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Reviewed by:
Pamela Fox. Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working-Class Novel, 1890–1945. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. viii + 241 pp.

Fox’s polemical and well-written study deserves a wider audience than people like me, who are fascinated by the analysis of cultural expressions that define one’s own roots. While brilliant analyses of American working-class culture have mushroomed in recent years (including the work of Lott, Foley, Zandy, and the late Constance Coiner—whose [End Page 867] premature and tragic death is a great loss to us all), there have been few studies on the British contribution that have come close to their perspicacity. With Fox’s innovative interpretation of the working-class novel in Britain in the fifty years or so before the Second World War (when the germ in the genre took root) that challenge has now been met.

Rather than a basic content-oriented approach to the material, Fox has decided to track a theme that links the structure of each work to the socio-historical context that is its very possibility. She does this by developing a concept of “shame”—that is, a notion that imbricates consciousness with desire in the authors’ and characters’ contradictory and ambivalent relationship to class identity. What is proper to such an identity, Fox’s approach asks, and why is it that so many of the writers she discusses have difficulty coming to terms with the actual day to day processes of class in lived relations? In part, her answer is that many of the writers of this period strive to reveal an authentic condition of working life, but one that is undermined to a certain extent by the self-abasement this entails. Shamed by the real relations of working-class existence, these writers often act out a political and cultural conformism by distancing themselves or their main characters from the implications of the truths they discover. Yet, and this is the twist in Fox’s argument, such convolutions are also symptoms of a more complex and nuanced working-class subjectivity, one in which shame itself interrogates the limits on intra-class relations and provides unexpected insights into its cultural outlook.

Many of the works that Fox deals with are familiar to readers and researchers about this period (Brierley’s Means Test Man, Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, Heslop’s The Gate of a Strange Field, Gibbon’s A Scot’s Quair, Wilkinson’s Clash, etc.) but others, (such as Carnie Holdsworth’s Miss Nobody, Helen of Four Gates, and Miss Slavery, or Jones’s Cwmardy) have only recently been discussed with the seriousness which they deserve. Indeed, one of the values of Fox’s approach is that it provides a richer terrain for research both by expanding knowledge of the material available and by casting the more well-known works in a different and sometimes controversial light. The excellent chapter on romance and resistance in working-class writing is typical in this regard.

Fox is well aware of the extensive discussions of the function of romance within feminist critique. What she sets out to do in her interpretation [End Page 868] is not to trace the attraction of romance for working-class women as a displacement for anxiety and desire but to advance the notion that romance fiction is the scene of such anxiety and desire. The codes of romantic investment are typically denied working-class women, according to Fox, because they are themselves the playing out of middle-class social practices. But, and here she parts company with predominant interpretations of the genre, working-class women writers disrupt the convenient private/public discourses that riddle the romance, seeking instead to reappropriate a private sphere as a function of intra-class conflict. Thus, the anxiety that she reads in Carnie Holdsworth and Wilkinson’s stories is also a hesitation before the normative and patriarchal “fictions” of what is proper to a working-class cultural purview. As Fox puts it, “Romance serves as. . . . the representative disrupter of most critical equations or formulas seeking to define ‘opposition.’” This includes both a critique of bourgeois values and an...

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