“Politics in a work of literature,” declared Stendhal, “is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar, and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse attention.” It can appear as ideology – as in the work of Benjamin Disraeli, Arthur Koestler and George Orwell – or as background, as in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series, in which the leading characters are politicians or part of the political world but ideology is absent, just as theology is absent in his Barchester novels. Enoch Powell said of Trollope that he “was a perfectly recognisable type; the person who has preconceived self-satisfied political notions, with not a suspicion of the depth, the passion and the complexity of politics”; and he quoted a passage from Phineas Finn, “the prelude to several pages of the sort of platitudes with which any plain citizen will, if given the chance, bore a real live politician to distraction”.
The first novel to put Parliament at its heart was, Steven Fielding believes, John Galt’s The Member, published in 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act. Charles Dickens was the first to depict an election in The Pickwick Papers, five years later. Curiously, despite a number of pages devoted to Trollope, Fielding does not mention his description of an Eatanswill-type election in Ralph the Heir, published in 1871.
The political novel was first analysed by Monroe Speare in his book of that name appearing in 1924; and there have been many imitators. But A State of Play is original in two respects. First, it considers not just fiction but also plays, films and television; second, it does not confine itself to quality work but considers more ephemeral material, much of which is little known. I had no idea, for example, that Ellen Wilkinson, the left-wing firebrand of the 1930s who became minister of education in 1945, had written novels; nor that A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, was a Liberal and author of a political play, Success, in 1923. Fielding also contrives to find political messages in the novels of Agatha Christie and the Just William stories, as well as the films of George Formby and Norman Wisdom and the television series Steptoe and Son.
Most of Fielding’s predecessors have tried to analyse what fiction tells us about authors’ ideas. But A State of Play seeks to analyse the effects of political novels. Fielding believes that political fiction helps to form popular views of politics, and that “anybody who wants to understand what the British think about their democracy – should take fiction seriously”.
This is a challenging thesis, but it requires more evidence to support it than Fielding provides. He tends to assume what he needs to prove. A State of Play is in fact a fairly orthodox scamper through a host of novels, plays and films. It would have benefited from a narrower focus and more analysis. It is also on occasion imperceptive. To illustrate the impact of the political novel, more might have been said of Disraeli, whose ideas influenced conservatives for many years after his death – and perhaps still do; of C. P. Snow, the analyst of court and committee politics, of far greater significance for academics than the hustings; and of A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s great literary sequence, which seems to me to be saturated with politics.
Fielding is a prodigious reader and his book will lead aficionados towards many long-forgotten novels. But A State of Play is a missed opportunity because, instead of trying to prove his argument, Fielding contents himself with asserting it. Still, as he admits in his final sentence, “This book has, in truth, just scratched the surface.”
A State of Play: British Politics on Screen, Stage and Page, from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It
By Steven Fielding
Bloomsbury, 312pp, £60.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9781849669788, 9781780933160 and 9781849669818 (e-book)
Published 24 April 2014