A Poor Man’s House
...being the book that showed how thrift can be a vice
In 1906, Stephen Reynolds abandoned his prosperous middle class existence and went to live in ‘a poor man’s house’. He became lodger to a fisherman’s family on the south-western coast of England, squeezed into a poky little cottage along with fishing-tackle, cats, wet socks, oily fish, Bob and Main Woolley and any number of noisy, grimy-faced children, and recorded his growing admiration for the fishing families’ way of life in a sensitive and imaginative journal.
A Poor Man’s House is a compilation of extracts from this journal Published in 1908, it was raptuously received, even by such celebrated contemporaries as Conrad, Galsworthy and Bennett The journal was meant to be the basis of a novel; fortunately, it remained intact in this highly personal form— a hotch-potch of dialogue, rumination, misspelt postcards sent to him by fishermen, poetry, polemic and sea-shanties. Its freshness and authenticity allow Reynolds to get away with a degree of sentimentality and uncritical dogmatism that would have grated in a more polished form.
Reynolds’ purpose was to convey the true quality of the fishing families’ lives to a prejudiced middle-class. He argued, for example, that thrift (a favourite middle-class virtue) becomes a ludicrous concept when the money that comes into a household is so meagre and so irregular that any attempt to create savings is laughable. If there were to be some wonderful windfall, then its rarity would justify spending it soon: when you are this poor, there is never going to be a time when you can afford to splash out— you have to do it whenever you can, for your humanity’s sake. To be nervously laying by for the future at all times is to descend to soullessness.
The openhandedness of lucky fishermen sharing out their catches with their hungrier fellows on shore taught Reynolds that it wasn’t ignorance but a warmer sense of priorities that governed the apparent thrift-lessness of the poor, an ability to respond to the human needs of the moment The fishermen, he decided, were, like the sea, inwardly large.
Several episodes in the book illustrate Reynolds’ distaste for the meanness of the rich who dare patronise the poor for mismanaging money, while themselves making the elementary error of putting profit before human dignity. At the local regatta, for instance, the tourists offer small prizes to the winners of the boat race; they love to watch the poor men scramble to win a little loot What they don’t know is that the fishermen always pool the prize money and share it out between them. The ‘scramble’ at the finishing post is a fake: a private arrangement among the poor that preserves their dignity and dissociates them from the patronage on offer.
How has this cultural divide between the classes come about? Reynolds argues that the poor live close to the primal realities of life — birth, death, risk, starvation. The gentlefolk’ live on the surface of life, on perpetual holiday; their crises are no more than dents to their comfort, not threats to their existence.
This disconnection from hard, external reality is reflected in their superficial personalities: they live on the level of manners and masks, out of touch with other people, out of touch with themselves. Like a compliment paid with cold eyes, their textbook good manners— which pretend to lubricate social intercourse — actually reinforce the barriers between people.
But the poor cannot avoid reality and they live connected to their real feelings, which pour out nakedly: the Woolleys shout or weep in public, swear constantly ‘You danged ol’ fule!’, but when they show affection you can rely on that, too, springing from the heart. A gentleman, by contrast, would only invite you formally to dinner — ‘next Friday’, never to ‘potluck tonight’ — if he is feeling extra friendly; and if he is angry he will conceal his bark but will bite hard enough to ‘make his teeth meet if he can’.
This view of the situation puts Reynolds in a philosophical dilemma He doesn’t want his beloved fisherfolk to suffer material hardship for ever: but he is afraid that prosperity would divorce them from the very qualities that make them so admirable.
Reynolds does tend to spoil his case by overstating it — and perhaps even to invite the misunderstandings of solemn sociologists half a century later who looked on the poor as a cultural subspecies with characteristics like the inability to defer gratification’.
But his sincerity can be in no doubt He passes the final test, which must be how long he lived like this. He lived with the Woolleys until he died, aged 38— a brief life but a chosen one. He’d put into practice his own best piece of advice: ‘Better risk hell for heaven than lounge about paradise for ever.
A Poor Man’s House
by Stephen Reynolds (1908)
Oxford University Press (pbk) £2.95