Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 29, 2008

Sorrell and Son

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:17 pm

One of the beneficial side-effects of the British class system has been its tendency to spawn a virtual library of interesting literature (and movies), from classics like “Sons and Lovers” to elevated soap operas like “Upstairs, Downstairs”. My first reaction to the arrival of “Sorrell and Son”, a 2-disk DVD now available from Koch-Lorber, was to heave it in the waste basket since it had all the trappings of “Upstairs, Downstairs”. In fact this 1984 British TV miniseries, based on the 1925 novel by Warwick Deeping, did air on PBS in 1987. The cover art on the DVD package showed men and women at leisure in vintage costumes, just the sort of thing that the Masterpiece Theater (sometimes referred to as Master Race Theater) dotes on.

However, after taking a minute to look at the plot summary on the back cover, I decided to give it a shot since it was described as the story of a decorated British officer “who returns home after the First World War to face unemployment, poverty and his wife’s desertion. Determined to educate his son as a gentleman, Sorrell is forced to accept exhausting and demeaning jobs in order to provide him with the best possibilities for a brighter future.”

After watching a few minutes, I got hooked. If there is one thing you can say about British mass market novels, it is that they are usually superbly plotted–a function no doubt of being heirs to the tradition of Dickens, who was after all a master of pulp fiction. Indeed, the story is a classic rags-to-riches story straight out of Dickens, but with the added interest of having characters who reflect the insecurities of the British middle class as it loses its moorings in the post-WWI period as the Empire begins its decline.

Much of the dialog comes straight out of Deeping’s novel that can be read online at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200501.txt. The narrative beings with Stephen Sorrell and his son Christopher (“Kit”) en route to a job at an antique dealer in a rural village. The film visually captures his shabby fall from military glory, as described by Deeping:

For Sorrell still kept his trousers creased, nor had he reached that state of mind when a man can contemplate with unaffected naturalness the handling of his own luggage. There were still things he did and did not do. He was a gentleman. True, society had come near to pushing him off the shelf of his class-consciousness into the welter of the casual and the unemployed, but, though hanging by his hands, he had refused to drop.

Unfortunately for Sorrell, the antique dealer has died the day before he arrives in the village. He is only rescued from the poorhouse when Florence Palfrey, the owner of a shabby hotel called the Cubby Hole, offers him a job as a porter. She is from the working class and seems to derive perverse pleasure at reminding him of his subordinate status, as this exchange would indicate:

Sorrell came down the steps to dip his leather in the bucket.

“Very warm to-day.”

She did not reply, but watched him get to work, and his movements told her that he was nervous. She was satisfied in a part of herself. And then she began to talk to him with an air of casual intimacy, and in a way that she had never talked before. He was both Captain Sorrell, M.C., and her “boots” and porter.

“Rather different from the war, Stephen.”

He agreed. He felt strangely alert.

“How did you get your M.C.?” [A reference to the Military Cross, a medal.]

“I didn’t know–“

“Oh,–I know most things. Well? How?”

“Oh, in a trench raid.”

“Were you raiding the others?”

“No, madam, the others were raiding us.”

He was working hard at the mirror, with his back to her, and somehow he felt he had to keep a distance, though he could not analyze the feeling.

Eventually Sorrell lands a job at the Pelican Hotel, a more upscale operation owned by another WWI veteran, who saw Sorrell at his rounds during a stay at Palfrey’s hotel. He is motivated by pity for another veteran and by the understanding that he will be hiring a hard worker. Whatever the circumstances, Sorrell–a master of the stiff upper lip–can soldier on without complaint.

He is severely tested at the Pelican, when he learns that he is subordinate to George Buck, another war veteran who not only held a lower rank than him but comes from the working class. He has to put up with the same kind of resentments and mistreatment that he thought he had escaped when he left the Cubby Hole.

For to Buck, Sorrell was a type, the type of the over-educated, sly, argumentative, sullen, weedy, mutinous recruit. A clever, circuitous, insolent devil. Uncomfortably quick, too, a fellow who needed watching.

If Sorrell found Buck’s self-confident bluster offensive, his own quietness and his reticences were equally offensive to the other man.

Buck had his own justifications.

“Nasty,–weedy,–supercilious chap. Ex-officer. I’ll teach him a thing or two. Jealous of me. Of course. He’ll need watching. He’s not the sort of man I want under me, no, not by a long chalk. Some big, good-natured chap, quick with the luggage, and not too quick with anything else. Well,–I think I know a thing or two.”

“Sorrell and Son” is not really social commentary, but a family drama. Despite this, there is enough material about class relations in Great Britain to satisfy any radical-minded reader or movie fan. It is a very old-fashioned work about some very old fashioned themes: filial piety, love, and the onset of illness and death–all handled with great deftness by Warwick Deeping. After reading by Cormac McCarthy’s repugnant and poorly written “Blood Meridian”, a work regarded by some critics as on a par with “Moby Dick”, Deeping’s modest page-turner is as welcome as a drink of cool mountain spring water.

In 1934 literary critic Granville Hicks, who had joined the Communist Party that year, wrote an article titled “The Mystery of the Best Seller” for The English Journal. It took aim at works like “Anthony Adverse” that Hicks described as a “bad book, of course” and “pretentious, implausible, incompetently written.” Hicks groups the author Harvey Allen with such other well-known “Book of the Month” types such as Thornton Wilder, Pearl Buck and Fanny Hurst. Also included is Warwick Deeping, who Hicks describes as the “master of telling a lively and conventional story while pretending to probe deeply into some profound problem of human destiny”. I guess I can’t quibble with that.

“Sorrell and Son” is much more entertaining than the average television or movie fare nowadays and available from Netflix or your better video stores.


  1. I think you’re right. Big, chronicle novels with plenty of social detail can often be made into good serial dramatization for TV. Or anyway in the U.K., where you have a pool of actors who can do periods and (some) directors who take care with history. The Forsyte Saga from John Galsworthy is another example. The irony is that the better the novel the worse the film. See what’s been done to Woolf, Joyce, Proust, Fitzgerald, Dreiser and more. But the remarks of Granville Hicks seem crude. Was Thornton Wilder a “hack”, and were the bits you quote from Deeping “conventional”? I don’t think so.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 30, 2008 @ 11:33 am

  2. I think with this generation, so multmedia focused, literature will specifically be written, to be visual and transferred online or into a movie.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — March 31, 2008 @ 2:21 am

  3. I agree with R. Eye. But why is so much visually marvelous stuff unsatisfying? It sets out without an adequate script. It’s forgotten that non-generational factor, a decent writer.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 31, 2008 @ 9:53 am

  4. I disagree completely. This snivelling little book is nothing more than a sustained whinge on the part of the “Poor, hard-done-by” middle classes, who felt themselves threatened by the upcoming proletariat that felt that it didn’t need to take orders any more; it expresses the same attitudes displayed by the middle classes after WW2 when they complaiuned that they couldn’t find doestic servants any more because they were all finding work in factories, describing themselves as “up against the wall”, or complaining that the workers weregetting council houses that were “far too good for the likes of them”; anyone who finds this book readable is obviously a candidate for the Monday Club.

    Comment by Keith James Ackermann — March 7, 2012 @ 1:08 am

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