Is it really possible to change class? This was one of the questions raised at last week’s Royal Society of Literature meeting about memoirs, featuring Maggie Gee, Candia McWilliam and William Fiennes. It was a relief to have the subject aired after the long pretence that we live in a classless society: something which, on the evidence of several recent books, has started to damage our understanding of history.
This struck me first when reading Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. To her credit, she does address the issue of class directly; but there is a false note struck at the beginning of the book when the daughter of the patrician but down-on-their luck Ayres family mentions their money troubles to the narrator, Dr Faraday, whose mother was a servant in their house. That such a conversation could have taken place in the 1940s with anyone but a relative or close friend (and then only in extremis) is unthinkable.
D.J. Taylor’s new 1930s novel At the Chime of a City Clock is similarly flawed – which is surprising, given how impressive it generally is in its use of period detail. James Ross, a would-be writer who has been reduced selling carpet-cleaner from door to door, is described having been at public school, but shows no sign of it in his speech or behaviour. When he is invited to stay at a smart country house, he has barely to say hello to the butler before this ‘white-haired old boy’ starts to mouth off about his mistress’s eccentric habits. Might this have happened in real life? Of course not.
John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose contains a far more serious misjudgement – one which undermines the entire book. Here the protagonist is a Russian peasant boy who saves an archduke’s life and is rewarded by a post in the imperial household looking after the Tsarevitch. That much is just about credible; but before we know it Georgy is wandering around the Winter Palace unsupervised, chatting to the Tsar about Fabergé eggs and snogging a Grand Duchess. Nothing could be less plausible in a world obsessed with rank.
Those keen to discover what Candia McWilliam has to say on the subject may have a bit of a wait: as she revealed at the RSL, her What To Look for in Winter is due to be delivered at the end of this month, but she still has nine versions to choose from. (This is clearly an occupational hazard in the computer age: how, when making changes is so easy, can one hope to keep track of all the different stages of a manuscript?) Judging from the extracts that she read, it is a book to look forward to: I particularly enjoyed a reference to her long hair as ‘a personality in its own right’; and the story of the blindness from which she has now thankfully recovered is a fascinating one. One version, she revealed, was entirely dictated, another written while holding her eyelids open.
Jean Findlay is halfway through her biography of Scott Moncrieff, the translator of Proust, which will shed new light on his relationship with Wilfred Owen. Elisa Segrave is nearing the end of a book about her mother, drawing on the latter’s diaries – including some which she kept, contrary to all regulations, while working at Bletchley Park. And my neighbour Jamie Buxton has finished two novels for children set in the Dark Ages – the first to be published in June and its sequel in December.