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Friday, September 23, 2011

I am glad that I don't live in Cotter's England



I am sitting here of a sunny September morning wondering what on earth to make of Christina Stead’s 1966 novel, Cotter’s England. On one level reading it was a bloody awful experience. In fact, Reading it reminded me of a recent visit to the Dartmoor Prison museum during which I was saying t myself “OK so this is all very interesting but how do I get out of here?”. The book is a shapeless rambling shamble of hopelessness. Its characters are either actively hideous or weak of will. Watching the nice ones amble through their disastrous lives manipulated and tortured by the very worst is right up there with A Handful of Dust for frustrating literary experiences. But then, I guess, that is kind of the point. Cotter’s England is a discursive, experimental disquisition on its subject – the radical fringe of the post-war working-class left-wing in England.


Its main character is Nellie Clark nee Cotter, and Nellie is proper-horrific. She is a morally repugnant, intellectually incoherent manipulative piece, and if you ever had the misfortune to meet her, you would give her a wide berth. She is tea-drenched, whisky-sodden and when she is not pontificating she is coughing her guts up. She feigns a cloying familiarity with everyone and is close to no one. She prays on the dispossessed and under the auspices of caring for them, drives them into depression and one case, an early grave.



The drama ricochets between grimy London and grimy “Bridgehead” (aka Gateshead). In Bridgehead we are introduced to the Cotter clan, the drunken father, the cloying mother, the frustrated sister Peggy and the butt of all sorts of abuse; poor Uncle Simon. I don’t consider myself to be a feint hearted reader (although it would not surprise me if other disagreed!), but the constant mean acts of domestic violence against this helpless old fool left me feeling drained of strength myself. A case in point: “the next day things were much worse. Tom came downstairs at one moment in time to see Uncle Simon shrink back and Peggy strike him on the temple with a greasy saucepan”.


The reason that this book feels like a creature from another planet is that people don’t really write books like this anymore. It is a political novel, a story about a class of people in politics and about politics and class. It addresses the tension between the advancement of the individual and that of the community and tries to set its characters in the context of communities that both inspire them and also shackle them down. I do not know, and I cannot decide from my reading of the novel, whether Stead is trying to make general comments about the corruption of the far left in the ‘50s, or whether she is trying to suggest that the left somehow can’t accommodate these personalities without them deserting the cause before they have actually achieved anything for the generality of people. A taster, to show what I mean:


“What do you mean by Cotter’s England?” she cried out. “What’s wrong with my England?”
“The England of the depressed that starved you all to wraiths, gave Eliza TB, sent your sister into the Home, got your old mother into bed with malnutrition, ad is trying it on with me, too, getting at my health. I never had an ache or pain in my life: I beat their England. I lived through the unemployment, the starvation, the war, I knocked out a few bloody eyes and I got me fists skinned a few times, that’s all I ever got: and now I’m going to live for my country. You stay here and die in it. Don’t you want to change it? Or is it only the beer-soaked sawdust of Bohemia that you love? The dirt and sweat of the tear-stained bachelor’s bedroom; Bridgehead in all its glory? You don’t know what you’re fighting for. To change Cotters’ England. Wasn’t that what drove you on? Or just ragged rebellion?”


Sobering stuff, and powerful, if a little toe-curling.


I have included a picture of the author and the two Virago covers (of which the one I have is of the lady standing). I have also included another book cover that I found and which I think “gets” the book rather more exactly than the Virago choices.

7 comments:

  1. Goodness -- this sounds like strong stuff alright. I'm not sure I'd have got very far with it, though it does sound rather fascinating in its way. Rather you than me, though. Great review, anyway -- thanks.

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  2. I love reading novels about oppression of the working class and war time privations. It confirms all my natural feelings about the insensitivity and brutality of the moneyed classes, big business and right wing power brokers.

    But what happens if the brutality is from within? Then I cannot deal with it.

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  3. I always find Christina Stead a bit of a hard slog, but she keeps me coming back for more. One of her novels that I want to read is a later one called I'm Dying Laughing.

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  4. I shall look out for this one whilst I am in England, have a peek and decide whether or not I can cope with it! Thank you for the review.

    I have left some Ireland posts for whilst I am away. Back mid October.

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  5. I'm reading the novel now. It was chosen by my local book club as the monthly read.

    You omit to mention the narrative technique employed by Stead which is rathera Dostoyevsky in the sense that readers are tested by the lack of authorial intrusion. The novel is textured by the voices of the characters involved in its endless dialogues.

    The technique got me on side because I like the indeterminacy of meaning it throws up. Readers are thrust into the novel's universe without moorings and have to make their own way. Paradoxically from the reader participation and effort required to make sense of the novel the meaning becomes all the more clear and satisfying for lack of authorial signposting along the way.

    Perversely, I also rather revel in the idea of my fellow book club members struggling with the text! When the vote came I chose quite another novel.

    I do however sympathise with the current reviewer's take on Stead's book. It is bleak and none of the characters are particularly appealing.

    I detect in Nellie a Stalinist temperament wherein there's a pathological expectation that others live up to her own impossibly high standards of moral purity and resilience. It seems to me that the book and in particular this shrill female protagonist marks the writer's long retreat from Marxism.

    There is something in Nellie's need for control that reminds me of Big Brother. I would love to have seen Stead discuss Marxism with Orwell. I suspect she came to see it in the same dark terms as he did.

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  6. I am reading this now and find it fascinating. The book on one level is comic. The situation where the Uncle is hit is sad but it turns out that the niece who hits him, is close to madness (I haven't finished it but I find it fascinting and, in a way, also beautiful, and powerful as and dark as Lear is, the rantings of Nellie remind me of those of the fool and Edmund on the moor in the storm, and I would say it thus is in the Dostoevskian mode also (of say 'Notes from the Underground'). It is far more than a political novel. I think it is one of the great psychological novels the equal of Lawrence, Djuna Barnes of 'Nightwood' and Virginia Woolf of her 'Mrs. Dalloway. It is very clever, thematic, subtle: greater than many modern novels say, for example, 'The Cement Garden' by McEwan is pallid beside it. It is one of the best books I have read...o.k. I am up to page 200 so the 'review' is a bit premature...

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  7. Nellie is not talking about politics: her theme is love and death. There are also undercurrents of a kind of sibling love. Politics runs on in the background but this has elements of the surreal and the deeply poetic. Nellie's 'ravings' contrast with her brother Tom's wonderful stories and his 'child like' nature...however, one suspects that not all is right with anyone in the novel which I think is the point. Nellie is like a Greek chorus I feel, telling us of woe, a kind of Cassandra perhaps, I'm not sure. But I like it, I just let myself go into the rush of it. It is...in fact I just remembered who also wrote like this, and that was Thomas Wolfe. But he (or his editor) was less organised. Also Louis-Ferdinand Celine to some extent, even Miller who at his best is (was) a great poet in his novels as is or was Stead.

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