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I'm Not Complaining (1938)

by Ruth Adam

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1295176,284 (3.96)75

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Set in a Depression era Nottinghamshire school, this is a bleak narrative of working class school life. We only get to know a few children by name- diligent monitor Moira, the criminally-inclined Hunts - as narrator Madge Brigson - a cynical but driven teacher - focusses largely on the adults around her and the world they must navigate.

Petty crime; left-wing riots; the constant scorn of society on 'old maid schoolmarms' - but, too,on the one glamorous, 'fast' member of the teachers. And the unhappiness of some reaching out for the 'joy' of marriage.
It's an enjoyable, realistic account of a time and a place, which very much tells it as it is. ( )
  starbox | Jan 7, 2019 |
Disappointing ( )
  kayclifton | Mar 14, 2018 |
I’m Not Complaining is a somewhat ironically-titled novel about a schoolteacher living in a working-class town in the 1930s. Madge Brigson is thirty, yet she calls herself and the other teachers she works with spinsters (ha! What does that make me?). The novel deals with the life of the school, the teachers, pupils, and the bleak, desperately poor town the school serves.

It’s definitely not an uplifting novel, made more depressing by Madge’s bleak outlook on her own situation. Madge is sensible and smart and devoted to her job, but she does have her flaws-cynicism being among them. There’s no sugar-coating any aspect of her life, and she has zero tolerance for foolishness. Madge is the type of character who complains about her lot in life while not trying to change it. It’s as though she enjoys complaining for the sake of complaining!

I did enjoy the author’s descriptions of the other teachers at the school. Jenny is the youngest, beautiful and also rather promiscuous (there’s a scene at the beginning that deals quite candidly with an affair she has that must have been more shocking for a reader when the book was published); Freda the communist; and Miss Jones, a spinster who sweetly dreams about the day when she can be reunited with her “friend” who’s in the Navy. Ruth Adam’s novel is extremely realistic in it’s depiction of a depression-era town, where people are losing their jobs. The author does a fantastic job of balancing the stories of the women who teach at Bronton school with the people of Bronton itself. I thought that the ending of the book happened a little too quickly and came from literally nowhere, but Madge’s decision is pretty true to her character. ( )
1 vote Kasthu | Aug 17, 2011 |
At the end of that week the winter began in deadly earnest, as though the cold days before had been merely a temporary substitute for the real thing. I had a persistent sensation, as we plunged deeper into those short, icy days, with their lowering fogs, that the town was plunging down with us. It was frightening. We all seemed to be one -- the huge husks of the great factory buildings whose heart-beats had stopped -- the grey, stained houses round them, the tragic men who stood for ever at street-corners, and the children who came to school in fewer and fewer warm clothes, because as the weather got colder they were pawned for food. I would like to have been detached from it -- a visitor, coming down to work and then going away. But I could not get the feeling of detachment. I was part of it, bound irrevocably to their miseries because my work was their children. (p. 154)

Madge Brigson is in her 30s, single by choice, and committed to the teaching profession. By day she manages a room full of primary school children; on certain evenings she also conducts classes for unemployed young women. The Nottinghamshire town of Bronton has been hit hard by the Great Depression; factories have closed and unemployment is high. Most of the students come from families who were already poor, and are now suffering even more. Despite the gloomy setting, there's a great deal of humor in this book. Adam provides amusing portrayals of parents, children, and townspeople, and takes shots at the government and the educational hierarchy:
We were all at loggerheads that day because the Scripture had been inspected. It seemed silly, because the Scripture is the one inspection that does not matter at all from the point of view of one's career. It is the merest matter of form. ... if you care to teach the children that Jesus Christ lived in the Ark with Noah, the only thing that will happen to you is that some old parson, wihtout any power at the Office at all, will gently remonstrate with you, and the next inspection will be by a member of some religious sect who probably believes something equally odd about Bible history himself. So I did not worry. (p. 43)

Madge's co-workers are a varied lot: Miss Harford is the no-nonsense head teacher. Other teachers include an older woman, Miss Jones; middle-aged Miss Thornby; Freda Simpson, a firebrand with communist leanings; and the beautiful and somewhat promiscuous Jenny Lambert. In those days, teachers had to leave their jobs when they married. Madge and her colleagues have resisted societal pressures, but found that it's not always easy to be an independent woman. Through a year in the life of these strong women, Ruth Adam serves up excellent social commentary on the role of women in society. Each woman has a life-changing experience -- some more so than others. There are moments of deep emotion; Madge herself has to cope with sudden tragedy, and the reader is right there, sharing her grief. Madge is also faced with some significant decisions that will set her course for some time to come. I was pleased with the way Adam handled these issues, ensuring Madge could serve as a role model for others in her day. ( )
5 vote lauralkeet | Aug 26, 2009 |
In I'm Not Complaining, the narrator is the type who tells it like it is with no interfering idealism or sentimentality. She's a teacher in a school for poor children in an industrial town in Northern England and if you're looking for "if I can reach just one child"-style idealism a la "Up the Down Staircase" you won't find it here. Madge Brigson has no illusions about her students or how most of them will turn out, and sometimes the modern reader will find her a bit harsh in her judgments but she is certainly not without compassion or genuine feeling. I think it's her utter lack of hypocrisy that makes the narrator, and thus this novel, so appealing. ( )
3 vote patience_crabstick | Aug 21, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ruth Adamprimary authorall editionscalculated
Morgan, JanetIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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A moderate livelihood we're gaining,
In fact we rule,
A National School,
The duties are dull, but I'm not complaining.

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One Monday morning a remarkable apparition turned up, with a complaint.
"If the house burns down, save the books first," she called, as I made off with her mother's work done up in a bundle. (Introduction)
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"Squalor did not frighten me...But somewhere beneath it all was a live, burning thread that ran through these human miseries that was not just mismanagement, nor stupidity nor a faulty social system, but something living, primitive, terrible - something I dare not look in the face"Madge Brigson is a teacher in a Nottinghamshire elementary school in England in the 1930s. Here, with her colleagues - the beautiful, "promiscuous" Jenny, the ardent communist Freda, and the kind, spinsterish Miss Jones - she battles with the trials and tribulations of their special world: abusive parents, eternal malnutrition, inspectors' visits, staff quarrels and love affairs. To all this Madge presents an uncompromisingly intelligent and commonsensical face: laughter is never far away as she copes with her pupils, the harsh circumstances of life in the Depression, and her own love affair. For Madge is a true heroine: determined, perceptive, warm-hearted; she deals with life, and love, unflinchingly, and gets the most out of the best - and worst - of it. 

Ruth Adam taught in a Nottinghamshire school before going to write a dozen novels, a biography of Beatrice Webb, and a history of feminism in the twentieth century.  When first published in 1938, 'I'm Not Complaining' was hailed "as a unique good thing...a piece of art."  With its passionate social commentary, this novel will remind readers of Bel Kaufmann's Up The Down Staircase.
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