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Edward Upward: In the Thirties

This is is the first book in Upward’s The Spiral Ascent trilogy and introduces us to Alan Sebrill, clearly based on Upward himself. Upward thought of himself as a poet, though little of his poetry has survived and none was ever published in book form. Sebrill, who, like Upward, went to Cambridge, clearly thinks of himself as a poet. We first meet him as he arrives on the island (clearly the Isle of Wight) to stay with his friend Richard Marple, based on Christopher Isherwood. He had been struggling with writing his poetry. He had left his teaching job to focus on writing his poetry but had felt he could not do so in London, so was happy to come to the Isle of Wight, where he might find it easier to write.

When he arrives, he finds that Richard is in love and that the object of his affection has returned to London with her family. He soon follows her, leaving Alan alone to the mercies of their landlady, the alarming Miss Pollock. Upward and Alan were both Marxists (though he uses the term Marxian in this book) and both Alan and Richard find that they are more comfortable with the so-called lower class and, indeed, the posh people staying at the nearby expensive hotel are mocked.

After Richard’s departure, Alan, at first shy, introduces himself to a young woman, Althea Halscomb, known as Peg (for no reason). She tells him that she has a fiancé in London but that that does not seem to matter. However, it soon becomes clear that this is not going to work. She wants to marry her fiancé because I think he’ll be good for me. I need keeping in order. Despite this, they do have a fling but he is too enthusiastic and wants to marry her. She does not want to marry him.

Not only does his love life not work, his poem does not work, not least, he feels, because it does not have a Marxist orientation. Moreover, he had himself expected to do something exceptional, to be different from the common crowd, to be a great poet, a genius, whereas the truth very probably was that he had no talent at all. He contemplates suicide but then has something of an epiphany – he must join the Communist Party and work for the common good.

Initially, he does not join, feeling that he is not ready but he does start helping, delivering leaflets, attending meetings. He also gets a job as a teacher, again. He does not like the job and has difficulty in disciplining the boys. The school could have based its educational theory and practice on the principle of family kindness and not on the diseased ideal of a discipline half-military, half-monastic.

However, much of the story is now about his role in the party. He gets involved in a demonstration dealing with hunger and unemployment (we are in the Great Depression in the 1930s), with massive police repression but he manages to come out unscathed. He finally joins the Party (the most important event of his life so far). He is attracted to a fellow party member, Elsie, but he is more successful there than with Peg.

Upward, himself a member of the Communist Party, does not just parrot the party line. Alan has a discussion with a fellow teacher, who gives what seem to be fairly sensible views opposing the Communist line. In addition,a fellow party member is expelled from the Party for criticising the Soviet Union, again with views that, with our hindsight, seem sensible.

By the end of the book, the war is approaching and Alan and his comrades are opposing the Fascists (including the British ones). Indeed, they attend a demonstration by the British Fascists and oppose them. On the whole, most people they speak to, and not just the Fascists, seem not to see the rise of Nazism as a problem, even after Munich Agreement.

In the light of what we now know about Stalin and the Soviet Union, some of the views of Alan and his fellow Communists seem remarkably naive, whatever your political views. Stalin can do no wrong. The Soviet Union is a workers’ paradise. There is freedom of expression in the Soviet Union and similar views. This is partially explained by the situation at the time, namely the Depression and the rise of Fascism, and the idea that the Soviet Union is the only bulwark against the evils of capitalism (which is in imminent danger of collapse) and Fascism.

Most English books of this ilk would have focussed primarily on two things: relationships (romantic, of course, but also friends, family, colleagues) and the development of the character – moral, social, psychological, cultural and so on – of the protagonist(s) – what the Germans call Bildungsroman and the French roman d’apprentissage and we do not have a really good term for. Upward certainly has these two features in his book but he also has a lot of politics, with Alan and the various party members (and others) frequently examining the political situation, the role of the Soviet Union, the imminent collapse of capitalism, the rise of Fascism, the failure of the various social-democratic parties and so on. It may well, at least in part, be because of this that this trilogy has had only limited success and is now out of print (though easily obtainable).

However, we do see the development of Alan, both in his romantic life – not always straightforward, his poetry (with which he struggles, not least because he cannot decide to spend more time on Party work or reduce it to spend more time on poetry) and his changing views on whether capitalism and Fascism are getting worse and whether the imminent collapse of capitalism his comrades have predicted is really so imminent.

Like Upward on whom, of course, he is clearly based, he suffers from depression and this affects his political life. Like a snivelling philistine he had lost all faith in the people and had come to feel that the working class would leave the criminal rulers in power for ever. What had caused him to get into such a despicable state?.

Though not a great work of English literature, it is still fascinating to read such a novel, which clearly has a different perspective from other English novels of its kind. We do see the development of Alan and his character and we also see the various stumbling blocks he endeavours to overcome. The book ends shortly before the start of World War II.

Copies of this book and the other two books in the trilogy can be obtained in epub/azw/mobi/pdf format from this site.

Publishing history

First published 1962 by Heinemann