Melvyn Bragg's celebrity means that his novels are not usually taken seriously by critics. But his widely read sagas of family and place, depicting a vanishing England, make him one of the most important national novelists we haveby Robert Colls / May 24, 2008 / Leave a comment
Melvyn Bragg has been a uniquely influential figure in British broadcasting and the arts for over 40 years. He holds the chancellorship of the University of Leeds and a seat in the House of Lords, numerous civic, charitable and business appointments, and a dozen honorary doctorates—and he is the author of 20 novels. In 1999 he began a series of autobiographical fictions based on his upbringing in Cumbria, the fourth (and most personal) of which appeared in April. Just what these novels mean, and what they might go on to mean, are questions that illuminate much that is both important and often ignored in English fiction today.
In The Soldier’s Return, the first volume, Sam Richardson returns from war in Burma to a country and a marriage both in need of a new start. Ellen has waited five years for this, but now he’s back, she’s not so sure. Their six-year-old son, Joe, doesn’t like this quick-tempered man who has come to share their bed. At one point a new start in Australia looks likely, but Wigton turns out to be their fate after all, and the family re-forms to fend off the winter of 1947.
By the beginning of A Son of War, the second volume, father and son have grown closer, but the invincibility of working-class fathers brings forth intimations of cowardliness in their sons. The older Joe gets, the more he is caught between his father’s injunction to face the world and his mother’s silent plea to stay close to her. Joe struggles to be loyal to both. At the same time, he discovers Mary, and her slow, elegant handstands against the wall.
Crossing the Lines, volume three, begins in 1955 with Joe at grammar school and in the business of moving up and away. The glint of Oxford on the horizon fills his ambition. Joe doesn’t see it that way, of course. He sees his as a local life dedicated to Jesus Christ and Rachel Wardlow but, gradually, the history boy begins to take over. If he wins a scholarship, he will have to leave the people who loved and sustained him. If he fails, he will be “have to bear it like the mark of Cain.” Success will never take him as he is. He has to build a new self up, and face his old self down. The strain begins to tell, and,…