Stanley Middleton Essay - Critical Essays

Middleton, Stanley

Middleton, Stanley 1919–

Middleton, an English novelist, is known for his fictive studies of middle-class human nature. His preferred setting is Nottingham. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Stanley Middleton is resolutely unfashionable…. He is an unspectacular writer about unspectacular landscapes—Bealthorpe in Holiday is surely 'Skeggy' or Cleethorpes—and people to whom retirement to a bungalow called Mon Abri represents the fulfilment of hopes cherished in a life-time of shopkeeping, teaching, printing or quantity surveying. Set-pieces, fine writing, larger-than-life characters would all, one feels, be abhorrent to Middleton. Nevertheless, there is nothing flat or insignificant about his novels. What he describes he has seen and heard attentively: 'This morning the sea glittered in splodges … the gulls spread wide wings and cawked.' His characters and the way they behave are stunningly real. (p. 156)

That is more than mere reportage. Middleton observes, with a keen eye and ear, but then he goes on to search for the exactly right words, his own words, that transform, while remaining true to, ordinary life: 'splodges', 'cawked', 'cat-scratching', 'retinted'. Above all, Middleton is a thoughtful composer. He relates his characters to one another, sons to parents, husbands to wives, all to homes, education, jobs. Holiday is Middleton's 14th book…. I feel that Middleton could yet write the novel which you would judge to be a masterpiece—if only after you had finished it, and found you were still considering it, because it 'wouldn't go away'. (pp. 156-57)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), August 1, 1974.

Stanley Middleton seems to believe that life is too important to be muddied by the exaggerations and embellishments of fiction. Holiday is about a man on the run from rhetoric. Edwin Fisher spends a week at a seaside boarding-house in the town where he used to go on holiday as a boy. His marriage is on the rocks, his identity shaky. His problem is to learn to live in the world, not to interpret it. He is surrounded by people who treat life very much like novelists, transforming it with eloquence to the point where they inhabit their own metaphors rather than the uncomfortable, resolutely uneloquent, house of reality.

Middleton's great strength is his fairness: he is not afraid to give the devil the best tunes. In Edwin's father-in-law, a smooth-tongued Welsh lawyer, he has created a splendidly persuasive rhetorician who seduces the reader rather more effectively than he seduces Edwin himself. And he endows Edwin's fellow-boarders with an enviable solidity as they move comfortably inside their own limited but certain idiom. But all these people are here to deflect Fisher from his real purpose, to get at the reality of things without benefit of rhetoric and its distortions. The novel persistently rejects answers that another novel might have eagerly seized on. It values honesty and accuracy with a puritanical rigour, and searches them out in a prose set in such a low key that sometimes it is barely audible.

The rewards of Middleton's writing are small surprises. The sudden flash of brightness from a dim girl on a beach; the exact colour of the sea; a new overtone in an old event remembered again; an uncharacteristic oddity of phrase. It is a kind of writing which is bent on noticing things that rhetoricians would pass over, and it allows characters a freedom to be themselves. Holiday is glum and admirable. It looks over its shoulder at the rest of contemporary fiction with a schoolmaster's stern eye, and the lesson it teaches is essentially a corrective one, a series of "don'ts." Whatever the fable says, though, I wouldn't in this case back the tortoise against the hare. (p. 88)

Jonathan Raban, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), November, 1974.

Now at last,… a major literary award—or half of it at least—has gone to an honourable continuator of Lawrence's tradition, Stanley Middleton. Holiday isn't the best novel he's written, but it and he certainly deserve half a Booker prize.

Unsurprisingly, things begin in a seaside Methodist Church where Midlander Edwin Fisher is nostalgically hearing again the hymns he used to hear as a boy on holiday with his parents. It's the world of Lawrence's Lost Girl 60 years on. And Stanley Middleton is nowhere more at home than where the constraints of Midlands chapel goodness and godliness still tug, though with less effect than once they used, and where the hymns of childhood keep a certain hold even if glory, glory dwelleth now a lot less evidently in Immanuel's Land…. Middleton is sticking up for ordinary humanity against the sneers and snobberies of the entire Arnold-Eliot tradition.

Anti-novel fanciers and nouveaux romanciers are already jibbing and gibing at the wasteful bestowal of Booker loot on such unexperimental, homely stuff. But unless there's some collusion between the new formalism and the humane densities and specificities that Stanley Middleton so liberally supplies, 'the unimportant details, trifles—such as physical peculiarities, mannerisms, traits of disposition of certain characters, anecdotes, social customs', that Nathalie Sarraute, for one, has professed to find disconcerting in the traditional novel—la nouvelle écriture is a dead duck. (p. 871)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 13, 1974.

Winning half a Booker Prize has done strange things to Stanley Middleton's customary world: his tried and successful Nottinghamshire landscape has suddenly usurped a few aristocrats—a countess of this, a lady that. Not that Distractions entirely does without the usual schoolmasters, proles, or petit-bourgeois homelinesses: it's just odd—as odd however as Lawrence's White Peacock—to find the tone, the feel, the nuances of ordinary life that Mr Middleton always handles so tellingly suddenly mixed up with county families, a world of squires and magnates, that he's clearly much less happy consorting with. The nobs keep sounding like yobs, so it's as well the financier's son has a lowborn bird and the post-operation earl likes groping a humble nurse. On the whole, though, the brew is uneasy: not even the attempted rendering of the countess's lesbian proclivities entirely convinces that an ordinary heart may beat beneath the noblest of corsetries. (p. 448)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 10, 1975.

The prose of Stanley Middleton is so distinctive that it creates a distinct environment; verbs pile up against nouns to evoke an active yet reassuringly solid world, his brief but carefully shaped sentences suggesting a confusion of objects and feelings—Distractions, in fact…. Middleton announces [his] characters slowly and methodically; and although their entrances are a little stagey, they are executed with great assurance. Stanley Middleton is nothing if not professional, and in this book he has pared everything down to its essentials, so that words and gestures carry a great weight of meaning. It is all rather like the water colour in [the protagonist's] study: "Bent trees, curling out from a cleft, a valley." And that, it seems, will have to be that….

The book draws its strength, its substantiality, from … suffering. And it's very easy to be unsympathetic to Mr Middleton's vision—I remember being particularly unimpressed by his last book, Holiday, which has since won a Booker prize and, since Booker judges can do no wrong, the fault must have lain with me—since it is a vision which gives everything the same sour and rather defeatist point: "Grin. Abide. Cry a bit more because you've spilt some tears on your daffodils. I don't know. We can only go so far." But there is also something reassuring, something almost pleasant, about Mr Middleton's closely observed and unrhetorical narrative. The exactness of his writing is very attractive and it may be that, by taking the social novel to its conventional limits, Mr Middleton has arrived at a truthfulness of feeling, albeit feeling of a constricted kind….

[The narrative] is not exactly Lawrentian in its involvement, but [it] does suggest clumsiness, grandeur, stupidity and comedy in equal proportions. Passions are messy things, and nobody in the book endures them without seeming ridiculous or becoming listless and unhappy. And, as if that were not enough, Middleton loads the dice against poor humankind with some reflections on death and decay: "With muttered courtesies, he moved on, carting his death out into the open air. In a year's time, he'd be underground." And that is only Bates who, as his name suggests, is a minor character. Middleton makes these meditations so central to his theme, in fact, that there are really no human qualities or aspirations which can stand up against them. At the end of the day, all we have left are objects and artefacts: houses, rooms, paintings, furniture have a special status in the book. (p. 478)

[Only] material objects have anything approaching 'reality' or permanence. Whether Mr Middleton means to leave us with this impression is another matter…. In any case, trust the tale and not the teller. (p. 479)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 11, 1975.

Mr Middleton is certainly not a snob, but he is not a satirist either and he doesn't appear to intend his characters to seem contemptible: they are not laughed at or treated with scorn. Yet one doesn't get the idea that he has any liking or respect for them. [Distractions] consists largely of summary conversations and the intervening narrative, with maximum punctuation, minimum nuance, is as staccato as the dialogue, placing people, things, flatly, with little regard for the differences between them. This flatness is highly reductive.

The refusal to offer an authorial perspective creates a situation where the values of the characters appear also to underlie the novel. It would seem that the chief virtue in shopkeepers and magnates alike is success—surviving, manipulating, getting your woman/man, making money. The last two are significantly interchangeable…. Those who fail by being plain, inarticulate, undesired or (the greatest sin) mad, are viewed even more cursorily than the favoured. If the treatment of "normal" passion, expectation or uncertainty is limited, that of depression and mental illness is unpleasantly dismissive. The title's double meaning, distraction as madness and distraction as amusement, comes to seem a little disturbing.

Mr Middleton may of course intend irony, but this seems improbable when the apparently affirmative ending makes an analogy between [the unsuccessful characters] and some kittens marked out for drowning…. Since the comparison is offered without judgment we are left to its implications: can characters survive an author who measures them against such a metaphor?

Gay Clifford, "Some Have It, Some Don't," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Gay Clifford, 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement), October 17, 1975, p. 1225.