Melvyn Bragg Essay - Critical Essays

Bragg, Melvyn


Bragg, Melvyn 1939–

Bragg is a British novelist, screenwriter, essayist, broadcaster, and producer. His film credits include the screenplays for Isadora and Jesus Christ Superstar. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60.)

Once again Melvyn Bragg has written a novel about rural life in Cumberland [The Hired Man], and once again it is earnest, worthy and sometimes a struggle to read.

Melvyn Bragg is a good novelist but his narrative is clogged by heavy phrasing, especially when trying to report the self-communication of his characters. When he tells what they said, what they did, how they and their environment appear to the author, he is consistently successful.

This novel is largely concerned with the changing attitudes among working men during this century towards being 'hired'—or employed, exploited, used. John's grandfather had 'worked as if he was made for nothing else in the world: he called by "sir" and "master" those "set above" him'. The movement of [John's brother] Seth and, later, John into the pits involves them in corporate action against those set above. But there is another life-style hanging over from older times, that of the third brother Isaac, who lives for sport, like a free man—changing his job frequently, leaving his wife for weeks on end, dealing with horses, dogs, fighting-cocks, boxing and gambling….

[In a scene depicting a confrontation between the three brothers and a group of miners] the reader may wish that [the characters'] thoughts had been put into words which the men might really have used. If the author had recorded their dialogue, which he can write so well, the situation would have been enlivened…. The result of the fight is important. John had been planning to leave the pits but it is now 'impossible to think of working anywhere in that town but with those he had fought'. It is a similar sense of what is fitting that impels him to meet his brothers soon afterwards and volunteer for the First World War. There is enough in this theme to make a good novel; but Melvyn Bragg says a great deal more, as if challenged by the largeness of his subject-matter—the working class.

"Habits of Work," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 23, 1969, p. 1225.

Victoria Glendinning

[The Silken Net] is a traditional novel of a particularly English kind. Words could be used linking Melvyn Bragg with Hardy, Lawrence and Bennett in the Grand Chain: that he belongs there is indisputable. The intensity of the writing leads Mr Bragg into occasional linguistic clumsiness. In the interests of grace (if grace interests him) he might have edited himself … more severely…. One could argue about the strengths, the weaknesses and the implications of The Silken Net all night. (p. 229)

Victoria Glendinning, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 16, 1974.

John Mellors

In his novels, Melvyn Bragg has always shown complete disregard for the 'modern' and the 'experimental' in fiction. He writes as if Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Hemingway had never been. In style, structure and content he is closer to the traditional 19th-century novelist than to most of his contemporaries. Like Hardy, he places his characters in a particular rural and small town setting—in his case, Cumberland—and chronicles the tensions and conflicts between different generations of the same family, between husband and wife, between individual and society. He believes that an author should take into account the usefulness of his book to its reader. The first-person narrator in … The Nerve says that 'where possible, fiction, like all imaginative writing, should be helpful; the very best is beautiful and truthful and instances of those aspects of life are all the help we need.'

Bragg is most helpful in making you see the importance of work, as something either satisfying or soul-destroying…. [He] has the knack of bringing to life the handling of tools and materials…. This, I had thought, together with his accurate picture of the country between the Lake District and the Solway Firth, was his main achievement. His characters had never seemed as interesting as what they did or where they were.

The Silken Net is Bragg's best book yet; at last he is as successful with people as with place. (pp. 253-54)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), August 22, 1974.

Clancy Sigal

Speak for England [an oral history of a small market town] has the flat, unpatronizing power of Bragg's Cumbrian novels, such as The Hired Man and A Place In England—and also their undercurrent of anger, even bitterness, against the centuries-old class system that has darkened the lives of his people for so long. Yet the major flaw in this work is that it is too nice, too filial. There are no scoundrels, no black sheep. The author has given us a sincere, unmalicious, and perhaps oversimple tribute to a place he can always safely return to. (p. 24)

On the whole, Bragg's Wigtoners don't complain. This may partly reflect the traditional stoicism of the working class in northern England. But the even, placid tone of Bragg's informants also owes much to his method of screening out the "characters" and big talkers. He admits that he "itched to embroider and take off gossip," but he forced himself not to fictionalize or dwell on unpleasantries. It's our loss….

The reluctance of Bragg's "speakers" completely to let their hair down makes the absence of town characters and compulsive talkers all the more glaring. For all their exaggerations, it is such eccentrics who might have injected a useful dash of grit, even of violence, into this suspiciously well-balanced group portrait.

Bragg's discretion is pardonable, because he knows that the poeple he loves are vulnerable to the continual, nagging prejudice built into the English class system. But by being needlessly protective, Bragg denies his friends a certain human fullness, and this unwittingly plays into the hands of the condescending critics whom Bragg rightly resents.

My other worry is the author's claim that his book is "a representative record of English life during this century." Though I, too, came to admire Bragg's neighbors almost as much as he does, not for a moment was I convinced of their universality….

Still, readers who carefully pick their way through these interviews will be richly rewarded with a fascinating saga of personal memoirs that do, in fact, add up to the kind of "people's history" that (as Bragg correctly asserts) almost always gets left out of the academic books and tourist guides. (p. 26)

Clancy Sigal, "Pilgrim's Progress in Wigton," in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), February 19, 1977, pp. 24, 26.