Review: Rosie Hogarth

Working-class, 1950s London was not as Rosie as it seemed

By David Herman, January 31, 2011

Alexander Baron
Five Leaves, £9.99

This has been an exciting time for admirers of Alexander Baron, one of the best Jewish novelists and TV dramatists of his generation. Rosie Hogarth is his fourth novel to be republished over recent months and it fills in some interesting gaps in his development and raises some fascinating questions about Jewish working-class writing after the war.

Baron started out as a novelist in 1948, with his bestselling war novel, From the City, From the Plough, which sold over half-a-million copies, and followed it in 1951 with this second, very different, war novel. Rosie Hogarth (1951) follows its hero - Jack Agass, an ex-serviceman who has worked overseas since the war - into civilian life as he returns to the Angel, where he grew up, in search of stability.

An orphan, taken in by Kate Hogarth and her family, Agass seeks what has always eluded him: domesticity and security --- and seems to have found both with Joyce Wakerell, a young woman from a respectable working-class family.

All seems well for the young couple, but Jack is torn between his wish to settle down with Joyce and his unresolved feelings for the mysterious Rosie Hogarth.Jack's choice is the time-old conflict between "two kinds of women". Joyce embodies domesticity, propriety and marriage. She wants to save up for a home and is thrilled to have a joint bank account.

It is the old conflict between ‘two kinds of women’

Rosie is single, divorced, and represents - in Jack's mind, at least - passion, sex and a bigger world beyond working-class Lamb Street, with its pub, football and Cockney mateyness. The choice leads to an explosive climax, with shades of 19th-century melodrama, when we discover some surprising truths about Rosie Hogarth.

The novel was a turning-point for Baron. It is his first novel of three written throughout a decade exploring aspects of working-class London, past and present. Few post-war novelists have written as well about London, something that Andrew Whitehead explores in his excellent Introduction.

But the working-class naturalism of Rosie Hogarth was also a kind of cul-de-sac. The striking absence of Jewish characters and subjects and the ambivalence about working-class Londoners (with strong echoes of 1984) led Baron to try new things as a writer. His outstanding gift for dialogue and narrative led him to a second, parallel, career as a television dramatist, best-known for his adaptations of the classics.

But some of the tensions and silences in Rosie Hogarth also suggest some of the bigger problems that faced Jewish post-war writing in general.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011