The major subjects of A Better Class of Person are working-class life in the London suburbs of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the perils of being an actor and would-be playwright with third-rate repertory companies touring the provinces of Great Britain in the decade following World War II. Osborne describes these facets of his life in both gruesome and loving detail, to reveal the main influences on his development as man and artist. In treating these subjects, he depicts what he considers the pettiness and meanness of the ordinary Briton.
The most controversial aspect of A Better Class of Person is Osborne’s portrayal of his relatives, especially the women in his family. The Osbornes and Groves are seen as pushy and intolerant, emotionally distant from one another. Anti-intellectual, unsophisticated, and self-satisfied, they armed themselves with a dozen or so banal expressions to explain all the complexities of human existence. Osborne considers their use of such bromides as “One door opens and another one always shuts” ironic since they never seemed to listen to one another. He presents these people not as victims of a class system but as willing slaves to boredom:Casual entertaining or informal hospitality were like tolerating a smell on the landing or a blocked-up sink. Conviviality seldom went beyond planned visits from relatives. Whim or sudden impulse was unthinkable and blasphemed against the very idea of the God Routine.
Osborne offers what have been called vindictive accounts of the Grove and Osborne women. Queenie, his mother’s middle-aged sister, was married to a younger man, a homosexual, and presented her husband’s letters from his lover to the police. Grandmother Grove found her greatest comfort in the discomfort of others. Grandmother Osborne, he claims, never once asked him anything about himself. She dominated everyone around her: “Her dismissive skill was subtle and brutal, sometimes no more than a thin smile, a watery upward look or an amused intake of breath, a scanning cauterizing instrument which rendered any endeavour puny or extravagantly indulgent.” She forced her dying son to sign over his life insurance—leaving his wife and child almost destitute—to repay the expenses of a childhood illness, a sin for which he had been tormented for thirty years.
A Better Class of Person is a graphic account of a Dickensian upbringing. While his family lived in genteel rather than abject poverty, Osborne was surrounded by indifferent adults and made few friends his own age. The older sister who might have been his ally died when he was two. Frequently separated from his wife or convalescing in tuberculosis sanatoriums, Thomas Osborne was rarely available to stand up for his son. (He died in 1940.)
Until the success of Look Back in Anger, Osborne’s life was dominated by the woman he calls Nellie Beatrice. That she was still alive when her son’s autobiography was published apparently did not make him consider softening his negative picture of her: “My mother’s family seem to achieve great age. My grandmother lived to be 103 and my own mother seems appropriately hell bent on a similar score.” Nellie Beatrice is presented as a loud, vulgar barmaid with no real feelings for anyone, not even her son: “She regarded almost everything about me as irredeemably unsightly.” When she wanted a quick laugh, she made fun of him in front of strangers. When he grew up and became a struggling, badly dressed actor, she insisted upon buying him new clothes: “‘What a pity you couldn’t have been something like a barrister or a doctor,’ she said in front of some smirking salesman, ’instead of an actor.’ There was no doubt about who was paying.” The possibility of his becoming something like a barrister was never even remotely entertained: “My mother always made it clear to me that my place in the world was unlikely to differ ever from her own.”
Nellie Beatrice was not only uncharitable toward others but also refused to accept charity or even kindness. Osborne says his mother’s philosophy was “never to be beholden to anyone for the smallest favour.” He interprets her “stillborn spontaneity and consistent calculation that affection had only to be bought or repaid in the commonest coinage” as representative of her class. She served as an ironic role...
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Osborne’s autobiography is an important document in theatrical history for displaying the sources of many of the characters, situations, themes, and attitudes in his plays, revealing them to be more personal than political or literary. The anger, disillusionment, failure, and despair of Jimmy Porter, Archie Rice, and Bill Maitland clearly result from their creator’s chaotic upbringing.
A Better Class of Person is perhaps the most significant autobiography of a playwright in illuminating his art. According to John Lahr, the biographer of Joe Orton, “as a dissection of English life and the origins of his own volatile temperament, the book surpasses Coward’s Present Indicative  as the most vivid chronicle of the making of an English playwright.” It also fulfills Osborne’s unrealized ambitions as an actor since it allows him to perform center stage. It is a fitting memoir for the creator of obnoxious Jimmy Porter, because it displays, in the words of David Hare, “the pleasures of Being Rude.” A familiarity with Osborne’s plays is not necessary to find fascinating this account of growing up unloved in working-class Great Britain.