- Ambitious Failure in Literature
I have always been deeply moved by Jude Fawley's return to Christminster with ambitions to enter, as a scholar, one of the prestigious colleges. An artisan, a stonemason, Jude is, essentially, self-educated. Jude writes to five professors in order to realise his ambition, but he is rebuffed. In a night scene, Jude walks around the grounds of one of the colleges (Biblioll, if I remember correctly) of Christminster (Oxford to us) and, using the technical language of the stonemason, describes the architectural features of a building he will never set foot inside. Education, class, (and class divide), fate and, perhaps, the flaw of ambition are intensely merged in this beautifully bleak and heart-rending chapter. One can't help but feel that had Jude been born into the Gentry he would have been accepted as a scholar in Christminster. In this sense, Jude's intellectual ambitions and his miserable plight are of social and political relevance.
Is Jude's ambition noble or delusional?
Literature gives us many examples of (often) male characters ultimately dissatisfied with their intellectual striving. Most notably Casaubon (Middlemarch) with his interminable 'Key to all Mythologies'; Richard Phillotson (Jude The Obscure) and his grand and uncompleted '...Antiquites of Wessex', his failure to become a Parson; the fire insurance clerk Leonard Bast (Howards End) whose philosophical ideas and literary ambitions are treated as social experiment with disastrous effects by Helen Schlegel.
How writers treat working class characters and, indeed, how modernist writers treat the reading masses was the subject of John Carey's book The Intellectuals and the Masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia 1880-1939. Carey accused twentieth century modernist writers of arrogance and superiority with regard to the masses; to the intellgentsia, the mass of lower classes were interested in nothing more serious than common newspapers and, at best, penny dreadfuls, the working class autodidact was a pseudo-intellectual, made more pathetic by a trivial literary ambition above his class. In fiction this ambition is often fatal. Carey points his finger at, among others, George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion) and E.M. Forster (the oeuvre), seeing Arnold Bennett as an exception to the rule, an author to undermine the snobbish, Nietzschean elitism in British modernist writing.
It was as late as the 1960s for literature in Britain to redress the balance, the working class novels, kitchen sink dramas, the literature in the 70s and 80s that dealt directly (across the class divide) with the often difficult road to intellectual emancipation (Educating Rita, A Chorus of Disapproval, Vote Vote Vote for Nigel Barton), culminating in the unabashed confidence in subject matter and style of writing of a contemporary writer like James Kelman.
The working class aspiring intellectual should not be haunted by the fictional failure of literary ambition. He or she is a part of a great tradition of self-educators that goes back (at least) as far as the Roundheads in Cromwellian England, learning on the hoof by bits of passed around bible, broadsides and ballads. We autodidacts are unique. We have a reading history like no-one else's, we carry a portable library with us wherever we go, our study is a holy place and the most important room in our homes. We may, in the early days of self-realisation, mispronounce Goethe or Titian or Gide, but soon the tide is ours, we no longer are bound to the patronisng and tragic misrepresentations in life and literature. Modernism, in particular the English novel, becomes just another a piece of literary cake. And we can either take it or leave it.
*Disclaimer...the writer's library is in its fourth year of being packed in boxes. Of course, I have built a smaller impromptu library, but much of the information above is from memory and is, therefore, not a work of scholarship, even of the street kind!