The Jealous God by John Braine was published in 1964, just a short while after his blockbusting Room At The Top and its sequel, Life At the Top. Braine was one of the original ‘angry young men’, those upstarts of English life, who had not been nurtured entirely by the conventional establishment, and who at least began their careers by attacking and satirising its safe conventions and patronising assumptions. At least that’s how they began…
By the time we reach the mid-1960s and The Jealous God, however, there are already signs – now overt where previously they had been only implied – of the author’s apparent yearning to ally with convention. His espousal of establishment thinking, however, seems still to be an uneasy relationship, still suffused with doubt and at least some guilt.
The Jealous God, like most of Braine’s work, is set in what was the West Riding of Yorkshire, with its uneasy marriage of coal, wool and engineering, alongside a deeply traditional agricultural sector in which medieval landowners still held their stake. Suffused with notions of class allegiance, the region’s inhabitants brushed shoulders as they walked the same streets, but they voted along social class lines for different political parties, displayed utterly different cultural identities and drank different drinks in different pubs.
Unlike Room At The Top, The Jealous God lives solidly in the lower middle class world of a history teacher in a Catholic Boys’ School. And that also, though not here forming an issue, would have been a Grammar School, so precious few working class lads would have been present in Vincent Dungarvan’s discussion classes, and even fewer of them would have ever have spoken up. It is the Roman Catholic faith of Vincent and his family that takes centre stage in the book’s plot.
Fifty years on a reader might be forgiven for assuming that homosexuality and child abuse might also figure as themes, but they simply do not. Vincent Dungarvan may regularly, albeit subliminally, question his faith, but he is never an abuser of it.
Vincent is a teacher. He’s educated, but perhaps also pedantic and just a little pedestrian. We rarely, in fact, follow him into the classroom and, unlike most teachers, he hardly ever talks about his work in his hours of relaxation. He rarely spends his time marking, it seems. He is already thirty years old and remains an unmarried virgin. His mother, a devout, guilt-besmirched widow, really did hope that he might become a priest, but by innuendo worries that he is continually sinning, either by lack of conscience or embrace of Onan.
Vincent, himself, seems not really to have had a past. His present begins on page one and rather progresses from there. One feels there might be more to tell, but nothing much is shared. He has two brothers, one who drinks rather too much and neglects his child-laden and frustrated wife. The other, more successful but inferior intellectually, seems to be a pillar of familial convention, even down to seventeen inch televisions and house extensions. Vincent also has a grandmother who seems pious, philosophical or pragmatic at whim. Grandparents often are.
John Braine’s book proceeds to examine events that see Vincent in the arms of two different married women, both, for different reasons, remaining unavailable until he can break free of the manacles of his own and his mother’s faith, a seemingly impossible ask. Guilt associates with momentary ecstasy, always mingled with disbelief and self-doubt. He seems willing to be flexible, but reverts to type whenever he starts to bend. Eventually, and unfortunately, he becomes something of a vehicle for the statement of women’s dilemmas, though these were probably not at the forefront of the author’s intentions. Though Vincent appears to want to espouse convention, the circumstances in which he finds himself, alongside his own reactions to them repeatedly place him at odds with the very assumptions he deep down wants to uphold. And so there’s questionable parentage, dilemmas of ideology and bucketsful of guilt to negotiate, especially as he negotiates with his own conscience as to what do about Laura, the apparently unlucky librarian. Laura’s own dilemmas are the more interesting, but we approach them only via Vincent’s interests.
But what is eventually fascinating is how John Braine conveniently offers his characters redemption. Having apparently begun as a free spirit, Vincent eventually finds himself willingly espousing convention, albeit in circumstances he could never have envisaged. As a snapshot of its time, The Jealous God remains a thoroughly engaging book. As a catalogue of how its author migrated from angry young man to conventional conservative, it is both informative and vivid.