In
both Tony Harrison’s V, and the
classic Victorian novel Wuthering Heights,
written by Emily Brontë, class is traversed and epitomised in various, yet in
many notable occurrences, similar ways. They both explore its importance in
society, and its vitality to the everyday lives of those who belong within such
classes. In this essay, I aim to analyse the varying significance of class and
discuss the importance class has to these texts and others such as William
Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles above
Tintern Abbey and Virginia Woolf’s Street
Haunting: A London Adventure, as well as Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, looking closely at their language and structure,
and the events that take place within such examples.

 

Tony Harrison’s
famous ‘state of the nation’ poem V is set in Leeds in 1984,
when it was written, and was first published in the London Review of
Books in January of 1985. Throughout
the poem, Harrison explores the society he exists in and questions the
ideological changes around him, as England experiences an emphasis on
individualism and the decay of the industrial north’s visible effect on the
radical conservatism stimulated by the Thatcher government (1979-1990). This
setting is framed by Harrison by his challenging of the expectations one has of
what a poem should include, and was controversial in its reception due to the
frequent use of obscenity and the acknowledgement of the effect language has on
certain groups of people, segregated by class, age, race and sex. For example,
“important ‘left’ readings of V criticised it as a liberal
evasion of the political and regarded Harrison as “abandoning a radical
working-class critique” (Regan, 1280, 2016). However, it is evident that the
poem explores the political and cultural themes as an intervention, as Harrison
provides his interpretation of nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s
(1854–91) “classical vandalism”.

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Harrison’s
presentation of the poet as the working-class man, as well as his rejection of
a “Whig political influence”, also references Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a courtyard (1751), as
he explores the lack of control and purpose generations of his people exist within.
Harrison also explores the deterioration of the working class as such an
important and manually driven class, and their replacement by industrialisation
which was promoted by the upper and business classes, leaving over 3 million
unemployed;

the
lumpenproletarian skin represents a generational underclass of the terminally
unemployed, and signifies the political victimisation (Regan,1278, 2016).

 

Harrison casts
himself as the bourgeoisie in his poet-persona, viewing himself as both the
skinhead he converses with and the image of the person that is of such
polemical relevance.  Terry Eagleton noted that “the poem demonstrates the
extent to which ‘Harrison’s own dispirited political imagination belongs to the
1980s'” (Kennedy, 162, 2009). The poem also accosts the differences found “between
being pained primarily by oppression, and being pained primarily by division
and disunity” (Eagleton, 350, 1991) within society, particularly in class.

In Brontë’s anti-hierarchal Wuthering Heights, class is explored in
a similarly comprehensive manner, as the protagonist Heathcliff is taken from
his orphaned lower-class status and adopted and educated into an archetypal
land-owning enterpriser. Bronte’s
novel “captures in a microcosm many aspects of the radical socio-political
movements” (Cory, 1, 2005) of this period, both metaphorically and literally
disrupting dominant structures of power.

 At first
considered “coarse and loathsome, strange and repellent”, a reception similar
to the controversy that surrounded Harrison’s V and its challenging language, today it is renowned as a classic
of world literature, and although it contains elements which “transcend social
class, violations of class are nevertheless central” to its plot (Meier,310,
2013).

Heathcliff
is without a specific class, and so has the ability to be developed from an
orphaned status to a higher and more powerful one, not being held back with the
advantage that “he has no natural, social or biological standing” (Larson, 1,
2013). However, this lack of a class to belong to also leads to Heathcliff’s
subjection to abuse and prejudice throughout his life, as he is treated as the
outcast.

Although,
characters including the man who adopts him into his household, Mr Earnshaw, as
well as his daughter and Heathcliff’s love interest, Catherine Earnshaw, act as
examples of individuals who look past class and see a person as their being, not
just who they are forced to be and where they are forced to fit into by
society. The description
given of the teenage Heathcliff shows the development Heathcliff went through
after Mr Earnshaw’s death;

 … lost the benefit
of his early education: continual hard work, begun soon and concluded late, had
extinguished any curiosity he once possessed… Then personal appearance
sympathised with mental deterioration; he acquired a slouching gait, and
ignoble look… (Bronte? 76),

showing
the utter disdain he experienced after the man who helped transform his life by
raising his social class died. Heathcliff
is subjugated to disadvantages in the novel due to his lower-class status, thus
he exemplifies the typical notion of class in the 19th century
Victorian England Brontë writes in, with the novels original publication in
1847. Class was paramount in social standing for an individual, and meant the
difference between a person enjoying a life of opportunity, or a life of
struggle. New opportunities through the industrialisation of trade also meant a
boost in life expectancy, as well as a better overall quality of life, but they
also reinforced class divides that had existed in Britain for centuries.

Another
positive outcome of the industrial revolution, however, is the development of
skilled labour, leading to the rise of the middle class. Eagleton
describes the character Heathcliff as an “insurrectionary” who rebels
against his place in the social hierarchy, and draws connections with Wuthering Heights and the “concurrent political
insurgency” (Cory,1, 2005) of the Irish potato famine of 1845-1852. Heathcliff
represents “revolution from below” and “condenses in his own
person the various stages of the Irish revolution of the 1840s” (Eagleton,
19-20, 1991).

The
classic realism of the novel, alongside its illusionism, depicts a realistic
idea of the importance of class for a person’s endeavours in the era it exists
within, whilst simultaneously rebelling against a traditional hierarchy of
discourse, which many conventional 19th century texts upheld to
direct us in what to believe. This open-endedness effectively provokes a
different interpretation for each reader for every aspect of the novel,
particularly class, as Brontë subverts the first-person narration of her
literature with irony within her narrative frame. Meanwhile Brontë creates a
view of society that authors such as Dickens would similarly offer, displaying
Heathcliff primarily as a problematic character and as a victim of his own
circumstance, and the “aggressive capitalism” he represents (Eagleton, 103, 2003).

The actions that the characters of
the novel commit, are motivated by the desire for social nobility, specifically
wherein Catherine Earnshaw marries Edgar Linton to improve considerably her
social status and name, whilst refraining from marrying Heathcliff, her true
love, for fear of it damaging her reputation and position as an upper-class
socialite.

Therefore,
the loving equality between Catherine and Heathcliff, going as far as Catherine
exclaiming “Nelly I AM Heathcliff!” (page 130), is a “paradigm of human
possibilities which reach beyond and have the capabilities to unlock the
tightly dominative system” (Eagleton, 103, 1991) of British society and class. However,
it is ultimately the re-establishment of class awareness and preoccupation with
attaining higher class reputation that ultimately causes the downfall of
Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship, and leads to the climaxing events of
the novel, as Heathcliff rejects her choices, becoming vengeful with a broken
heart.

Heathcliff’s
reaction to the prejudices against him are understandable from an emotional
point of view, but whilst his heart is broken, his mind is conscious enough to
retaliate with improving his class position by marrying Edgar Linton’s sister,
Isabella Linton, and continue to improve his status throughout the text until
it is Heathcliff himself who is left with legal entity to both estates,
Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.

The
financial politics that is interwoven into middle-class marriage at this time
in British society is explored throughout the text, as Catherine makes it clear
to Nelly on page 81 that;

            “Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish
wretch, but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married, we should
become beggars? Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise, and
place him out of my brother’s power” (81)

and how she plans to use her elevated
socio-economic position as “assistant rebel” to rebel against Heathcliff’s own
position. This role corresponds with the part many women played in
socio-political movements of the Victorian period that affected class. This “manipulation
of the rhetoric of separate spheres” (Cory, 17, 2005) expresses the essential
importance of class in such a time, and the problems its importance posed upon
the actions of the characters Brontë develops.

Similarly,
in Woodsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles
above Tintern Abbey class influences the poem and its setting. The “cult of
the ego” in which the subjectivity of the poet is expressed within a work,
makes Lines Composed a Few Miles above
Tintern Abbey reflect the world through the eyes of the poet, and discusses
nature, spirituality, and such other topics through a lyrical ballad structure.
Written in 1798, Wordsworth creates his poem on the cusp of the romanticism
movement within literature (1798-1830) and challenges the traditional view of
what poetry should be, writing in ordinary iambic pentameter done in blank
verse as an attempt to adapt poetic forms used by ordinary people. This means
that class is important to the poem as it references working class ballad form
and individual feeling which every ordinary man can have the ability to
experience, not just the cultured classes that traditional poetry can often
restrict itself to appeal to. The poems focus on the sublime locates the poetic
voice in the real world, and it begins with retrospection of the society as it
exists, ending with the poet looking towards the future. Wordsworth wrote the
poem around the time of the French Revolution (1789-1799) which was a
particularly important era of political and social upheaval for French society
and its rejection of aristocratic patriarchal rule which had led the country
into bankruptcy, thus the idea and relevance of class is particularly important
to the poem in that its contextual background is one that greatly influenced
Wordsworth and his opinions on class. Also notable is the nature described in
the poem, which Wordsworth describes with effective use of personification,
“dearest friend”, and hyperbole that nature represents the “music of humanity”.
Wordsworth portrays also the industrial revolution relevant to Wuthering Heights, with “wreaths of
smoke sent up, in silence, from among the trees”.

On
the other hand, in Virginia Woolf’s Street
Haunting: A London Adventure, class is also important to the text. Born in
the Victorian era, Woolf is however most renowned for her modernism, and
through her work of Street Haunting
she expresses a strong piece of
reminiscent writing that describes her anti-heroic voyage to purchase an item
symbolic to her craft (a pencil). Woolf develops the ideas of how a city
connects its people, the animosity of its streets making us all equal, whether
we are of higher or lower class, we are all strangers to each other carrying
out our daily tasks in the same surroundings. However, even Woolf is influenced
by the society she creates her poetry within, using negative connotations and
the word “derelict`’ to describe the lower-class people she encounters.

In Mike Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party, an interesting and
modern idea of the importance of class to society and its people is developed
and explored. Written from improvised sketches carried out by specially
selected actors, and first screened for the BBC in 1977, a controversial
element core to the play’s events came to the surface, as the play provokes its
audience, specifically about whether or not the director (Leigh) is
“deliberately satirizing the aspiring lower middle classes, poking fun at their
pathetic ambitions, bad taste and marital conflicts” (Brottman, 317, 2007). The
plays setting, within a changing 1970’s urban England makes the importance of
class to its core plot unavoidable, as the characters and their interactions
are dictated based upon their social standing and their ambitions to improve
upon such standings with different physical, social, and conversational
techniques. For example, in Leigh’s set directions;

            Above the settee is a room-divider
shelf unit, on which are a telephone, a stereo system, an ornamental
fibre-light, a fold-down desk and, prominently, a bar (1).

This display of wealth and class
by the character of Beverly, in who’s home the play is set, is typical of the
era in which it exists, as during the 1970’s, aspects to people’s homes and
what was within them provided the most reliable idea of the social position a
person held, showing off their class in other means as well, particularly in
expensive cars, clothing and holidays. This consumerism of the middle class
boomed during the latter part of the 20th century in Britain, as the
middle class experienced a split into lower and upper, and means to live became
more affordable. An element to Abigail’s
Party that is comparable to Harrison’s V,
is the political leanings of Leigh that are expressed through his
protagonist Beverly, regarding her personality and the way she treats her
guests, with a theatrical voice, matriarchal bossiness and “opinionated
championing of middle-class views” (Brottman, 319, 2007) that symbolises Margaret
Thatcher. However, the importance of class is also explored in a more positive
way by Leigh also in his play, as the character of Tony, who was a former
footballer, now a computer operator who works “shifts”, remains proud of his
working-class roots, requesting a pale ale rather than the gin that other
friends at Beverly’s party drink to try to exemplify a higher class.

In
conclusion, Brontë’s Wuthering Heights
places significant importance on class and its value as it is the driving
element behind the text’s plot and characters’ development. It is in the beginning
of the novel the definitive aspect to which Heathcliff serves to resist against
throughout his life, in both his love for Catherine and the reasons to which
they cannot be together forever, as well as his own survival and his motivation
to continue living after Catherine’s death, by achieving a class hierarchy no
one suspected a man of his class would achieve. Harrison’s V, as well as Leigh’s Abigail’s
Party also rest considerable importance upon class, particularly within the
contexts which influence their works, with industrialisation and consumerism in
society affecting class and emphasising its importance further.

 In Woolf’s Street
Haunting class is more subtly referenced, and less weight is placed upon
class, however it is still an active element behind the society which the work
is set and in which Woolf walks around in, carrying out her activities.
Therefore, in all of the examples I have discussed, class has a role of varying
importance that makes it a particularly notable factor to the substance of such
works. Without such importance on class, each work would be remarkably
different, and in most respects, not as representative of the eras they exist
within and immortalise. 

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