(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

“What I care about the most,” John Braine wrote in the 1960’s, “is telling the truth about human beings and the world they live in.And every word I write is a celebration of my love for the created world and everyone and everything within it.” In Room at the Top, The Jealous God, and Waiting for Sheila, Braine demonstrates the kind of truth telling he describes, a truth telling distinguished by exact observations, honesty of vision, and a clear and workmanlike style. Typically, his heroes are harried by a desire for personal affirmation, a desire they can seldom articulate or suppress. Worldly success, sensual gratification, and especially money are the only ends they know or can name, but none of these slakes their restlessness. Braine’s heroes grapple desperately for money, they lacerate themselves climbing to success, yet they remain sullen and bewildered, always hopeful for some unexpected sign by which to release their bitter craving for a state of grace or, at least, illumination. In the midst of humanity’s inevitable corruption and consequent need for redemption, Braine implies a vision much like that of J. B. Priestley: “a vision of a just society, a civilized and harmonious whole, a society in which there would be no alienation.”

Braine’s assault on British life begins with Room at the Top, a familiar “rags-to-riches” story about an individual who has glimpses of life beyond the reach of his environment, his struggle to achieve, his success after the sacrifice of his own soul. To this pattern Braine adds another theme: Any society is corrupt that demands the sacrifice of integrity as the price of success. Joe Lampton, as narrator, thus represents in the modern British novel a new species: the predatory, northern, working-class hero with long-range ambitions to achieve lusty affluence.

A significant departure for Braine is evident in his fourth novel, The Jealous God, in which he draws on his experiences as a Catholic to trace the influence of the Church on the personal life of a deeply religious yet sensual man. Unlike Joe Lampton, whose ambitions are material, Vincent Dungarvan has spiritual ambitions. Superimposed on this material is a study of an overpowering mother-son relationship; all of this gives new life to what E. M. Forster called “the undeveloped heart.”

Waiting for Sheila, on the other hand, looks at an aspect of sex that is a major theme in other Braine novels as well: what it means to be a man. With its tragic implications, vivid class consciousness, and powerful portrayal of upper-middle-class life in a London suburb, Waiting for Sheila typifies the realistic impulse behind all of Braine’s writing as he catches the wave of a permissive society.

Room at the Top

About Room at the Top, Kenneth Allsop quotes Braine as saying: “In the Welfare State the young man on the make has to be a bit tougher and learn how to fiddle more cleverly. My job in writing about Joe Lampton was to look at him clearly.” Like all of his novels, this one is rich in class overtones. Braine’s working-class hero comes to a large provincial town from a slummy outpost of depression, demanding more than a minimum of material comforts and a chance to sneer at the pretension of the bourgeoisie. Lampton demands the best—“an Aston-Martin, 3-guinea linen shirts, a girl with a Riviera suntan”—and gets it by marrying a rich man’s daughter. His triumph over his upbringing and his natural instincts is, however, a sour one; the price of his success is the abandonment of his true love relationship with an older woman and her subsequent suicide, a catastrophe for which his arrival at the top proves...

(The entire section is 1536 words.)