Melvyn Bragg Critical Essays

Introduction

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.