Beatrix Campbell and the “invisible” women of Wigan Pier

July 14, 2012 at 6:30 am (Guardian, Jim D, literature, Orwell, poverty, stalinism, Uncategorized, women)

Here is the single most famous image in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier:

“At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her  —  her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to watch her eye. She had a pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when say that ‘it isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her  —  understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”

Here is Beatrix Campbell in Thursday’s Guardian:

“George Orwell’s elegiac Road to Wigan Pier celebrated the heroic, martyred men who dug our coal. He chided the middle class for not noticing these heroes who brought heat into their homes. Orwell’s chauvinism rendered invisible the women who were still working at the pits around Wigan, and who lay and lit the fires that warmed not only the homes of the middle classes but also the miners themselves.”

Of course, Campbell learned to hate Orwell while in the “old” British Communist Party. The CP had form when it came to spreading lies about him.


  1. Geoff Collier said,

    You are confusing the CPB and CPGB. I can’t imagine Campbell having much in common with the former, although I expect her brother may have been in it. The only time I saw her was in May 1984 when she said she was against the miners’ strike on the grounds of the NUM not supporting equal pay for woman. Not that that was true, as we later found out.

  2. Rosie said,

    Someone in the comments section quotes this from Wigan Pier:-

    “There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.”

    No-one could call Orwell a feminist but he was an observer, and what he observed was the effect that poverty had on the women and families in the mining communities as well as the men – that’s the over-riding impression I get from the first part of Wigan Pier. A woman had to work twice as hard as she was trying to feed the family on less money, but the unemployed man would not help her round the house as that would threaten his idea of manhood. Beatrix Campbell gives a false idea of the book – and her mindset is something that was a big theme of Orwell’s, including the second part of Wigan Pier.

  3. Matt said,

    My mum’s mum, born in 1914, was from a mining family in Wigan. My mum, who lived in a council house in Manchester, got a bit of a shock when she went to stay with her Wigan relatives in the 50’s as they still had an outside toilet and tin bath.

  4. Laban Tall said,

    Bea’s a bit like Gary Younge – once you get them off their particular monomania there’s a good and observant writer in there, but when they’re back on it … she wrote a great piece for one of the Sunday magazines many years back on how some BTL landlords in the North were buying houses in a street, moving anti-social tenants in (in the days when HB went direct to the landlord) then persuading neighbours to sell up at steep discounts because of the neighbours, move more tenants in and so forth.

    I saw the truth of this for myself when I had to sell my father’s ex-council property in County Durham and spoke with people on the estate.

  5. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Bea Campbell was certainly CPGB rather than CPB and she was in fact the Green parliamentary candidate in Hampstead and Kilburn in May 2010 (and what can you say about a Green candidate who only got 759 votes in HAMPSTEAD).

    And Orwell’s sister Avril was asked at his funeral who her brother most admired and replied ‘the working class mother of ten’.

  6. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks for the clarifications re the CP, Geoff and Roger. I was attempting to avoid confusion with the present-day “CPGB” (ie the Weekly Worker lot). I have now corrected the post so that it simply refers to the (old) CP.

  7. Pinkie said,

    Whenever I see anything written by Campbell I think “Shieldfield”. (Just look it up with regards to Ms Campbell OBE.)

    I cannot properly express the contempt I have for her, nor for the people who continue to defer to her as having something worthwhile to say.

    Bea Campbell should only be noted for the harm she has done. A truly vile person.

  8. Rosie said,

    I had a quick squiz at her Wikipeida entry and found that among her many books is Wigan Pier Revisited. I thought her misreading came from lazy skimming or something, but she must have read it closely at one point in her life.

    • Pinkie said,

      No, I would imagine her misreading came from lazy skimming. Close reading would only get in the way of her ill-formed opinions, so why bother.

  9. Jim Denham said,

    No, Pinkie: I think you’re wrong. Campbell has clearly read Orwell extensively, and not just ‘Wigan Pier.’ As Rosie says, she’s written a book called ‘Wigan Pier Revisited’ and she’s been accusing Orwell of sexism repeatedly, for over thirty years. That’s not “lazy skimming” – it’s conscious, deliberate misrepresentation.

  10. Scott said,

    Did it ever occur to the commenters here to read the book Beatrix Campbell wrote about Orwell before denouncing her? The argument she makes is shared by many commentators, including Raymond Williams, who must count as the most influential Orwell scholar of the 1960s and ’70s. Williams saw the images Orwell drew in The Road… as patronising to the northern working class, and as owing more to upper class fantasies about grotty and backward native peoples than to real research.

    And the close readings of Orwell’s work by subsequent scholars do seem to add some weight to the sort of argument Williams made.

    The image of the woman with the stick appears, like a lot of other details in The Road… to be invented. If we take a look at Orwell’s journal of his trip north and the text he produced for Victor Gollancz, we can see lot of the most famous stuff in the book – the slops under the table in the boarding house, the woman with the stick, the workers overheard speaking sympathetically about fascism – aren’t in the journal. Many of these images aren’t for various reasons plausible, according to Orwell scholars (the weather was relatively warm when Orwell made his trip, for example, which makes the stick image rather fishy). There’s also the embarrassing stuff that Orwell left out of his book – he didn’t mention, for instance, that he knocked his head and passed out when he went down that mine with those ILP members. They had to carry him out!

    Invented details can be found in many of Orwell’s essays: there’s no evidence that he shot an elephant in front of a group of Burmese villagers, and old schoolmates thought ’Such, such were the joys’ wildly inaccurate in many respects. Orwell’s ‘non-fiction’ is a lot more artful than those who would make him into some sort of straightforward truth-teller would concede. This doesn’t necessarily make it less valuable, of course – as Picasso said, art lies to tell the truth. I think Orwell is a very important writer, but I do find the way he has been taken up as a saint rather tiresome. He’s become surrounded by as much pious nonsense as Tolstoy! I think that blurred lines between fact and fiction in his work and the fact that he was, despite his best efforts, a victim of some of the ideology of his class make him more rather than less fascinating.

  11. Jim Denham said,

    Scott: Campbell’s main accusation against Orwell (and the one dealt with here) is *not* that he made stuff up, or even that he was “patronising” towards the working class, but very specifically that he ignored women and was a thoroughgoing misogynist, even by the standards of his day. A loyal reading of ‘Wigan Pier’ simply proves that charge to be rubbish; yet it is a charge that Campbell has raised time and again. Her repeated dishonesty inevitably raises the question of her political motivation and the fact that she comes from the tradition of Harry Pollitt – the British CP leader who lied about Orwell (supposedly) believing the “working classes smell.”

  12. Scott said,

    It’s interesting that you use the phrase ‘a loyal reading of Wigan Pier’, Jim. I understand people being loyal to football teams, but I don’t think we should have the same attitude towards books, especially books that purport to describe reality.

    Certain things are true even if Harry Pollitt said them. I don’t think any of Orwell’s biographers who deny that he had an acute and fascinated horror of the poor hygiene and bad odours associated often with extreme poverty. Again and again his texts show up this horror. They get some of their power from it.

    Like Williams, Campbell repeatedly makes the argument that Orwell offered an inaccurate portrait of northern working class life because he was an outsider. She suggests that she is able, as someone from the northern working class, to correct what she sees as his mistatements and exclusions. Some of these mistatements and exclusions concern women, but her case against Orwell is tied up with the criticism of him that Raymond Williams made so influentially. Why not deal with these criticisms of Orwell without dismissing them out of hand as scurrillous nonsense?

  13. Jim Denham said,

    Scott: I used “loyal” in the sense of my dictionary’s definition (in this particular context): “true or faithful,” rather than the blind partisan “loyalty” of the football fan. Maybe I should stop using the word in such a context, as the last time someone took me up on it was when I’d criticised them for what I felt was an unfair and/or dishonest misrepresentation of something the then-leader of the T&GWU, Bill Morris, had said, and my use of the word was interpreted as meaning I advocated blind, uncritical “loyalty” to the T&G leadership.

    On the question of Pollitt: he was certainly wrong and (in my opinion) probably dishonest, in his accusation that Orwell thought the working class smelt.

    Here’s what Orwell wrote in ‘Wigan Pier’:

    “Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West – the real reason why a European of bourgeois up-bringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The working classes smell.”

    I should have thought it was obvious to anyone that Orwell is, here, condemning his own “bourgeois” upbringing, and *not* “the working classes.”

    And you, again, bring in a whole range of possible criticisms of, and objections to, Orwell (“but her case against Orwell is tied up with the criticism of him that Raymond Williams made so influentially”) that may or may not have some validity: the point of this post is that Campbell’s attack on Orwell’s alleged indifference to women (specifically, in ‘Wigan Pier’) is, quite simply, untrue and not borne out by a “loyal” – sorry – I mean “fair-minded” – reading of the text.

  14. Scott said,

    Hi Jim

    there’s no question Orwell was aware of the snobbery of his class – but he was, not surprisingly, unable always to escape it. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that he was both fascinated and repelled by grime and by bad odours. And he did go out of his way to try to find the very grottiest aspects of working class life to write about, when he went to Wigan. He asked about after the dirtiest boarding house in town, and took up lodgings there. But even this grotty place wasn’t grotty enough for him, apparently, because he invented the story of the bucket of slops under the table! But the strengths of writers are tied up with their obsessions, and it’s hard to imagine Orwell’s texts having the same power without this particular obsession.

    The real trouble with the way we read Orwell is brought out, I think, by your denial of the possibility of interpreting ‘The Road…’ as a misogynistic text. Orwell was not a sociologist or political scientist but a creative writer, and the texts he left behind have an ambiguity which leaves plenty of scope for reading him in various ways. Can we really deny the possibility of seeing a character like, say, Julia as a misogynistic creation? She’s persistently derided as shallow by Winston Smith, and her shallowness is linked to her gender. But do we see Winston Smith as Orwell in disguise? There can, of course, be no definitive answer to this question. And we might possibly counter the reading of Julia as a silly hussy by saluting Orwell for portraying a sexually liberated woman decades before the dawn of modern femininism. Why is it that arguments about the alleged anti-semitism of The Merchant of Venice or the alleged misanthropy of As You Like It do not bring cries of fury from the Bard’s defenders, but readings of texts like The Road… and Nineteen Eighty-Four as sexist or snobbish are met, in places like this, with howls of disbelief?

  15. Jim Denham said,

    “Why is it that arguments about the alleged anti-semitism of The Merchant of Venice or the alleged misanthropy of As You Like It do not bring cries of fury from the Bard’s defenders, but readings of texts like The Road… and Nineteen Eighty-Four as sexist or snobbish are met, in places like this, with howls of disbelief?”

    Scott, I’m quite willing to entertain the idea that Orwell had backward views on women – certainly by today’s standards, and possibly even by the prevailing standards of his day. It is also incontrovertibly the case that he was homophobic. He was, quite clearly, entirely sympathetic to the (male) working class.

    It is not my case that he was a “saint” or in any way beyond criticism. My specific point here is that Campbell is simply and obviously *wrong* when she states about ‘Wigan Pier’ that “Orwell’s chauvinism rendered invisible the women…”

    And, given how *obviously* wrong she is, and the number of times over thirty years that she has repeated that charge, it is reasonable to speculate about her motives.

    I suspect, Scott, that we strongly disagree in our overall assessments of Orwell (fair enough), but on this specific point I am surprised that you seem unwilling to accept the factual evidence on the particular issue of the supposed “invisibility” of women in ‘Wigan Pier.’

    After all, you only have to read it.

  16. Scott said,

    Orwell is probably one of the most studied writers in history, Jim – and as John Rodden shows in his book Orwell and the Politics of Literary Reputation, there has never been anything like a consensus about the meaning of works like The Road… You can’t very well defend your interpretation of an Orwell text by saying ‘it’s obvious – just read the thing and you’ll agree’, then.

    As far as I can tell, you think that the image of the woman with the stick disproves Campbell’s claim that working class women in The Road.. are invisible. But Campbell isn’t claiming there are no women in the book, any more than Williams is claiming there are no workers in the book when he charges that it patronises workers and renders radical workers’ movements invisible. What Campbell argues in her study of Orwell is that the woman with the stick represents an upper class stereotype of subaltern classes, not reality. She thinks Orwell presents us with a wretched, powerless woman, a victim who needs rescuing, when there were militant women workers fighting back against capitalism in the north during the 1930s.
    She thinks that Orwell made this second type of woman invisible.

    Now that scholars are prepared to argue that the woman with the stick never existed, and that Orwell downplayed the strength of the ILP branches he encountered in the north, Campbell’s case is, at very least, worth considering. How about, then, constructing an argument which shows why Campbell was wrong instead of just saying ‘read the book – it’s so obvious’?

  17. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Campbell’s main problem is a lack of historical imagination.

    She accuses Orwell of ignoring women because she literally cannot imagine just how profoundly sexist Orwell’s society was.

    Working class towns like Wigan operated a rigid form of sexual apartheid – men worked with men and socialised with men, women worked with women and socialised with women – and they only came together behind the privacy of their front doors or in heavily ritualised public events (church/chapel, dances, theatre/music halls/cinema, political meetings).

    A writer like Orwell whose political work was based on autopsy (which in its original Greek meant going there and seeing for yourself) inevitably could only fully represent the half of the society to which his gender admitted him – if he’d turned up at the public wash-house or attempted to engage the woman cleaning the drain-pipe in stilted conversation he’d have been laughed at or sent off with a flea in his ear.

    And a 1930s Bea Campbell would have had the same (or worse) problems if she’d turned up at the mine or wandered into a working man’s club or a male-only public bar,

    But its not that hard to experience that gender gulf today – one needs only to take a bus to one of the more traditionalist Muslim or for that matter Orthodox Jewish communities in our own country to see similar levels of segregation.

    Why a woman of Bea’s intelligence can’t make this obvious connection is beyond me.

  18. Jim Denham said,

    Scott: in her Guardian piece Campbell states that in ‘Wigan Pier’ women are “rendered invisible” by “Orwell’s chauvinism.” The only reasonable interpretation of what the word “invisible” means in this context is, indeed, that there are no (or virtually no) women in the book. If that’s not what Campbell meant then she should have chosen her words more carefully. I am, here, simply pointing out that she is demonstrably and obviously factually incorrect in her charge of women being “invisible” in the book.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Which is why I brought in the term autopsy.

      This is used in the original sense by Thucydides in his critique of Herodotus as a historian: the latter was all too willing to accept what he was told and so included a great deal of what even his contemporaries could see were lies and nonsense, Thucydides however was careful to limit his own history to what he had personally observed or been told directly by informants whose knowledge he trusted.

      Orwell went far further than almost any contemporary in his battle against the constraints limiting what a writer could see for himself and risked his life and health again and again in pursuit of truth (not something I think one can say about Bea Campbell who AFAICS has never risked anything harsher than a negative review for her craft) – but he was still only an upper class man and this background closed as many doors to him as it opened.

      So yes Wigan’s women were to some degree invisible to Orwell – they are hardly absent but they do indeed have much less screen time than the men because in a society which was strongly gender-segragated it was the men that Orwell spent his time with and and was able to talk to deeply about their lives.

      Even in the piece you cite he is describing his understanding of the woman’s situation rather than letting her speak for herself – because how could that conversation between an Old Etonian literally slumming it to research a book and a woman battling with a filthy drain have possibly been framed?

      (OK it could have started with ‘would you like a hand with that’ but somehow I can’t visualise Orwell the Plumber).

      So with his dour honesty Orwell says what he sees and what he feels – and stops there as there was no obvious way he could express the life experience of that woman or for ‘the working class mothers of ten’ everywhere not being either a woman or working class himself.

  19. Rosie said,

    If a writer says that women are “invisible” in a book where in fact they do appear, I think that writer is talking nonsense. Off the top of my head, I can remember the landlady of the lodgings who moaned and complained all the time, as well the piece about the slum-girl Jim quotes and the piece about the old women. Further to Roger’s point, Orwell also wrote this (I took this from the comments to BC’s article):-

    “A working-class bachelor is a rarity, and so long as a man is married unemployment makes comparatively little alteration in his way of life. His home is impoverished but it is still a home, and it is noticeable everywhere that the anomalous position created by unemployment–the man being out of work while the woman’s work continues as before–has not altered the relative status of the sexes. In a working-class home it is the man who is the master and not, as in a middle-class home, the woman or the baby. Practically never, for instance, in a working-class home, will you see the man doing a stroke of the housework. Unemployment has not changed this convention, which on the face of it seems a little unfair. The man is idle from morning to night but the woman is as busy as ever–more so, indeed, because she has to manage with less money. Yet so far as my experience goes the women do not protest. I believe that they, as well as the men, feel that a man would lose his manhood if, merely because he was out of work, he developed into a ‘Mary Ann’.”

    I think it was in the diaries that Orwell, with his middle-class chivalry, would try to give the miners’ wives a hand with the dishes, and they found it odd.

    BC may enlarge on this view in her book, but this is such a stupid mistake that I wouldn’t be bothered reading it, if she can’t get an elementary fact right. She could have said “under represented” or some such phrase.

    Jim – I think you can be a loyal reader of a newspaper or a magazine, but of a book?

  20. Scott said,

    ‘If a writer says that women are “invisible” in a book where in fact they do appear, I think that writer is talking nonsense’

    Well, people seem to have been able to read Beatrix Campbell’s book on Orwell for thirty years without being as bemused as you and Jim, Rosie, and I do think that if the two of you actually bothered to read what she had to say you’d wouldn’t feel so confused.

    EP Thompson said that workers were invisible in most traditional accounts of the Industrial Revolution; nobody accused him of denying that workers were present in those texts. Rodney Hilton argued that the peasantry was written out of many accounts of medieval society; I don’t think he was ever pilloried for denying the existence of the peasantry.

    What Thompson and Hilton were saying, of course, was that many accounts of the Industrial Revolution and of feudal society failed to treat workers and peasants respectively as active agents of their own fate. Campbell is making a somewhat analogous point about what she sees as the treatment of women in The Road to Wigan Pier. She thinks that women are presented as victims in need of rescuing or as mere appendages to men. So is she right? I went to take down my copy of Orwell’s collected novels and non-fiction books from the shelf to take a look at The Road… again, then remembered I’d lent it to a friend. But Jim seems intimately acquainted with the text, so perhaps he can let us know about some passages which contradict Campbell’s charges. The woman with the stick certainly doesn’t.

  21. Rosie said,

    She thinks that women are presented as victims in need of rescuing or as mere appendages to men. So is she right?

    That’s a better case than “invisible” though I don’t think it’s right. But she didn’t say that in her article. She said “invisible.” If someone says “there are no black swans” I can say I have seen lots of them, so they are wrong. If you are going to use a common word like “invisible” in your own special way, say so.

    We’re talking about an article and you’re saying she says something different in her book. She may – but it’s the article we’re talking about.

  22. Scott said,

    I can’t see why Campbell’s point is obscure even in the couple of sentences from her recent article, Rosie, but I’ve argued that nothing is as straightforward as it might seem in Orwell, so I’d better concede the same for Campbell! In any case she makes her point pretty clear in The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited.

    I don’t actually have much of an axe to grind when it comes to Orwell. I like the contradictions and inconsistencies – the privileged man trying to be a tramp, the socialist trying to reconcile himself to Churchill in The Lion and the Unicorn – in his life and work. I think he’d be a less interesting and revealing writer, to be honest, if he really were a saint rather than a messed up product of the English school system and the colonial service. There’s something very uninspiring about saints, and something appealing about people who wrestle with their contradictions.

    But leaving aside Campbell and picking up on something Roger said, I think we have to make an effort of historical imagination to remember the tradition Orwell was working in when he wrote The Road…, and the method he used there.

    In this day and age, when the poorer parts of societies like Britain are crawling with social scientists doing all sorts of quantitative and qualitative research for government departments and universities, it’s all too easy to treat The Road to Wigan Pier as a pioneering work of sociology. In reality, though, sociology only really took off in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s, and was virtually non-existent in the ’30s.

    Back in the 1960s Perry Anderson argued that the long absence of sociology and most other social sciences from Britain meant that the country’s intellectuals tended to work in a piecemeal fashion, without the broad vision of their society that a discipline like sociology could provide. There was, Anderson argued, an ‘absent centre’ in British culture, and for a century or more literature had tried to fill that centre. Writers like Arnold, Lawrence, Leavis and Orwell had all tried to describe the outlines and diagnose the ills of British society. They had stepped into the vacuum created by the absence of a British Durkheim or Marx.

    I think the Road to Wigan Pier falls easily into a sub-tradition within this tradition, in which the socially concerned writer leaves the comfort and safety of his or her study and journeys to distant counties and towns in an effort to get a first-hand understanding of his nation’s ills, and to intuit a possible solution for them. Cobbett’s Rural Rides, which took him through parts of England being ravaged by the enclosures, Edward Thomas’ accounts of his epic walks, and JB Priestley’s English Journey are members of the same species as The Road to Wigan Pier.

    The ‘state of the nation’ travel book differs very markedly from the work of a social scientist. It doesn’t feature either conscientious qualitative research or number-crunching quantitative research, but instead relies on first impressions and intuitions. It doesn’t proceed in arguments so much as anecdotes and images. And it relies for its credibility not on its footnotes and bibliography but on the extent to which its narrator manages to impress us with his personality, and with the snap judgments he offers on the people and events he encounters on his travels.

    I think far too many contemporary defenders and critics of Orwell forget the genre he was working in when he produced texts like The Road… The critics make too much of a song and dance over his biases and inventions, and the defenders try to present Orwell as having had a coherent and stable worldview, when his oeuvre is chaotic and contradictory. I think we need to place Orwell back into his literary context and deal with texts like The Road… as important pieces of literature, not attempts at rigorous social science. We can think of Sons and Lovers as an important and basically truthful document about English working class life, without treating it as an attempt at academic sociology: can’t we do the same for The Road?

  23. Jim Denham said,

    Scott: I think, unusually for a blog discussion, we may have argued ourselves into at least a degree of common ground. Thanks for your contributions.

  24. Rosie said,

    @ Scott – I take your point that Wigan Pier is like Cobbett’s Rural Rides with perhaps a bit of Henry Mayhew thrown in. I never thought of it as sociology but as a bit of investigative journalism – less systematic than Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed.

    All four books – Wigan Pier, Rural Rides, London Labour and the London Poor and Nickled and Dimed are great reads. Wigan Pier, Rural Rides and Nickled and Dimed are travel books among another kind of exotica – the poor and the rural workers.

  25. Slow « Poumista said,

    […] lately. Here are some of the things I’ve been reading in my absence, if you know what I mean. Beatrix Campbell and the “invisible” women of Wigan Pier. Hitchens’s introduction to Orwell’s Diaries. Algeria: Fifty Years of Independence. An evening […]

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