The Haunting Influence of the Past in Noel Coward’s This Happy Breed

‘you can say your prayers till kingdom come if you like,/
but you can’t expect me to, not after all I’ve seen. I don’t ‘old with/
a God who just singles a few out to be nice to, and let’s all the/
others rot.’
-Noel Coward, This Happy Breed, p. 9.

Time, a continual progression of events in the past, present and the future, clearly informs the events of Noel Coward’s 1939 play This Happy Breed. In particular, Coward enforces the idea of past experiences having a direct effect upon one’s perception of both the present and the future. His play, set in a post-War Britain struggling with the aftershocks of World War One, details the hindering of family life through an inability to let go of the past; this inability is mirrored further through the hindered progression of British society within the novels confines. It is perhaps through Coward’s representation of his main protagonist Frank Gibbons that this is demonstrated most prolifically. Frank’s importance clearly drives from his experiences as a World War One soldier; this preoccupation with past trauma subsequently comes to affect his life in the present. Both Frank and his neighbor, Bob Mitchell, demonstrate inabilities to escape past experiences. In Scene Two’s stage directions, Coward informs the reader that ‘they are both in ordinary suits but wearing their war medals. They are both a little bit drunk.’1 Despite having returned to their ‘ordinary’ lives in pre-war Britain, both men decide to wear their war medals; this juxtaposition shows a clear collusion of the mundane with the horrific experiences of the war itself. This collusion is adopted by Frank, who continues to reminisce almost fondly on his time in the war. However, it is made apparent that this collusion of past and present does not have a positive impact on the men; despite Frank’s reminiscing, both veterans develop patterns of binge-drinking. Throughout each scene in the play, the men can be found attempting to avoid past traumatic memories by remarking ‘Let’s have a drink. I’m feeling a bit low’ (p. 120). The men, caught between continual remembrances of the past and an ardent wish to forget, find themselves caught in a web of post-traumatic stress; this stress threatens to hinder their cognitive function, impairing the regulation of their memory information.2

The ongoing relationship between past and present informs the sense of cynicism prevalent throughout This Happy Breed. Frank, although presented as a relatively positive figure when speaking of the past, refuses to follow Ethel and Sylvia’s religious reliance on an omnipotent, all-loving God. His lack of faith is shown in a dispute between himself and his wife, in which he declares:

‘you can say your prayers till kingdom come if you like,/
but you can’t expect me to, not after all I’ve seen. I don’t ‘old with/
a God who just singles a few out to be nice to, and let’s all the/
others rot’ (p. 9).

The process of re-Christianization in Britain, prevalent during the interwar years and exemplified in Frank’s hypochondriac sister Sylvia, proved a shock to many returning soldiers who felt that their religious ties had been severely weakened by the experience of war.3 Not only did past trauma deter soldiers from religious faith, but it also hindered faith in both government and the future of Britain itself. Noel Coward detested the idea of appeasement to the foreign enemy, using his fictional characters to represent the voice of a nation who believed it would never stop war from happened again. The nations division on the issue of appeasement is shown through the dialogue between Sylvia and Frank in Act Three, Scene Two. As Sylvia talks of appeasement, ‘they’re cheering because we’ve been saved from war’; however, Frank retorts this by replying ‘I’ll believe that when I see it’ (p. 116). Frank’s past experiences on the front line are clearly suggested by Coward to give Frank greater knowledge of the political proceedings; this subsequently results in the audience placing trust in his prediction of the near future. The audience finds themselves, like Frank asking ‘when the next war’ll be?’ (p. 84). Throughout the play, Coward clearly questions the reliance of the British people on the government to prevent a life of war. World War One severely dampened Britain’s spirit, despite a reliance on a high-spirited mentality. This high-spirited mentality is often now viewed by historians as part of the ‘Myth of the Blitz, which saw a union of all social classes in their quest to defeat Nazism; British citizens attempted to make sense of the frightening and chaotic reality of wartime life, often comparing it to incompatible heroic mythology in order to keep morale high.4 Coward appears to explore the true reality of British nationalism and spirit through his text, doing so by introducing the audience to the tired people of London and the nation. The citizens future is shown to rely on the prevention of war reoccurring. Given the perspective of afforded to the modern reader, is historically shown that this did not occur; history, in the form of a second war with Germany, repeats itself.

Coward’s society, tired and cynical, also informs the youth present in his narrative. As Reg and Sam rally in the General Strike of 1926, it becomes apparent that the war has destroyed the spirit and youth of the country. As Frank remarks to Reg:

‘…a kid of your age talking about blood and sweat and capitalism. When I was rising twenty I had a damn sight more cheerful things to talk about than that, I can tell you’ (p.50).

The nation, hampered by the actualities of war, finds itself grown old before its time. Unlike past generations who were encouraged to spend their leisure time in carefree dance halls and cinemas, the youth during and post war were forcibly made to join organisations that encourage self-discipline.5 Evidently, the pasts implication of the war had a domino effect on the future of the country and its generations to come. The reader watches Sam and Reg mirroring the men before them, attempting to heroically save the future of their country by reinforcing their masculinity through violence, just as Frank and Bob did.

Coward maintains Frank’s cynicality throughout the play, providing the audience with a realistic description of the crumbling state of society. As it is remarked in the dialogue, ‘Now that’s all over (war) and we’re going on as best as we can as though nothing had happened [..] the country suddenly got tired- it’s tired now’ (p. 51). London, in particular, thus becomes a city failing to regain its strength; the damage of war is shown to have drained the city of its past spirit, whilst remaining fearful of looming war and the uncertainty of appeasement. Coward clearly draws on the reality of London’s emergence as a shell-shocked nation after the events of World War One; the traumatic shock extended past just those who served on the frontline and permeated into almost every family the home who still feared air-raids and the loss of their loved ones.6 The country had hit a stand-still during the aftermath of war; fear was a doctrine internalized by everyone who continued to live in the past and fear the future. People find themselves lost and without place in community, waiting for deployment and purpose to move forward.

Coward’s This Happy Breed thus demonstrates the difficulty of both the individual and collective to shake the effects of the past from their respective futures. This difficulty is formed by the way in which the characters attempt to escape their disjointed and corrupted worlds by switching from the present to the past through literature and inebriation. Coward’s depiction of the Gibbons family is one that can be related to by his wartime audience. The play functions as almost a guide in accepting the reality of the past and the need for family ties as they await the fate of London’s future.

Featured Image- Cover Image taken from a poster promoting the 1944 adaptation of the play, as directed by the David Lean. This Happy Breed, dir. David Lean (Prestige Pictures, 1944)

1. Noel Coward, This Happy Breed (London: Samuel French, 1945), p.79. All other references are to this edition and are given parenthetically.

2. D. H. Barrat and others, ‘Cognitive Functioning and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder’, The American Journal of Psychology, 153 (1996), pp. 1492-1494.

3. Michael Snape, Secularisation in the Christian World (London: Routledge, 2016) p. 312.

4. Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz (London: Random House, 1992) p.14.

5. Sonya O. Rose, Which People’s War?: National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 90.

6. Suzie Grogan, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s Legacy for Britain’s Mental Health (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2014) p. 1.

Written by Ashleigh Edwards.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Resisting Slaveowner Stereotypes in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of West India Proprietor

“I was tempted to tell him- ‘Do not say that again; say you are my negro, but do not call yourself my slave.’”
-Matthew Lewis, Journal of West India Proprietor, p. 62.

As the slave owner of two plantations, Lewis found himself in a difficult position of power at a time of political reform. His autobiographical Journal of a West India Proprietor, depicting his travels in 1818 to his two inherited Jamaican plantations, provide an account of slavery from the perspective of the slave owner. From the very beginning of his travels, it becomes apparent to the reader that Lewis’s conduct and subsequent treatment of his slaves is heavily influenced by the changing social climate; he essentially performs his own act of ‘resistance’, revolting against the norms of the typical slaveowner. Elucidating on the position of the colonial slaveowner during the nineteenth century, Carl Plasa argues that Lewis is ‘awkwardly placed’ ‘in a system increasingly contested on moral grounds whilst its importance was ceasing to exist within Britain’s changing imperial economy (p. 59).1 This awkward placing significantly influences the representation of both Lewis’s interaction with his slaves, as well as his resistance in presenting his enslaved workers as oppressed individuals. As a result of this, Lewis introduces his audience to his Cornwall plantation as place of Utopia. Throughout his account, Lewis continually seeks to affirm the happiness and ease of his slaves:

‘Whether the pleasure of the negroes was sincere may be doubted; but certainly it was the loudest I had ever witnessed: they all talked together, sang, danced, shouted.’2

Despite clearly recognizing his own hand in the oppression of his slaves, he appears to rely greatly on the delusion of his slaves being liberated human beings. Lewis frequently attempts to justify his actions and position as slave owner throughout journal, which has resulted in the text being highly controversial and heavily critiqued since its first publication. As Maureen Hankin outlines, Lewis’s journal ‘exemplifies how under pressure of contradictory impulses, the text hovers between uncertainty and aggressive self-justification as a representation of the British colonial slaveholder’ (p. 141).3 Lewis certainly epitomises the morally-torn slaveholder. He frequently seeks to justify how idyllic his ‘workplace’ plantations are through comparisons with the western world. As he remarks, ‘I believe their [the slaves] condition to be much more comfortable than that of the labourers of Great Britain’ (p. 62). These comparisons, deployed with the purpose of diminishing the concept of slave suffering, are inconceivable to the benevolent reader’s knowledge of slavery and its distressing history.

Lewis continues to resist the concept of both slavery, as well as his own part in its history, through his repeated attempts to persuade his audience of the equal rights that his slaves obtain. He frequently alludes throughout the journal to his attempts to give his slaves a ‘voice’; this is shown through a court hearing, in which Lewis states that ‘they are not obliged to believe a negro witness, but I maintain that he ought to be heard’ (p. 222). In doing so, however, Lewis presents the slaveowner as a figure of respectability and reasonableness as opposed to a gate-keeper of liberty. His delusions continue through his attempts to defend his own position of power; he states that ‘I am not conscious of having omitted any means of satisfying my negroes, and rendering them happy and secure from oppression’ (p. 203). His continual bribes of holidays, presents from England and his granting of wishes to the slaves reinforces his notion of the plantation being a stable and safe environment to its workers; this Utopic vision is in stark contrast to the legitimated place of imprisonment that Lewis continues to upkeep.

This resistance to slavery and his own personal collusion with the trade is furthered in Lewis’s censorship of the word ‘slave’. His loathing towards the term is documented in his introduction to a black servant, who remarks to Lewis ‘Massa not know me; me your slave!’; this results in Lewis feeling ‘a pang at the heart’ (p. 62). It is in this exchange that the reader begins to see how elements of the plantation life weigh heavily upon Lewis’s conscience; this results in his refusal, and subsequent denial, of the suffering inflicted by his actions upon the lives of his slaves. Lewis, humiliated by this conversation with his servant, writes that he was ‘was tempted to tell him- ‘’Do not say that again; say you are my negro, but do not call yourself my slave’ (p. 62). However, Lewis appears oblivious to the clear hypocrisy of his suggestion; despite replacing ‘slave’ with ‘negro’, he still justifies this with the qualifier ‘my’.

As the journal progresses, Lewis furthers his attempts to relieve his slaves of some of their discomforts. Further into his stay, Lewis demands that the use of the cart-whip be diminished, an instrument used as a means of punishment and control over the slaves. In this way, Lewis resists the expected conduct of the slaveowner; he states advice from one of his own slaves, remarking ‘he said that kindness was the only way to make good negroes and that, if that failed, flogging would never succeed’ (p. 165). In considering an opinion from one of his ‘inferiors’, Lewis attempts to distinguish himself from the nature of many atrocious slaveowners in history that sought to silence and oppress the people they ruled. However, despite resistance on Lewis’s part to inflict violence on his ‘workers’, this act of resistance is still fraught with contradiction. Although his refusal to inflict ‘any punishment’ on a slave ‘however great the offence might be’ (p.196) is deemed a humane gesture, it remains an inherently contradictory one as he still uses his white privilege to enslave other humans against their will.

Regardless of Lewis’s repeated attempts to resist the concept of slavery and the position of slave owner, his Utopian vision is ultimately demonstrated to be little more than a delusion built by the author in an attempt to free himself of his torment and guilt in participating in the horrific trade of human lives. Lewis’s Utopian vision is undermined throughout by his devotion in recording incidents of slave revolts. One such account details the rebellion of a ‘black servant girl’ who ‘stood by the bed to see her master drink the poison’ (p. 179). These accounts of rebellion against white oppressor figures, although only briefly mentioned in Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor, clearly demonstrate the horrific sufferings of the victims at the very heart of the transatlantic slave trade.

Featured Image- Cover Image taken from HardPress Publishing’s 2012 edition of Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor.

1. Carl Plasa, Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009) p. 54

2. Matthew G. Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008) p. 61. All further references to Lewis’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.

3. Maureen Hankin, ‘Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor: Surveillance and Space on the Plantation’, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 24 (2002), 139-150 (p. 141)

Written by Ashleigh Edwards.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Resisting Metaphorical Slavery in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

‘I should have been a careless shepherd if I had left a lamb-my pet lamb- so near a wolf’s den.’
-Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, p. 216.

In its historical entity, the term slavery often invokes images associated with the horrific atrocities committed during the transatlantic slave trade of the imperial British Empire. However, nineteenth-century literature also utilized this discourse to exemplify the oppression of the domestic female worker through both their social position and in their ideology. It is in the latter use of the term that Charlotte Brontë carefully crafts a discourse of metaphorical slavery within her highly renowned female bildungsroman Jane Eyre, using the narrative of oppression to highlight Jane’s experiences as a lower-class woman.

From the very beginning of the novel, Brontë clearly deploys a discourse of metaphorical slavery to highlight Jane’s entrapment and enslavement to her cruel aunt Mrs. Reed. Forced by her social status as penniless orphan to live at Gateshead and under the continual tyranny of her cousin John Reed, Jane suffers cruelly under the families ‘reign’; she is forced to obey orders and is subjected to both physical and psychological torment. From these early years, Jane is instilled with the notion that her lower-class social status will hinder her progression in life; she is essentially informed that her penniless state will forever leave her a metaphorical slave to the upper-classes that she must serve and rely on to keep her alive through income and position. This is exemplified in Bessie’s warning to young Jane, who tells her that ‘you ought to be aware, Miss, that you are under obligations to Mrs. Reed: she keeps you; if she were to turn you off, you would have to go to the poor-house’.1 From the beginning of her life, then, Jane is subjected to adversity and metaphorical enslavement by her own relatives.

However, Jane refuses to remain in this subservient position, instead resisting the shackles emplaced on her through her lowly social position and her reliance on Mrs. Reed’s benefaction. This resistance is first displayed in her courageous outburst of anger towards her aunt, in which she declares:

‘I am glad you are no relation of mine: I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to see you when I am grown up; and if anyone asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.’
-p. 36.

Here, this resistance to her own oppression as a young woman reinforces the powerful female character Bronte desperately wanted to portray to her Victorian audience. Through Jane’s resistance, Bronte bestows a sense of empowerment within her heroine as no longer a prisoner to her social class and gender:

‘My soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom of triumph, I ever felt. It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into unhoped-for liberty.’
-p. 37.

Eyre’s defiance is a salient milestone within this bildungsroman; a step from girlhood to woman. The reader witnesses this act of insubordination to Mrs. Reed again during her final visit to Gateshead, as Jane tells her dying aunt: ‘Love me then, or hate me, as you will [..] you have my full and free forgiveness’ (p. 240). Through these displays of resistance to her early social enslavement, it is worth noting how Jane’s ill temper ceases to exist after her departure from the tyrannous rule of Mrs Reed at Gateshead. In her defiance of her aunt on her deathbed, Jane appears to free herself of the torment of her past life.

It is in Jane’s removal from Gateshead, and her later instatement at Thornfield Hall, that appears to at least superficially mark the beginning of Jane’s freedom from domestic enslavement. The blossoming romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester, which defies the opposing factions against the merging of distinct social classes, appears to suggest a transcendence of social constriction and cruelty. However, the once fiery and courageous personality possessed by Jane is almost immediately replaced by her sudden change into the trope of the submissive damsel; despite freeing herself from her past masters, Mrs. Reed and later the headmaster of the girl’s school she is educated in, Jane appears to replace these tyrannous figures with Rochester. Despite her position as Rochester’s love interest, Jane remains in the position of vulnerability and inferiority afforded to her by her lower-class working woman status; she remains indebted to Rochester for both her economic stability and emotional happiness. Examples of Jane’s metaphorical slavery to Thornfield are shown through an excerpt of dialogue between Rochester and Jane; as Rochester remarks to Jane that his ‘house is a mere dungeon: don’t you feel it so?’, Jane replies that ‘It seems to me a splendid mansion, sir?’ (p. 215). Here, Jane appears oblivious to her entrapment, remains entirely enchanted with Rochester’s privilege of wealth and class which ultimately leaves her unable to view her new life as little more than a different form of captivity.

Infatuated by Mr. Rochester, Jane’s perspective is ultimately hindered. She fails to recognize her hindered position within Thornfield as a domestic help, as well as her changed behaviour aligning her more to the position of slave and servant than a free and equal agent. As Bette London critiques, ‘instead of the exhilaration of freedom, the novel offers the pleasures of submission’; this essentially supports the concept that Jane’s enslavement to both her herself and Rochester hinders the notion of the novel being a progressive feminist text.2 Jane’s naivety results in her unable to recognize her enslavement even in Rochester’s most obvious comparisons. As Rochester remarks ‘I should have been a careless shepherd if I had left a lamb-my pet lamb- so near a wolf’s den’ (p. 216). In the comparison of Jane to a ‘lamb’, kept as a ‘pet’ and essentially enslaved to the tyranny of the deadly ‘wolf’s den’ (p.126), Jane is essentially depicted as feeble and vulnerable prey to Rochester’s tyranny. Rochester’s use of the possessive determiner ‘my’ further enables the reader to fathom an understanding of Jane’s submissive position to Rochester’s dominance as the ‘shepherd’, a relationship that further mimics the relationship between slave and slave owner.

It is only in Rochester’s attempts to stop her attempts to visit Mrs Reed that Jane finally begins to resist her enslaved position; she declares ‘I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you’ (p. 251). This speech marks the first act of resistance to her master; she exerts a liberating sense of power to define herself as a servant and not just a slave. This seed of resistance, planted in her visit to her dying aunt, evolves and spreads into her greatest act of revolt; upon discovering Rochester’s falsehood concerning his married status, Jane states that ‘I must leave Adele and Thornfield. I must part with you for my whole life: I must begin a new existence’ (p.303). This decision, which marks a considerably poignant part of the novel for the heroine, results in Jane abandoning Rochester’s love and her life at Thornfield Hall; she frees herself from the metaphorical chains of wealth and social standing, ‘Mr. Rochester, I will not be yours’ (p.316).

Featured Image- 
Illustration taken from Volume One of the 1890 edition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, as published by Thomas Crowell in New York.

1. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 12. All further references to Brontë’s text are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.

2. Bette London, ‘The Pleasures of Submission: Jane Eyre and the Production of the text’, English Literary History, 58 (1991), 195-213 (p. 199).

Written by Ashleigh Edwards.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.