From the Archives: Terence De Vere White reviews Strumpet City by James Plunkett
From The Irish Times on Saturday, April 26th, 1969: Decorous Strumpet, By Terence de Vere White
IN THE PALMY days of Italian opera the principal arias had to be kept a secret lest they be sung on the streets before the opening night. The praises of Mr. James Plunkett’s long-awaited novel have been sung for several weeks before publication day. It is to be published on Monday.
The high hopes that have been held out for it have been fulfilled. That is the first thing to be said, and it is to be said unequivocally. This is a good book by a good man: and if that sounds stuffy, I can’t help it. I am probably not alone in the feeling that we are being bombarded by books written by people with whom we would find ordinary converse a grief. Writers in the past had a sense of public responsibility; that is gone. It will be interesting to see whether this book, which describes the searing poverty of Dublin at the time of the Larkin strike in 1913, will suffer at all for its concern for the decencies.
Mr. Plunkett has shown that it is possible to write a convincing book about what in the context it seems ironical to call the working class and avoid obscenities. This sacrifices realism. Some may question the rightness of this. Why avoid the opportunity that a walk up a back street affords even today? Mr. Plunkett has chosen to do so; and his book has not suffered in its total impact in the process. Compared with the Behan picture of Dublin, it may seem somewhat subfusc, as if everybody is seen through a slight mist. And Mr. Plunkett’s characters never attain the dramatic proportions of O’Casey’s workers. This is not merely because he has avoided the conjunction of four-letter words with holy names. He has an ingrained respect for humanity, and a feminine tenderness. As a result, even his violence has a muffled thud, and he resists – if he ever had it – the temptation to caricature. Rashers, for instance, and Hennessy would have been more wryly depicted by O’Casey. But in the case of Rashers (the most derelict character in the story) any attempt to make a Joxer out of him would have spoiled the principal purpose he serves in the plot – the martyrdom of Father O’Connor. The scene in which this prim priest overcomes his nausea and horror to administer the Last Sacraments to the rat-eaten corpse of the poor tramp is very powerfully written. Mr. Plunkett shows here that when it is necessary to shock for the purpose of the novel he does not hold back. Nothing with him in a long but economically-written book is gratuitous. Each bolt fits. This recalls Joyce; and at least once the reader is reminded that in his ten-year task the author must have been reading “Ulysses” before he wrote certain passages – those in which the movements of characters on particular days are neatly dovetailed and slotted together.
The novel consists of three books – from 1907 to 1912; 1912-13, and 1913-14. Its action revolves – roughly – round the genteel circle of the Bradshaws, who live in Kingstown (Mr. B. owns rotting tenements), three priests in a slum parish, and some of the workers in that parish (each type from foreman to “ bowsie “ is represented). All this is very deliberately done.
The Bradshaws entertain Father O’Connor and Mr. Yearling (whose name may have been suggested by Behan’s definition of the Anglo-Irish). They shut their eyes to the fact that they exploit the few who serve them as big employers exploited freelance workers. Mrs. Bradshaw is rather kind and rather forlorn. In obedience to her husband, she sends their cook, after long service, to the workhouse when she is old and ill; they sack Mary, “the maid in training” (was there ever such a species ?) because, having neither holidays nor free time, she has to invent an aunt when she wants to see her young man. Mrs. Bradshaw becomes remorseful, and helps too late. She gives the cook a decent funeral and gives Mary some money when the strike of 1913 has reduced her and her children to destitution.
Too lateness – perhaps, by accident – is part of the theme. Father O’Connor sacks Rashers because he gets drunk (he was boilerman in the church), but gives him the Last Sacraments when he is beyond aid, human or spiritual. The ceremony is Father O’Connor’s purgation of his guilty conscience. Father O’Connor has moved to the slum parish, although Kingstown was very suitable to him, to ease his conscience; but his Parish Priest (a not-so-secret drinker) notices with contempt his pain when his communicants stink. During the frightful privations of 1913 Father O’Connor organises charity; but he asks his collectors to report on the revolutionary activities of their fellows. For this the workers come to hate him. He means well; but his conception of God is narrow. He is too fastidious and too sensitive (for his own peace of mind). He prefers to be wrongly right than rightly wrong. He believes that the entrance to heaven is governed by a code that is as minute as it is comprehensive. He stands on the letter of the law. In doing so he does violence to his heart. We have all met Father O’Connor. He used to be the model of an orthodox priest. And if he now seems obviously wrong-headed and deplorably narrow, that is a change that only time has wrought. Mr. Plunkett’s book is a postponed judgment. It may comfort many who deplore the spirit of the age.
In his treatment of the Bradshaws and the employers he is never bitter or satirical. The range of his sympathy and magnanimity seems to cover all his characters. If the police are seen as violent on one occasion, so are the vigilantes (with Father O’Connor in the van) who attacked the people trying to bring the workers’ children to England to avoid starvation. In all this Mr. Plunkett’s book seems to me to resemble Mrs. Woodham Smith’s “The Great Hunger” rather than any novel I can think of. His principal character is Dublin, and starving Dublin at that. Against this protagonist the rest of the cast seems almost puny. Even Larkin, the deus ex machina, on his few appearances is rather dim. (It is never wise to mix real people with fictional characters. They are always put in the shade.) We are shown all the suffering, the slavery of conditions; and we are shown the stoicism and, indeed, gentleness with which it was endured. There is starvation, unemployment, loss of limb – every tribulation. By the end peace is made, the workers are broken, the ruthless rhythm is resumed. But a light was turned on a dark place: 1913, not 1916, was the most significant date in the social history of Dublin.
The long-drawn-out conflict between the Parish Priest and Father O’Connor is the most perfectly achieved of the book’s situations. And these are the most convincing characters. Mrs. Bradshaw, too, is exactly right. But wouldn’t she have had more domestic help in 1907? The indictment of the Bradshaws is probably pertinent today; and anybody who is old enough to recall the treatment of servants in middle-class homes shares a sense of delayed shame. Yearling I didn’t find convincing; and Mr. Plunkett – like Irish writers in general – is not a dab at girls. Mary is sweet, but rather dim, and the naughty girl is sentimentally conceived.
No doubt, his purpose was to portray his working-class characters as kindly and humane, if sometimes weak. There is nothing of the satirist, no bitterness in this writer’s composition. As a result, one leaves the book down with something of the same sensation with which one ended “Dr. Zhivago,” with a renewed faith in the essential decency of people if only they could escape from the snares of the human condition-as created by character as much as by circustances. It is written from the point of view of the worker, not of the Marxist. The absence of rigidity throws a mellow light over all. The blurb (blurb-writers are not on oath) speaks of Dickens – an ill-judged comparison. The parts of Dickens’s novels were greater than the whole. Mr. Plunkett’s novel – because of the spirit that animated it – is greater than the parts.
STRUMPET CITY. By James Plunkett. Hutchinson. 35s.