By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we offered ten classic poems about poverty. But what about classic novels about poverty and class? Or, indeed, classic non-fiction works about living in poverty, and working-class life? Of course, ten books doesn’t give us much scope to be comprehensive, but we’ll do our best to introduce ten classics of English (and American) literature which touch upon these themes.
1. Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South.
We begin our pick of classic books about class with a Victorian novel from 1854, written by one of the nineteenth century’s most acute writers about working-class life.
The title of Gaskell’s novel provides a clue to the clash of classes witnessed within its pages, as the young heroine Margaret Hale moves from the south of England to the industrial north, where she encounters the unrest and mistreatment among the mill-workers who toil under the supervision of John Thornton, the wealthy mill-owner.
Among other things, the novel contains one of the most vivid and dramatic depictions of a labour strike seen in all British fiction.
Recommended edition: North and South (Penguin Classics)
2. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations.
All of Dickens’s novels reveal an author who was acutely aware of poverty and class in British society, and Dickens knew first-hand what it was like to be poor, thanks to his father’s spell in a debtors’ prison and Dickens’s own time working in a blacking factory as a young boy (experiences he later worked into his novels David Copperfield and Little Dorrit).
But it is Great Expectations (1860-61) which is perhaps the most class-conscious of all Dickens’s novels. Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip grows up poor, raised by his sister and her husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery, until a chance encounter on the Kentish marshes with an escaped convict named Abel Magwitch changes the course of his life forever.
Dickens brilliantly captures the feelings of elation and remorse that follow a favourable change in one’s fortunes and the risk of losing sight of ‘where we come from’ that so often follows.
Recommended edition: Great Expectations n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
3. George Gissing, The Nether World
Gissing (1857-1903) is not much read now, but he was an important realist author of the 1880s and 1890s, chronicling the plight of many working- and lower-middle-class Britons, especially Londoners. In some ways, his work is a continuation of Dickens’s work from the first half of the Victorian era.
The Nether World (1889) focuses on a number of families living in abject poverty in the slums of London, specifically Clerkenwell.
Recommended edition: The Nether World (Oxford World’s Classics)
4. Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure.
Of all Hardy’s novels, Jude the Obscure – his last new novel, published in 1895 – is the one that is most pointedly about the English class system, and how lower- and working-class people born into relative poverty struggle to enter the hallowed institutions of the universities (Christminster in Hardy’s novel is his fictional version of Oxford) and make something of their innate talent and intellect.
The novel is notoriously also one of Hardy’s most tragic, as his relationship with his cousin, Sue Bridehead, takes a dark turn.
Recommended edition: Jude the Obscure n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
5. E. M. Forster, Howards End.
Forster’s classic novel, published in 1910, uses property and houses (and other dwelling spaces) as symbols for the different rungs on the British class ladder. Leonard Bast and his wife live in a cramped basement apartment in London, while the Wilcox family, wealthy industrialists, have bought the country house which provides the novel with its title.
Between these two extremes we find the cultured half-German sisters, the Schlegels, who befriend both the Wilcoxes and the Basts. Tragedy follows, in what is widely regarded as Forster’s greatest book.
We have discussed Howards End in more detail here.
Recommended edition: By E.M. Forster – Howards End (New Ed)
6. D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers.
One of the most important British writers about poverty and class from the early twentieth century, D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) offered his greatest study of working-class life in this 1913 novel, which was also among his most autobiographical.
As Lawrence summed up the novel in a letter of 1912: ‘a woman of character and refinement goes into the lower class, and has no satisfaction in her own life. She has had a passion for her husband, so her children are born of passion, and have heaps of vitality.
But as her sons grow up she selects them as lovers – first the eldest, then the second. These sons are urged into life by their reciprocal love of their mother – urged on and on. But when they come to manhood, they can’t love, because their mother is the strongest power in their lives, and holds them …’
Recommended edition: Sons and Lovers (Oxford World’s Classics)
7. Robert Tressell, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.
A considerable influence on many left-wing and Labour supporters in Britain, this 1914 novel is was written by Robert Noonan, whose day job was as a painter of houses and writer of signs. Following his death from TB in 1911, the novel was published under the pseudonym Robert Tressell and became a cult classic.
It charts a house painter’s attempts to find work in the fictional English town of Mugsborough (based on Hastings), with some brilliantly dramatised scenes which illustrate the ways in which capitalism keeps the poorest of the poor from ever escaping their poverty.
Recommended edition: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Oxford World’s Classics)
8. George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London.
Orwell thought Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was ‘a book everyone should read’. Down and Out in Paris and London was George Orwell’s first published book-length work, in 1933.
It’s unusual on this list in that it’s not a novel but a memoir of Orwell’s time spent living and sleeping rough in London (spending much time amongst vagrants and people on the fringes of society) as well as washing dishes and living a life of near-destitution in Paris. The book was designed to reveal the hidden squalor of working-class (and even lower-class) life to middle-class readers, much as Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels in the nineteenth century had done.
Recommended edition: Down and Out in Paris and London (Penguin Modern Classics)
9. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.
This 1939 novel, widely regarded as Steinbeck’s greatest, is set during the Great Depression of the 1930s and focuses on the Joads family – tenant farmers who find themselves forced out of work by a range of technological and economic factors and driven to find work in California.
Recommended edition: The Grapes of Wrath: Penguin Modern Classics
10. Sue Townsend, The Queen and I.
Let’s conclude this list of classic books about class with a more recent, and very funny, example from the pen of the great Sue Townsend, who is best-known for creating the fictional teenage diarist Adrian Mole.
But in this 1992 novel, the British Royal Family are the principal characters. Following a coup by the (entirely fictional) People’s Republican Party in the UK, the Queen and her regal relatives have to decamp from Buckingham Palace and their other royal abodes and go to live on a very different kind of ‘estate’ – a council estate. Much social commentary follows from one of the shrewdest, and funniest, British writers about the class system in the post-war era.
Recommended edition: The Queen and I