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Gravitating Away from an Empire’s Heart: London in Una Silberrad’s The Good Comrade

Christoph Singer


<1> ‘Julia was not pretty, therefore she was seldom to be found in the drawing-room alone; she knew better than to attempt to occupy that stage by herself’ (Silberrad, 2). Julia Polkington is the heroine of Una Silberrad’s romantic novel The Good Comrade (1907). In this novel Una Silberrad describes the middle classes’ feeling of displacement and drifting. I want to argue that The Good Comrade evaluates and re-negotiates middle-class values by describing various microcosms presented as heterotopias, places of otherness that define the sociological situation at work ex negativo. In The Good Comrade these heterotopias include boarding houses, social clubs, ships, gardens and beaches. These spaces are consequently constructed not in alignment with, but in opposition to the Empire’s capital London. The narrative and cultural importance of literary heterotopias consists, according to Ralph Pordzik, in the following: ‘Hetereotopias … create themselves a fabric of spatial relations between various discourses, narratives, and points of view …’ (Pordzik 5). The spaces of otherness in the The Good Comrade do not only signify the stagnation and the decay of the society that produces them. More importantly, these spaces mirror existing middle-class discourses as they dissolve existing social codes, which gloss over the Edwardian period. Since Una Silberrad is largely forgotten I shall give a concise summary of the novel’s contents before analysing several of the mentioned microcosms and their connection to London. 

<2> The narrative commences in Julia’s home, the Polkington’s house in Marbridge:

The Polkingtons lived at No. 27 East Street, which, as all who know Marbridge are aware, is a very good street in which to live. The house was rather small, but the drawing-room was good, with two beautiful Queen Anne windows, and a white door with six panels. The rest of the house did not matter. On the whole the drawing-room did not so very much matter, because visitors seldom went into it when the Miss Polkingtons were not there; and when they were, no one but a jealous woman would have noticed that the furniture was rather slight, and there were no flowers except those in obvious places (Silberrad 2). 

This short description of the Polkington’s drawing room in particular and the house in general perfectly defines the family’s character. Their house illustrates on the one hand their eagerness to appear respectable but, on the other hand, it becomes immediately obvious how modest are their means upon which to achieve this pretence. The intended message the Polkingtons want their house to express, namely their belonging to the surrounding community, is increasingly hard to keep up throughout the novel. The difficulties they have are not only caused by social conventions and expectations but are rooted in the harsher times they have had to endure since Mr Polkington, a former Captain in India, left the military: 

Somehow the family lived, quite how in the early days no one knew; Mrs. Polkington never spoke of it at the time, and now, mercifully, she had forgotten part, but the struggle must have been bitter. Herself disillusioned, her daughters mere children, her position insecure, and her husband not yet reduced to submission, and always prone to slip back into his old ways. But she had won through somehow, and time had given her the compensations possible to her nature. She was, by her own untiring efforts, a social factor now, even a social success; her eldest daughter was engaged to a clergyman of sufficient, if small, means, and her youngest was almost a beauty. As to the Captain, he was still there; time had not taken him away, but it had reduced him (Silberrad 10). 

Julia, the middle daughter, hardly features in her mother’s planning, as she is well aware: ‘I have never been much of a social success. Mother did not find me such good material to work upon, so naturally she rather dropped me for the ones who were good material’ (Silberrad 132). Jonny Gillat, a friend who often visits Marbridge, ‘did not count’ (Silberrad 1).

<3> This matriarchal system, in which the family is run by the superficial yet determined mother, has come about due to their precarious financial state. Mr Polkington, whose attempts to support his family by means of his modest pension, have proved futile because of his drinking and gambling, is regarded as a useless encumbrance: ‘If only he had been dead he would have been a valuable asset, but living, he was decidedly rather a drawback; there are some relatives like this’ (Silberrad 1). It is his gambling that triggers the main narrative. After various financial losses, Captain Polkington is unable to repay a debt. The debtor’s older, more authoritative, cousin, stereotypical aristocrat Rawson-Clew visits the family home in Marbridge to reclaim the debt. Julia, who witnesses this encounter, is offended by the open display of contempt on the part of the intrusive Londoner, whose behaviour proves the family’s inability to keep up the pretension of their imagined social habitus. So, Julia decides to repay the debt herself to save her family’s face. To do so she moves to a small town in Holland to work as a housemaid for the Van Heigens, a family of Dutch bulb-growers. Here she intends to earn the required amount of money by stealing the van Heigen’s most valuable possession: a unique bulb, which transforms into a blue daffodil. At this point in the story the reader is also introduced to a Dutch scientist mixing explosives seemingly strong enough to turn Holland into the new military superpower. Gentlemen-spy Rawson-Clew attempts to steal the explosive for the English army. Julia attempts to steal the blue daffodil in order to sell it in London, but, ultimately, decides against the theft. This blue daffodil, which recalls the symbol of the blue flower as found in Romanticism, is quite essential for the text’s reformulation of middle-class values, as will be shown later. In the end, Rawson-Clew’s and Julia’s efforts to steal the respective goods don’t work towards their respective aims: Rawson-Clew fails to steal the explosive and Julia, decides, as mentioned, against stealing the bulb; although she does manage to steal the explosives, which, however, prove to be ineffective. Despite all this, as the romantic stock-formula demands, they do fall for, and find, each other in time for the novel’s happy end.

<4> So where and how does London fit into this romantic novel? As a setting it is hardly ever mentioned. As a symbolic space, however, London is, implicitly and explicitly, constantly referred to. Una Silberrad’s London is the centre of various spheres, each holding different connotations concerning the reformulation of class, morals and ethics. This spherical structure resembles a quite Dantesque construction. The closer the settings are to London, the more defunct, the more problematic the spheres appear, at least in a middlebrow and middle class sense of mind. The village in Holland is presented, despite its slightly provincial air, as a stable and caring community, albeit with overly moralistic standards, as Julia’s dismissal from her position proves. Marbridge, on the other hand, is described in more negative terms. The central sphere, London, is depicted, to refer to Joseph Conrad, rather as the ‘Heart of Darkness’ than the city of light. These various spheres are themselves centred on smaller spatial units such as the van Heigens’ house and the Polkington’s house as well as London’s boarding houses. It has to be noted, however, that the spatial model I am proposing is not directly related to or based on Ernest Burgess’ ‘Concentrical Ring Model’ of 1925 (McKenzie, Roderick D.), which was one of the first theoretical models to explain the sociological implications of suburbanization. The clear spatial distinctions that are seen in The Good Comrade, however, certainly do mirror contemporary suburban developments. Marbridge itself isn’t exactly a suburb of London. The suburbs themselves might not be the spatial and narrative core in The Good Comrade but the related discourses, certainly, are. According to Lynne Hapgood, ‘[t]he London Suburbs [were] perceived as a qualitatively different kind of psychological and political territory from the urban with the potential of creating a new environment, determining psychological states and, crucially, defining new class strata’ (Hapgood 163). This analysis of psychological states and re-definition of class strata is one of Una Silberrad’s objectives in the novel.

<5> The first microcosm related to the macrocosm London is the fictional town of Marbridge, which ‘lies in the west country, some considerable distance from London’ (Silberrad 178). It is here that the Polkingtons find a place to reside. The family’s eagerness to appear respectable and settled has, as mentioned above, a reason: ‘In those first bad days after the Captain’s leaving the army, the Polkingtons had lived, or perhaps more accurately, drifted about, a good deal abroad’ (Silberrad 8). After all this drifting and longing for a place to stay –- a place that re-establishes the family’s social position –the house expresses this desperate desire for social acceptance. The family home in Marbridge ‘was rather slight, and there were no flowers except those in obvious places’ (Silberrad 2). This house stands in direct opposition to and is probably best defined by its oppositional other, the small estate Julia encounters in Holland, namely the home of the Van Heigens’: ‘The Van Heigens’ house stood on the outskirts of the town, a long way back from the road. The bulb garden lay all round it, though immediately in front was a lawn so soft and green that no one ever walked on it. The house was of wood, painted white, and had a high-pitched roof of strange, dark-coloured tiles; a canal lay on two sides, which ought to have made it damp, but did not’ (Silberrad 41). While the Polkington’s home in Marbridge expresses the desperate wish of its owners to be something they are not, the van Heigens’s smaller, simpler, yet more picturesque, house reflects the people that live in it, as Julia realizes: ‘I admire it all very much, it is sincere, no one appears other than he is, or aims at being or seeming more. Your house is the same back and front, and you, none of you have a wrong side, the whole life is solid right through’ (Silberrad 53). This buildings’s solidity mirrors not only the owners’ moral solidity, it also reflects their rigid enforcement of moral standards, which won’t allow any exceptions. 

<6> In a novel that constantly uses spaces to mirror its protagonists’ states of mind, it comes as no surprise that the Polkington’s house is as much involved in a process of regression as its owners. After Julia returns from Holland, she pays a visit to Marbridge only to find her former home even more decayed: ‘She stood in the drawing-room on the morning after her return and looked round her and felt that somehow she had travelled a long way from her old point of view. The room was very untidy; dust lay thick on everything; there were dead leaves in the vases, cigarette ash on the table, no coals on the half-laid fire. The whole, as Julia looked around, struck her as shoddy and vulgar in its unreality.’ (Silberrad 223) While supposed to be a home, the house now apparently signifies a part of society that can’t keep up the social appearance and the appropriate behaviour they feel is expected of them. The house represents a class desperately looking for a home and a class habitus of their own. The building represents a disillusioned and destabilised class, which is flat-out rejected by the upper classes on which its morals and appearances are modelled. If classes are at least partly imagined communities, to draw upon Benedict Anderson, then this part of society is missing the kind of utopian imagination and inspiration that could transform regressive nostalgia into progressive action. This kind of social and spiritual homelessness seems to be a major motif for Una Silberrad, which can be found in other narratives as well: The heroine in her novel Ordinary People, for example, carries the family-name Sansterre, which literarily translates to ‘without a country’. This name is, of course, a telling name as this protagonist is even more of a drifter and wanderer than the Polkingtons. The main protagonist in the historical short story ‘Keren of Lowbole’ is also constantly reminded of her dead mother’s non-English roots.

<7> The Polkington’s house in Marbridge does not only represent their social position and their related state of mind. It could be also read as an analogy to the British Empire: ‘The Polkingtons’ house was furnished on an ascending scale, which found its zenith in the drawing-room, but deteriorated again very rapidly afterwards. The dining-room, being midway between the kitchen and the drawing-room, was only a middling-looking apartment’ (Silberrad 5). One could interpret the drawing room, the most presentable and hence most important room in the house as a metaphor for London. This is where visitors come to, this is where the residents spend most of their time and this is where the society’s leaders reside. While everything is designed on an ‘ascending scale’ towards this space, all the surrounding spaces are, naturally, descending in appearance and importance. The further away from the drawing room, the more deteriorated the house is. In an empire that is so centred on its heart, the surrounding spaces, inhabited by the middle and lower classes can’t possibly match or contribute to the capital’s singled-out importance. 

<8> Una Silberrad repeats this implicit description of London more explicitly: whereas Marbridge presents a middle-class missing middle-class morals and a common identity, London lacks the middle classes as such completely. London is described only by spaces of exclusion: The club Rawson-Clew belongs to and the boarding houses Captain Polkington and Jonny Gillat reside in are the only locations the reader ever gets to read about. These spaces show London as a site of crisis in which only the margins in between stable middle-class areas are depicted. The boarding houses define the lower margins, separating the middle classes from the lower classes. And the clubs define the upper margins, separating the middle classes from the aristocracy. Places that are known to have been predominantly middle-class, such as Wimbledon, are nowhere to be found. The productive middle-class is kept out of sight and consequently we see how residual gender and class values are falling apart.

<9> Impotent men and puny patriarchs people the capital’s spaces: Jonny Gillat, the neglected guest in Marbridge and boarding-house resident in London, is neither a sexual nor a social powerhouse. The unemployed bachelor is described as having a ‘round, pink face, whereon a grizzled little moustache looked as much out of place as on a twelve-year-old school-boy’ (Silberrad 6). Captain Polkington, who initiates the family’s demise, can’t support his relatives; he fades away throughout the novel and dies in the end. Even aristocrat Rawson-Clew is not the fully idealized role model one might expect in a romantic novel. He may be described as a man of wealth and taste but his employment perfectly illustrates London’s demise: Rawson Clew works as a spy for the British Empire. As alluded to earlier, he sets out to steal an explosive, produced in the very same Dutch town Julia moves to –- an explosive, which ‘would eventually raise the little army of Holland far above those of all other nations’ (Silberrad 98). This sub plot concerning the explosive could be read as a metaphor for the Empire’s general impotence and lack of agency. As farfetched as this narrative element sounds, Una Silberrad was very likely inspired by her brother’s field of work. The chemist Oswald Silberrad worked for some time in the British Explosives Committee, which was preoccupied with investigating the shortcomings of British explosives in the Boer War. In The Good Comrade, however, the situation is not to be resolved by scientific progress. Rather than funding the research for a better, more effective explosive, the government sends Rawson-Clew to Holland to steal such a chemical. When it comes down to it, Rawson-Clew is unable to succeed in the one line of work he is ever described doing: spying and stealing. He is neither cunning nor powerful enough to get his hands on the Dutch explosive or its formula. He may be actively involved in the Empire’s cause, but he does not contribute anything. His aristocratic air doesn’t hide the fact that he is equally as unimportant for the English empire as Jonny Gillat and Captain Polkington.

<10> In The Good Comrade it is the female heroine that has to take care of them all: Julia repays Captain Polkington’s debt, takes in and cares for Jonny Gillat, and she is the one, who has the wit to steal the explosives (which in the end, however, turn out to be ineffectual). Like her mother, Julia is willing to accept responsibility for her family and extended community, albeit on different terms. She could have remained in Holland where she could have married into the Van Heigens’ family. This would have guaranteed her a comfortable life. Ultimately, it is a renewed sense of strong moral responsibility, rather than the romantic attraction to Rawson-Clew alone, that determines her return to England. 

<11> Not only is London shown as a site of masculine decline, but also as a site of middle-class decline. Both the poor middle classes, washed up in their boarding houses, and the wealthy middle classes, secluded in their clubs, are shown as living on drink and nostalgia. Both classes are explicitly depicted as not working. Thus, Una Silberrad, creates an empty space that needs to be filled with what is missing: a working middle-class. The two characters most closely associated with this declining London are, as mentioned, Captain Polkington and Jonny Gillat. Both are characters for which the society and their families have no use whatsoever; consequently they are exiled to London. London is not presented as a desirable place people long to go, it is a space one has to be forced to move to. Mrs Polkington tries her best to ‘banish’ (Silberrad 112) her undesired husband to the capital, a thought Julia absolutely dislikes. And Jonny Gillat and Captain Polkington are not only exiled to London, which is ironic enough, they are literally hidden in London’s ‘Twilight Zone’. The account of Rawson-Clew trying to find Jonny Gillat’s ‘dismal lodgings’ (Silberrad 23) is probably the most telling description of London in The Good Comrade: 

It was on the next afternoon that Rawson-Clew drove to 31 Berwick Street. There are several Berwick Streets in London, and, though the address given was full enough for the postal authorities, the cabman had some difficulty in finding it, and went wrong before he went right. It was a dingy street, and not very long; it had an unimportant, apologetic sort of air, as if it were quite used to being overlooked. … The hansom came slowly down the street, the driver scanning the frequent doors for 31. He overlooked it by reason of the fact that the number had been rubbed off, but finally located it by discovering most of the numbers above and below. (Silberrad 179)

<12> While presenting a general air of desperation and dinginess, this quotation also demonstrates a narrative technique mentioned above. The middle classes are hardly to be found, they are never directly referred to. It is only by looking ‘above and below’ (Silberrad 179) that one can identify the missing and overlooked citizens. More importantly, this example illustrates that in this London the classes don’t meet by accident, since there are no public spaces that would allow for such an encounter. Both parts of society live in their very own, provisional spaces of otherness. It is as hard for Rawson-Clew to locate the Captain’s position, as it would be for the Captain to enter Rawson-Clew’s club. The classes just don’t meet. That’s where the spatial importance of the Dutch village Julia moves to, becomes obvious. In a novel so concerned with social and spatial mobility, it seems natural that the only remaining gender and class-defying space is the main road. This is where Julia and Rawson-Clew, initially following a traffic accident, repeatedly meet, get to know each other and start falling in love. Spaces of mobility are the last zones where class distinctions are, at least spatially, reduced to a minimum. Whereas the blurred class boundaries in Marbridge prove the lack of influence on Julia’s side, these spaces of mobility present a great deal of agency on Julia’s side, regardless of the impression it makes on others. These spaces are especially important for a society that’s increasingly differentiated; a society where the middle classes retreat to the suburbs and London is left to the ones who are either rich enough to live there or too poor to leave.

<13> The importance of public transport as a meeting point for social classes is, interestingly, also repeated in Una Silberrad’s novel Ordinary People. Here, as in The Good Comrade, the relationship between the middle- and upper class protagonists is initiated by a traffic accident, a train accident to be precise, which allows the characters to communicate in the first place. But even public roads and means of transportation are, at least in Holland, contested as a public space that is open to everyone. In Holland, Julia’s walking on the road is sneered upon by parts of the local community: ‘”She walks in the road,” Denah observed critically; “It is so conspicuous, I could not do it; besides, one might be run over.” “The English always walk in the road,” her sister answered; “they think everything will get out of their way, and they do not at all mind being conspicuous.” “The English miss should mind,” Denah said, “for she is not pretty; no one looks at her to admire; besides she is poor and has to work hard”’ (Silberrad 40). This scene exemplifies two things: for one, the regulations and expectations a young woman has to cope with; on the other hand Silberrad illustrates how Julia is growing increasingly self-confident, the further and the longer she is away from her home in Marbridge and London. She is confident enough to disregard existing conventions. It is this self-confidence that allows her to re-evaluate her own set of personal values, which will, in the end, lead to her reformulation of middle-class values. 

<14> The absence of the middle classes from London circumscribes, as mentioned above, an empty space that requires signification. After carefully outlining the margins and liminalities of middle-class life and culture, Una Silberrad leaves it to her heroine to fill the blank space with something new. When Julia returns to Marbridge the first time, she is not welcome at home. This experience makes her decide to return to Holland, where she plans and manages to steal the explosive as a means to pay back her family’s debt to Rawson-Clew. When Julia leaves Holland a second time, at which point the Polkingtons are forced to give up their house in Marbridge, the reader is introduced to the most important space concerning the novel’s concept of reformulating middle-class ethics: a small cottage in Norfolk, which Julia inherits, stands in opposition to everything the protagonists and the reader have encountered so far. Here in Norfolk Julia creates her own, very unique Utopia that defies existing social expectations. The cottage forms a microcosm that –- opposed to Marbridge –- offers a new, invigorating set of middle-class moralities in what would otherwise be a lower-class setting. Julia invites the rejected Captain Polkington and Jonny Gillat, regardless of their age and status, to live with her. Her small cottage turns into something that London, as the capital, fails to be: it is a commonly shared home to various demographics and thus a true, if nostalgic, representative of English society. The cottage houses the ones who fought for the empire, like Captain Polkington. The cottage cares for the ones who need looking after, like Jonny Gillat. And the cottage is self-sufficient; it does not depend on state funded-pensions or salaries. The cottage is by connotation lower class, yet the implemented values are perfectly middle-class.

<15> Whereas the house of the Polkington’s in Marbridge is a space of exclusion, the cottage represents an inclusive utopian concept directed towards a regenerated empire. The function of the cottage’s utopian core is best expressed by Louis Marin, as cited by Frederic Jameson: ‘[The] utopian praxis is thus […] a schematizing activity of the social and political imagination which has not yet found its concept.’ (Jameson 11) Julia, who is looking for new moral guidelines, creates a discursive space, a testing ground that shall help to find a new concept for society. But as utopian as the cottage appears, living there is certainly not idyllic: ‘The house is not worth much; it is in an unget-at-able part of Norfolk, in the sandy district towards the sea and the garden and field are not fertile.’ (216)

<16> It requires hard work and discipline to live there. However, it is open to everybody who accepts this work ethic. Social acceptance does not remain the prime objective anymore, at least when it stands in conflict to morality. At one point, before moving into the cottage, Julia rebukes an uncle’s argument, who attacks her socialist idea. He understands Julia’s moving to this place rather as a sign of idleness and hence as absolutely unacceptable: 

‘I can quite believe it,’ her uncle retorted grimly; ‘lazy people generally do take to lying and stealing and, as I say, lazy is what you are. Sooner than work for your living, you go and pig in a cottage, because you think that way you can do nothing all day; lead an idle life.’ ‘Yes,’ Julia agreed sweetly; ‘I think that must be my reason — a nice comfortable idle life with the pigs and poultry, and garden, and cooking, and scrubbing, and two incompetent old men. I really think you must be right.’ (Silberrad 234) 

The infertility of this space introduces a temporal element: not only is the soil infertile, even more so is the small community. Julia and her two old relatives form an equally infertile triad. While the relationship is strong because based on mutual regard and respect, it cannot last long if it remains as it is and at that location. 

<17> At this point in Julia’s life moral standards finally are raised above social expectations. Julia would rather live like the lower classes than sacrifice her moral integrity: ‘Mr. Ponsonby’s … only answer was, “What will become of your mother keeping pigs and poultry and living in an isolated cottage? It would be social extinction for her.” “The boarding-house would be moral extinction for father [Julia answers]”’ (Silberrad 231). For Julia the primacy of appearance proves to be increasingly irreconcilable with her emerging middle-class values. She acquires this conviction in the sphere farthest away from London, in Holland: 

Money, it appeared, was not then the measure of all things; … these people whom her mother would have called market gardeners, trades people, it seemed, loved and reverenced their work; they thought about it and for it, were proud of it and valued distinction in it, and nothing else. The blue daffodil was no valuable commercial asset, it was an honour and glory, an unparalleled floral distinction. (Silberrad 50)

<18> This renewed set of middle-class morals and its work ethic, are adopted by Julia and signified by the bulb springing into a blooming blue daffodil. The blue daffodil is a super-signifier, representing comradeship, love, work, effort and most importantly honesty. After all, Julia was granted the bulb; she has not stolen the flower as she intended to. The blue daffodil stands for everything London lacks in this narrative. The Victorian practice of Floriography, or floral symbolism, supports this reading: in this context the daffodil symbolizes uncertainty, chivalry, regard and respect, all of which could be attributed to Julia. After a period of personal uncertainty and lack of self-respect, she establishes a sense of regard and respect for herself and her neglected family members and so turns into the chivalric romantic hero; a role the male protagonists fail to fill. In the end, Julia plants and exhibits this novel flower at a flower show in the very heart of London and the Empire: the Temple Gardens situated between Embankment and Fleet Street, the very place where The Royal Horticultural Society held the Chelsea Flower Show between 1888-1911. This process can be also read metaphorically. By planting the unique bulb into the fertile soil at the heart of London, Julia can be read as the one who revitalizes the Empire’s stagnant and declining society. Anne McClintock’s statement that ‘[W]omen vanish from the affair of empire.’ (McClintock 304) is reversed in The Good Comrade. Here middle-class women emerge as the backbone of Empire. Julia is presented as somebody whose utopian imagination is not futile but transformative. To conclude with Levitas and Sargisson: ‘Utopia must be transformative if it is to imagine a better world than the one [we] know. However, … utopian transformation doesn’t have to be located in the future, in a far-distant hope for a better place. Rather, it can be part of trans-formation in the now’ (Levitas and Sargisson 17).

Works Cited

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To Cite This Article:

Christoph Singer, ‘Gravitating Away from an Empire’s Heart: London in Una Silberrad’s The Good Comrade’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 9 Number 1 (March 2011). Online at Accessed on [date of access].