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Feb 19, 2011

Room at the Top: John Braine

Remember the name: John Braine. You''ll be hearing quite a lot about him.
Room at the Top is his first novel, and it is a remarkable one.

This is what John Metcalf wrote in The Sunday Times when published, Room at the Top, the original classic of 'ANGRY YOUNG MAN'.  Witten in the 1950s: "Room at the Top is the story of Joe Lampton´s malevolent rise from Town Hall clerk to industrial riches by marrying a millionaire´s daughter, sacrificing true love along the way to reach his goal."

The novel set in the North of England, with the working-class protagonist Joe Lampton ruthlessly climbing the social ladder by seducing and marrying Susan Browne, the factory-owner's daughter, and abandoning an older woman whom he actually does love; she tragically dies of drink.

The story happens shortly after the Second World War. Joe , the narrator and the main protagonist describes the events from his life, from a sober and superior vanitage point, as they happened ten years ago. He wants to make career, so he moves from his town Dufton to Warley where he works as an accountant, but wants to get rich as fast as possible, although he hates rich people. About his ambition, he himself says:

I was going to the Top, into a world that even from my first brief
glimpse filled me with excitement: Big Houses with drives and
orchards and manicures hedges.

In Warley Joe meets a woman, Alice, ten years older and has been married for ages, but that’s no obstacle to begin a secret relationship with her. He uses Alice as an object of pleasure and than dissmisses her as a “Neurotic bitch.” The clearly forgets his promise of love and loyalty to her:

I do love you, Alice, I’ll love you till the day I die. You’re my wife now. 
There’ll never be anyone else. I’ll with you every inch of the journey.

The affair between Joe and Alice shows us the awful condition of the society of the sixties. One day Joe meets the 19 years old Suzan, she is really beautiful, and comes from a higher social class than Joe, who can’t choose between his two mistresses, so he keeps on meeting both of them, with Alice it’s true love, but he decides to marry Susan. When Alice hears this news, she commits suicide. At this Joe cries in this manner:
“O merciful God, I thought, she’s committed suicide and left a blaming me.
That’s finished it.  That’s finished me in every possible way. Teddy’s eyes
were a pale  blue, as if all the colour had been drained from them; they
were probing my fac now.” P.217

Joe Lampton does suffer some remorse but eventually, like many social climbers, he achieves his heights by trampling on others. 

The book can be described as a mix of a love story and social story: a love story, because of Joe’s two relationships with Alice and Suzan; a social story because it refers to the problem of money and fame. Joe is obsessed by these things. It’s written in the first person naration, so each of one could imagine themselves in the main character. Like Dickens’ The Great Expectations, Braine’s novel also reveals the corrosive influecne of money in the morals of man, it can destroy one’s humanity and can be a source of alienation and corruption. Joe realizes the emptiness of the goals he had set for himself—
  I wanted an Aston-Martin, I wanted a three guinea linen shirt,
  I wanted a girl with Riviera suntan—these were my rights,
I felt, a signed and sealed lagecy”
—and the heavy spiritual cost of achieving them when he thinks of all “the muck one’s forced to wade through to get what he wants.”

What remains enduringly intriguing about Room at the Top is its portrayal of British society’s obsession with social class. Alice, for instance, declares that she would like to sleep with Joe. "Truly sleep," she qualifies, "in a big bed with a feather mattress and brass rails and a porcelain chamber pot underneath it." It reveals, In the 1950s, there were no morals in the society. At another level the interest lay in the psychology of the hero:
I saw a man sitting in a big shiny car. He'd driven up to the edge of some
waste ground, near some houses and factories, and was just sitting there
looking across at them. It seemed to me there must have been a lot that
led up that moment.

Although the novel was written in the early 1950s, and published in 1958, it is important to realise that it is set in the immediate post-war years, with an older Joe Lampton as narrator looking back on his life and the circumstances which have made him what he is today. He is a selfish man who thinks of himself:

It was clear and complelling as the sense of vocation which doctors and
missionaries  are supposed to experience though in my instance,
of course, the call ordered me to do good  to my self not others.

Room at the Top is, for  Laing, a "morality tale", which tells of “the cost of affluence". The words  of Joe about Susan which shows the conditions of the society and morality:

“I was taking Susan, but not as a Grade. A lovely, as the daughter of a
factory owner, as the  means of obtaining the key to the
Aladdin’s cave of my ambitions…”
The novel seems to argue that poverty cannot be decent, the poor cannot afford moral surplus and goddnes: “It’s astounding how often golden hearts and silver spoons in the mouth go together.”


  1. Who wrote this review?
    It does not even make sense. How can somebody speak of a classic novel such as this and be so unable to string a proper sentence together. Crazy!

  2. Oh, it's a long long time since I saw the film, and I may or may not have read the book. I was fascinated by Alice, played by a French actress whose name I know well, having read her autobiography, but what it is is lost in the fog of my brain, temporarily I hope. I was impressed by her in "La Ronde" on a train trip to London during the Festival of Britain. Tempus fugit. Can I come back to this?


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