Writing my novel Hatham Hall (Northside House), I realised that characters who support themselves are generally more interesting than those who simply sit on inherited wealth. Yet the world of work, which dominates most real lives, is too rarely the focus of novels – and when it is, often features as a negative, for strivers and servants alike.
Whilst the pursuit of money has won a thumbs up from some women writers of block/bonkbusters such as Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins and Julie Burchill, who link it to girl power, big beast male ‘literary’ writers seem less sure – if Marin Amis’ Money, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities are anything to go by. Amis’ John Self and Ellis’ Patrick Bateman both sell their shrivelled souls to a consumerist devil and while Wolfe brings a plague on every house, it is the Wasp ‘Master of the Universe’ bond trader, Sherman McCoy whose hubristic arrogance sets a match to the eponymous bonfire. The love of money, it seems, is the root of all evil. Or sometimes simply personal pain. In Hanya Yanagihara’s wildly successful A Little Life (recently dramatized in the West End, starring James Norton) fame and fortune effortlessly visit her characters only to be accompanied by misery and drug abuse – like Jacqueline Susann’s three heroines in Valley of the Dolls decades earlier.
If striving is bad, what then of its opposite: serving others? The character of Wilkie Collins’ benign principal narrator in The Moonstone, Gabriel Betteredge – a kind of head butler – is given a sinister twist by Kazuo Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day, where Stevens becomes an unwitting accomplice to the Nazi leanings of his boss, Lord Darlington, who throws out maids simply for being Jewish. Ishiguro repeats this blindly-loyal-servant-as-facilitator-of-evil theme in Never Let Me Go, where genetic clone Kathy H coaches other clones to meekly accept the harvesting of their internal organs. In his latest, Klara and the Sun, the robot Klara’s years of unwavering loyalty are rewarded with a fate similar to Boxer’s in Orwell’s Animal Farm: she is dumped in a scrapyard. In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (Barack Obama’s favourite novel), her apparently conscionable narrator Reverend Ames serves his local community only by blinding himself to the racism that drove the African-American community out of town and allowing his jealousy of a troubled young man to taint his pastoral duties. A rare exception is Anne Tyler, who combines melancholy with compassion in Saint Maybe. ‘Clutter Counsellor’, Rita DiCarlo appears towards the end, making a living by helping old people discard objects which have become the burdensome detritus of accumulating years, thus bringing healing. Rita is both entrepreneur and kind servant of her community.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, writers often prefer to concentrate on creative jobs. Dickens’ most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, charts his journey from child factory worker to solicitor’s clerk to successful novelist – but his hideous period as an exploited boy in a bottle factory is far more vivid than the blandly-depicted writing life. Both Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Virginia’s Woolf’s To the Lighthouse feature painters prominently, but it is unclear if they do it for money and one suspects that Mrs Woolf would have thought it rather vulgar if they did. My favourite novel about creative work – perhaps about any job at all – is Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington, which satirises London’s post-war publishing industry. Her heroine, Mrs Hawkins, is employed because she is so fat that aspiring writers feel too guilty to abuse her when she tells them they won’t be published. She demonstrates her integrity, risking her job, by repeatedly telling an intellectual pseud of a writer that he is no more than a ‘pisseur de copie’. If only work was always such fun.
Tim Robinson’s latest novel is Hatham Hall: northsidehouse.com