‘Fame is the Spur’ by Howard Spring: A Fascinating Depiction of an Opportunist Protagonist


I’m reading ‘Fame is the Spur’ by Howard Spring, published in 1940.

This is, of course, an epic story recounting the rise of the labour movement in the UK in the late nineteenth century until the 1930.s, and of the fate of one labour politician in particular; this is in some ways a dismally familiar story – an account of how a  firebrand socialist politician is incorporated  into the capitalist status quo he once opposed .

This depiction makes absorbing reading.  It’s an epic novel with ambitious scope, written with flashes forward and backwards –  grinding poverty, ambition, love and class conflict are vividly portrayed.

I started reading it as background reading for my planned novella on the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.  I have been really drawn in. The writing style is uneven – some of it brilliant, other parts border on the sentimental, and some of the description is clumsily put – but overall, it is an impressive book and I shall certainly be reading more from this author.

I came across it when working in the libraries many years ago. Doing research for my own planned novella on the Peterloo Massacre, I remembered recently that the nickname, ‘Shawcross of Peterloo’ is given to the main character in the novel .

As a boy, he is literally handed a sword used on the crowd in that slaughter by ‘The Old Warrior’, his parents’  elderly lodger – his sweetheart was murdered that day.

That sword, standing as a symbol of support for the downtrodden, is a sort of leitmotif running through the story.

I gather the film – which I think I saw on television as a kid, but failed to understand– depicts Hamer Shawcross as a man who, coming from the dispossessed himself,  is a genuine firebrand who sells out.

The book is more complex. In it Hamer Shawcross is depicted as being disturbingly opportunist from the beginning; from childhood, using people comes easily to him. He is lucky, as his stepfather and his friend help build him a study bedroom – a thing unknown for a boy from his  background in the industrial Manchster at that time. He is always encouraged to study and broaden his mind.

His family cannot afford university for him, so he leaves school at fourteen to work for an older friend who runs a bookshop. With a single mindedness one can only admire he continues to study, including languages, and at the same time he works hard to develop an excellent physique.

He shows a less commendable singleness of purpose, when he leaves his widowed mother (who can’t afford to pay the rent to keep her home without him) to go travelling about the world for four years.

He returns, a charismatic man with an astounding capacity for making stirring speeches and sweeping people up in his enthusiasm.

While the reader cannot find this protagonist wholly sympathetic, what is interesting is that it is unclear whether or not he is fully unaware of his own lack of sincerity.

However, it is hard to say, for much of the time, we do not have access to Shawcrosses’ thoughts. We see only his acts, and we usually see him through the eyes of other people, ie, his humble widowed mother, then Ann, his besotted wife from a privileged background, and his Dull But Worthy friend Arnold Ryerson.

I have quoted before the late Elizabeth Gaskell critic, Graham Handley, on the issue of how intriguing it makes a character for the author to reveal only so much of the workings of his or her mind.  This is particularly the case where sh/e is in fact, shallow.

Graham Handley wrote this of Gaskell’s portrayal of the ‘romantic interest’ in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ the Specksioneer turned navy captain Charley Kinraid.

I have written before of that character’s shameless opportunism, and the clever way in which the author makes an essentially stereotypical character mysterious, by revealing so little of his point of view. The rumours about his fickleness are never entirely confirmed or denied, but left as background hints that he is charming but unreliable, above all, a man who always has an eye on the main chance.

The depiction of Hamer Shawcross is a little like that; though his betrayals and changes in allegiance are more solidly depicted, he is mostly ‘seen from the outside’.

Interestingly, for all the occasional lapses into sentimentality in the tone of the novel,  there is no hearts and flowers happy ever after for Shawcross and his wife. Ann retains her ideals if she does continue to love her manipulative and increasingly successful life partner. He has promised to support female suffrage as an MP, but later equivocates.

By then middle aged, she becomes a suffragette, demonstrating and regularly being hauled off to gaol. There follow bitter years of conflict between them, though the bond between them is so strong that they cannot separate.

That struck me as being a realistic love story, as distinct from a romantic portrayal, and I find this impressive.

A manipulative, opportunist protagonist is always a fascinating concept. I haven’t gone much into how many modern ones there are; I can call to mind a few from classic novels.

What will happen to Hamer Shawcross I don’t know; I suspect – as it is a realistic novel – that he will gain success, but find it essentially hollow.

With regard to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my dissatisfaction with the undeserved glowing fate Elizabeth Gaskell allowed him. I have remarked on Kinraid’s shameless self serving attitude before. As chief harpooner on a whaler, he opposes the press gang to the point of shooting dead two of its members. When he is later impressed into the royal navy, he accepts a promotion to Captain, where he must, to get enough crew, routinely send out press gangs himself. Returning to Sylvia to find her tricked into marriage, though he has declared that ‘I’ll marry you or no-one’  he marries a pretty and doting heiress  within six months.

That is probably realistic, too. But for his emotional betrayal in forgetting Sylvia in weeks, I thought he ought to suffer at least to experience a sense of disillusionment in his new life.  This, I predict, a sense of the hollowness of success, will be the lot of the male lead of ‘Fame is the Spur.’

Intriguingly, the writer of ‘Fame is the Spur, though writing eighty years later than Elizabeth Gaskell and decades after Freud,  lays less emphasis on the sexual side of life in Shawcrosses’ career than might be expected.

While in the Victorian ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ Charley Kinraid’s reputation as a philanderer is discussed by some sailors in an inn in  such a way as to disgust his listening rival Hepburn, little is said about any philandering on the part of Shawcross. One might almost expect so attractive and unscrupulous a man to  have worked as an unofficial gigolo, perhaps, but if he has, the author does not say. We are merely assured that he knew how to flatter women.

This is one of many novels which  I began to read merely for background information, only to find it really intriguing. I’ve ordered the film DVD, too.  The same was true of Mrs Linneus Banks 1873 novel, ‘The Mancheser Man’ , the robber novels ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ by Vulpius, the novella ‘Dubrovsky’ by Pushkin, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell and many more.

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