The Secret Kingdom (1938) by Walter Greenwood

Sadly, the dust-wrapper to the first (Cape) edition of The Secret Kingdom is the dullest of all Greenwood’s dust-wrappers:

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But the novel itself is not dull. Walter Greenwood’s father was a hairdresser and by the time he married Elizabeth Matilda Walter he had opened his own hairdresser’s shop (‘Tom’s Hairdressing Saloon’) at 56 Ellor Street, Salford (the premises are pictured in the frontispiece to Greenwood’s memoir, There Was A Time, 1967 and also on the website of the Walter Greenwood collection at the University of Salford Library:  http://www.salford.ac.uk/__data/assets/xml_file/0007/530476/Greenwood.xml). The character of Robert Treville in Greenwood’s 1938 novel The Secret Kingdom is clearly a version of his father. Here, having just set up his barber’s shop in Salford, Treville considers his prospects:

Hadn’t he established himself as a popular character by virtue of having made himself a favourite at the Palatine Arms? Wasn’t he able to bring tears to the eyes of the customers there by way he sang ‘the Miner’s Dream of Home’? And hadn’t they told him he could tell a risqué story better than anybody else there? Patrons of the pub became his patrons as a matter of course (Morley-Baker reprint, Leeds, 1970, p.25; all subsequent references are to this edition).

Indeed, as Greenwood explains in his memoir, There Was a Time, his father was an ‘extrovert’ who tried ‘without success, to convince my mother that his visits to the pub were “for the sake of business” ’ (pp.13 and 15). The Secret Kingdom details the constant, tragic and unsuccessful struggle which Treville has in choosing between drink and respectability, between a downward and upward social trajectory, and this was certainly a familiar struggle in the early years of the Greenwood household, though it is presented comically in There Was a Time ‘  “nip round to the Temperance Hall and get me a Pledge Form . . . Father signed this with a great flourish and it was added to the collection’ (p.15). Robert Treville dies young of pneumonia, brought on more or less directly, the novel makes clear, by his chronic struggle with drink; Tom Greenwood also died young, aged forty-five, in 1912, but as a direct result, anyway, of chronic lung disease, probably TB.

 

Greenwood’s fourth pre-war novel, The Secret Kingdom,  is set in Salford and focuses on the life of the socialist Byron family, and probably aims to be, like Love on the Dole, a  socially engaged kind of fiction which might find sympathy among a broad range of readers. However, it also has a firmly romance-based plot (though not exactly a happy ending for the principals in this). Greenwood, needing to maintain both his income and standing as a professional author, may have been exploring how he might sustain his writing career using popular or middlebrow genres during the years following Love on the Dole and His Worship the Mayor.

 

Early on the novel introduces two characters who stand out from their environment, Bert Treville, who has come to Palatine Street, Salford, from as far away as Manchester and is thus a romantically interesting stranger, and Paula, eldest daughter of the Byron family, who has mysteriously disappeared from Palatine Street for six months, as well as being a member of a family known for their strangeness in the whole district, for William Byron the father ‘had books of his own, real books . . . You could see the books in the glass-fronted bookcase in the parlour where he took you when you went to ask his advice’ (p.14). Paula, has in fact, and despite what the neighbours all think, absented herself to work as a parlour-maid and to recover from her refusal of a proposal of marriage:

She could think of John Blake now without a pang. As for the other men . . . there didn’t seem to be any chivalry in them. Good manners were something to be shy, if not ashamed of. What then remained for her to satisfy her desire for colour and romance but Italian opera, Shakespeare, the poets and the classical novelists? There were, of course, that most secret and cherished release from reality, dreams.

Dreams! Impalpable things that could be, and often were, more real than reality. In these she could believe, whereas all that which she saw about her . . . was altogether incredible and alien to her nature. Who could countenance the mean lives of Lancashire workers, the endless dreariness of the streets, the dirt, poverty, weeping skies, the feeling of imprisonment, of no escape and the never-ending uncertainty of everything? (pp.35-6)

Bert Treville is equally romantically inclined, but in his case towards Paula: ‘Paula, oh Paula! So removed from collective woman; a creation apart, a thing unique, a shining light far away’  (p.27).

 

However, I have slightly misrepresented the novel thus far  – if it draws on the language and plots of romance, it also has features which are not wholly conventional. For example, the opening scene-setting chapter (highly reminiscent of the opening of Love on the Dole) talks of the way in which the Two Cities can be differently understood from different ideological and class viewpoints:

Let it pass that children are taught that Manchester is a place at which anybody can point with pride as an illustrious example of national wealth, municipal enterprise and public-spiritedness. . . All this is, alas, only one side of the picture . . .

A stranger’s reactions to the districts surrounding the city’s centre will depend on two things, his or her social position and social conscience. . .  Streets of houses where the proletariat put up a pretence of living: . . . cotton mills, engineering works, cheek by jowl; main streets lined with pettifogging shops that change hands ceaselessly, bankrupting each successive optimist; railway bridges, dripping arches, canals; dog-racing tracks, football fields, cheap dance halls and super cinemas. Of this there is no end. (p. 10)

This may not be revolutionary rhetoric, but neither is it obviously encouraging an easy acceptance of the status quo or avoiding entirely any disturbance to readers who may not share this kind of social analysis. Similarly, if in some ways Paula Byron is unimpeachably ‘respectable’ in her aspirations to high culture and her distaste for industrial Salford, she is also unimpeachably socialist in her beliefs. Thinking about her daily walk to work at her mill at 6 am, and the daily sight of the night-soil men emptying the ‘pestiferous ordure tins’ from Baxter Street,

aroused that other side of her nature, the fiery, indignant side which leapt in ardent response to the political debates and speeches in the Labour Club and the Manchester Free Trade Hall. (p.37)

Paula is the novel’s central character, but her plot-line is also balanced throughout the novel by a plot-line centred on a male character, first that of her suitor Bert Treville, and then, after his premature death through drink and pneumonia, that of her son Lance, a talented pianist. Though the novel is strongly interested in romance, it does also seem keen to provide points of entry for male readers. Thus though Bert’s struggles with the demon drink are, in the end, fatal, they begin with accounts of the part which the pub plays in his community for men as their main social focus, and his pleasure in this is explored sympathetically, although he eventually fails to hold the line between ‘respectable’ social drinking and ruinous neglect of his family and his own health. Equally, after Bert’s death, Lance’s engagement with the literary and musical education his mother scrimps to provide him with is balanced by insights into his struggles with other attractive forms of working-class masculine identity:

Lance was fed up with this school business. Gosh! Look at Billy Waring and the gang; all wearing overalls, talking professionally about capstan lathes, foundries, machine shops, castings, shell-cases, big guns, oh, and all the romantic things associated with the war!  … and mother always harping on studying and winning a scholarship. As though it wasn’t bad enough having to study the piano . . . If he were wearing overalls would Aunt Anne have the nerve to ask him to be bringing her new baby to the mill every day at noon? (p.338)

At the end of The Secret Kingdom, after a long period of unemployment, Lance makes it as a concert pianist when he is broadcast live by BBC radio (the Byrons have to borrow a wireless to listen). The Secret Kingdom of the title is, it seems, a sustaining inner resource of higher things – a combination of socialist principles with high cultural participation. In many ways this is a classic Greenwood ending (reminiscent of his own deus ex machina acceptance letters for his early short stories and his first novel). The dire way out of Hanky Park through Sally’s becoming Sam Grundy’s mistress at the end of Love on the Dole is here replaced by a positive rescue for the impoverished Byron family coming out of the wider world from a (still newish) national cultural institution. There is a sense, despite Greenwood’s own experience, of which the reader is likely to be reminded, that there is an element of the wish-fulfilment, easy way-out ending to this. However, there is also for Paula a sense of the rest of her class abandoned, left behind by her individual advance: ‘Paula ‘saw herself . . . being rescued from the inhospitable desert island of poverty on whose shores … all the imaginable downtrodden were silently congregated, their unenvious eyes following her dumbly as she receded’ (p.412). It is a significant ending in terms of some issues about Greenwood’s class and gender identifications. If Lance feared earlier that there was a feminising element in his mother’s cultural aspirations for him, and even if these were dealt with partly by his own participation in the masculine world of the dole-office queue, there is nevertheless a sense here that he does, and his family with him, leave behind a world of manual labour characterised as masculine for a more feminised, bourgeois way of living.

 

 

Not all responses to the novel  were positive. The review in the Times Literary Supplement praised his continued engagement with working-class life, but is unimpressed by the technique and quality of the novel:

It is pleasant to find that Mr Greenwood has not abandoned in imagination the working-class scene. Once more he writes of poverty and insecurity in the mean streets of Salford, of the response of different types of character to hard and ugly conditions of life. It is less pleasant to record that this latest book of his is a disappointment . . . The chief trouble . . . is an all too evident willingness to use the conventional and the ready-made. Paula Byron’s struggles to maintain the ordinary decencies of life, her courage and tenacity in the face of the handicaps that often daunt the slum-dweller, her yearnings towards the secret kingdom of Shakespeare, the Iliad and the Emperor Concerto  – all this was potentially the stuff of a novel as true and revealing as Love on the Dole. Paula, as she is drawn here, is a ghost of a woman, not a person at all, but a personification of conventional working-class virtues (R.D. Charques, 21/5/1938).

One might, of course, say that all literary works do draw on conventions in one way or another, but the reviewer clearly feels that between Love on the Dole and The Secret Kingdom Greenwood has fallen from the position of original writer to that of merely conventional writer.

 

Other reviews were more positive, acknowledging a combination of attractive qualities. The Times too felt that the novel was rather schematic, ‘an instance of a novel where the ideas outdo the people’:  ‘one missed the irrelevances of nature that transform a type into a man or woman, and yet as types they perfectly exemplify this theme of spirit endlessly at war with material circumstances’ (27/5/1938, p.22). However, the reviewer also took the novel’s social commentary as worthy of serious attention. Harold Brighouse at the Guardian wrote another favourable review and was particularly concerned to bring out differences from Greenwood’s first novel: ‘The Secret Kingdom is the best of Mr Greenwood’s novels since Love on the Dole. It lacks the raw force … of that specifically “depression” book and goes calmly about its gentler business of telling the life-story of a Salford working woman … This is a quiet and deeply-moving story’ (24/5/1938, p.9). Frank Swinnerton in the Observer thought Greenwood’s novel was based ‘upon true observation … and is always readable with pleasure’ (29/5/1938, p.6).  It may well be that in fact much of Greenwood’s influence from the very beginning of his career comes from a certain middlebrow position in the literary market-place: he created novels which a very wide readership recognised as readable, entertaining, yet serious literary works, with the potential therefore for actual social and political impact.

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