Book review by Chris Hopkins.
Having now posted blogs about most of Walter Greenwood’s fiction, I realise that these pretty much all refer to his first novel, Love on the Dole (1933), so for the sake of completeness and to help the blog reader, I ought to add a blog for his first novel. Love on the Dole established Greenwood’s reputation, was influential at the time and later, and rapidly changed his life (from being an unemployed worker in Salford to being a best-selling novelist and author).
Love on the Dole is the story of the Hardcastle family and their neighbours in a poor part of Salford: Hanky Park. Mr Hardcastle is a miner and Mrs Hardcastle a housewife; their son Harry works first at a pawnshop and is then an apprentice engineer, while their daughter Sally works at a textile mill. Neighbours include the qualified engineer, Larry Meath, and a group of older women who both help and exploit for their own gain the other inhabitants of Hanky Park. The characters represent a working-class economy which is always fragile, and which is then further damaged by the consequences of the Depression after 1929.
The novel looks at first as if it will focus mainly on Harry Hardcastle; having left school at 14, he has worked at a pawnbroker’s, a job which he hates partly because he must work on Saturdays and so can’t see his friends, and partly because he feels it is not a ‘man’s job’. The clientele are indeed all women, though the household economy of which pawning is part in fact fully involves men too, who are unable in bad times to hand over enough of their wages to allow the women to make their housekeeping money last the week (though Harry does not see this full story at this point). He really wants to work at the local engineering works – ‘Marlowe’s’ (based on the MetroVick works at Trafford Park) and thus take up his destiny as a proper adult male worker. So he manages to get taken on as an apprentice engineer, and at first feels that everything will now run smoothly. After seven years he will become a qualified and well-paid engineer and need never worry again about the rest of his life: ‘these new experiences … brought with them a calm serenity which gradually assumed an air of permanency (p.69, Penguin edition, 1962, 1992 – all references are to this edition).
However, the novel is set at a specific period (Harry’s starts his apprenticeship in 1924 and completes it in 1931) and this means that while the British economy might be in a reasonable state when he begins his apprenticeship, the international and national situation has become much worse when he finishes, as the Slump bites. Though Marlowe’s has a commitment to employ time-completed apprentices, in fact Harry and his peers are dismissed as soon as they qualify for a full wage: ‘they now were fully qualified engineers. They also were qualified to draw the dole’ (p.154). Harry’s imagined story of his life is now in ruins – and he has no alternative possibilities in imagination or reality, apart from the brief seaside holiday with his girl-friend Helen funded by a successful bet, when he fruitlessly imagines he might get a job in this wonderful place. Returned home, Harry tramps the street of the two cities looking for work – but there is none.
At this point in the novel, the focus to some extent shifts towards Harry’s sister, Sally, and the qualified engineer Larry Meath (Harry, Sally, Larry – the curious similarity of their rhyming names perhaps links then together as representatives of Hanky Park as a whole?). Larry is not only earning good wages as an engineer (forty-five shillings a week, the novel states), but has no dependents, and can afford books and records and even an annual holiday. He is also a political activist in the Labour party, trying to attract others to join him, and generally helps his neighbours and work-mates with troublesome official bureaucracies and form-filling. Sally, who has a job at a Salford textile mill (though it is notable that we hear very little indeed about her job – the novel is much more interested in male employment and unemployment) becomes interested in Larry after hearing him make a political speech at a street corner. Larry invites Sally to go on rambles with the Labour Party Club and things look promising for the couple.
However, just as Harry’s modest dreams have been shattered by economic circumstances, so too are Sally’s. In difficult economic times, Marlowe’s needs to shed some jobs, and though a good worker Larry is sacked after being picked out because of his political activity (though the bookie Sam Grundy also has a hand in his dismissal through his side-kick Ted Munter – Grundy would like Sally to become his mistress and therefore wants to undermine Larry’s standing). Sally is prepared to marry Larry anyway and live on her wages and his dole, but Larry rejects that outright .This is no doubt partly through pride, but also because he knows that a decent life is not possible on the dole and that, indeed, marriage on the dole is one of the things which reproduces poverty in Hanky Park, and that romance cannot survive under these conditions. As unemployment increases in Hanky Park, it becomes the majority experience. In the Hardcastle household, Sally becomes the only one in paid employment, and under the Means Test rules Harry is told that he will be paid no more dole. This makes his situation desperate, especially because his girlfriend Helen (who is in work at the same textile mill as Sally) is now pregnant. They do marry in order to be ‘respectable’, but have nothing to live on once Helen has to stop work.
In response to the Means Test and the cutting off of their dole, the unemployed men and some women of Hanky Park organise a protest march to the town hall. Though by this time quite ill, Larry goes to the march. But he and some other organisers disagree about the conduct (and purpose) of the protest. There are a lot of police present (including Larry’s sworn enemy Ned Narkey – another would-be rival for Sally’s affections) and Larry is anxious that the march remains peaceful and avoids giving any excuse for the police to disrupt it. Some of the other organisers encourage the marchers to be less deferential to the authorities and, anyway, the police already seem to have plans to deny entry to the town hall square. In the end, fighting breaks out and the police use their truncheons freely – this pleases Narkey who at the very start of the protest has said, ‘Ah hope t’Christ the bastards start summat’ (p.198). He and other policemen use their truncheons without restraint including on women, and Harry sees Larry hit three times, twice on the back and once on the head. Larry is dragged away to the cells, but is soon admitted to the ‘Esperance Infirmary’, where with Sally and Mrs Hardcastle present he dies of pneumonia.
There is considerable debate among critics about the way the novel handles the protest march and also about why Greenwood kills off the novel’s working-class intellectual, leaving the people of Hanky Park still trapped and apparently with no hope of change. The march was based on a real protest, remembered in Salford as the Battle of Bexley Square, which took place on the first of October 1931. Greenwood gives another account of the march in his memoir There was a Time (Cape, 1967 – see chapter 38, ‘Banker’s Benefit’), as does the Working Class Movement Library web-site in its entry on Love on the Dole (https://www.wcml.org.uk/our-collections/creativity-and-culture/drama-and-literature/walter-greenwood-and-love-on-the-dole/).
Though I have covered the main plot events, I have left out so far some important characters whose portrayal was much praised in contemporary reviews – the chorus of older women: Mrs Jikes, Mrs Dorbell, Mrs Nattle and Mrs Bull. Indeed, advertising for the novel in 1933 identified the group of older women as a selling point for the book, as in this brief advert from The Sunday Times, which spent most of its short notice on them: ‘A grim picture, lightened by humour, insight and a chorus of bawdy old women’. (18/6/1933, p.6). Some reviewers saw them as Dickensian figures, others as Shakespearian (clearly the latter group had the Scottish play in mind). These older women are in the main better off than the younger characters, with several having pensions but no dependents at this stage. They make what would be a precarious living anywhere else but Hanky Park through variously helping and/or exploiting their neighbours. (for example, by taking clothes to the pawnshop for a small commission). ‘Obliging’ is Mrs Nattle’s word for it (Mrs Bull is perhaps the nearest to being the people’s friend, an actually helping on occasion, but she is still an equivocal character).
Love on the Dole became the best-known novel of working-class life published during the nineteen-thirties. It was praised in newspaper reviews across the spectrum of political affiliations. ‘We passionately desire this novel to be read’ said the Manchester Guardian (30/6/1933). Later, The Times quoted Sir Herbert Samuel’s plea that the entire House of Commons should ensure they had seen the stage version to enhance their understanding of what unemployment figures really meant:
I wonder whether hon. Members have seen a play which is now being performed in London, called, “Love on the Dole.” If not, I would urge them to see it. That play paints in very poignant fashion the position of those 400,000 families who are in the state which I have just described (Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 5th Series, Vol 298, Col 1665, 4/3/1935).
It seems possible that Ramsay MacDonald himself had read the novel, for it is recorded as being among sixty of his books which he donated to the ‘Million Books for the Unemployed Scheme’ in January 1934. (Reported in the Sheffield Daily Independent, 13/1/1934, p.6.)
Love on the Dole has a significant place in British history, because it quickly became, and has remained, the novel to turn to to illustrate or analyse the conditions of British working-class life in the thirties and the terrible impact of the Depression on the lives of individuals as well as whole towns and cities. A.J.P. Taylor refers to the novel precisely in these kind of terms in his widely-read 1965 book English History 1914-1945: ‘Unemployment became … a way of life, commemorated in Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood, one of the few genuinely “proletarian” novels written in English’ (Penguin edition, p.436; originally written for the Oxford History of England series). In fact, the importance and influence of Greenwood’s text and his subsequent writing has not been over-estimated, but on the contrary considerably under-estimated through various acts of neglect (including that of a general cultural ’forgetfulness’ of Greenwood’s subsequent writing about working people throughout the nineteen-thirties, forties and fifties).
Love on the Dole has often been read as a novel with a very clear and simple message: it is ‘fiction with a definite social aim’, said the Yorkshire novelist and critic Phyllis Bentley (‘Contemporary British Fiction’ in The English Journal, Vol. 28, no.4. April 1939, p.257). But equally it’s worth as a novel, its meaning and its politics have often been the subject of much debate. I would welcome other readers’ responses to the novel or its impact.
(This review draws on material in chapters 1 and 3 of my book, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film, Liverpool University Press, 2018 – Chris Hopkins)