A physics professor from the University of Cambridge has objected to a sexually-explicit passage from Ovid’s Amores that was set as part of this year’s Cambridge OCR Board AS-level paper (the candidates sitting the exam will therefore mostly have been 16 or 17). Apparently, he thinks that the piece was unsuitable for students of this age, because the examination rubric states that ‘candidates should be able to … produce personal responses to Latin literature, showing an understanding of the Latin text’.
As an aside, I’d be prepared to hazard a guess that at least some of the examinees were not as innocent as the professor supposes. However, I do not need to speculate on how knowledgeable they may have been on the subject of the piece – an adulterous liaison between the poet and a married woman – because that is not the issue. If it were, then examinations would also have to exclude literary works that refer to all crimes, including murder, and all works set either in the past or in foreign countries unknown to the candidates. That would rule out the whole of Shakespeare, the whole of Jane Austen and most modern masterpieces. Surely the point of great literature is that it has the power to evoke an imaginative response in the reader that transcends his or her actual experiences. It achieves a fusion between art and life that yet maintains intact the distinction between the two. As Orhan Pamuk puts it so eloquently in The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, “We dream assuming dreams to be real; such is the definition of dreams. And so we read novels assuming them to be real – but somewhere in our mind we also know very well that our assumption is false.”
What is depressing about the good professor’s comments, however, is not their patent absurdity (he is a professor of Physics, after all, not of Literature), but the fact that they signal a deadening retrogressive trend that is in danger of spreading beyond the confines of the classroom. I was a schoolgirl during the tail end of a period when some school texts still in circulation were described as ‘abridged’ or even ‘expurgated’: for example, my rather old-fashioned grammar school still had many sets of the Warwick Shakespeares. They had been relieved of all scenes of a sexual nature and any words that could be construed as ‘blasphemous’. However, by then, these texts were still in use for reasons of economy, rather than to preserve the pupils’ innocence. When we came to the examinations, we were expected to have read the full-fat versions. Teachers advised us to refer to these in the Collected Works, or sometimes reproduced the excised passages on separate cyclostyled sheets of paper.
To my knowledge, the Latin texts that we studied had never been subjected to the same cleansing process: my Latin ‘A’ Level syllabus included the original works by Juvenal and Catullus – much racier than Ovid – as well as Ovid himself. I cannot remember having had any difficulty in understanding them or of their having caused offence or difficulty in the classroom. What I do recall is how fresh and original they still seemed, two millennia after they were first published, and the brilliance of the teacher who helped us to appreciate them.
I’m delighted that Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, has robustly defended the choice of excerpt in the Latin exam paper, because I’d hate us to slide backwards into a kind of dark age of political correctness in literature. Today we are scornful of Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, in which Cordelia marries Edgar and all the ‘good’ characters live happily ever after. We are positively amused by the efforts of Thomas Bowdler, who not only supervised the production of a ‘family edition’ of Shakespeare, but also considered that Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was too risqué for polite society, and ‘improved’ it accordingly. More recently, my generation was exasperated by Mary Whitehouse’s well-meaning but narrow-minded attempts to clean up television.
We flatter ourselves that we live in a more sophisticated age than Tate or Bowdler. Many of their contemporaries, in fact, looked askance at what they were trying to achieve, just as my generation ridiculed Mary Whitehouse. Yet fashions in morality and what is ‘acceptable’ often don’t progress in linear fashion, making the next more discerning than its predecessor. In the nineteenth century, English literature was propelled at first slowly, then ever more rapidly, from the exceptionally daring creativity of the Regency era to a decades-long period that celebrated anodyne writings in which sexuality had to be conveyed in the strange telegraphese of young girls’ blushes and young gentlemen riding hard to hounds to quell their natural yearnings. Alternatively, these characters just faded away, blissful in the knowledge that their virtue had not been compromised. Woe betide the ‘fallen woman’, whose plight was not recognised until the end of the century, when Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Ubervilles.
When I was at school, it was a commonly-held belief that Physics was a finite subject: that mankind had ‘cracked’ it and had discovered all that there was to it. I know very little indeed about science, but I have read that today Physics is an incredibly exciting as well as very complex subject, one which attracts the finest minds as scientists push back the boundaries of knowledge all the time. I both respect and am in awe of them. I would suggest that they have at least one thing in common with those who choose to make literature their life’s work: they build on the creativity of the generations that preceded them. As far as I know, there is no expurgated version of Newton or Einstein: the only limitations placed on their students concern the latters’ capacity for understanding. The same restriction, and this restriction only, should apply to those who study Shakespeare, Catullus, Juvenal – and Ovid.
I first heard of Sheridan Le Fanu when I was a postgraduate student. The supervisor of my thesis, Bill McCormack, had just completed his own thesis on Le Fanu and he gave it to me to read; it was a brilliant exegesis which managed to fuse literary criticism with a succinct account of the historical background of Le Fanu’s work (a much more common approach now than it was then). I was impressed and a little cowed by Bill’s accomplishment (as he probably intended).
I did not, however, attempt to read any of Le Fanu’s novels, either then or later, until this winter I embarked upon my project of interspersing my reviews of contemporary crime writers with occasional pieces on the work of some of their predecessors. Wylder’s Hand, which was first published in 1864, is now available from Atlantic Books (Classic Crime series); I discovered it in the bookshop opposite the British Library which I have written about previously.
As a work that sits historically between Jane Austen and the Brontës and George Eliot later in the century, and that was published just after Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) and a few years before Dickens died, leaving The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) unfinished, it fascinates with the mishmash of old and new fictional devices that Le Fanu manages to embrace.
His heroines, for example. There are two of them: Dorcas Brandon and Rachel Lake. Dorcas is sultrily and mysteriously beautiful (even though her name belongs to a famous literary shepherdess and is made yet more banal by the use of the diminutive ‘Dorkie’, which to modern ears has unfortunate overtones of ‘oddball’ and ‘odd dog’). Rachel is intelligent, independent, strong-minded and in the Jane Austen mould of heroine who thinks nothing of tramping several miles to the next village in a long dress, though also prone to fits of the vapours when accosted by some too-rude reality that distresses her. Then there is Uncle Lorne, who at first convinces as a sinister supernatural wanderer from the Melmoth stable, although he shows up unexpectedly so many times, making dire pronouncements before his keeper leads him away, that he eventually comes to resemble an extra who has wandered in off the set of The Life of Brian. To extend the anachronism, the elderly crone, Tamar, issues repeated dire warnings akin to those of Grandma in Cold Comfort Farm, though the nasty thing that she sees is wandering about, rather than confined to the woodshed.
If the heroines are alternately presented as ‘modern’ and objects of sentiment, there is no similar confusion over the two children who appear in the book. Little Margery ‘courtesies’ and says ‘please’ every other word, especially to gentlemen (no incipient emancipation for her), whilst the portrayal of the Vicar’s son surpasses every other instance of Victorian mawkishness that I can think of. If you find that Tiny Tim turns your stomach and decide to read this book, I recommend that you omit the chapters about ‘Little Fairy’ (his parents’ nickname for him – we never discover his real name) and his cloying relationship with his father (whom he dubs ‘Wapsie’, hilarious to 21st century ears). His mother is always referred to as ‘good’ Dolly, an epithet that she seems to have earned by being extraordinarily plain and not a little silly; she is a paler reflection of Mrs. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility. Also slightly sickly is the way in which Dorcas and Rachel pepper their conversations with each other with extravagant endearments – though this doesn’t worry me too much, because I remember that my grandmother and her friends used to address each other in a similar way. I long ago came to the conclusion that it was born of a kind of guerrilla feminism, a stratagem used by earlier generations of women to shut men out from female confidences as a retort to the way in which they were often excluded from men’s.
Le Fanu’s vocabulary at times shows a certain paucity. At first, I was impressed when he used the verb ‘glided’ to describe the way in which Stanley Lake, the anti-hero, moves, because I thought that it was a skilful way of conveying his insidious grace. However, as the story progresses, almost everyone is said to glide, including Rachel, Dorcas, the ghost/lunatic and the old nurse. I conclude, therefore, that Le Fanu just liked the sound of it!
I’ve been a little harsh in my judgment so far, or at least tongue-in-cheek; yet I finished this long novel and – despite the blemishes that I’ve indicated – was gripped by it to the end. So what do I think its good qualities are? What does it have to offer modern writers in search of example? Well, in the first place, there is Le Fanu’s detailed and convincing depiction of topography and what, for want of a better word, might be called ‘atmosphere’ to convey depth and mood. Secondly, there is the plot itself. It is a murder story which the reader thinks that he or she may have solved in the first quarter of the novel; yet Le Fanu succeeds in maintaining the suspense and keeping you guessing until almost the last page. Then there are the evil characters – basically, all of the men except the silly Vicar and Lord Chelford, who has only a bit-part. Although not fully-rounded in the manner of, say, Trollope’s tortured protagonists, there is an energy and enigmatic quality to their evil – and each exhibits a different kind of evil – that captivates. I particularly admire the portrayal of Jos Larkin, one of a long tradition of rapacious and pompous lawyers whose antecedents include Chaucer’s Man of Law and Dickens’s Tulkinghorn.
Anyone who is interested in crime writing and its history and the history of the novel itself is likely to enjoy and profit from reading Wylder’s Hand. I’m sure that Le Fanu wouldn’t mind our laughing at some of its more obsolete excesses. Perhaps we should leave a message to posterity that we don’t mind if succeeding generations laugh at ours. After all, the worst thing that can befall a writer is to be ignored altogether. I am grateful to Atlantic Books for helping to rescue Le Fanu from this fate.
Jonathan Pinnock managed to get a brief, but positive, mention in The Independent last week for Dot Dash. He was delighted at this, but also a bit sorry that Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens did not attract media reviews. Though Mrs Darcy is not a crime novel, it is a crime that newspaper reviewers passed over it. I here redress the balance, for a story in which George Wickham’s character is somewhat redeemed. I should also point out, on this happy 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, that no Jane Austen romance was harmed in the writing of Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens.
This book is to anachronism what well-rotted farmyard manure is to plants: in its fertile whimsical compost , you can expect to find flourishing together such conventionally-unrelated references as Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn and Sir Humphry Davy’s scientific experiments; Colin Firth’s damp Darcy shirt and Kurt Cobain’s Maggot; text (tux’d) messaging (oh-so-beautifully phrased) and carrier pigeons on the ‘superflyway’. If you are a Jane Austen purist, this book may not be for you, but don’t rush to damn it, for it is an ingenious blend of such varied stimuli as the tentacular spectacular Species film, the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, the Keira Knightley/Matthew Macfadyen Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Fast Show, together with a pungent flavour of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ghostbusters and Dr Who. Its wit sparkles, whether echoing (and/or making fun of) the language, characterisation and settings of Jane Austen’s novel, or making satirical references to the absurdities of our contemporary world and its preoccupations. The language of its characters, evoking the streetwalkers of Whitechapel, the rustics of rural England, the servants of big houses and their betters, is splendidly risqué and quite deliberately bad-pun-infested; it is full of sauce.
You can go spotting other references if you wish, for they are there a-plenty, such as a hint of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’s Lee Van Cleef, merrily moulded into an anachronistic ‘Lee Van Enfield’ rifle, or you can pick up on Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet’s minor reference to the likely failure of Jane and Bingley to conserve their wealth and to avoid being cheated by their servants, developed into a major outpouring of their resources to scamsters; and, talking of money, Bradford and Bingley and Northern Rock step up to the author’s line to salute us. The dialogue in the dirigible (don’t ask!) has echoes of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. A satirical swipe at the annual costumed Jane Austen Parade in Bath (and, thereby, at the Janeites of the world as a bunch of zombies) is a pleasing touch to those who value Jane Austen’s work as it is, not as her ‘fans’ would have it be. Jane Austen tourism comes under a blistering attack, too, and an in-joke (with lovely irony at the author’s own expense) slaughters all of us wordmongers: ‘Best to stay clear of them writer types in future – nutters the whole lot of them, apparently.’ Even the cheating tactics of car hire companies come under fire. Glastonbury Festival and its mud is sent wallowing in a cutting thrust at our society’s modern attitudes to drugs, sex and relationships, as well as at the establishment. The two pièces de résistance of the whole book for me, however, are Mrs. Darcy’s eventually wonderfully-assertive and liberated character and, if you’ll forgive a touch of irony from a genuine lover of Jane Austen’s novels, Colin, Lieutenant Pigeon: I didn’t need a satnav ghost to take me back to the seventies and Mouldy old dough (I can hear that gravelly enunciation clearly!).
Like Species, the way is left open for Mrs Darcy II and it will be funny and absurd, like this one: ‘Too, too silly’, but a complete romp. If you haven’t read Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, you should; it’s a frolic to enjoy on Pride and Prejudice’s birthday.
Oh, I didn’t mention Byron…