by Gaipa, Mark
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Edwin William Pugh (1874-1930)
Clerk, novelist, literary critic—Edwin Pugh is best known as an author of the British Cockney School from the turn of the century. Beginning his career as a professional author in 1895, Pugh went on to publish 33 works—mostly novels and collections of short stories—over the next 35 years of his life. His published works also include a couple of books on Charles Dickens, who stood as a model for the kind of realistic fiction about the working-class that Pugh liked to write. One of these texts, Charles Dickens: The Apostle of the People, was published by the New Age Press in 1908, and it previously appeared in serial form in the pages of the New Age as “Dickens as a Socialist,” running as twelve weekly installments in the fall and winter issues of Volume 2 (1907-8). Pugh's contributions to The New Age were not limited to his Dickens criticism, however; in the first six volumes (May 1907-Apr. 1910), Pugh authored 25 other articles on a variety of subjects—art, socialism, social and economic issues. Titles include “Why I Joined The Fabian Society” (01:03:40), “What is a Gentleman?” (02.20:387), “Socialism and Suburbia” (03.17:330), “Poverty and Self-Help” (06.23:533), and “Style in Modern Literature” (06.25:588).
Pugh was born in London, the son of an advertising agent, and he was educated at a London boarding school. At about the age of 14, Pugh began to work as a clerk at a London City office; he worked 10-hour days in this capacity for the next eight years (see Pugh's articles on “The Mere Clerk” and “The Mere Clerk Again” in Volume 1 of The New Age (01.22:342, 01.24:374, and 01.25:391). While still employed as a clerk, Pugh wrote and published his first book, A Street in Suburbia (1895), a collection of stories that treated the lives of lower-class Londoners. Encouraged by favorable reviews of this book and a subsequent novel (The Man of Straw, 1896), Pugh quit his job and became a full-time writer. Among the many books he would go on to publish are: King Circumstance (1898), The Shuttlecock (1907), The Cockney at Home: Stories and Studies of London Life and Character (1914), The Eyes of a Child (1917), and The Great Unborn: A Dream of To-morrow (1918). Pugh also published stories in periodicals such as Chapman's, the English Illustrated Magazine, and the New Review. Despite this great outpouring of literature, Pugh never lived comfortably off of his publications and fought poverty through most of his mature life.
Pugh's fiction largely goes unread today, and those critics who have read him generally accuse him of sentimentality and melodrama. In his day, Pugh was actively involved in debates about what constituted “real” realism, penning an essay by that title in 1916. Here, Pugh criticized writers for over-representing depraved lowlife in their work, insisting that the true realist must remain unswayed by social purpose and personal prejudice in order to paint a “picture of life in which the light and shade are in their due proportions.” Yet in his own literary practice, Pugh was often guilty of the very things he criticized, forsaking the ideal of photographic objectivity for maudlin portraits of unlikely characters suffering nobly from tremendous hardship. Likewise, if his ideal was to show how “light and shade” combine in real life, too often his fictional characters illustrate one extreme or the other. Rather than present a scientifically perceived slice of life, Pugh created (in the words of Vincent Brome) a “clash of middle-class values on working class values.” Pugh is also described as having recycled much of his own work in his later fictions.
- Vincent Brome, Four Realist Novelists (1965)
- Vern Lindquist, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 135: British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880-1914: The Realist Tradition (1994)
- The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction (1989)