Stan Barstow was one of number of working-class social-realist novelists who emerged in England during the 1950s and 1960s and who have collectively become known as the “kitchen sink” school. (There were also “kitchen sink” movements in art, the theatre and the cinema at around the same period). Like several other members of the school, such as John Braine, David Storey and Barry Hines, Barstow was from Yorkshire, the county which forms the setting for most of his works; another influential member, Alan Sillitoe, was from the neighbouring county of Nottinghamshire.
“A Kind of Loving”, published in 1960, was Barstow’s first novel. The plot is a simple one. Vic Brown, a twenty-year-old draughtsman working for an engineering firm in the industrial West Riding town of Cressley, falls in love with Ingrid Rothwell, a beautiful eighteen-year-old secretary working for the same firm. After a couple of dates, Vic just as abruptly falls out of love with Ingrid, but the two continue dating. Although he no longer loves her, and does not even like her very much, he is still sexually attracted to her and realises that, because she has fallen in love with him, he has a good chance of getting her into bed.
Younger readers may find it difficult to credit how much social attitudes have changed over the last fifty-odd years, but in the fifties and early sixties most British people still subscribed to a fairly conservative set of sexual values, values which still predominated in some areas during my own teenage years in the seventies, despite the so-called “sexual revolution”. Nice girls, and nice boys, did not have sex before marriage. If a boy got a girl pregnant he was obliged to offer to marry her and thereby “make an honest woman” of her; if he did not he ran the risk of being condemned as a heartless and dishonourable cad. The girl was obliged to accept his offer; if she did not she ran the risk of being condemned as an unmarried mother, a term in those days virtually synonymous with “scarlet woman”. Neither the boy nor the girl was allowed to put forward the argument that they did not love one another, or that they were mutually incompatible, or that they were not ready for marriage. When Ingrid finds herself pregnant, therefore, her marriage to Vic becomes inevitable.
Another theme of the novel is that of social class. In other respects a conservative era, the fifties were a time of increasing social mobility and Vic, the son of a coal miner, has vague ambitions of bettering himself, although resigning from his white-collar job to work in a shop might seem like a backward move. Unlike the working-class Vic, Ingrid is from a middle-class background, and the novel contains a certain amount of satire at the expense of her family, especially her narrow-minded mother Esther. Esther Rothwell, the bourgeois mother-in-law from Hell, is socially a monstrous snob but intellectually an equally monstrous inverted snob. One of the many reasons why she objects to Vic as a son-in-law is his growing love of classical music and serious literature, something which marks him out as a “highbrow”, in her eyes a term of abuse.
Like a number of other “kitchen sink” novels such as Sillitoe’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “A Kind of Loving” is narrated in the first person by its hero. This was one of the features that caught the attention of the critics when these works first appeared; if seemed as though they were expressing the authentic voice of the working class in their own words. Barstow’s language here is appropriately racy and informal, making use of colloquialisms and regional dialect, even if some of the words used now seem dated. Indeed, some of Vic’s slang had fallen out of date even by the seventies; none of my contemporaries would have referred to a girl or woman as a “bint”, a word which had come to seem not only old-fashioned but also vaguely derogatory, and “dokka”, meaning “cigarette”, had by then become positively archaic.
During my youth, “A Kind of Loving” was one of two books every teenager seemed to have read, the other being Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”. I think that most of my contemporaries sympathised with Vic, seeing him as a young man trapped into marriage, not so much by the guileless Ingrid but by some impersonal “system”. My sympathies, however, were more with Ingrid, a naive young girl short-changed by the man she loved, and this feeling was strengthened when I saw the television version in the eighties. (How could any red-blooded male fall out of love with Joanne Whalley, the lovely young actress, later to become a Hollywood star, who played Ingrid in that series?)
Vic has many good qualities- intelligence, drive, ambition, friendliness, a gift for expressing himself, an eagerness to expand his mental horizons and honesty (with himself) about his emotions. In his relations with Ingrid, however, he is also a flawed character, and his main flaw is that he cannot be honest with her in the same way as he can be honest with himself. She also has her faults, chiefly her inability to stand up to her domineering mother and the naivety which prevents her from realising that her feelings for Vic are not returned. The blurb on the back of my edition which describes her as “beautiful but demanding” strikes me as wide of the mark; part of her problem is that she is not demanding enough. More than thirty years after first reading the book, however, my sympathies are still with her.
Others will doubtless disagree with me, but I feel that this is a novel to which different readers will react in different ways, depending on their own personality and experiences. (My own interpretation probably derives from the fact that I have never “Fallen out of live” with a girl in the way that Vic does). That is a strength on Barstow’s part rather than a weakness- a novel which meant the same thing to every reader would probably be a very dull read. I loved this book when I first read it, and it still touches me today.
Barstow later wrote two sequels to “A Kind of Loving”, “The Watchers on the Shore” and “The Right True End”, forming what has become known as the Vic Brown trilogy, and I hope to review those two books on here before long.