironically, it was this tale of swindling that finally made Conrad’s fortune with the reading public.
However jaundiced it may seem, Conrad’s view of business and of the economic underpinning of daily life is never less than realistic. Conrad served as a sailor in the age when sailing ships were giving way to steamers, and the romance of his sea-fiction is underpinned by the gritty realism of employment and trade: the sailors are doing a job and the ship is sailing in service of the business. For instance, in The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” the reader never discovers what freight the Narcissus is carrying on her return voyage from Bombay to London, and so is tempted to identify this “freight” as the insights about themselves gained by the crew. But Captain Allistoun’s refusal to cut the masts during the storm scene is nonetheless subtly linked to the trade-ethic that “time is money,” even if this is partially obscured by the captain’s own egotism:
He loved his ship, and drove her unmercifully; for his secret ambition was to make her accomplish some day a brilliantly quick passage which would be mentioned in nautical papers. He pronounced the owner’s name with a sardonic smile.36
A more obvious instance of this is provided in Typhoon when Captain MacWhirr, the dour skipper of the Nan-Shan sails through, rather than round, the “dirty weather” predicted by the steady fall of his ship’s barometer. Like the heroes of Hardy, Conrad’s MacWhirr is at home in his environment and so, when confronted by a crisis, he is guided by his seaman’s instinct rather than the “storm strategy” he reads about in books. MacWhirr’s explanation of his actions to Mr. Jukes, his chief mate, is humorous at the captain’s expense whilst, simultaneously, emphasising that he is an employee whose working practice is monitored:
“If the weather delays me—very well. There’s your log-book to talk straight about the weather. But suppose I went swinging off my course and came in two days late, and they asked me: ‘Where have you been all that time, Captain?’ What could I say to that? ‘Went around to dodge the bad weather,’ I would say. ‘It must’ve been dam’ bad,’ they would say. ‘Don’t know,’ I would have to say; ‘I’ve dodged clear of it.’ See that, Jukes?”37
This tale, which was originally entitled “Equitable Division,” provides a good example of the manner in which Conradian fiction is grounded in economic reality. Whilst the eventual title directs the reader towards the typhoon itself, the consequence of the storm is that MacWhirr has to redistribute their money to the Chinese workers, returning home from Fu-chau to their families after working abroad. Confronted by this problem, MacWhirr solves it just as he does the problem of the typhoon, by confronting it head on. The boxes containing the workers’ savings break open during the typhoon so MacWhirr orders Jukes to gather up all the money to prevent them fighting for it below-decks. The storm over, MacWhirr resolves the problem of redistribution by sharing the money out equitably. As Jukes writes to his friend:
He told me afterwards that, all the coolies having worked in the same place and for the same length of time, he reckoned he would be doing the fair thing by them as near as possible if he shared all the cash we had picked up equally among the lot. . . . There were three dollars left over, and these went to the three most damaged coolies, one to each. (101-2)
It is part of the point of the novel that Jukes, another “reader” of the unimaginative MacWhirr’s actions, doesn’t fully appreciate the captain’s actions—“he got out of it very well for such a stupid man,” Jukes writes to a friend (102)—instead, this is left to the chief engineer, Mr. Solomon Rout, who informs his wife that the captain “has done something rather clever” (96), and then forgets to inform her what it is! In the light of Jukes’s desire to alter the ship’s course away from the typhoon for the benefit of “passengers,” MacWhirr’s attitude seemed racist—“Never heard a lot of coolies spoken of as passengers before. Passengers, indeed!” (31)—yet, as subsequent events demonstrate, the captain’s fairness throws into stark relief the false humanitarianism of his chief mate. The point is that, to the unimaginative MacWhirr, the workers are just so much cargo being conveyed from one port to another.
Conrad’s most forceful and far-reaching comments on business, however, come in Nostromo (1904). This novel, set in the fictional South American republic of Costaguana, offers both an analysis of the relationship between business and politics, through the San Tomé silver mine, the “imperium in imperio” in Costaguana, and, through the American tycoon, Holroyd, in particular, a prediction of global economics across the whole of the twentieth century. It is thus fitting that I conclude this survey of representations of business in early-twentieth-century literature with this “most anxiously meditated” novel, as Conrad described it in his “Author’s Note.”
Charles Gould, a young Englishman, returns to Costaguana, the country of his birth, with his new bride, Emilia, and reopens the San Tomé silver mine, that had been forced upon his father when Gould was about fourteen, under a “perpetual concession” that stipulated immediate payment of “five years’ royalties on the estimated output of the mine” to the impoverished government, “the fourth in six years.”38 Against a volatile political backdrop of revolution and counterrevolution, Gould, a trained engineer, succeeds in working the mine to the point where it becomes the force in the land, and Gould himself earns the nickname “King of Sulaco” (93). The novel’s chronological shifts serve to replicate, in the reading process, the interconnectedness of people, patterns, and events, as Conrad’s true subject in the novel is made clear: in Nostromo, Conrad’s concern is nothing less than the historical process itself. Amid the welter of forces that combine to create the history of Costaguana, the one point of fixity is the silver itself. This novel charts the obsession with material interests as, ultimately, the characters connect more with the silver than with each other.
In a conversation with his wife, Charles Gould links commerce to social stability, making it sound as if the mine will serve a finer purpose than crude materialism:
“What is wanted here is law, good faith, order, security. Any one can declaim about these things, but I pin my faith on material interests. Only let the material interests once get a firm footing, and they are bound to impose the conditions on which alone they can continue to exist. That’s how your money-making is justified here in the face of lawlessness and disorder. It is justified because the security which it demands must be shared with an oppressed people.” (84)
However, in order to preserve and protect the mine, Gould resorts, first, to bribery and, then, to financing a revolution to install Don Vincente Ribiera as “President-Dictator,” which in turn fuels further revolution, leading, ultimately, to the War of Separation through which the Occidental province becomes the independent State of Sulaco. Such emphasis upon Costaguana politics as a function of economics carries with it the suggestion that Conrad’s is, in part at least, a Marxist reading of history. But if the silver does influence the politics of Costaguana, does the founding of the State of Sulaco achieve the stability and order of which Gould spoke to Emilia? The novel concludes against a backdrop of increasing class conflict and with powerful Sulacans conspiring for the annexation of Costaguana. As Doctor Monygham tells Emilia Gould:
“There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests. They have their law, and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and it is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without the continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle. Mrs. Gould, the time approaches when all that the Gould Concession stands for shall weigh as heavily upon the people as the barbarism, cruelty, and misrule of a few years back.” (511)
By the end of the novel, then, the wheel has come full circle. In affluent, present-day Sulaco, the Communist Party is urging the workers to rise against their capitalist exploiters. Conrad’s novel reveals the entrapment of the individual within the larger forces—such as politics and economics—which shape the age, but it shows, too, how material interest induces a blindness to the presence of these forces. For instance, when Gould threatens to blow up the silver mine rather than surrender it to Pedro Montero, his defiance might suggest control and independence, but he is, really, just a counter in the game of international capitalism, the toy of the American financier, Mr. Holroyd.
The political identity of Costaguana is shaped by representatives of various nations, predominantly European, suggesting that, in Nostromo, Conrad returns to the theme of colonial expansion. In Heart of Darkness, the blame for colonialism is laid at the door of all Europe, not simply Belgium, as Marlow traces Kurtz’s parentage: “His mother was half-English, his father was half-French. All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (117). In Nostromo, Holroyd’s similarly cosmopolitan parentage—“German and Scotch and English, with remote strains of Danish and French blood” (76)—apportions the blame for the financial colonialism of South America just as widely. By comparison with our previous novels, the sheer scale of Nostromo is daunting, and indicative of the ambition of the modern novel: rather than offering a simple representation of business, Nostromo addresses the very forces which shape business in the twentieth century. At the beginning of Gould’s adventure in Costaguana, Holroyd offers him a summary of the country’s history in purely financial terms, and is then moved to speculate upon the nature of American involvement in the country in terms which, prophetically, define the nature of international business in the twentieth century:
“Now, what is Costaguana? It is the bottomless pit of 10 per cent loans and other fool investments. European capital had been flung into it with both hands for years. Not ours, though. We in this country know just about enough to keep indoors when it rains. We can sit and watch. Of course, some day we shall step in. We are bound to. But there’s no hurry. Time itself has got to wait on the greatest country in the whole of God’s Universe. We shall be giving the word for everything: industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics, and religion, from Cape Horn clear over to Smith’s Sound, and beyond, too, if anything worth taking hold of turns up at the North Pole. And then we shall have the leisure to take in hand the outlying islands and continents of the earth. We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it—and neither can we, I guess.” (76-77)
[1. ] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (ll. 60-65), in The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1969), 62.
[2. ] John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses (London: Faber, 1992), 58. In The Soul of London (London: Alston Rivers, 1910), Ford Madox Hueffer notes: “Workers in London divide themselves, roughly, into those who sell the labour of their bodies and those who sell their attentions. You see men in the streets digging trenches, pulling stout wires out of square holes in pavements, pecking away among greasy vapours at layers of asphalte, scattering shovelfuls of crushed gravel under the hoofs of slipping horses and under the crunching tyres of wheels. If walls would fall out of offices you would see paler men and women adding up the records of money paid to these others. That, with infinite variations, is work in London” (p. 68).
[3. ] H. G. Wells, Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul (London: Everyman, 1993), 34.
[4. ] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Hogarth, 1929), 142.
[5. ] George Bernard Shaw, Collected Plays, vol. 2 (London: Bodley Head, 1971), 495.
[6. ] Ibid., vol. 1 (1970), 231.
[7. ] Ibid., vol. 3 (1971), 116.
[8. ] Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990), 114. Cf. “firms remained small and privately owned, antiquated plant was not modernised” in Boris Ford, ed., The Cambridge Cultural History of Britain: Early Twentieth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 5.
[9. ] See Arnold Kettle, An Introduction to the English Novel, vol. II (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1953), 85-89.
[10. ] Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, 1st ser. (London: Hogarth Press, 1929), 187.
[11. ] R. C. Churchill, “The Comedy of Ideas: Cross-currents in Fiction and Drama,” in Boris Ford, ed., The New Pelican Guide to English Literature: From James to Eliot, vol. 7 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1983), 295.
[12. ] Wells, op. cit., 279.
[13. ] H. G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly (London: Everyman, 1993), 100.
[14. ] H. G. Wells, Tono-Bungay (London: Everyman, 1994), 350-51.
[15. ] G. H. Bantock, “The Social and Intellectual Background,” in Ford, ed., op. cit., 15.
[16. ] Ibid., 17.
[17. ] Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (London: Macmillan, 1975), 36.
[18. ] Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (London: Macmillan, 1985), 189.
[19. ] Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (London: Macmillan, 1985), 189.
[20. ] Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (London: Macmillan, 1990), 50, 51.
[21. ] Thomas Hardy, “The Dorsetshire Labourer,” Longman’s Magazine, vol. 2 (1883), 252-69.
[22. ] D. H. Lawrence, “Nottingham and the Mining Countryside,” in Phoenix (Geneva: Edito-Service, n.d.), 139-40.
[23. ] D. H. Lawrence, The Complete Short Stories, vol. 2 (London: Heinemann, 1955), 283.
[24. ] D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (London: Heinemann, 1954), 108.
[25. ] D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (London: Heinemann, 1955), 346.
[26. ] Diana Trilling, ed., The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958), 46.
[27. ] Unsigned review in Spectator, 19 October 1895, 530.
[28. ] Joseph Conrad, Almayer’s Folly (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923), 45.
[29. ] See Cedric Watts, The Deceptive Text: An Introduction to Covert Plots (Brighton: Harvester, 1984), ch. 5.
[30. ] Joseph Conrad, Youth: A Narrative and Two Other Stories (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923), 50-51.
[31. ] Quoted in Edmund Dene Morel, History of the Congo Reform Movement, ed. William Roger Louis and Jean Stengers (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 205n.
[32. ] Ford, ed., 1992, 5.
[33. ] For a discussion of this, see Jacques Berthoud’s essay “Introduction: Conrad and the Sea” in Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” ed. Jacques Berthoud (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), vii-xxvi.
[34. ] Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923), 5.
[35. ] Joseph Conrad, Chance (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923), 78-79.
[36. ] Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923), 31.
[37. ] Joseph Conrad, Typhoon and Other Stories (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923), 34.
[38. ] Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923), 53.