Political Novels: Old Baggage vs. Middle England

Amongst all the Women in Translation and my country-themed reading months, I also manage to squeeze in a few books that I see on the shelves at the library. I usually stay clear of ‘buzzy’ books, because they are so likely to disappoint me if I get my hopes up too high. But every now and then I succumb to temptation.

Jonathan Coe: Middle England

Imagine a soap opera populated predominantly by middle-class characters, set against the backdrop of the political turmoil in England in the period 2010-2018. That is what the author sets out to describe in this novel populated by a fairly large cast of characters, all related by blood or by the fact that they went to a grammar school in Birmingham together. The characters are sometimes in conflict: parents and children do not understand each other, couples drift apart, unsavoury political opinions come out in discussions. Some are Labour voters, some are Conservatives, even though their lifestyles might not match their beliefs. Some are Leavers, some Remainers, and xenophobia rears its ugly head from time to time. And some are rivals who take themselves far too seriously, like the ever-escalating conflict of the children’s entertainers.

I haven’t read the earlier books that feature the same characters, but it’s easy enough to warm up to the somewhat hapless Benjamin Trotter, looking after his increasingly cranky widowed father while dreaming of becoming something more than ‘the best unpublished writer in the country’. His niece Sophie and the Lithuanian cleaner Grete are also sympathetically drawn, but you can’t help feeling that all of the nice characters share the political views of the author. By contrast, Sophie’s mother-in-law Helena is absolutely awful. This is what she tells a Chinese visitor about the fox-hunting ban in Britain:

“Mr Hu, I have never visited China and I have no wish to make light of the difficult conditions in which you must live there. But here in Great Britain, we face similar problems. In fact I would alsmot say that our situation is worse. You have overt censorship; ours is covert. It all happens under a mask of freedom of speech… But we do not have freedom, of speech or of anything else. The people who once kept a great British tradition alive by riding to hounds are not free to do so any more. And if any of us try to compalin about it, we are shouted down…”

This Italian cover of the book is rather fetching.

Although there are funny moments, it did feel at times as though I was reading a summary of Twitter rants, Facebook posts or newspaper features collected over the course of the last few years. It paints a panorama of social life, rather than trying to probe too far in the depths. I don’t know if it is possible to debate these issues without losing fictional tension and veering towards the realm of polemical essay. However, this possible explanation for angry trolls made me laugh:

‘People like to get angry about anything. A lot of the time they’re just looking for an excuse… I think for a lot of people… there’s nothing much going on in their lives. Emotionally, I mean, maybe their marriages have dried up or everything they do has become a kind of habit, I don’t know. But they don’t feel much. No emotional stimulation. We all need to feel things, don’t we? So, when something makes you angry, at least you’re feeling something. You get that emotional kick.’

This is literature for the polite and puzzled classes, who try to recycle, be civil to others and yet fall into the trap of nostalgia on occasion themselves. (All the characters watching the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games and getting teary-eyed about it, for instance.) Coe’s a marvellous observer of foibles (and speech) and he probably was wise to stick to the milieu he knows best. This is not quite as bitter and satirical as the recent TV series Years and Years, but it’s probably a good snapshot of a certain class in a certain period in recent social history.

Lissa Evans: Old Baggage

This one was an utter delight, and in some ways it felt closer to our times and more revolutionary than Middle England. Yet most of the story takes place in 1928, when Mattie Simpkin, former Sufragette, is feeling a little… middle-aged and useless. She is searching for a new cause into which she can pour her considerable energies, and believes she has found it in a girls’ club that is more about equal rights and learning to fight rather than Girl Guide badges. But her own nostalgia for the past leads her down the wrong path, despite what her faithful companion, The Flea, tries to tell her.

Mattie is a larger than life character, a bit of a steamroller and simultaneously imagining all sorts of slights from the people around her whilst also oblivious to any of their anxieties or suffering. Yet the author manages to make the reader care about her and understand where she is coming from. High comedy coexists amiably with quite gruesome political history (which takes place mostly off-stage, in the past), but there are many parallels to today’s world. Despite what the Sufragettes believed, society did not progress as much as they had hoped at the time, which gives the book an added poignancy.

Unlike in Middle England, where it does feel at times like an info dump, the political background and research is used sparingly in Old Baggage. Erudition with a light touch. Several fellow bloggers had recommended this one as a high-energy, ‘cheery’ book to take my mind off things – and it certainly did the trick.

26 thoughts on “Political Novels: Old Baggage vs. Middle England”

  1. I wouldn’t describe Old Baggage as cheery; I found it quite dark. Matty’s disillusionment and her closest friend’s pain caused largely by Matty’s lack of empathy are pretty bleak. But it’s a stirring political narrative with women centre stage. Worryingly recognisable signs of rising fascism, too

    1. You are right: there is more than a tinge of sadness and darkness there, but on the whole I found it quite stirring and inspiring, rather than that kind of depressing sadness that makes me just despondent.

  2. I’m a Jonathan Coe fan but have yet to read Middle England thanks to several fellow fans dismay about its clunkiness which your review bears out. You might like to try The Rotters’ Club which is the first to feature Benjamin and co – very funny but also such an accurate picture of the ’70s that my partner recommended it to his undergrads as background reading.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Old Baggage. It does indeed have a very dark side but it also demonstrates that things do get better and does so very entertainingly. It has to be said that I’m something of a Pollyanna albeit struggling to see any glimer of brightness at the moment!

  3. Middle England was awful. A smug tirade at people Mr Coe disagrees with. It felt polemic. Regardless as to your opinions he is preachy and the characters rather empty. I had to put it down.

    1. Yes, preachy is the word I was looking for. And no real understanding or sympathy for those who have a different way of thinking – I mean, Helena probably doesn’t deserve it, but there could have been other, more relatable working class characters etc.

  4. I think of the two I would probably like the Evans more. The Coe sounds to me a bit surface level- we can all mock the mentality that’s put us in the messy situation we’re in right now, but I don’t know if that actually helps… 🙁

    1. Yes, I’d have liked more of a balance with other voices, particularly working class voices or those from a different ethnic background. But I suppose he stuck with what he knew…

  5. The Evans interests me, Marina Sofia. The time period and the character of Mattie Simpkin both appeal to me, and it sounds like an interesting look at society, too.

  6. The quote from Helena in Middle England made me laugh immoderately – several of my customers do seem to feel that the “covert censorship” of, e.g., the fox-hunting ban is in some way comparable to violent governmental repression! Shame that it’s a bit clunky, though; I liked The Rotters’ Club. (Old Baggage is wonderful!)

  7. I think I’m with Kaggsy in finding Old Baggage the more appealing of the two. I loved another Lissa Evans’ novels — the WW2 one, Their Finest — when I read it a couple of years ago, so this would seem a safe bet. Have you read Crooked Heart, the earlier book featuring the same character? I’m wondering if it’s best to start with that as it was published first even though Old Baggage could be viewed as a prequel?

    1. I was going to read Crooked Heart too, but found this one first at the library. I’m actually happy that I read it first, as that means I get to see the story develop chronologically. Besides, I really, really liked the character of The Flea (Florrie) and she does not feature in the Crooked Heart, I don’t think.

  8. I loved Old Baggage – Evans had a very light touch with the historical research and *shock horror* a main character who was an older woman – they are rarer than hen’s teeth. A book with a very warm heart.

  9. Ive read a few ‘state of the nation’ novels and none of them have really worked – they all try to cram too many things in just like you indicate Jonathan Coe does. Maybe its extremely difficult to write about a period of time that you are living through – easier to write about one in the past?

    1. That’s exactly the problem, I think. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Ali Smith’s Autumn either (which also wants to be a ‘state of the nation’ novel), and have hesitated about reading Winter and Spring as a consequence.

  10. I really need to read books with other than white middle-class people and their angst. Real life in most countries, even the wealthiest, have diverse populations in nationality, class and religion. Immigrants abound. Different political views exist. This is today’s real world. I live in it and like to read about it. Old-fashioned books with only white characters who live well don’t interest me.
    Of course, the Suffragists are another story. Although not often mentioned, Irish women and immigrants of color were involved in England, as well as labor union organizers. They make it more interesting and the activism, too.
    In the U.S., the pre- and during-WWI movement discriminated against and kept out Black women. The organizers were beholden to wealthy Southern women who were segregationists and donors — and kept out Black women, including leading journalist and activist, Ida B. Wells. Yet Wells and other Black women were also campaigning for women’s right to vote.
    The movie “Iron-Jawed Angels” shows a lot of the reality of that movement here.

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