Saville is Storey’s story of Colin Saville, son of an English coal miner, who grows up as one of the few in his village to get a good education. My feelings about Saville are complicated, because I can identify with parts of it. My step-dad’s dad was a coal miner; my mother’s father, an electrician. My parents broke the mold, in a way, by going to college, though they remained working class. I continued the new tradition by becoming the first person in my family to obtain an advanced degree.
I have felt at times much the way Saville’s friend Stafford describes him: “You’ve come from nowhere: they’ve put the carrot of education in front of you and you go at it like a maddened bull.” However, wealthy Stafford completely dismisses Saville’s ambitions: “I couldn’t do half the work you put into it…I can see…what lies the other side…Nothing…Take away the carrot, and there really isn’t anything at all. It’s only someone like you, crawling out of the mud, that really believes in it.”
And once Saville reaches “the other side,” he feels that way, too: apart from everything, both from the boys in the village, and from the boys in his upper-class school, having no career prospects other than teaching working-class kids like himself. As Saville’s girlfriend Elizabeth describes him, “Alienated from his class, and with nowhere yet to go.”
Saville frequently tries to find out why his father pushed him to become more educated. Of course, the father says, so he wouldn’t have to work in the mine. Saville retorts, “It’s supposed to be enlightenment I’ve acquired, not learning how to make a better living.” But when Saville sees that they do not push his brother Steven in the same way, he feels that he has been forced, and tries to force Steven to study harder, too.
Steven: “If tha’s not content…tha mu’n [must] start to change it.”
Saville: “I am starting…I’m starting with you.”
Steven: “Nay, tha’s starting with the wrong end. It’s the head tha hast to get hold on.”
Throughout the novel, Saville is called: a fatalist, a communist, an anarchist, a Calvinist, a sentimentalist, an idealist, and an opportunist. In other words, a man in search of an identity, since he has shed the most obvious one, coal miner.
Storey, in Saville, questions the dream of somehow doing “better” than one’s parents in a relentless way that most novels of this type do not. For example, in a scene where his mother is scrubbing the floor, Colin offers to help, but she won’t let him. It reminds me of a very similar scene in Betty Smith’s American classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: both mothers try to guard their children from the hardships of their own lives. But in Saville, Colin’s mother eventually tires of her son’s critiques of her life, and they grow apart. I agree with Storey’s ambivalence: our society tends to falsely associate education with money, and money with happiness, but the story is far more complicated than that.
If you’re looking for a quick read, this is not it. Storey pays meticulous – some might say excruciating – attention to detail. Over a hundred pages have gone by before Colin is admitted to the exclusive school that changes his young life. But I never felt the narration dragged. I felt rather that I was watching a deliberately filmed movie, a documentary almost, that creates a dismally realistic view of an English coal-mining village, and the place a boy can occupy in it – or not.