Saturday, 3 August 2013

Poor but Happy?

Marion Pye married Howard Spring in 1920  He was a freelance journalist, she a secretary at the Manchester Guardian.  There followed over forty years of happy marriage, during which Marion and Howard moved first to London, then Cornwall.  Two sons were born, numerous cats came and went, and through it all Marion supported - one might even say worshipped - Howard, typing up his manuscripts (he was a popular novelist in the 1960s), letting him have the best study, even refraining from digging more flower beds in her precious garden because he only liked lawn.

Marion’s autobiography, Memories and Gardens, chronicles this time.  There is never a moment when she doubts Howard’s brilliance - she even quotes extensively from his books - nor her role as the obedient wife.  Howard and Marion clearly had a wonderful shared life, but at all times, Marion’s was lived around her husband’s - when asked to become chairman of the local flower arranging club, she agreed only on the basis that ‘husband, home and family always came first.’  

Marion’s book is an enjoyable read, with lots of fascinating detail about life in and after World War II, but for me it raises a fundamental question. Despite Marion’s frequent assertions that they were as poor as church mice, theirs was a very upper middle-class version of ‘poverty’ - on holiday (yes, they always have holidays) she watches the boys’ Princess Christian nurse taking them along the prom, she always has help in the house (the first one of which is bought with a loan from her father), both sons are packed off to boarding school, and when the Springs move to Cornwall (admittedly Howard is by then making good money from his books) the staff live in, and the full-time gardener realises all Marion’s horticultural plans - like many a posh ‘gardener’ before her, when Marion says ‘I planted twenty shrubs’ she actually means ‘I asked old Osborne to do it.’  

She meanwhile, spends her time perusing seed catalogues, furnishing dolls’ houses (handily built by the gardener) and flower arranging.  So long as it doesn’t interfere with her care of Howard, of course.  The couple make annual forays to London, always staying at The Savoy - ‘which became a second home to us.’  I’m sure you get the picture.  So what I wonder is, was it easier to have a happy marriage when money wasn’t an issue?  And if so, would that still hold true today?

We are frequently sold the concept of ‘we were Poor but Happy’ - perhaps never more so than in children’s literature.  At primary school, I lapped up Eve Garnett’s Family From One End Street books - Mr Ruggles the bin man and his huge family, Mrs Ruggles who takes in washing to make ends meet, Kate Ruggles who wants to stay on at school though the family think they can’t afford it.  

Somehow they all muddle through, a bit like their American counterparts The Waltons, who grew up Poor but Happy in rural Virginia, but somehow always sat down to a huge family meal twice a day.  In The Railway Children EE Nesbit reduces the Waterbury family to genteel poverty when they are exiled to the country after Father is falsely arrested, and in her wonderful entertaining Treasure Seekers, Oswald and his siblings get into no end of trouble when they try to raise some money to help their widowed father.  Both families still have ‘women that do’, and there is no question that the boys, at least, will be sent away to school.  It is just what happens.

Jump then to The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell’s classic novel about painters and decorators in Mugsborough/Hastings, and we see the harsh brutality of real poverty and the hopelessness of unemployment in a pre-benefits era.  There is no money, little food, and nothing on the horizon. My father-in-law, who grew up in poverty in 1930s Liverpool, says it’s the most realistic book he’s ever read.  

Artwork © Jonathan Williams

Similarly, in one of the recent and excellent ‘What Do Artists Do All Day?’ programmes, Jack Vettriano spoke about his childhood in a Fife mining community, saying that the only people who romanticise ‘going down the pit’ are the people who’ve never gone down there.  In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck told the truth about the Depression - not for him the rosy glow that forever surrounded Walton’s Mountain.  

Poverty - real poverty - destroys people’s lives.  No matter how much people love one another, the constant struggle to put food on the table and pay the rent will wear away at their souls until they simply have nothing left over for anything else.  Relationships fail for many reasons, but how much easier to accept ones lot and be happy in one another’s company when that financial cushion is always there.  Fear of falling into the abyss of destitution is something that Marion Spring and all the other ‘middle class paupers’ will never have to face.  Is this still true in 21st century Britain?  And are relationships still made easier by money, or has it become irrelevant in a world where everyone, even the super rich, seem never to have enough and always want more?

What do you think?

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