Sunday, March 27, 2011

Contemporary Women Novelists: University of Roehampton, Thursday 14th – Friday 15th April 2011

I'll be giving a paper about Andrea Levy at this conference at Roehampton in April - it should be an interesting event, and all the details are here. My paper is called 'Council Housing and the Politics of the Welfare State in Andrea Levy's Never Far from Nowhere'. Here's an abstract in case you're interested:

In Andrea Levy's second novel - a story about two sisters, Olive and Vivien, coming of age on a council estate - the characters are frequently defined by the spaces in which they live. We read that Maggie lived 'in a council house, not a very nice place', that Carol lived 'in a big house, but her family only seemed to occupy a little bit of it', that Georgina lived in an 'old', 'big' house with 'fitted carpets and cushions scattered around', while Eddie lived in 'a block of flats made of pale concrete slabs looking like the council had left it there to upset architects'. Levy draws attention to these markers of social class in order to raise questions about the contrasting experiences of the two sisters.

The estate in which they grow up initially appears as a 'fairy-tale kingdom of white concrete, radiant in the sun', combining the utopian ideals of architectural modernism with the cradle to grave provision of the British welfare state. Levy's novel shows, however, that the estate 'held the promise of decent living but didn't fulfil it'. Olive becomes a teenage mother who survives on benefits, while Vivien escapes to art college in Canterbury, feeling that 'I had grown too big for our council flat'. Olive encounters racism, while Vivien (who has a paler complexion, and tries to conceal her Caribbean parentage) is almost unaware that she is black. The novel uses the divergent experiences of its two narrators to explore the ways in which race, class and housing can determine our existence. Vivien believes that coming from a council estate had little bearing on her destiny: 'We had the same chances, we started from the same place and you chose to lead your life and I chose to lead mine'. Olive, by contrast, emphasises the paralysing stigma that attaches to council estate dwellers, perhaps especially black ones: 'I didn't have a choice, I never had any choices'.

Levy puts these divergent stories and opposing attitudes into the context of a political debate about the welfare state. The novel is set in the 1970s, when the social-democratic consensus that had prevailed since 1945 was starting to come apart and Thatcherite conservatism was being formulated in explicit opposition to it. Nigel argues that 'if you give people money it encourages them not to work' (p.203), and similar views are expressed by Olive and Vivien's mother. Levy's novel seems to defend the values of the welfare state from these attacks, but it is also alive to the ways in which well-meaning state institutions can intrude into our lives and cause alienation. This chapter will show how Levy's novel engages with the spatial politics of council housing, setting this into the wider context of state education, unemployment benefits, healthcare and youth centres, all of which feature in the story. In doing so, it will show how the novel intelligently reflects on a period in which the relationship between state and individual was being redefined.

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