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Ruralism, Masculinity, and National Identity: The Rambling Clerk in Fiction, 1900–1940

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2015


This article examines the place of the literary lower-middle-class clerk in the English landscape between ca. 1900 and 1940. It draws attention to “clerical literature”—as typified in works by Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, and Shan Bullock—and, more specifically, a subgenre that signposts the emergent interest in getting “back to the land.” At the heart of this subgenre of “rambling fiction,” the male clerical protagonist not only engages with the natural landscape on a journey through rural England but also explores notions of masculinity, heritage, and national identity. By focusing on middlebrow works, largely those written by former clerks themselves, this article argues that clerks were pioneers in drawing connections between a re-masculating exposure to the great outdoors—necessary for suburban, domesticated, office workers—and an appreciation of a particular palimpsest of England's history. In doing so, the clerk helped to popularize the continued association of medievalism, the South of England, and the rural “idyll.”

Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2015 

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1 Canning, Victor, Mr. Finchley Discovers His England (London, 1972)Google Scholar, 2.

2 Heller, Michael, London Clerical Workers 1880–1914: Development of the Labour Market (London, 2011)Google Scholar; Klingender, F. D., The Condition of Clerical Labour in Britain (London, 1935)Google Scholar; Lockwood, David, The Blackcoated Worker: A Study in Class Consciousness (Oxford, 1969)Google Scholar; Anderson, Gregory, Victorian Clerks (Manchester, 1976)Google Scholar; Wild, Jonathan, The Rise of the Office Clerk in Literary Culture, 1880–1939 (Basingstoke, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Wild, Rise of the Office Clerk, 12.

4 This article is based on the works of former clerks-turned-writers, although there are a few notable exceptions that demonstrate the widespread popularity of both the clerical novel format and the ramble narrative. See, for instance, later references to Francis Brett Young's Mr. Lucton's Freedom (London, 1940). Canning was a clerk, as were Shan Bullock, Arnold Bennett and Jerome K. Jerome; E. M. Forster was a tutor for a while, as was George Gissing. George Orwell was a bookshop assistant, and H. G. Wells a draper.

5 Carey, John, Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880–1939 (London, 1992)Google Scholar, 58.

6 Clapson, Mark, Invincible Green Suburbs, Brave New Worlds: Social Change and Urban Dispersal in Post–War England (Manchester, 1998)Google Scholar, 6; Crossick, Geoffrey, ed., The Lower Middle Class in Britain: 1870–1914 (London, 1977)Google Scholar, 97.

7 See, for instance, discussions about organizations such as the Manchester YMCA Rambling Club, the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers, and the Ramblers’ Association in Prynn's, DavidThe Clarion Clubs, Rambling and the Holiday Associations in Britain since the 1890s,” Journal of Contemporary History 11, nos. 2–3 (July 1976): 6577CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Jerome, Jerome K., Three Men on the Bummel (London, 1994)Google Scholar, 207.

9 See Tebbutt, Melanie, “Rambling and Manly Identity in Derbyshire's Dark Peak, 1880s–1920s,” Historical Journal 49, no. 4 (December 2006): 1125–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Solnit, Rebecca, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (London, 2001)Google Scholar.

10 Clerk, Manchester, A Fortnight's Ramble through some of the more beautiful and interesting counties of Old England (Manchester, 1859)Google Scholar; Hughes, Thomas, The Scouring of the White Horse: or, the long vacation of a London clerk (London, 1859)Google Scholar.

11 See Wells, H. G., Love and Mr. Lewisham (London, 1900)Google Scholar; George Gissing, Mr. Brogden, City Clerk: A Queer Episode in His Life (London, 1899); Jerome, Jerome K., Three Men in a Boat (Bristol, 1889)Google Scholar; and Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel.

12 See, for example, Brown, Robert Weir, Kenna's Kingdom, a Ramble Through Kingly Kensington (London, 1881)Google Scholar; Brittain, Harry, Rambles in East Anglia: or, Holiday Excursions Among Rivers and Broads (London, 1890)Google Scholar; Knights, Mark, Peeps at the Past: Or, Rambles among Norfolk Antiquities (London, 1892)Google Scholar; Hedges, John Kirby, A Short History of Wallingford: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, to which is added rambles in the neighbourhood (Wallingford, UK, 1893)Google Scholar; Tasker, George Edward, Country Rambles … Romford, Hornchurch and Upminster (Illford, UK, 1911)Google Scholar; Collett, Anthony, Country Rambles round London (London, 1912)Google Scholar; Cox, J. Charles, Rambles in Kent (London, 1913)Google Scholar; Gawthorp, Walter, By London's City Walls (London, 1925)Google Scholar; Mais, S. P., Southern Rambles for Londoners (London, 1936)Google Scholar; and England's Pleasance (London, 1935). Note the parity of these “waves” within nonfiction travelogue also.

13 It is interesting to chart the social progression of these protagonists as middle-class authors appropriated the form. Canning is a clerk; Bowling is a traveling salesman; and Mr. Lucton, Brett Young's rambler, is a manager. Regardless of these incremental promotions, they all conform to the same character traits.

14 Woolf, Virginia, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (London, 1924)Google Scholar, 4.

15 Peter Mandler also notes the growth of the Labour Party in the 1930s and their dependence on Ruskinian doctrine as a crucial aspect of conservatism and open access movements. Mandler, Peter, “Politics and the English Landscape since the First World War,” Huntington Library Quarterly 55, no. 3 (Summer 1992): 459–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 461.

16 As one instance, see the republication of Victor Canning's Everyman's England (London, 1936) in 2011, at the height of a burgeoning interest in “nature writing”—a genre situated in a context dominated by discussions of climate change.

17 Solnit, Wanderlust, 81–103.

18 Ibid., 26.

19 Dent, J. M., The House of Dent 1888–1938 (London, 1938)Google Scholar, 292.

20 Mandler, Peter, “Against ‘Englishness’: English Culture and the Limits to Rural Nostalgia, 1850–1940,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 7 (December 1997): 155–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 160; Taylor, John, A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist's Imagination (Manchester, 1994), 4Google Scholar.

21 Chase, Malcolm, “This is No Claptrap: This Is Our Heritage,” in The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia, ed. Malcolm Chase and Christopher Shaw (Manchester, 1989), 128–46Google Scholar, at 129.

22 Wiener, Martin J., English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850–1980 (Cambridge, 1981)Google Scholar, 73.

23 Mingay, G. E., The Rural Idyll (London, 1989)Google Scholar, 17.

24 Alfred Austin, quoted in Mandler, “Against ‘Englishness,’” 167.

25 For further discussion of this fusion, see Matless, David, Landscape and Englishness (London, 1998)Google Scholar.

26 Root, Robert, Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place (Lincoln, NE, 2007)Google Scholar, 1.

27 Manchester Clerk, Fortnight's Ramble, 32.

28 Jonathan Rose suggests that Bast should have been a “mindless shepherd or ploughman like his grandfather” and comments on the “fragrant nostalgia for a rigid social hierarchy” within the novel. Peter Widdowson remarks on Forster's “detachment [and] condescension” towards Bast, commenting that his “seedy body” must be destroyed. See Rose, Jonathan, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (London, 2001)Google Scholar, 402; Widdowson, Peter, E. M. Forster's Howards End: Fiction as History (Sussex, 1977)Google Scholar, 72.

29 Forster, E. M., Howards End (Harmondsworth, 1961)Google Scholar, 301.

30 Mandler, “Against ‘Englishness,’” 162.

31 Alun Howkins, “Rider Haggard and Rural England: An Essay in Literature and History,” in The Imagined Past, 84.

32 Ibid., 90.

33 Forster, Howards End, 111.

34 Ibid., 113.

35 Wild, The Rise of the Office Clerk, 113.

36 Wendy Joy Darby, Landscape and Identity: Geographies of Nation and Class in England (Oxford, 2000), 173Google Scholar.

37 Guy Cuthbertson, “Leonard Bast and Edward Thomas,” Notes and Queries 52, no. 1 (March 2005): 87–89.

38 Forster, Howards End, 114, emphasis added.

39 Ibid., 44.

40 Readman, Paul, “Preserving the English Landscape,” Cultural and Social History 5, no. 2 (June 2008): 197218CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 207.

41 Forster, Howards End, 137.

42 Marsh, Jan, Back to the Land: the Pastoral Impulse in England, 1880–1914 (London, 1982)Google Scholar, 5.

43 This is a summation of the arguments posited by F. D. Klingender, David Lockwood, Gregory Anderson, and Jonathan Wild on the economic situation of clerks, and James Hammerton's, A. article on suburban domesticity, “Pooterism or Partnership? Marriage and Masculine Identity in the Lower Middle Class, 1870–1920,” Journal of British Studies 38, no. 3 (July 1999): 291321CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Carey, Intellectuals and the Masses, 146.

44 Carey, Intellectuals and the Masses, 146.

45 See Morgan, Nigel and Pritchard, Annette, Power and Politics at the Seaside: The Development of Devon's Resorts in the Twentieth Century (Exeter, 1999)Google Scholar, 29, as well as John Walton's many histories on the seaside.

46 Chesterton, G. K., Heretics (London, 1939)Google Scholar, 187.

47 Huxley, Aldous, Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist (London, 1927)Google Scholar, 9.

48 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 49.

49 Young, Brett, Mr. Lucton's FreedomGoogle Scholar, 86.

50 Ibid., 88.

51 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 53.

52 Ibid., 90.

53 Ibid., 60.

54 Ibid., 113.

55 Brett Young, Mr. Lucton's Freedom, 75.

56 Tomalin, Ruth, W. H. Hudson: A Biography (Oxford, 1984)Google Scholar, 173.

57 Marsh, Back to the Land, 246.

58 Tebbutt mentions that wild landscapes were increasingly viewed as offering “national ‘spiritual renewal’” in the twentieth century. Tebbutt, “Rambling and Manly Identity,” 1136.

59 Solnit, Wanderlust, 156.

60 John Higgins, “Mr. Finchley Discovers His England,” (accessed 28 August 2011).

61 Farnol, Jeffery, The Broad Highway (London, 1910)Google Scholar, 16.

62 Solnit, Wanderlust, 124.

63 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 250.

64 This is Tebbutt's summation of popular attitudes. See Tebbutt, “Rambling and Manly Identity,” 1138.

65 Ibid., 1134.

66 Hughes, White Horse, 22.

67 Ibid., 20–21.

68 Brett Young, Mr. Lucton's Freedom, 94–95.

69 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 43.

70 Ibid., 250.

71 Ibid., 58.

72 Ibid.

73 Brett Young, Mr. Lucton's Freedom, 54, 89.

74 It is suggested that while Lucton was a prisoner of war, his wife nursed, and consequently fell in love with, a soldier who later died.

75 Brett Young, Mr. Lucton's Freedom, 97.

76 Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 7.

77 Gissing, George, A Freak of Nature, or, Mr. Brogden, City Clerk (Edinburgh, 1990)Google Scholar, 26.

78 Brett Young, Mr. Lucton's Freedom, 52.

79 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 102.

80 Brett Young, Mr. Lucton's Freedom, 102.

81 Ibid., 227.

82 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 48.

83 Tebbutt, “Rambling and Manly Identity,” 1126.

84 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 159.

85 Wells, H. G., The History of Mr. Polly (London, 1969)Google Scholar, 22.

86 Morton, H. V., In Search of England (London, 1926)Google Scholar, 22.

87 Rutherford, John, Forever England: Reflections on Masculinity and Empire (London, 1997)Google Scholar, 51.

88 Bourne, George, “Extract from Lucy Bettesworth,” in The Open Air, ed. Bell, Adrian (London, 1944)Google Scholar, 243–49.

89 Hughes, White Horse, vi.

90 Hughes talks of the practical application of Richard's clerkly skills in recording this history—his “very good memory” and “short-hand.” Ibid., 18–19, v–vi.

91 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 145.

92 This is, as the preface establishes, a “compilation of … somewhat varied sketches” that are designed to entertain fellow city workers. It is not a ramble narrative on the same terms as some of the fictional works discussed in this article; instead, Cabot explores his short time as a commercial clerk, and in doing so, demonstrates comparable attitudes towards the open road.

93 Cabot [pseud.], The Musings of a City Clerk (London, 1913), 238–39.

94 Lowenthal, David, quoted in John Urry, Sociology beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century (London, 2000)Google Scholar, 150.

95 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 16.

96 Tomalin, W. H. Hudson.

97 Loftie, W. J., In and Out of London: or, the Half-Holidays of a Town Clerk (New York, 1875)Google Scholar, 17.

98 English Heritage Property List, (accessed 1 October 2011).

99 Hughes, White Horse, 12.

100 Mandler, “Against ‘Englishness,’” 155.

101 What is interesting is that the depiction DeGroot outlines has remained a popular one, and one that culturally has been characterized as the “true” England, even to this day. See DeGroot, Gerard J., Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War (London, 1996)Google Scholar, 290.

102 Colls, Robert, “The People's Orwell,” in Classes, Cultures, and Politics: Essays on British History for Ross McKibbin, ed. Griffiths, Clare V. J., James J. Nott, and William Whyte (Oxford, 2011)Google Scholar, 155–72, at 168.

103 Farnol, The Broad Highway, 16.

104 Ibid., 23.

105 Brett Young, Mr. Lucton's Freedom, 52.

106 Manchester Clerk, A Fortnight's Ramble, 5.

107 Canning writes, “I have written this book of the impressions that I have gathered by visiting, and living in, various parts of England, in the hope that on reading these pages you may find old memories awakening in you, or feel the desire to make the same discoveries yourself.” Canning, Everyman's England (Chichester, 2011), 10.

108 Gissing, Mr. Brogden, 27; Hughes, White Horse, 186.

109 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 13; Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, 11–12.

110 Muscular Christianity blended Christian doctrine with a public-school ethos in order to promote sporting competition among young men and encourage perfect manliness in both body and soul. It was, in part, a reaction to the so-called deviant masculinities epitomized in the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895. See Girouard, Mark, preface to The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (New Haven, 1981)Google Scholar.

111 Dent, House of Dent, 147.

112 Hughes, White Horse, 199.

113 For an interesting discussion of women in middlebrow fiction who escape and then return, see Hinds, Hillary, “Domestic Disappointments: Feminine Middlebrow Fiction of the Interwar Years,” Home Cultures 6, no. 2 (July 2009): 199211CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

114 Hughes, White Horse, 286.

115 Brett Young, Mr. Lucton's Freedom, 343.

116 Canning, Mr. Finchley, 251.

117 Brett Young, Mr. Lucton's Freedom, 343.

118 Victor Canning, “An Innocent Abroad,” review of Mr. Finchley Discovers His England, Montreal Gazette, 4 May 1935,,528357 (accessed 24 November 2011).

119 Hughes, White Horse, 198.

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