Places: Room at the Top

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1947

Places DiscussedWarley

Warley. Room at the TopTown in Yorkshire’s West Riding district that is the center of a prosperous woolen mill industry. Not many years after World War II, people who have been made rich by the war are beginning to find ways to spend their wealth on grand homes, expensive cars, and other luxuries that were scarce during the war. Warley’s Cyprus Avenue, named after the trees that line it, symbolizes for Joe Lampton the grandeur of Warley as a prosperous community. Joe takes up lodging with Mr. Cedric and Mrs. Joan Thompson on Eagle Road at T’Top, a place symbolic of the heights to which Joe hopes soon to climb.

Merton River loops through Warley and is clear enough for children to use safely for swimming, another symbol of the promise of a new and better life for Joe in this community. Into this peaceful world bursting with good fortune the protagonist enters as “General Joe Lampton” who plans his attack carefully for acquiring his share of postwar wealth and position that he sees Warley’s elite enjoying in this world of theater, fancy cars, and elegant homes.

Little Theatre

Little Theatre. Amateur theatrical organization that Joe joins in order to make social contacts. The theater is the meeting place and performance stage for the Warley Thespians. There, Joe meets both of the women who become his lovers, Alice Aisgill and Susan Brown, as he plans his campaign to reach the upper levels of Warley society. His participation in the play The Lady’s Not for Burning at the Little Theatre introduces him to many of the upper-middle-class members of his community.

Sparrow Hill

Sparrow Hill. Area on the periphery of Warley that was once planned for development but abandoned. There, Joe and Alice first make love, and there Alice later commits suicide by crashing her car after Joe tells her that he is leaving her for Susan. Sparrow Hill is thus symbolic of incomplete dreams and abandoned relationships. Joe’s attack on Warley’s upper middle class proves successful, with Alice being the major casualty, one for which Joe feels an enduring sense of guilt even ten years after her gruesome death.

Dufton

Dufton. Yorkshire mill town that was Joe’s original home. To Joe, Dufton is the antithesis of Warley. The prosperous owners of Dufton’s mills do not live in Dufton. Dufton’s streets, such as Oak Crescent where Joe has lived with his Aunt Emily, are boringly straight and unadorned even by bushes. The houses are small and utilitarian. Even pictures have a strictly functional purpose and are not to be enjoyed aesthetically.

Dufton has numerous mills, a chemical factory, a cinema and fourteen pubs. The river that passes through it changes colors each day, and people often drown in its putrid waters. Even the beautiful snow of the Christmas season seems to be fouled in this grimy town. Joe and his close friend Charles Lufford refer to the town as Dead Dufton and call its residents “zombies,” the walking dead.

During the war, Joe’s parents were killed in their sleep by a stray German rocket that hit Dufton, and the shattered remains of their house remind Joe of a past to which he can never return.

Cumley

Cumley. Village on the coast of Dorset to which Joe takes Alice for a short holiday during which they seem to behave as husband and wife. Charles Lufford arrives after Alice leaves and advises Joe to continue pursuing the young and rich Susan. Cumley’s region, in which Thomas Hardy set Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) reminds Alice of a play in which she had the role of Tess. Her thoughts about the tragic Tess foreshadow the tragedy that soon will strike her.

Stalag 1000

Stalag 1000. German prison camp in which Joe spent three years during World War II. Rather than trying to escape and return to service flying in the Royal Air Force, Joe spent his time studying for the qualifying exams in accounting. The camp thus symbolizes his tendency to think primarily of his own interests.

BibliographyAllsop, Kenneth. The Angry Decade: A Survey of the Cultural Revolt of the Nineteen-Fifties. London: Peter Owen, 1958. Although this book was written at the end of the very decade it discusses, it remains the single best study of that period in British literary history. Its chapter on Braine uses interviews with the author.Braine, John. Writing a Novel. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1974. Braine’s own explanation of how he crafts fiction, the result of reflections on his teaching of creative writing, provides insights into the development of Room at the Top. Essential reading, in which Braine includes examples of how he planned and revised this novel.Frazer, G. S. The Modern Writer and His World. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964. Includes a highly negative evaluation of Room at the Top and, hence, is useful as a counterweight to more laudatory views. Frazer finds in Braine’s work a cheap style, inadequate understanding of the characters of Joe Lampton and Susan Brown, and silliness in thinking that a thirty-four-year-old woman is decrepit.Lee, James W. John Braine. New York: Twayne, 1968. A balanced survey of Braine’s background and upbringing in the north of England and a consideration of the four novels that he had published by 1968. The chapter on Room at the Top is a good analysis of the novel’s themes and literary style. The only book devoted wholly to a study of the author.Sinfield, Alan. Literature, Politics, and Culture in Postwar Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. A survey, written from a left-wing perspective, of the relationships between political change and literary production in Britain since 1945. It includes a chapter on left-wing writing.
Categories: Places