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Wyndham Lewis: The Vulgar Streak

Lewis himself stated that this novel was about the idea of ruthlessness, the idea of too much will, which was found in both Napoleon’s armies as well as Hitler’s and which, in literature, is exemplified by Julien Sorel and Raskolnikov. In these post-existentialist days, we might be more inclined to see Sorel and Raskolnikov as existentialist heroes, though it is not clear that Vincent Penhale, the hero of this novel, is one. He does have another great similarity with Sorel and Raskolnikov, namely, he is a man who is of the lower class and wishes to escape from this class. For, reading this in the twenty-first century, this book seems to be more about class than anything else.

We first meet Vincent Penhale while on holiday in Venice with his friend Martin Penny-Smythe. It is September 1938 and Chamberlain is negotiating with Hitler over the fate of Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia. Indeed, the residents of the hotel where Penhale and Penny-Smythe are staying all eagerly listen to the wireless for the latest news. Lewis himself had been disgusted by Hitler’s treatment of Czechoslovakia so this episode forms an important background to the story. Also staying at the hotel are April Marrow and her mother, Mrs. Marrow. Penhale soon seems to be spending much time with April and, despite a certain reluctance from her mother, the two get engaged. Mrs. Marrow’s reluctance stems from the fact that she does not know anything about Penhale’s background. We, however, soon learn something about it. He comes across as a well-to-do middle-class man, educated in art and well-spoken. However, we learn that he comes very much from a working-class background. He seems to have been to Haileybury, which was, at the time, a public school (i.e. an expensive boarding school for boys only). It turns out that he was physically there, only because his parents worked there. He had taught himself a middle class accent and perfected middle class manners. He did have a job. He was both an actor and a dress designer, though calling himself an artist. He seemed to have come into money from a legacy, though the source of this money is somewhat suspicious. There continue to be other suspicious events. The police come for him one time, but it seems only to be because he was a witness to a crime. He then meets a strange man called Bill Halvorsen and it seems that they are up to no good. In short, there is something not quite right about him.

It is only when we are back in London, Penhale and April happily married, that we learn more about his working class background, as he visits his family, most of whom have remained resolutely working class. The only exception is his sister, Madeleine, whom he tries to help to escape her roots, though her husband, Dick, sticks to his roots. There are many aspects of class that Lewis brings out (and mildly mocks) but the one obvious one is accent. Penhale has managed to replace his accent (with great difficulty) with a middle class one. Penny-Smythe has a stammer that makes him seem like an affected aristocrat. Penhale is trying to teach his sister to speak properly, with instructions on how to pronounce Bucking Horse (which will lead to Buckingham). Despite their joint efforts, his mother-in-law is somewhat suspicious of Madeleine’s speech. Meanwhile, we are getting more suspicious about Penhale, particularly when they meet Dougal Tandish, who may or may not be involved in the Secret Service. Penhale has a row with him. Two days later, Tandish’s body is found floating in the Thames.

The novel is about class and how rigid the British class system is and how difficult it is to escape one’s class, the implication being that it always catches up with you, as it does with Penhale. But is also about being true to yourself, which Penhale, by his own admission, clearly is not. The novel was published in 1941 but soon after disappeared from sight, not least because it could not be published in North America. It is an interesting novel, partially because it is far more conventional in style than many of his other works, though critics have had mixed views about it. I certainly do not consider it one of his greatest works, though it may be one of his most readable ones.

Publishing history

First published 1941 by Hale