This article analyses the relationship between George Orwell and Jack Hilton and considers its implications for our understanding of the literary culture of the nineteen-thirties and forties, interactions between middle and working-class writers, and ideas of influence. It argues that although Orwell and Hilton’s responses to one another’s work were distorted by their class positions and commitments they nonetheless generated new texts. Hilton’s reading of The Road to Wigan Pier, a project his advice helped to shape, emphasized the limitations of Orwell’s representations of the working class but ignored his self-reflexive concern with the act of social exploration. Hilton's criticisms were productive, though, providing an impetus for English Ways. Orwell was enthusiastic about the book but his response to Hilton similarly obscures his complexities, reducing him to the embodiment of the idealized, masculine working class central to Orwell’s own socialism. These processes of constructive misreading suggest a model of influence that is messier than conventional ideas allow, and demonstrate the complex relationships between middle and working-class writers in the nineteen-thirties and forties. The article insists on the need for a broader understanding of literature in the period that does not reduce working-class writers to part of the historical context for canonical figures. Drawing on Hilton’s unpublished manuscripts and letters, it argues that he is significant in his own right and that seeing him as Orwell’s peer enables us to recognize the broad, complex network of debates, arguments and misreadings to which writers in the period respond.
Before leaving for the north of England in January 1936 to research The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote to the Rochdale plasterer, author and National Unemployed Workers’ Movement activist Jack Hilton. Orwell had been encouraged by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, to ‘write a book about the condition of the unemployed in the industrial north of England’1 and provided with funds to support his travel but had no definite plan for the form either the text or the journey would take and needed advice. He had reviewed Hilton’s first book, Caliban Shrieks, in The Adelphi the previous year. He praised the text for addressing its ‘subject from the inside’ and giving a ‘vivid notion of what it feels like to be poor’, arguing that Hilton’s prose caught the ‘voices of the innumerable industrial workers whom he typifies.’2 For Orwell, Hilton was at once unusual and representative, possessed of ‘a considerable literary gift’3 but embodying the ‘humorous courage, the fearful realism and the utter imperviousness to middle-class ideals, which characterize the best type of industrial worker’.4 Hilton did not save their correspondence, but recalled in his unpublished autobiography, Caliban Boswelling, that Orwell not only asked for advice but for accommodation whilst in the north. Hilton replied that he lived ‘in a one up and one down, was married and couldn’t’ but reassured him that as ‘[t]imes were bad […] there would be no difficulty in getting him good lodgings’. He also told Orwell to abandon his plan to ‘write about milltown folk’ in Rochdale and focus instead on Wigan, ‘for there are the colliers and they’re good stuff’.5 Orwell took his advice on the town, though not on finding ‘good lodgings’. He spent two months in the north of England, much of it with miners, and went down three pits, the first of them in Wigan.6The Road to Wigan Pier includes a famous description of a visit to the coalface and demonstrates an appreciation of colliers that parallels Hilton’s own. As Crick argues, Orwell came to see miners as embodying ‘the fate and the hopes of the whole working class’,7 as well as many of its most valuable qualities. He admired the colliers he met, confessing that ‘if there is one type of man to whom I do feel myself inferior, it is a coal-miner’,8 and they are the most prominent working-class figures in the book. When he looked back on the text in 1947, he described the object of his journey as ‘studying the condition of miners in the north of England.’9 The decision to focus on mines rather than mills not only shaped The Road to Wigan Pier but Orwell’s socialism, which was founded on commitment to the working class, not merely as a mechanism of social change but as a group that embodied some of the central values of a future, emancipated society.
Hilton did not meet Orwell in 1936 and was not his only source of advice on the north. A variety of people, many of them connected with the Adelphi or Independent Labour Party, shaped his journey and text. Frank Meade and his wife, with whom Orwell stayed in Manchester, also suggested that he go to Wigan and provided an introduction to Joe Kennan, who arranged his first trip down a pit.10 Hilton’s recommendation that Orwell concentrate on colliers rather than cotton operatives was significant, though, encouraging him at an early stage to see the representative working-class figure as a man engaged in skilled, essential, dangerous and ill-rewarded labour. Beatrix Campbell criticizes Orwell for ignoring the fact that ‘there were as many cotton workers in Wigan as miners, many of them women’,11 as does Deidre Beddoe, who argues that he chose to concentrate on mining, ‘an almost entirely male preserve’, rather than on the ‘cotton industry’ where ‘women workers predominated’, because it confirmed ‘his concept of the working class as male’.12Caliban Boswelling suggests that this decision was influenced by some of his working-class contacts, who discouraged him from concentrating on mills despite his initial intentions. The focus of The Road to Wigan Pier was determined by the narratives that structured the communities Orwell visited as well as by those he brought with him; more strictly, it was determined by the points at which they overlapped. Orwell came to the north of England with a particular set of values, many of them typical of his class, that were then influenced by the attitudes, practices and people he encountered there. His commitments made him particularly receptive to some of these whilst leading him to ignore others. The book marks a development in his thought rather than just its projection on to new social landscapes, but is founded on a limited encounter with working-class communities that is determined both by his preconceptions and those of his guides.
Orwell’s response to working-class ideas about masculinity and gender roles illustrates the way in which his thought was reshaped by his journey through the north of England. Whilst he was drawn to a particular image of the working class as a result of his own priorities and values he adapted rather than created his image of the urban poor; it was an interpretation of existing material and cultural formations, not a free-floating fantasy or purely textual construct. Orwell may have preserved the ‘habit of seeing the working-classes through the cosy fug of an Edwardian music-hall’,13 as Richard Hoggart memorably put it, but he did see them and could only partially transform them to meet his expectations, even in the process of representation. There was a productive friction in his interactions with many working-class people that is registered in his work, a disjunction between preconception and experience. Some working-class friends and acquaintances responded to him in challenging ways, in person and in print, confronting rather than endorsing his interpretations and judgments. This was not restricted to two months in 1936, and his understanding of the kinds of communities he visited continued to be modified by a series of personal and textual encounters that continued long after he had left the region.
The recognition of this process of interaction emphasizes a working-class agency, albeit one often restricted by material and cultural pressures, and the significant though unequal exchanges between middle and working-class writers. These qualities are demonstrated in Orwell’s relation to Jack Hilton, who at once seemed to embody and challenge Orwell’s image of working-class men and, by extension, the working class as a whole. Hilton did not achieve anything like the commercial or critical success of Orwell; his books have not been republished and he receives little attention in accounts of the period. His work is nonetheless valuable in itself and a significant contribution to the culture within which he and Orwell wrote. He interacted with figures such as Orwell as a peer rather than a source or supplicant. His texts should be approached in the same way as those of more prominent figures, as complex works that demand detailed analysis, rather than as representatives of a larger, supposedly homogeneous body of working-class writing or as naïve but authentic accounts of the lives of the poor.
The recovery of the work of people such as Hilton is necessary to a more complex understanding of the nineteen-thirties and forties but involves challenges common to any reappraisal of working-class writing. It is important that Hilton is treated neither as a simple source of material on poverty nor as significant only insofar as he illuminates the work of his better-known contemporaries. Any account of his writing should consider its literary as well as historical significance. As he insisted, whilst his work was defined in part by the radicalism of its subject matter, its representation of ‘so many things […] left out when art falls on its knees to make the lady in the villa a nice cup o’ tea’, there are also ‘places where there is good art erect’.14 Samuel Hynes justified his focus on writers from ‘professional families […] educated at public schools and at Oxford or Cambridge’ in part by arguing that during the nineteen-thirties ‘[v]irtually no writing of literary importance came out of the working class’;15 Hilton’s work demonstrates that he was wrong and raises broader questions about the definition and use of the term literary itself. Critics such as Hynes constructed rather than revealed the dominant image of nineteen-thirties literature, and their narratives demonstrate what Alison Light describes as a persistent ‘obsession with the notion of cultural elites’.16 Many of those writing at the time took a broader view of its literature, and Orwell was not alone in praising Hilton’s work. Reviewing Caliban Shrieks alongside three other texts in Scrutiny, W. H. Auden described Hilton as the ‘finest writer of them all’ and emphasized his ‘magnificent Moby Dick rhetoric’.17 Hilton was not simply a curiosity but a talent, significant for his style as well as his background.
The recognition of Hilton’s achievement challenges the canon of nineteen-thirties literature, which despite numerous critical interventions continues to reflect what Light calls the ‘the mesmeric fascination exercised by “the Auden generation”’,18 and demonstrates the need to look beyond a narrow group of middle-class authors. A broader understanding of the period would raise questions about the relation between writers and the process of literary production, insisting on the significance of interaction between individuals occupying distinct positions in a diverse artistic and political culture as well as the importance of prominent literary coteries. The urgent critical task is not analysing the transition from what Orwell called ‘Joyce, Eliot & Co.’ to ‘Auden, Spender & Co.’,19 or exposing the transmission of forms and images from central to peripheral figures, but tracing wider-ranging debates that shaped all those involved. These exchanges are often asymmetrical, not least because writers work within material and cultural structures that offer different people different degrees of access to publishers and publicity, but they cannot legitimately be reduced to the elaboration of a single narrative of development or organized around a coherent core of writers.
The understanding of the nineteen-thirties in terms of the interaction between a multitude of individuals with different ideas and commitments, rather than as a decade exemplified by a small, relatively homogeneous literary generation, has significant implications for the analysis of prominent as well as marginal authors. It changes our interpretations of Orwell as well as Hilton. As Kristin Bluemel argues, it is necessary to question the representation of Orwell as ‘a uniquely autonomous writer […] working for the most part outside the society and communities that so concerned him’20 and to restore him to the historical moment in which his work intervenes. Doing this recovers him as genuinely political writer, whose continued importance depends on his engagement with his own time, with what Stuart Hall called the ‘dirty outside world’,21 rather than a supposedly timeless set of problems and values. Whilst the principles of action can be transhistorical (though not ahistorical), politics itself cannot be abstract; it is necessarily embodied and dynamic, unfolding in specific material and discursive spaces. Tracing the development of Orwell’s thought and his interventions in arguments over everything from political strategy to artistic technique enables us to see him as modelling a process of engagement in which his own ideas evolve in response to those of others, including those excluded from subsequent histories. This approach depends, though, on a more complex model of the intellectual culture he operated within. Recognizing working-class writers as subjects as well as objects of representation, active in shaping the artistic and political environments they inhabited, must be part of any such attempt to revise the dominant image of the nineteen-thirties. Hilton was not simply a source of material for Orwell or a passive part of the background of his writing; the reading and misreading of Hilton and his work informed Orwell’s texts, just as Hilton’s writing was shaped by his reading and misreading of Orwell. Their responses to one another suggest a messy, fluid model of artistic interaction that extends beyond conventional conceptions of influence.
Although Orwell and Hilton did not meet in Rochdale in 1936, the two men remained in touch and continued to read one another’s work. Orwell reviewed English Ways enthusiastically in the Adelphi in 1940 and discussed Hilton’s work with Desmond Hawkins in ‘The Proletarian Writer’, broadcast by the BBC in the same year and reprinted in The Listener. When he learned that Hilton was working as a plasterer in London in 1945 he asked him to tea, an invitation that was, as Fleay observes, ‘significant’ because ‘few of the many people Orwell knew were invited to his London flat’.22 Orwell tried to use his contacts to help Hilton return to writing full time, arranging dinner with Veronica Wedgewood, a reader for Jonathan Cape, in an unsuccessful effort to secure Hilton the three-book contract he wanted. Jonathan Cape had already published Champion (1938), English Ways (1940), and Laugh at Polonius (1942) and was receptive to contemporary left-wing authors. Its readers included William Plomer, who had contributed to Michael Roberts’ New Country (1933), a collection Benjamin Kohlmann describes as a ‘founding document of the politicized literature of the 1930s’.23 The firm did work with members of the ‘Auden circle’, publishing Stephen Spender’s The Destructive Element (1935), reprinting Christopher Isherwood’s All the Conspirators (1928, 1939), and briefly taking over the monthly journal Life and Letters, whose ‘contributors included Malcolm Muggeridge, John Lehmann, W. H. Auden, Wyndham Lewis, Stephen Spender, Herbert Read, Osbert Sitwell, Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, Louis MacNeice, Elizabeth Bowen, C. Day-Lewis and [C. K.] Scott Moncrieff’,24 but it was less closely associated with them than Hogarth or Faber, and had a wide-ranging list that included working-class texts such as Simon Blumenfeld’s Jew Boy (1935) as well as work by canonical figures including T. E. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway. By the end of the war, trends in publishing had begun to shift, though, and not long before her meeting with Hilton, Wedgwood wrote in an internal memorandum that the ‘proletarian novel in my opinion is finished completely’.25 As Christopher Hilliard argues, the nineteen-thirties were a ‘significant decade in the history of working-class authorship’, not only because of the number of manuscripts produced but because of the ‘heightened level of attention from literary patrons and publishers’.26 By the middle of the next decade, much of this attention had declined.
Although Hilton cannot have known about changes in the perception of working-class fiction within Jonathan Cape, he did realize that demanding a three-book contract was like ‘asking for the moon’.27 He was unwilling to abandon his job earning ‘nearly £6. per week for something worthwhile’28 without some assurance of future security, though, despite the fact that he was ‘itching to have another writing go’.29 His response not only demonstrates his lack of financial resources but illuminates his attitudes to his own writing. Hilton had published four books by the time he met Orwell and had, as Croft argues, enjoyed some ‘critical and commercial success’;30 one more volume, English Ribbon, appeared with Cape in 1950, and he continued working on Caliban Boswelling until his death, making attempts to get it into print until at least the mid-nineteen-fifties. Writing was an integral part of his life from the early nineteen-thirties but it did not become a profession, despite his early hope, as he wrote to Jack Common, that it would provide him with a ‘cigar and car standard’ of living, with ‘fast horses and slow women every day’.31 Skilled manual work remained a reasonable alternative to writing rather than a descent from it, a legitimate choice as a primary occupation. Hilton’s simultaneous commitment to writing and skepticism of its romantic construction as a vocation incommensurate with other forms of labour are central to his identity as a working-class writer rather than simply a writer with working-class origins.
Hilton’s decision to continue to work as a plasterer exposes a tension in Orwell’s ideas about him similar to those visible in his review of Caliban Shrieks. Hilton recalls Orwell ‘going on’, whilst attempting to persuade him to ‘cease with the trowel and get back to writing’, about ‘there being plasterers but only one I’.32 For Orwell, Hilton’s choice to earn his living through labour that could have been done equally well by others was a waste of his particular talents. He nonetheless saw Hilton as embodying the working class and valued his authenticity, which was reinforced by his continued engagement in skilled manual work. Hilton had not been ‘declassed early in life, first by means of scholarships and then by the bleaching-tub of London “culture”’, as most writers of ‘proletarian origin’33 had, but remained integrated in working-class life and labour. This view of Hilton as both typical and unique indicates some of the complexities of his textual and personal identity. Hilton constantly disrupts and exceeds the categories he nonetheless inhabits. His understanding of himself as a working-class author demands a revision of the term itself; he challenges dominant images of the ‘the lower working-class type to which I belonged’,34 insisting on the difference such representations neglect or erase. His commitment to the diversity and specificity of the working class is enacted in his own anarchic character, which resists definition and provides a foundation for his critique of Orwell. He challenges both Orwell’s view of working-class life and his methods of representation, exposing his generalizations and the assumptions that underpin them, although he also sometimes misreads Orwell’s critical project, obscuring his self-reflexive understanding of class difference. Orwell’s accounts of Hilton are more positive, but in ways that risk simplifying his contradictions and using him to demonstrate the validity of Orwell’s own view of the working class. Their engagement with one another’s writing is nonetheless productive, generating new texts and enabling each of them to develop and refine their positions.
An analysis of the relationship between Orwell and Hilton demonstrates the significance of exchanges between middle- and working-class authors in the nineteen-thirties and beyond. Their reading of each other’s work had a concrete impact on their writing, suggesting the need for a discursive model of literary production that recognizes the ways in which texts are shaped by debates, arguments and misunderstandings that extend beyond the coherent generations and movements that structure current cultural histories. A close analysis of their responses to one another also, more narrowly, clarifies the nature of their distinct achievements; the act of misreading draws attention to the complexities and radicalism it fails to account for. This process depends on a critical perspective and knowledge that was not accessible to the participants themselves, on reading that not only takes account of the pressures that constrained their interpretations of one another’s work but their partial experience of this work. Hilton’s most direct engagement with Orwell, in Caliban Boswelling, came after the latter’s death. It was a retrospective response to his writing, to which Orwell could not reply. Even during their lifetimes, Hilton and Orwell had limited access to one another’s texts; Orwell in particular was prolific and often contributed to journals with small circulations, which could be difficult to obtain. Both men left a considerable amount of unpublished material. Circumstances also restricted their reading; as Fleay notes, although ‘Hilton sent George Orwell a copy of Champion’, his second book, Orwell was in a sanatorium when he received it and his wife, Eileen, told Hilton that ‘while the other men […] had enjoyed reading it, Orwell had been too ill to do so.’35 Their textual and personal interactions had an impact on their texts that neither could fully recognize and which can be traced only in retrospect, through a critical engagement with their writing as a whole and their broader historical and cultural structures.
Hilton may have helped to shape The Road to Wigan Pier but he was not impressed by it. He insisted that although Orwell ‘went to Wigan […] he might well have stayed away’, as he ‘wasted money, energy and wrote piffle’. Orwell ‘wanted to get at the pith but didn’t know how, and failed’,36 producing ‘colour that wasn’t worth the paint mixes’.37 Despite this, Hilton did not dismiss the text but sought to explain its limitations. He recognized that Orwell, a ‘[t]all, ex-officer type, Eton, modest, non-hard-boozing, non hard cursing, non crude gamestering, no locale in the dialect sense’38 had found it difficult to gain information from colliers who ‘need one of their own kidney’.39 The book’s failings, Hilton suggests, were the inevitable result of class difference. Orwell wanted to get ‘to the tap-roots of what he later termed the proles … [t]o find the ethos’, but Hilton insists that ‘I’ve got the ethos he was trying to find and I could have told him he’d not find it, not his sort. It belongs to one really prole-y fixed and can’t be grafted.’40 The argument parallels those made by other working-class writers, who saw the ability to access and inhabit working-class communities as a valuable literary and political resource that middle-class authors lacked. Responding to Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘The Leaning Tower’, in which she claimed that if one were to ‘[t]ake away all that the working class has given to English literature […] that literature would scarcely suffer’,41 the miner and author B. L. Coombes insisted that ‘worker writers have their one great advantage—they are in the ant-heap and do not view it from a distance’.42 The inability of middle-class writers to participate in everyday working-class life was most obvious in personal interaction and Coombes argued that if Woolf were to ‘visit the mining area in which I live’ her presence would ensure that ‘the behavior of the adults as well as the play of the children would be restrained to the soberness of a Sunday afternoon’; in contrast, in ‘that same house I would be invited into the kitchen where the play of the children or the discussion of the problems concerning work and living would continue without any pause’.43 It had literary implications, though, as the experience of communal life could be as much a part of ‘a writer’s capital’44 as the ‘three or four years at Oxford and Cambridge’45 which, Woolf argued, provided the common foundation for many of the most prominent male authors of the period. For Coombes, active participation in the working class offered a cultural knowledge that could be used to produce a new kind of writing. This depended on the sort of continued immersion Hilton maintained through his work as a plasterer, and Coombes argued that even D. H. Lawrence had thrown ‘away his capital’ and the chance of becoming ‘a far greater writer’ by leaving ‘his people and the miners’; although he was ‘greatly gifted’ he had ‘not the will to use his power in the best way.’46 The ‘ethos’ of working-class life was a valuable but fragile resource that had to be continually renewed and could not be acquired by outsiders, even those who admired it.
Hilton represented The Road to Wigan Pier as a well-intentioned failure that demonstrated the limitations of middle-class writers. Orwell was sympathetic to the people he encountered but his origins prevented him from integrating himself in working-class communities or accurately representing them. Despite following Hilton’s advice and visiting miners in Wigan, he had written a less ‘effective’ book on poverty than a ‘research drudge in the British Museum’47 might have produced. Orwell’s experience in the north of England was useful insofar as it exposed flaws in the project of social exploration itself but his book was at best transitional, a necessary stage in his engagement with the working class; he had ‘come a long way forward’48 but had not produced anything of value. The fact that Orwell had failed despite having made ‘one of the few genuine tries’49 to describe working-class life demonstrates the significance of class difference to writers in a period when the kind of reportage he attempted was prominent. It also makes an implicit claim for the importance of working-class authors such as Hilton himself.
Hilton’s critique of The Road to Wigan Pier focuses in part on what he sees as its tendency to generalize from a brief encounter with the northern working class. He argues that Orwell had ‘travested [sic.]’ both ‘Wiganers and Wigan’ by giving an account of their condition based on little direct evidence save ‘forty or sixty nights sleep above a tripe shop’.50 For Hilton, The Road to Wigan Pier was shaped by Orwell’s expectations and literary predecessors as much as his experience; there were ‘[s]hades of Germinal’.51 Hilton also criticized what he saw as Orwell’s failure to describe poverty from the inside, his inability to recognize the motivations for the behaviour he encountered. This is illustrated in his response to a famous passage in which Orwell describes Mr Brooker, who keeps the tripe shop and lodging house, ‘carrying a full chamber-pot which he gripped with his thumb well over the rim’,52 the same ‘broad black thumb’ that leaves its print on the ‘bread-and-butter’ he hands to the lodgers at breakfast. The passage, with its emphasis on the grotesque, is central to the construction of the Brookers’ as a squalid, disordered space; Orwell finally decides to leave after seeing a ‘full chamber-pot under the breakfast table’.53 For Hilton, though, it demonstrates Orwell’s lack of practical experience and failure to understand what he observes. Hilton notes that ‘I’ve carried po-s downstairs. AND I’ve always gripped the po with my thumb well over the brim… [o]ne inexperienced in po-s should get hold of one, feel its weight and carry it.’54 Brooker is not guilty of a failure to maintain common standards but is carrying out an everyday task in the same way as other working-class people. The fact that Orwell does not recognize this demonstrates that he is ‘inexperienced in po-s’, and, Hilton implies, in other aspects of working-class behaviour.
Hilton’s criticisms of The Road to Wigan Pier are founded upon the idea that the text fails to describe the working class in its own terms. The text is structured by a concern with the distance between observer and observed, though, with the process of representing others.55 In contrast to Down and Out in Paris and London, in which the narrator claims to be able to temporarily adopt the perspective of the destitute, The Road to Wigan Pier is explicitly the work of an outsider. This is demonstrated in Orwell’s account of his interaction with the colliers Hilton advised him to concentrate on:
His lack of familiarity with working-class life and labour does limit his understanding in important ways but it also enables him to bring into focus what is normally taken for granted. Alok Rai argues that Orwell ‘approaches the afflicted areas with all the clear-eyed ignorance of, in current metaphor, a Martian, recording with meticulous zeal the dimensions of rooms, itemized grocery bills, the rubber stamp in a mines office (‘death stoppage’)—the legal niceties of an inhuman system.’57 It also enables him to examine the process of representation and, in particular, expose the assumptions that structure middle-class accounts of working-class spaces, values and patterns of behaviour. As Patricia Rae argues, the text uses modernist techniques to emphasize rather than efface the background and perspectives of the narrator, drawing attention to the ‘reactions or prejudices produced by his own cultural position, no matter how inhumane.’58
For some months I lived entirely in coal-miners’ houses. I ate my meals with the family, I washed at the kitchen sink, I shared bedrooms with miners, drank beer with them, played darts with them, talked to them by the hour together. But though I was among them, and I hope and trust they did not find me a nuisance, I was not one of them, and they knew it even better than I did.56
Orwell’s descriptions of chamber pots contribute to this critical distance, as some contemporary reviewers tacitly recognized. Hamish Miles’ comment, on Orwell’s discovery of a chamber pot under the table, that ‘I doubt whether the most rudimentary peoples of the New Hebrides or Papua could produce anything to match the incident’,59 reinforces ideas of northern primitivism but also suggests that the scene draws attention to the parallels between this kind of social exploration and anthropological narratives. Miles, like Hilton, sees Orwell’s understated revulsion from the sight as confirming his status as an outsider, but implies that this is significant because it positions the text in relation to a particular generic tradition not because it demonstrates a representational or ethical failure. A sense of discomfort is integral to the way in which the text functions, emphasizing the narrator’s lack of familiarity with what he describes and his difficulty in accepting or making sense of it. As Rae argues, ‘the text’s multivalent symbols of dirt and smell’ are integral to its ‘powerful critique of the ideology behind the presumption that middle-class prejudices are conquerable and working-class subjects ‘“penetrable”’,60 as they draw attention to forms of class alienation that are experienced viscerally, as an apparently instinctive recoil from what is felt to be distasteful or even disgusting. The Road to Wigan Pier dramatizes ‘an effort at sympathetic identification that fails’,61 often as a result of ‘its narrator’s obsession with cleanliness’,62 the most visible expression of a broad web of middle-class values, prejudices and preconceptions. His response to the chamber pot reminds the reader that although he is staying with the Brookers he is a traveller investigating spaces and forms of behaviour he knows little about.
Orwell is conscious throughout The Road to Wigan Pier of the cultural differences between the middle and working classes, and repeatedly emphasizes his separation from the people he encounters despite his concern with them. This is demonstrated in the evolution of one of its most famous images, that of the young woman kneeling ‘in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.’63 John Rodden and John Rossi claim that the ‘diary entry and the way that Orwell described the scene in Road to Wigan Pier are almost identical’,64 but the differences, though seemingly minor, are significant. In the diary, Orwell describes seeing the woman whilst walking around Wigan. In the final text, she is glimpsed from the train; there is a layer of glass between observer and observed and no realistic possibility of interaction beyond a brief, ambiguous glance. The narrative perspective is characteristic of a period in which, as Valentine Cunningham notes, the image of a ‘detached rush, past, over, and through experience’ recurs in everything from descriptions of ‘the aloof airman’s speedy fly-over’ to ‘the movie-camera’s rapid accumulation of moving images’,65 but it has a specific function within the text, emphasizing Orwell’s status as a traveller passing rapidly through the industrial north, dependent on brief, often chance, moments of insight and identification. Despite Hilton’s suggestion that Orwell offered his text as an objective introduction to working-class life, The Road to Wigan Pier is structured by a sense of material and cultural separation and concern with the possibility and terms of empathy across class divisions.
Hilton’s response to The Road to Wigan Pier was not simply a retrospective process, driven and framed by Orwell’s subsequent fame, but shaped his writing in the nineteen-thirties. His reading and misreading of the book was productive and, as Andy Croft argues, Hilton’s English Ways ‘can be read as an answer to The Road to Wigan Pier’.66 The text does not refer to Orwell by name, though Hilton criticizes a ‘best seller by a middle-class socialist’ who ‘was at particular pains to stress the acuteness of his sense of smell’ and insisted ‘[w]orking-men stank’ (295), a description that would have been recognizable to many of Orwell’s contemporary readers, particularly those on the left. It does confront what Hilton saw as the limitations of Orwell’s work. Its implicit critique of The Road to Wigan Pier is a central part of its broader attempt to transform a genre that constantly risks reducing the people and places it focuses on to passive material to be contemplated, judged and, potentially, rescued by the middle classes. English Ways does this in part by questioning and transgressing the conventions it uses. Despite its conspicuous differences from The Road to Wigan Pier there are significant parallels between the two books, as both challenge the forms they inherit, the first by exposing the unspoken and often unrecognized assumptions that shape the perspective of the middle-class social explorer, the latter by insisting on the diversity and agency of the working class that such texts describe.
The most obviously radical feature of English Ways is Hilton himself. In most works of social exploration a solitary middle-class traveller reports on the condition of the impoverished; Hilton is accompanied by his wife Mary and explicitly identifies himself as working class. His background informs but does not determine his responses to the spaces he traverses; whilst his response to deprivation is consistently grounded in the fact that ‘I personally, know something about poverty, having been in cottage homes, in the workhouse, in casual wards and in slums’ (253), his judgments cannot always be predicted from his background. English Ways resists the idea of a generic working-class response to places and institutions, insisting on the specificity of Hilton’s experience and interpretations. The idiosyncrasies of the text complicate rather than undermine its broader critical project, and even Hilton’s pleasures often serve a political function, revealing in their appreciation of plenitude a lack elsewhere. This is demonstrated in his response to Eton. Hilton enjoys the sight of the ‘little boys dressed like little men’ despite recognizing the ways in which the school embodies and reproduces privilege and that the students ‘know nothing about the advantages that the luck of being born from the right people has given them’. His pleasure in his impression of ‘clean, shining and happy’ boys is critical, though, exposing the situation of children in ‘industrial towns’ who ‘have nowhere to play’ and become ‘workers during their adolescence’ (123). A similar complexity is visible in his sympathy for the ‘patriarchal benevolence’ of a village with its ‘little church’ and a castle ‘right on top of the hill overlooking all’. Hilton argues that whilst the scene might seem a ‘relic of feudal tyranny’, the ‘arrogance of the parson’ and the ‘bloodsucking of the squire’ have largely disappeared, resulting in a ‘little community’ in which the ‘squire in his castle-mansion works with the parson in kindly stewardship, keeping the fold below serene’. The claim that the archaic scene embodies the ‘highest form’ of organization ‘we have yet reached’ (106-7) does celebrate a coherent settlement but also implicitly critiques a conspicuously absent modernity. In his novel Champion, Hilton similarly uses the image of a lost ‘patriarchal benevolence’, which he sees as defined by specific, local rights and responsibilities, to attack an industrial capitalism characterized by pollution, rational exploitation, and an administrative system that ‘stamped everything with the same civil-service-sedentary-bloodlessness.’67 His account of the village, like his account of Eton, at once disrupts the notion of a universal working-class hostility to what J. B. Priestley called ‘Old England, the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire’,68 and uses residual social formations to criticize the forms of capitalism that displaced them. The strategy is not a descent into what Marx and Engels described as a ‘feudal socialism’, which is defined by its ‘total incapacity to grasp the course of modern history’,69 but a strategic deployment of the past that challenges simple narratives of progress.
Even the trajectory of Hilton’s walk serves a critical function. As Simon Featherstone observes, although accounts of travelling through England were popular in the early twentieth century, with ‘hundreds of books and essays’ detailing ‘journeys by car, bus, horse, foot and bicycle “in search of England”’,70 the ‘“wanderings” of the writers… actually conformed to a fairly limited set of routes’.71 These privileged the south, reinforcing ‘the power of an already-existing economic and cultural hegemony’,72 and most ‘began with a ritual leaving of London’. Those authors focused on a rural England and keen to avoid ‘the complications of the industrial, the urban and the suburban’ had ‘a marked tendency to keep south and head west’73 once they left the capital, whilst many on the left headed north or to the coalfields of South Wales, often with what Orwell described as the ‘vague inferiority-complex of a civilised man venturing among savages’.74 Hilton walked south from industrial Lancashire, to which he returns at the end of the text, not only challenging assumptions about the natural order of such narratives but more radically about the critical gaze and the agency it embodies. His journey contests dominant ideas of observer and observed, about who can represent, evaluate, and judge.
English Ways is, as Featherstone argues, an ‘explicitly political revision of the travel genre’,75 and functions as much by subverting the conventions of the form as through direct political comments. The unexpected trajectory of Hilton’s journey is part of his critical method; so is his destination. In contrast to writers like Orwell, who set off from the metropolis to impoverished industrial regions to discover the truth of the depression, the period or the nation, reinforcing the idea that these must be recognized by middle-class observers even when embodied in the lives and sufferings of others, Hilton had no declared objective other than to attend the Epsom Derby. Direct political commentary permeates the text, in everything from references to ‘my anarchic beliefs’ (215) to his attempts to explain the ‘enigma’ of the ‘Tory-working-man’ (322), but Hilton rejects the narrative and interpretative forms that define the majority of politically-engaged travel narratives in the period and the commitments upon which they were founded. English Ways represents urban and rural, prosperous and destitute, north and south, the ‘reeking pestilence of abominable hovels’ (103) in the Scarlet Well district of Northampton and Oxford, ‘the most beautiful city in England’ (164). This insistence on diversity does not undermine the possibility of political action but indicates its complexity and suggests that its terms cannot be fully known in advance. Many similar texts are structured from the outset by relatively fixed convictions that define the form of the narrator’s journey through England and are inevitably reinforced by the experience; Hilton’s work is characterized by a radical openness.
The emphasis on difference in English Ways does not mean that Hilton’s journey was simply chaotic or that its destination was random. The Epsom Derby was integral to other attempts to construct a coherent Englishness that underpinned the apparent disorder of actual English traditions. T. S. Eliot later included the Derby in the famous list he used to illustrate ‘how much is […] embraced by the term culture’. Eliot saw the race as a primarily upper class affair; it appears alongside ‘Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August’, counterbalanced by working-class objects and events, ‘a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board’.76 In contrast, Hilton describes the Derby as a ‘good English scene […] that can be enjoyed by the royalist who never fastens his bottom waistcoat button and by chaps like myself who don’t care two hoots for crowns.’ (128) Whilst he recognizes that the crowd has ‘graded themselves according to their stations and pockets’ and that the authorities have tried to restrict the participation of ‘unconventional people’ (129), covering open spaces with ‘notices of: “No camping.” “No gypsies.” “Severe penalties”’ (130), he sees the meeting as accessible to all despite its inequalities. It is ‘democratic Epsom’ (148), and is ‘not the King’s, the Lords’, and the Commoners’; it is everybody’s, and all feel better because it is everybody’s.’ (130) The racetrack embodies the contradictions of the society within which it functions but also suggests its suppressed egalitarian potential. In representing the Derby in these terms, Hilton intervenes in debates about the politics of national identity. English Ways was published in 1940 and describes a journey completed shortly before the outbreak of war; on the way home, Hilton is troubled by thoughts of ‘the umbrella of Mr. Chamberlain, and the jack-boots of Herr Hitler’ (308). The text contributes to what Croft describes as an attempt at ‘re-working of notions of “Englishness”’77 by writers on the left, an effort to rescue patriotism from ‘embarrassment and the Right’ and mobilize it ‘against fascism, British and German.'78 Hilton’s account of the Derby resists the kind of simple conception of the nation that characterized contemporary nationalism, emphasizing diversity and an essential democratic identity that emerges even in seemingly hierarchical celebrations.
As Croft argues, English Ways is primarily concerned with the ‘varieties, the diversities, differences, conflicts and contradictions of the British working class in the 1930s’,79 the complex cultural structures he felt that Orwell failed to recognize. It contests the reduction of the working class to the masses, a term which, as John Carey argues, ‘denies them the individuality which we ascribe to ourselves and to people we know’.80 Even sympathetic accounts of the poor had tended to view them as what Robert Roberts calls a ‘great amalgam of artisan and labouring groups united by a common aim and culture’;81 Hilton, in contrast, insists on the specificity of working-class people, of their interests, abilities and experiences, even whilst recognizing their solidarities and shared material condition. This concern with difference structures his work and politics as a whole. He describes himself as an ‘anarchist philosophically’82 and rejects systems of classification that erase the individual and particular. This does not preclude the possibility of collective action or even identities but insists that these are founded upon common interests rather than an inherent homogeneity. This emphasis on shared experience constructs politics as an evolving historical practice, rather than a struggle between fixed groups or positions, an argument that undermines the idea of stable constituencies but holds out the possibility of fundamental social change.
Hilton’s political thought is characterized by a resistance to received narratives and totalizing interpretative systems. His fiercely idiosyncratic prose is also marked by a transgression of inherited forms and refuses to confine itself to established stylistic models or even a single mode of expression. His formal experimentation is most obvious in his first book, Caliban Shrieks. He describes his ‘jargon’ in this as ‘one of the “Clamorous Demagogue” for which there is no apology’83 and the text is marked by disjunctions that prevent its easy absorption into established critical categories. It shifts between registers that are normally kept separate, juxtaposing references to Shakespeare, whom it refers to as ‘Bill, dear boy’,84 with forms drawn from working-class speech. It also uses a polemical narrative voice, replete with imperatives, that undermines the decorum conventionally associated with literary writing. Hilton instructs an imagined suburban householder to ‘[o]ffend the rota [sic.] club and the bethel, miss the building society, get off that stodgy office stool, have a good row with your wife’s family, get blotto with the booze, have that angel puritan next door collapsing with a stroke and above all things break his windows’,85 challenges ‘stiff collared puritans’ to ‘[g]et some idea of what men are, outside your little mousetrap circle’,86 and concludes his narrative by accepting the ‘general masses, howling mobs, beastly blondes’, whom he describes as ‘infallible, impeccable, and always right.'87 Not all of his stylistic experiments are successful, and even Hilton recognized that his attempt to imitate the ‘grand old school’ of poetry in his verse tribute to the founders of the co-operative movement was ‘poor’,88 but their cumulative effect is to undermine the notion of a stable, unified narrative authority and the idea that texts are self-contained structures protected by their artistic status from the ‘dirty outside world.’ The language of working-class conversation and political speeches permeates the narrative, interacting on equal terms with more established literary registers.
English Ways features moments of polemic, as when Hilton condemns ‘the robotized mass-man’ created by industrialism, a ‘habitué of the American talking cinemas, or the dogs, or the Granby Hall fistic promotions’ (85). On the whole, though, its prose is more consistent and less dramatic than that of Caliban Shrieks. Hilton disciplined but did not abandon the language of the ‘Clamorous Demagogue’, producing the distinctive narrative voice Orwell and others admired, at once individual and responsive to the shared economic and cultural experience of the working classes. Despite this comparative restraint, his prose retains its force and power to shock. In his introduction to English Ways, J. Middleton Murry insists on the radicalism of the text’s style, which he saw as a challenge to established modes of writing. He argued that Hilton’s understanding of himself as ‘an anarchist—in the positive sense of the word’ led him to reject ‘even the law of a craft: even the laws of the author’s craft’, and that his resistance to authority was such that ‘[e]ven to spell words properly would, I fancy, seem […] a lily-livered submission to the rules.’89 The passage insists on the disruptive qualities of Hilton’s prose but in so doing reproduces a familiar image of literary primitivism, suggesting that working-class writing is an unmediated transcription of experience rather than a product of deliberate artistry.
Hilton often played up to this primitivism in both his public and private writing. In a letter to Jack Common, who included Hilton’s ‘The Plasterer’s Life’ in his collection Seven Shifts,90 Hilton insisted that he was not concerned with ‘grammar or spelling or form or order’ but ‘just put my material down at one quick hell of a belt, that’s my method,’91 and that although he had spent ‘two years knocking all the really necessary rules of English into my reluctant head’ he did not ‘give a tinkers curse, personally, for the rules of the game.’ He recognized that access to the ‘pay-table’ demanded ‘that we prostrate ourselves before the goddess of English’ but argued that ‘English and real writing don’t go together’ and that artistic form belonged to ‘the second lick’,92 a technical rather than creative matter. His directness and cynicism are performative, part of a process by which he distances himself from conventional literary modes and ideas of craftsmanship. Common adopted a similar stance in the introduction to Seven Shifts, insisting that he had told potential contributors ‘only to put down what you all know well, don’t bother about grammar because I’ll put that right (that was a swank, of course: I leave my own grammar to compositors).’93 In both instances, the focus on experience and disavowal of technique is used to open a critical and commercial space for their writing, insisting on the importance of a distinctive working-class form of cultural capital. It is a deliberately adopted position that serves specific literary and political functions rather than a demonstration of artistic naïveté. Hilton’s anarchic prose depends on a particular kind of ‘author’s craft’, albeit one radically different from its dominant forms.
Orwell’s response to English Ways, though enthusiastic, largely ignores the performative quality of Hilton’s writing, revealing in the process the functions the text, and by extension Hilton himself, served for Orwell. Like Hilton’s reaction to The Road to Wigan Pier, it is a reading determined by his own concerns and commitments, in particular his need to identify an actually existing working class that would provide a foundation for his politics. For Hilton, The Road to Wigan Pier was a flawed contribution to an evolving discussion of the condition of England, the limitations of which exposed the need for a literature capable of representing working-class communities from within. His responses to the text in both English Ways and Caliban Boswelling challenged what he saw as its failings and its reception as an objective account of the class and region he inhabited. Orwell was more positive about English Ways but valued Hilton partly as the embodiment of a working-class tradition and set of values that would provide the basis for a future socialist society. This interpretation obscured Hilton’s individuality and contradictions, which complicated and sometimes undermined the values he embodied. Orwell’s review of English Ways was sensitive to the extent to which the book challenged conventional images of the urban poor, not least those in ‘Marxist textbooks’,94 but he nevertheless saw Hilton as a representative figure. Hilton not only embodied ‘national characteristics in an exaggerated form’, particularly a ‘native English anarchism’,95 but was characteristic of the industrial working-class as a whole. This conjunction reinforced the idea, central to Orwell’s thought throughout the period, that the nation was most authentically realized in the people ‘in the fields and the streets, in the factories and in the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden’ rather than those in the ‘House of Lords’.96 In this context, the interpretation of working-class values assumed an additional importance, as a site in which conceptions of England and Englishness can be contested, a project in which Hilton himself is also engaged.
Orwell represented English Ways as a work of salvage ethnography, offering ‘glimpses of English working-class life’ in a ‘late capitalist age’ threatened by totalitarianism. The working-class culture Hilton described presented a concrete alternative to the ‘iron ages that are coming’, a ‘good civilisation’ that reflected the ‘gentleness and decency’97 of its inhabitants. As Bernard Crick argued, Orwell ‘held […] that a good and decent way of life already existed in tradition’,98 and after his journey to the north of England he increasingly identified this with the ‘sane and comely’99 structures of working-class communities and households; it was the ‘memory of working-class interiors’ that reminded him ‘that our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in.’100 Hilton seemed to exemplify much of what Orwell valued and wished to preserve; as Fleay argues, Orwell represents him as ‘an embodiment of the independent-minded, decent common Englishman’.101 Though active on the left, Hilton was resistant to political orthodoxy and skeptical of ‘kindergarten intellectual brand of communism’ in ‘temporary English fashion.’ (329) He was hostile to industrialism, condemning the ‘time-servers’ who have ‘forfeited their manhood’ (83) and the ‘taste of the robotized mass-man’ (85) who desires ‘patent foods, plywoods, and gramophones’ (122). He valued craftsmanship and physical resilience. He described the closure of a ‘first-class smithy’ as a ‘modern tragedy’, one the modern ‘hard-boiled men wouldn’t understand’ because ‘life-feeling in them is low’ (64-5), but took pleasure in the sight of four men clearing a river, their ‘biceps and back muscles rippled’, their ‘hairy chests and stomachs […] like iron’ (238-9). He seems to embody an anarchic, masculine working class, committed to craftsmanship, tradition, and the English countryside, upon which Orwell’s socialism depends. Orwell uses Hilton to legitimize his understanding of working-class culture, to insist on its concrete existence, but this process depends on a particular reading of Hilton’s work that obscures the idiosyncrasies central to his literary and critical project.
Hilton was always more complex and contradictory than Orwell’s image of him allows. His accounts of the working class are nuanced and specific. Whilst he identifies with the poor, he refuses to romanticize them. English Ways recognizes that qualities such as ‘humanity’, ‘old-fashioned loyalty’ and ‘community’ can be found in the ‘[u]gly ramshackle Potteries’, and even argues that they are more common there than in ‘immense metropolitan London and Birmingham.’ (332) It also emphasizes the destructive effects of poverty, the ways in which a ‘depressing and demoralizing’ environment can keep ‘the ignorant ignorant, the wife-beater brutal, those criminal from their environment law-breaking’ (103-4). The text draws attention to the social and material contexts within which working-class communities develop and the forms and limits of resistance. Working-class culture is neither autonomous nor a passive reflection of material circumstances but a dynamic response to pressures beyond the control of those subject to them. It consequently cannot be celebrated as a stable, generic category, but only in its particular, evolving manifestations, in specific individuals and communities. As Croft argues, Hilton’s representations of the working class emphasize its diversity, the differences between the comparatively prosperous Nottingham, with its pubs ‘too crowded for comfort’ (71), and Scarlet Well, where a ‘decent life was, and is impossible’ (103), between the miners, who are ‘hard as nails’ (40) and the former clerk who had ‘lost his identity’ and ‘ceased to be a man’ as a consequence of his work amongst ‘comptometers, accounting machines, cash registers, and typewriters’ (56). English Ways does not represent a homogeneous ‘civilisation’ characterized by a consistent ‘decency’, but a network of overlapping sites that sustain different forms and qualities of life despite their parallels and continuities.
Hilton not only complicates Orwell’s image of a coherent working class but contradicts some of his arguments about it. In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell insists that ‘the working-class attitude towards “education”’ is not only ‘different […] from ours’ but ‘immensely sounder’. Although ‘[w]orking-people often have a vague reverence for learning in others […] where “education” touches their own lives they see through it and reject it by a healthy instinct’.102 The claim disrupts the idea that formal instruction is a neutral good, beyond questions of class or power, but simplifies working-class attitudes to knowledge and risks that ‘touch of the noble savage’103 Hoggart identified in Orwell’s descriptions of working-class interiors. In contrast, Hilton is often enthusiastic about education and describes his own experience in some detail. Although he left school at ‘fourteen and a half’ because ‘my parents couldn’t afford to let me stay on’,104 he later studied with the Workers’ Educational Association and secured a place at Ruskin. For Hilton, education is not a bourgeois imposition but a resource that he could use for his own purposes. He appreciated the ‘good fortune’ of the ‘[y]oung men and young women’ who were able to ‘spend from one to four years’ (164) at Oxford and saw the university as a ‘door that needs opening wider, so that England’s youth can enter irrespective of class’ (172). Whilst he recognized that that instruction can bring ‘a touch of unhappiness, of unsettlement’ to working-class students, he argued that this was because they were given a glimpse of the ‘beauty of culture’ (347) that their work prevented them from fully enjoying, not because a ‘healthy instinct’ led them to reject what was offered. Their dissatisfaction served a critical function, emphasizing the appropriation of their time and limitation of their cultural opportunities.
Orwell’s interaction with Hilton and reading of English Ways informs the development of his thought, enabling him to claim an actually existing working class that both legitimizes and extends his political ideas. English Ways is a critical response to Orwell’s writing that challenges rather than endorses his judgments, though, and Orwell’s interpretation of it depends on a partial engagement with the text. This limited encounter, which reveals the contours of Orwell’s own thought, simplifies Hilton’s interventions in contemporary debates about class, gender and nation. The process of selective engagement and misinterpretation parallels Hilton’s own response to The Road to Wigan Pier, which exposes the text’s limitations as an account of the northern working-class but ignores Orwell’s self-reflexive methods, his awareness of class difference and its political and interpretative implications, his concern with the difficulties of representation. This mutual misreading does not suggest two writers confined within stable ideological positions, unable to develop or revise their ideas, but reveals the difficulties of their relationship and, by extension, that between working- and middle-class writers. Their perceptions of one another were mediated by individual and cultural preconceptions, fantasies and desires. Despite this, their interactions were productive, generating new texts. Both men recognized that the idea of a neutral space, where people could meet without what Orwell called the ‘itch of class-difference’,105 was an illusion. In a letter to Jack Common, written whilst he was in the north of England researching The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell insisted that the ‘business of class-breaking is a bugger’, a fantasy of the ‘socialist bourgeoisie’ who refused to acknowledge their own prejudices and had ‘at the back of their minds a vision of the working class all T.T., well washed behind the ears […] and talking with B.B.C. accents.’106 Interaction between the working and middle classes did not depend on the absence of difference but a willingness to respond to it. In practice, this process was always incomplete, but this did not preclude admiration and even intimacy. In a tantalizing passage in Caliban Boswelling, Hilton recalls that Orwell told him that ‘I must live with him and we’d be company after our working hours’,107 suggesting the desire for a closer working and personal relationship. The unrealized possibility indicates the kind of significant if unequal exchanges between working- and middle-class writers that have largely been ignored in existing literary and cultural histories. Recognizing the importance of authors such as Hilton, not as background figures illuminating the achievements of canonical artists but as talented, independent writers engaged in complex, sometimes uneasy relationships with their better-known peers, might enable a more sophisticated understanding of the period and the forms of influence, exchange and argument upon which its artistic achievements depended.