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.
At the Dying of the Year
I was not unhappy to be asked to review this, the fifth Richard Nottingham novel by writer Chris Nickson, as I had not read him before and as I knew that the stories are set in eighteenth century Leeds, a place I know in its modern form very well indeed. Having no preconceived ideas whatsoever about the book, I didn’t really know what to expect, though Chris had provided, earlier this year via Twitter, a taster from his text.
The challenge for any historical novelist is to convince the reader of the authenticity of the story within its context; Nickson has researched his period well and gives physical location prominence in his approach. Leeds is depicted in its glories as the rich mercantile centre of the woollen trade and in its seamier squalor and this book focuses on the theme of corruption so precisely summed up by King Lear:
Thorough tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it. [King Lear IV vi 166-9]
By a plot which reminds readers of media accounts of the contemporary abuse of children by adults, we are made vividly aware of the truth of Karr’s well-known epigram “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Indeed, as I read, I noted how Nickson also achieves a sense of timelessness in the choice of language, both in dialogue and description, by using colloquial expressions still to be heard in Leeds; there is a feeling of familiarity about it that I am sure reflects the author’s personal Leeds background and ‘feel’ for the place and its people. However, the book has its own historical realism, where the central character, Constable Nottingham, moves in his family and professional worlds with the assurance of a man well created by his maker; indeed, the author establishes a convincing sense of personal emotion and single-minded devotion to his job, in spite of the dreadful clashes that occur between the two. What ultimately comes across to us are the fragility of people’s existences and the uncertain morality of those on both sides of the law; it is not a comfortable world and Nickson doesn’t flinch from demonstrating that there is no fictional control over real life. Yet there are strong signs of goodness and hope, friendship and fellow-feeling, so that the prevailing sombreness of the title and the events is somewhat modified.
The narrative allows for the separate perspectives of Richard Nottingham, his deputy, John Sedgwick, and a young police officer, Rob Lister, who loves the Constable’s daughter, to reveal their inter-related lives and to provide a greater ‘reach’ than a single viewpoint. They provide a formidable triumvirate in their knowledge and understanding of their patch, but they have their vulnerabilities and sensitivities and are not invincible in their work; they are sufficiently well-drawn to generate our sympathy and interest. The character of Leeds itself is strong and breathes into the tale a life of pubs, warehouses, corporation piles, stream and river and street and ginnel. Timble Bridge, over which Nottingham must go from home to work and back again, is a regularly repeated motif, associated with the Constable’s moods and feelings as well as his geographical place in the Leeds landscape.
All in all, I found At the Dying of the Year an engaging if somewhat melancholy read and I anticipate that Nickson’s existing appreciative audience will by swelled by this new novel. Congratulations to Chris on his publication day!