Monday, August 4, 2014
The Novel - Public Menace Number One
“Women, of every age, of every condition, contract and retain a taste for novels […T]he depravity is universal. My sight is every-where offended by these foolish, yet dangerous, books. I find them on the toilette of fashion, and in the work-bag of the sempstress; in the hands of the lady, who lounges on the sofa, and of the lady, who sits at the counter. From the mistresses of nobles they descend to the mistresses of snuff-shops – from the belles who read them in town, to the chits who spell them in the country. I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread: and the mistress of a family losing hours over a novel in the parlour, while her maids, in emulation of the example, were similarly employed in the kitchen. I have seen a scullion-wench with a dishclout in one hand, and a novel in the other, sobbing o’er the sorrows of Julia, or a Jemina”
- Sylph no 5, October 1796: 36-37, quoted in John Tinnon Taylor, Early Opposition to the English Novel (York: The King’s Crown Press, 1943).
My all time favourite author, a contemporary of this time period recognised this panic, and decided to parody it in her novel ‘Northanger Abbey’. Austen’s character, Catherine Moreland’s fascination with novels, especially the Mrs Radcliff sensational Gothic Horror stories, was a central theme to this story, and Austen was not above poking fun at her own occupation and craft.
Austen’s Mr Thorpe is very loud and robust on the subject of novels:
“Novels are so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones...they are the stupidest things in creation.” Northanger Abbey Chapter VII
Sitting here some 200 years later, it is a little hard for us to fathom the outrage, panic and controversy that a small thing like a novel managed to stir. But then, I guess it really shouldn’t be so hard to imagine when we consider some titles from our own era:
The Da Vinci Code; Fifty Shades of Grey; Lolita; The Colour Purple; The Harry Potter Series.
However talented the authors of these titles might be, and however popular they proved to be on the market, I daresay most of us would have heard something by way of moral panic for one reason or another.
And then there is our dear old friend Daisy from the very funny British comedy Keeping Up Appearances. Daisy is a voracious reader of the mass market paperback romance, living vicariously in the pages of her little erotic novel world. Onslo, her rather boorish, unattractive, slovenly husband, doesn’t quite meet her needs in the romance department. We laugh at Daisy, and she is very funny, and completely out of touch with the real world.
When thinking about some of the journey the humble novel has travelled, and seen some of the influence it has had, both positive and negative, it begs the question, what about the work that I produce and submit to the readers of this world. Am I a moral liability, or is there something more. I like very much this quote from Georg Eliot:
“If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally. I have had heart-cutting experience that opinions are a poor cement between human souls: and the only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings is, that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring, human creatures.” (George Eliot, Letter to Charles Bray, 5 July, 1859)
I bear in mind that when Harriet Beecher Stowe released her classic work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to the readers of her time, she had that intention: that her readers should better imagine and feel the pains and joys of those who were under the burden of slavery. This novel evoked moral outrage and controversy, and yet when we read it today, we do not understand the strength of purpose for which she intended it, or the influence it had on readers of her time.
I love to entertain my readers, and hope they connect with my characters and are deeply engaged with my plot – but I hope above all else that somewhere along the line readers will be moved, inspired, encouraged or challenged.
PS – I’ve just started a subject at University called ‘The History of the Novel’ – can you tell?
Author of Mellington Hall; Cora Villa; For All Time and The Heart of Green Valley Series
These thoughts were bought to you by Meredith Resce at 12:49 PM