Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The fur-lined bathtubs of moral rectitude

Mark Lawson's analysis of why 19th century novels (a select few, anyway) make attractive options for tv and movie producers may be found here. It's an interesting read if you've been wondering why the Austen / Dickens / Brontë juggernaut seems to roll along with only an occasional veering off into the odd siding.  His chief argument comes at the end:

At their simplest level, each of these books features a couple whose union is impossible or dangerous: Cathy and Heathcliff face the bar of class and propriety, Anna and Vronsky challenge the adultery taboo, and Pip and Estella are thwarted not only by their starkly different social backgrounds but by her bizarre guardian... Fiction is driven by friction and taboo but, in most parts of contemporary society, we have created a society in which there are few obstacles to people doing what they want or being with the person they desire.

In other words, we've torn down the walls so convenient for characters to smash into, so contemporary life isn't interesting enough. Which is to say modern moral ambivalence makes for bad television.

It's arguable, I suppose, to a point.  Really what he means is we like straw men to tilt at, particularly in these troubled times.  It is, after all, excellent fun catharsis to watch people -- particularly women in corsets -- be persecuted for loving the wrong people, and yet how pleasing it is to think that it could never happen in this day and age. Or at least not in those clothes.

Update: Meanwhile, over at The Independent, D J Taylor wonders why we're still taking the 19th century's phone calls.


  1. there are more corsets about these days than you can imagine.................

  2. James Wood made a similar argument in his piece on why it is people from non-Western backgrounds who write most interesting novels in English these days. I think it was in his review of Monica Ali's Brick Lane. I am criminally simplifying here, but he argued that in those novels rebelling against traditions is still very serious business. The risks are greater, more courage required and so on. Love out of wedlock, adultery and divorce (and, I'd add, same-sex desire) are dangerous for a xeno-woman in a way that (he argues) it stopped being for the West-raised women.

  3. @rose: literally and figuratively! And yet does it count if it's a matter of choice rather than standard social practice, and if so, how does it count?

    @dto: I wonder, do we find these novels interesting because they're like the novels that used to be written in the west? or is it just that what interests us, as Lawson suggests, becomes a much narrower field in difficult times, so we're drawn to conflicts we already know and have made consumable? (And, to some degree, dismissible, because it happened to those people back then / those people over there?)

  4. Hmm... If the novels about (difficulty of) woman's freedom are a permanent interest of the reading public, I'm all for it. This interest also presumes a permanent interest in this beloved invention called the Individual. (Also pro, me.)

    But there's also the feminization of the reading public for the novel form. Fewer men today read novels than men, and that may also help the continuation of this interest.

  5. Do we know if there's been a corresponding shift in numbers for writers, i.e. more women writing in the novel form than men?

  6. Probably not, if this http://vidaweb.org/the-count-2010 is anything to go by. Plus, the awards stats are still tilted toward men, which may also be an indicator.

    This change is taking its sweet time.

  7. Those are interesting stats. I'm not sure whether I'm surprised at them or not. But now that VS Naipaul has unzipped his brilliance in public, we are given to understand it's a moot question.

  8. Ha, yes, I laughed about that the other day. Poor soul.

    But this stings, because it rings plausible:
    "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," he said.

  9. Comes over as what, one wonders.

    Anyway, isn't there that scene in A Bend in the River where his main character rapes a woman and suddenly his language slips into the passive? Apparently not even he can make the words his bitch.