The English class system: Why people don’t want Shakespeare to be a grammar school boy.

'I'm first to bowl, then, am I?' Image: Pixabay

‘I’m first to bowl, then, am I?’
Image: Pixabay

What class do you think you belong in? I’ve never been sure about myself.

My parents came from shopkeepers and manual workers. When I was a kid we ate broken biscuits and chocolate mishaps – mangled, rejected foodstuffs sold off cheap because they lacked the required perfection – because they were cheaper than the ‘real thing’. The biscuits came in plastic bags inside a plain brown cardboard box, all the flavours jumbled together, so Bourbons, Custard Creams ‒ everything ‒ tasted of Ginger Nuts. All of them were oddly shaped and powdery and there were woefully few chocolate digestives. It was sugar, though, so I wasn’t complaining.

Does our lack of funds make me working class?

Today I work in a shop, as I did when I had my first job at the age of fourteen. (Behind the Deli counter in a Fine Fare supermarket, if your asking. I wore a tabard, though I don’t remember a hairnet, and I used to weigh out bacon and haslet and corned beef and hide in the walk-in fridge to steal slivers of pate because I went there straight from school and didn’t finish until 8pm – way past my tea time. And I went home every night smelling of mince. Mmmmmm.)

Now, I may work in a shop, but I have a good degree. My husband has a good degree and a post grad qualification and works in the media. When I met him I was working in an off licence and he was working in a video shop. So, are we middle class or working class made good and does anyone give a monkey’s anymore?

Well, in a way, I think people still do and as evidence of this I give you Mr William Shakespeare.

What? You exclaim. How can the Bard of Stratford demonstrate the English preoccupation with class? Well, if you’d hush up a mo, I’ll tell you.

We all know the story. William Shakespeare, son of a glover. Not the highest ranking job, but what they might have termed a little later and before current class stratifications were invented, one of the ‘Middling Sort’. Not gentry but not a peasant – a respectable craftsman.

Young Will probably went to Stratford grammar school where he would have studied Latin authors such as Cicero, Ovid and Seneca. He vanished from the records for a few years before resurfacing as an actor and playwright in the 1580s, going on to write some of the best regarded literary works the world has ever seen.

But …

There are some people who don’t think a grammar school boy would be capable of writing great works, believing instead that only a nobleman – better educated, widely travelled, mixing with the finest scholars in the land – would be capable of such wonders.

Earls of Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Stirling, Essex, Pembroke and Southampton have all been suggested as potential alternatives to Midlands Bill over the last two hundred years, along with various Barons, Countesses and even a couple of queens (Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth the I). Mind you, Cervantes – author of Don Quixote – has also been mooted, suggesting  that not all of these names are sensible or remotely credible.

Why this need to ascribe literary greatness to high social standing?

The link between money and literary talent is clear – Lord Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Percy Shelley, Victor Hugo, Robert Browning, Charles Baudelaire are just a handful of writers who began their lives financially secure, not having to work whilst writing.

But money is not a prerequisite to intelligence or talent – it just means the writer can dedicate more time to their craft without having to dig tunnels so they can afford to buy bread and keep a hovel over their heads.

Imagine how many great authors, poets, artists, sculptors have been lost to the world because they happened to have been born into the wrong social stratum, lacking the opportunity to flourish.

Working class writers do and can exist – D. H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, Irvine Welsh, Pat Barker and so on, and though most would and could not be compared to Shakespeare, it does show that given the chance anyone from any background can show talent.

I wonder why, then, some are so loathe to allow the grammar school educated, glove maker’s boy the spotlight.

I must have missed out a million working class literary heroes – can you give me more names to add to my list?

Post inspired by a thread on Calm Groove. Many thanks for the conversation 🙂

Is E. L. James the new D. H. Lawrence? Fifty Shades of Grey vs Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Pornography is just everywhere these days. (Image Pixabay)

Pornography is just everywhere these days.
(Image Pixabay)

Now, I don’t read erotic fiction and the few ‘snatches’ I have read fall into the slightly cringe worthy category, all full of being swooped up in manly arms and swooning over throbbing anatomies.

Unless you’re physically gorgeous and lit very well, sex is a faintly ridiculous and unattractive spectator sport, whether on screen or on the page. I’d say I’d rather watch Wimbledon, but with the parade of super fit young people exerting themselves and outrageous levels of grunting, there are some close parallels with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

But the erotic is hot right now, thanks to the controversy surrounding a certain, boringly named BDSM trilogy. Which got me  wondering if there were any similarities between this recent sex book scandal and one from the early twentieth century …

Lady Chatterley’s Lover VS Fifty Shades of Grey

The Authors

* D. H. Lawrence hailed from Nottinghamshire, becoming a clerk, then a teacher. Chatterley was his eleventh novel.

* Londoner E. L. James was a T.V executive before turning to writing fan fiction in 2009. The Fifty Shades books were her first published novels and inspired by the Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer.

The theme of dominance and subservience runs through both books.

* Lady Connie Chatterley is socially superior to her gamekeeper  lover Oliver Mellors and she’s the one who does most of the chasing, at least initially, whilst entrepreneur Christian Grey lives a millionaire lifestyle and Ana Steele is a student.

* However, when it comes to the act of lurv, the men are predictably in control. Christian Grey is infamously dominant over Ana. Connie loves the fact that Mellors is a ‘real man’, as opposed to her injured, emasculated husband, Clifford.

* Grey makes Ana sign a nondisclosure agreement, whereas discretion is assumed for Mellors and Connie, given the fact both are married.

As for the ladies …

*Both are young, but whereas Ana is easy to manipulate, naïve and has been untroubled in the downstairs department prior to meeting her millionaire-letch-in-a-box, Connie is a mature, married woman who’s already had an affair with a man from her circle of friends and is actively encouraged by her husband to find someone she can produce a family heir by. Connie and Oliver Mellors have a mutually satisfying relationship which is quite conventional as they hope to marry and raise their child together. By the end of the first Grey book, Ana has learnt how extreme BDSM relationships can be and left Christian Grey – although they reunite in the second book.

So far as venues is concerned …

*Grey goes for sex dungeons, strung with any number of straps, belts, paddles – he’s a bit of a gadget nerd. Connie and Mellors make do with the woods with the occasional visit to a hut – in the woods. So whereas Connie has to look out for spiders or the odd pine cone making its way into an orifice, Ana has a whole armoury of pointy, strappy, holey tools that might end up pretty much anywhere. As I remember, the only foreign object Mellors puts near Connie is some wild flowers plaited in her pubic hair, which is actually rather sweet, if a bit hippyish for a gamekeeper who fought in WWI.

Now, controversy.

Have these two books courted controversy? Mmm, let me think.

*D. H. Lawrence was good at upsetting polite society – in 1915 all copies of The Rainbow were seized and burned, but at least the book was published in the UK. The first edition of Chatterley was produced in Italy, the first unexpurgated edition in the UK wasn’t published until 1960, after the Chatterley Trial.

*The only trial Fifty Shades of Grey has had (for taste, anyway) is trial by media, trial by critic, trial by internet, with huge popularity with the public not being reflected by the literary press. It has been criticised by the BDSM community, who claim it shows ignorance of common safe practices, that the relationship is actually domestic abuse, not sex play.

Both works have generated great quotes.

*The famously out of his depth prosecutor, Mervyn Griffiths Jones said during the Chatterley Trial,

“…when you have read it through, would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book. Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

This view seems gobsmackingly outdated today, but even in 1960 it came across as appallingly paternalistic and patronising, a sentiment that belonged to the nineteenth century, not the increasingly permissive mid-twentieth century.

*So far as Grey is concerned, there is one quote that summed up how many critics felt about the novel.  Salman Rushdie – not unused to controversy himself, having lived under a fatwa since the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1989 – said,

“I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.”

Although both created hype, controversy, a media storm of bile and invective, from the start Chatterley was little bought (due to the ban) and much championed by critics and fellow writers, whereas Grey has had huge sales figures and been derided by many – though not all – critics.

When written, Lady Chatterley was no doubt ahead of its time, the trial of the book was behind the times.

And Fifty Shades of Grey – intentionally or not – hit the times perfectly, coming out as e-readers were becoming ubiquitous, allowing everyone from primary school teachers to vicars to read controversial works unmolested and unjudged.

Both books could be seen as game changers. Chatterley is still well respected 87 years after its original release. Only time will tell if Fifty Shades will last or be a flash in the pornography pan.

Confession time.

I have read Lady Chatterley – I have NOT read Fifty Shades and most likely never will. Any information on the latter has been gleaned from the nettershphere and if inacurate I apologise – though not that much 🙂 Here are the sources used if you want to do your own sifting – enjoy, you mucky lot!