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Problems With Novels, and Problem Novels

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So, I was looking over the comments last night, and there are just a few things…

The first is that I don’t think it’s quite fair to saddle Anne Perry with whatever is going on on  modern university campuses, since she never went to university.  However it is Perry decided on her moral and political commitments, it didn’t come from being lectured by her RA during Diversity Week.

But something else bothers me about ascribing the particular issues here–a concern to see women treated like adult human beings (and not just “equals”)–as coming from that source.  It makes it sound as if that issue were something faddish, taken seriously only by a minority of insular intellectuals locked away in an ivory tower.

But the Victorian fad–and it was a Victorian fad–for treating women like mental defectives had its critics even among the Victorians, and is now almost universally acknowledged to have been a bad idea.   I’d bet that there were more dissenters from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionism than there are–at least in the US and Britain these days–from the stand Perry takes in her books.

As for the novels various people have suggested–I haven’t read most of them.  I have, however, read Ellis Peters, and I can say with some certainty that she does not (at least while she’s writing those) “live in” the Middle Ages. 

She writes modern mystery novels in fancy dress, which is what most of the writers of “period” mysteries do, almost necessarily.    If you want to see a mystery novel written by somebody “living in” the Middle Ages while he’s doing it, the book is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. 

Peters is a lot of fun, and she writes well, but she is in no sense giving us–or even trying to give us–books that “live in” the Middle Ages.

And there’s nothing particularly wrong with that.   Books like that can be a lot of fun.  And most of us would not really have much fun with books that actually “lived in” the middle ages, or ancient Rome.  They were not, in general, places we would find it congenial to live.

But Robert said this:

>>>But it seemed to me that every crime I ever read about in an Anne Perry Victorian came about, not through the eternal motivations of greed, lust, envy and wrath, but because of specific laws and customs corrected on the modern university campus. (BREACH OF PROMISE is a particular case in point, by the way.)<<<

And that brings up two things.

First is the simple fact that if I’m  dealing with an historical period, I should hope that my mystery would in some way involve “specific laws and customs” whether those are corrected on the modern university campus or not. 

I’d think it was inevitable that greed and lust and envy would express themselves differently in different periods, and be a danger (or not) during different periods,  because of the different laws and customs of that period. 

Think of what vast differences there are between the way we now treat charges of rape than in the way it was treated even in the 1950s.    What would be a strong enough motive for murder now (for self-protection, given the chance of 45 years on the sex offender registry) would have made very little sense in 1840.

I agree that the Victorians had their virtues as well as their vices, but I think Anne Perry pays them tribute on almost every page. 

I also think she’s writing what is in fact a recognizable kind of Victorian novel–the “problem novel.”    For that, you can find George Eliot (and writing on the same problem, too) as well as Thomas Hardy in England, Dreisser and James T. Farrell in the US, and Ibsen writing plays over in Scandanavia. 

The clash of the basic human drives and weaknesses with the social customs and laws of the time is what I find so marvellously wonderful about A Breach of Promise.  Neither Keelin Melville nor Delphine Lambert would have to do, now, what they have to do then to pursue their ambitions…but the ambitions themselves are timeless.

I don’t think Perry “disapproves” of Victorian society any more than George Eliot did, or Hardy, or even Dickens.  In fact, she often disapproves less. 

And I don’t think the issue Perry is most concerned with is something modern that shouldn’t be projected back to the Victorian era.  The issue was, in fact, one of the hot topics of that era.  If it hadn’t been, there would have been no Married Women’s Property Act, and no eventual female suffrage.

But you can take it back a lot further than that.  You can find protests against the way women are perceived and treated going all the way back to the Middle Ages in Britain, and probably farther back than that. 

I’ll stick to my guns–I think A Breach of Promise is a really wonderful book. 

And I don’t think it’s preachy, faddish, or an exercise in fashionable politics or self-congratulation.

Written by janeh

May 18th, 2011 at 8:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Problems With Novels, and Problem Novels'

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  1. Maybe I should read “Breach of Promise”. I liked her earlier books a lot, especially the Pitt ones, and then I seemed to go off them a bit. I’m not sure why. Didn’t she get into WWI at one point? I tend to avoid war books unless they’re set much further in the past as a side-effect of giving myself nightmares in my teens. And although I do think that I should be able to enjoy someone’s work even if I disagree with that person’s politics or actions, I have to admit that I found the news of her past a bit off-putting in a way that, say, rabid political views int the author that aren’t front and centre in the novel, aren’t.


    18 May 11 at 12:40 pm

  2. How do I get myself into these things?
    There is nothing technically wrong with Anne Perry. She keeps track of her plots and sub-plots. Her characters act consistently, and her clues are valid. Her historical research is thorough. Her dialogue never grates, which is tricky for historicals. I read several of the early Pitts, including the first, and of the Monks STRANGER IN THE MIRROR, BREACH OF PROMISE and I think two more in between. There are many authors I haven’t given a second bite.

    So why am I not shouting “WONDERFUL! WONDERFUL!?”

    1. One more time with feeling, DE GUSTIBUS NON DISPUTANDUM EST. If we all liked the same things, about 300 novelists would be filthy rich, and everyone else would starve. There are people out there who think MONSTROUS REGIMENT, THUD! and UNSEEN ACADEMICALS are first-rate Terry Pratchett. I am not one of them. For me, the preachiness setting was too high, but not for them.

    2. Too many times to the well. One novel showing how Victorian beliefs on the role of women tripped them up is a fine thing, and everything Jane says about crime derived from the laws and customs–and about contemporary dissent from said laws and customs–is perfectly true and valid. I don’t even disagree about the problems caused. They were reacting against the Georgians, and they didn’t get it right. But after ten or fifteen novels, it’s fair to ask whether the Victorians had any other laws and customs. Has anyone else had a professor dedicate his class to enlighting his students on some cause or another? You start out agreeing with the instructor, and after half an hour or so of hectoring, you begin to wonder whether something might not be said in favor of racial stereotyping/customary sexual roles/monoculture agriculture or whatever else he’s preaching against.

    3. It’s pretty well a dead horse she’s flogging. Writing in favor of careers open to women today ranks right up there with denouncing segregation or standing up against hereditary absolute monarchy. Why not, just for variety, expose a practice still defended today? Or one they got right that we get wrong? Lord Dunsany did a nice short story about an Indian wizard going to the industrial heart of England and offering to rid them of the smoke demon which oppressed them. And HE did it when there was no environmental movement worth mentioning. But of course he was a fantasy writer, so he doesn’t count.

    4. The university left. Christian conservatives are not the same as social conservatives which are not the same as fiscal conservatives. There is a Marxist left, a labor left and several racist lefts. I use the term “university left” for those more inclined to see societal deficiencies than individual failings–the ones who think we can bring about the Millenium with a more “progressive” tax rate, more laws–especially anti-discrimination laws–and more lectures. The adherents don’t have to be professors, any more than one has have passed through a military academy to be a militarist. If someone has a better description than “university left” for the set of attitudes I described, I’m open to suggestions.

    And in a way, none of this matters. When I look at a new title and think “there’s Anne Perry, whaling away at the Victorians again” instead of focusing on plot and character, the fun’s gone and it’s time to find a new author whether I’m “objectively” right or not. No one’s paying me to read these things, and I can’t be convinced to enjoy them.


    18 May 11 at 5:51 pm

  3. I liked Breach of Promise a lot. In fact I like most of the Monk series. The Pitts I stopped reading – they seemed to get too wrapped up in some kind of weird conspiracy thing. But I like Monk and I like the Monk series. The WWI books are a different series, and are good too.


    18 May 11 at 11:06 pm

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