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Anthropology of the Working-class: Documentary Literature of 1930s Britain

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posted on 2021-12-07, 01:13 authored by Grgec, Timothy

Bookmarked neatly by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the 1930s are often characterised as the decade in which writers felt compelled to engage in politics. According to one predominant critical narrative, modernist subjectivity and notions of aesthetic autonomy were eschewed in favour of a more direct involvement with the social and political realities of the time. This thesis explores, and follows in part, this interpretation of the decade’s literary direction by examining British documentary literature and its engagement with the social distress of the Depression.  Driven by an intense fascination with the domestic working-classes (from which each of my professional “authors” remained outsiders), documentary writers journeyed to Britain’s industrial centres to experience working conditions directly. Writers of documentary literature took 1930s realist preoccupations to their most extreme by assuming the role, intentionally or not, of the anthropologist. Paradoxically, this move towards the empirical functioned as a means of crossing what C. P. Snow would later describe as the divide between the “two cultures” of science and arts. I apply Snow’s notion analogously, with documentary literature representing a bridging (depending on each text) of the divides between social science and literature, realism and modernism, political commitment and aesthetic autonomy, North and South, and between the working and middle-classes.  My first chapter discusses Priestley’s English Journey (1934), which while crossing class and geographical divisions, stylistically remains the most conservative of my chosen texts and offers the most moderate example of a generic cultural crossing. The second chapter explores Grey Children (1937) by James Hanley, whose journalistic arrangement of verbatim working-class voices develops a modernist aesthetic. I then move to Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which unusually for a text by a “literary” author includes extensive figures and statistics, but is more successful in documenting the gritty realities of working life through literary means. The final chapter centres on Mass-Observation’s The Pub and the People (1943) whose obsessive recording of even the most minute details of pub life develops into a bizarre, almost surrealist work of literature. The order of my four chosen texts does not imply a sense of literary value but rather traces a trajectory from the least to the most radical experiments in documentary literature.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

English Literature

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Ferrall, Charles