While tackling Intermodernism and the works of Virginia Woolf during graduate school, one of the questions I pondered often was the existence of a distinctive political art in 1930s Great Britain and the role of class and gender privilege throughout.
Two forms of narrative art seem to emerge from the time period. The first can be identified as “the propaganda of privilege.” Middle to upper class writers like F. R. Leavis and George Orwell offer insight into the lives of the British from a position of gender and class status. It is true that both Orwell and Leavis sincerely want to improve the lives of their fellow citizens. What becomes problematic for both writers is that same common person’s own voice being denied, translated via a privileged writer, or subjugated to a small whisper.
The other style of narrative art which comes out of 1930s Great Britain is what I have referred to as “the Intermodernist Other.” A careful examination of the Intermodernist period allowed a refreshing amount of writers from outside the privileged, elitist, circles that Leavis and Orwell come from to be brought into the foreground. Writers like Virginia Woolf, and others like Storm Jameson and Mulk Raj Anand, for example, are writing from an underprivileged status due to ethnicity or gender. These writers offer keen insight into the lives of the underprivileged, such as the women of Great Britain in the war against fascism for Woolf to make their case.
In his 1930 pamphlet Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture, F. R. Leavis argues that mass culture, the rise of broadcasting, and the automobile are causing a “crisis” in contemporary British culture. The minority culture that Leavis argues for in his pamphlet is not a call to raise the voices of the working class or underprivileged. Leavis argues that a “very small minority” should be depended on for appreciation of art and literature. The artist, Leavis argues via a quote from British literary critic I. A. Richards, is “the man who is most likely to have experiences of value to record.” He not only believes a small minority has and should have experiences of value, but also seems to want to deny any medium that allows culture to pass off to the masses.
Leavis writes that another duty the minority culture has is to uphold the best parts of the past human experience. Until the reassessment and inclusion of othered writers in the past few decades by academics in a variety of fields including feminism, cultural studies, and queer studies, the “past human experience” is going to be filled with white, upper class, male writers writing about only the issues they deem important.
At the conclusion of his argument, Leavis argues that the mass culture will, “surrender(s) everything that can interest us.” On the contrary, other writers in 1930s Great Britain of privileged status do engage with mass culture, but do not allow their voices to rise any louder than a whisper.
In his book about working class coal miners, The Road To Wigan Pier, George Orwell offers a compelling look at the lives of the working class in Intermodernist Great Britain. His documentation of their lives is moving and offers the reader a firsthand account of the horrors of living in working class Great Britain during the period. Orwell’s writing, nevertheless, becomes problematic upon closer examination.
Orwell should be commended for his effort to get a firsthand account of the lives of the working class coal miners. As he notes in the early stages of The Road To Wigan Pier, one “can never forget that spectacle once you have seen it.” Numerous times in the text he makes similar comments about the importance of experiencing the worker’s lives alongside them. However, his descriptions become problematic due to the lack of firsthand accounts from the actual workers. It is rare in The Road To Wigan Pier to hear the voices of the workers, their families, or friends in their own words.
Much like Modernist psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and his writing about Ida Bauer, Orwell takes a significantly othered person or persons and makes their harrowing experiences all about his experience and reactions to them. Orwell’s fascination with what he is experiencing for the first time is what Storm Jameson writes about in her essay New Documents. There is little argument Orwell’s impulse to find out firsthand what is happening in Wigan Pier is, as Jameson writes, “decent and defensible.” Jameson continues, however, that socialist writers, such as Orwell, cannot make their new experiences the focus of their work:
Too much of his energy runs away in an intense interest in and curiosity about his feelings. ‘What things I am seeing for the first time! What smells I am enduring!…The first thing a socialist writer has to realize is that there is no value in the emotions, the spiritual writhings, started in him by the sight, smell, and touch of poverty…There is no need to record them. Let him go and pour them down the drain.
Orwell’s report from Wigan Pier is too hung up on his own experiences while there. For The Road To Wigan Pier to have more of a persuasive effect on its readers, the experiences of those in Wigan Pier need to be brought to the front and emphasized. Orwell has numerous chances during The Road To Wigan Pier to offer insight from those experiencing Wigan Pier to add their voice, but nearly every time the opportunity is missed.
In his introduction to the 1930s anthology History In Our Hands:A Critical Anthology of Writings on Literature, Culture and Politics from the 1930s, Patrick Deane agrees that women especially are “noticeably silent” in The Road To Wigan Pier. With Orwell not offering the voices of the women he is describing the turn must be made towards a writer like Virginia Woolf, whose essay Three Guineas offers an alternative voice for the women of the period, especially in light of their muzzling by Orwell. As Deane notes in his introduction to the excerpt from Three Guineas in History In Our Hands, women in 1930s Great Britain, “have more in common with subject peoples elsewhere in the world than with the male establishment in their own country.”
Woolf asks, “what does ‘our country’ mean to me as an outsider?” She continues by arguing for the complete indifference of women in regards to the late 1930s anti-war movement in Great Britain because, due to the inequality of gender, it is not truly her country:
`Our country,’ she will say, ‘throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in its possessions…the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’
With the examples given of how Orwell reduces women’s voice and, arguably, silences them completely, plus Leavis’ desire to not even give those without privilege access, Woolf’s argument seems even more valid.
While all of these differing approaches to 1930s propaganda have elements that are compelling, the writing and experiences of the underprivileged are clearly more attractive and persuasive. Woolf has experienced what it feels like to not have a voice, not have a country, to not belong. Orwell can try to document his experiences in Wigan Pier, but as a member of the ruling, privileged, class his account does not have the qualities that Woolf’s and Anand’s accounts entail.
Leavis’ denial of mass culture and radio broadcasting makes him seem very conservative and unattractive. Why does he think it is so dangerous for the masses to have access to “intelligent lectures?” What gives Leavis the right to try to deny the masses the ability to gather “facts” on their own time and in a comfortable manner? Propaganda which does not go directly to the underprivileged source is not very persuasive.
As a reader, hearing the voices of Woolf and others like Anand, who are actually living under the Empire and are not translating voices of the underprivileged like Orwell does, is much more pleasurable. The denial of the power of mass culture and the voices of the working class is just an excuse for the ruling parties, no matter how radical they want to seem, to hide behind empire and only allow the poor, working class, and female members of the British Empire to gain a voice on the terms of the privileged.