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Lucky Jim | Context

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Lucky Jim and the Tradition of the British Comic Novel

In Amis's obituary in the London Times, the English writer David Lodge describes his friend's work as part of the tradition of British comic writing (of which Lodge is also an example). In the "English comic novel ... satirical comedy of manners and robust farce are combined in an entertaining and easily assimilable story," he writes. Lodge goes on to mention "obvious [English] precursors" to Amis such as Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, and Evelyn Waugh.

Fans of British fiction will undoubtedly notice these writers' influence on Amis's works. Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones (1749), the first great "picaresque" novel—a work about a lower-class hero who goes on a roving journey through class and environment. Lucky Jim's James Dixon is at least lower-middle class, and he certainly is looking to change his circumstances. Charles Dickens's descriptions of ridiculous people are among the most vivid in all of fiction. Lucky Jim's Professor Welch is an almost perfect Dickensian character, pure ego and mannerism. P.G. Wodehouse, whose Jeeves novels (1915–74) are among the most famous in all of comedic fiction, is echoed in Lucky Jim's physical comedy—for example, when Dixon hides the cigarette-burned bedclothes from Mrs. Welch, or when he delivers his disastrous "Merrie England" lecture. Finally, Evelyn Waugh was a master of misanthropy (hatred of humankind), and Dixon's pessimism and sheer misery owe much to him. Amis even describes one of Dixon's expressions as his "Evelyn Waugh face." To say these writers had an impact on Amis, however, is not to say his writing is in any way derivative; on the contrary, it is delightfully original.

Britain's Post–World War II Years

At the end of World War II, in 1945, England emerged victorious, but the nation did not revert to its prewar power. The war had practically bankrupted England, and London was still in ruins after bombings by German forces. In 1947 England withdrew from its rule over India, marking the end of its reign as an empire. Rationing of food continued—though to a lesser extent—until 1954. The Victorian ideals of sexual purity and women's subservience may have weakened during the war, but afterward women were expected to return to their traditional role as keepers of the home and hearth.

Historians agree the British didn't truly feel the "weight" of World War II lift until the freedoms and revolutions of the 1960s. Postwar Britain was so restrictive—a culture built on the idea of empire, even as it crumbled; on propriety, even as the strains of rock 'n' roll music grew ever more audible from across the Atlantic; on chastity, as the 1960s waited, ever groovy, around the corner. James Dixon, Lucky Jim's protagonist, is stuck in the middle like Britain itself—awkwardly waiting for change and both reflecting and rejecting the mores of the past.

Taboo of Sex

Sex was a taboo subject in the British provinces in 1953. People were not supposed to enjoy it or talk about it, yet some people did both. This fluctuating taboo reflects World War II's loosening of moral constraints when women left home and stayed unmarried while working for the war effort and the attempts during the 1950s to bring the prewar morals back in a more buttoned-up way.

In Philip Larkin's poem "Annus Mirabilis" (1967), he tackles the conundrum of the time, arguing—with tongue in cheek—that sex did not exist in England before the 1960s: "Up to then there'd only been / A sort of bargaining, / A wrangle for the ring." As Amis and Larkin show in their works, this sexual repression did not work terribly well for anyone.

Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin

English poet Philip Larkin was Amis's great friend from college onward. Amis dedicated Lucky Jim to him, reflecting the resemblance between Larkin and the book's protagonist, James Dixon. In the 1950s Larkin was a librarian at Leicester University. As Amis told the Paris Review in a 1975 interview, "The young man surrounded by bores whom for various reasons he doesn't dare to offend—that was all there." Larkin read and reread drafts of Lucky Jim, encouraging Amis to "tighten" the prose and commenting on overwritten passages as having a "horrible smell of arse."

Their friendship was sometimes contentious, especially when Amis grew conservative and alcoholic, but still the friendship lasted until Larkin's death in 1985. As critic Christopher Hitchens, who knew both writers, explained, "Both men thought of boredom as a form of tyranny and also (more important) as a symptom of it." They felt the "bores of the world were not merely tedious. They were, by their dogma and repetition and righteousness, advertising an evil will to power."

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