17 October 2016

The Big Shift


by Janice Law

I recently finished reading Jo Baker’s excellent Longbourn, a novel that focuses on the downstairs folk of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In the Baker novel, the great events of Pride and Prejudice, a crucial ball, the arrival of the oh-so-eligible Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins’ visit, and Lydia’s elopement are but incidentals to the unseen workers of the Austen novel.

The Hills, Sarah and Polly and the soon-to-be added footman, James, have their own dramas and their own concerns, not to mention an enormous amount of work – pumping and carrying water, doing laundry, emptying chamber pots, building fires, making bread and soap, not to mention preparing and serving the daily meals and generally waiting attendance on their “betters”.

This is a novel long overdue and really enjoyable. Very nice, you say, but what does that have to do with mysteries? On reflection, a fair bit, because published exactly 200 years apart (1813, 2013) the novels neatly illustrate the evolution of story telling from a moral to a psychological focus, as well as a shift in focus from the gentry class to the world’s workers.

The downstairs characters in Longbourn are fully drawn in the modern sense with an emphasis on their psychological states and on their responses to a rigid social system. We get glimpses of their youth and childhood, and instances when sick or injured, their minds reach altered states. There is nothing comparable in Pride and Prejudice, where many of the same human passions are filtered through the author’s rational and satiric mind and served up in the most elegant terms for the dual purpose of comic effect and moral lesson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Longbourn which does a fine job with the workers of the household, is much less successful with their employers. Mrs. Bennet is probably the most convincing. Her backstory of painful pregnancies and deliveries fits better with the grueling realities of domestic service before mod cons. Elizabeth Bennet, by contrast, is almost unrecognizable, most of her rebellion and spark having been gifted to the novel’s heroine, the overworked but indomitable Sarah.

Given the difficulties of merging the two worlds, Austen may have been clever to leave the domestics of the Bennet household well off stage. Events that could be treated as comedy– or retrieved with a good deal of money like Lydia’s elopement – would certainly end in tragedy down in the kitchen.
After many semesters of teaching Austen, much of this did not surprise me. What I did find unexpected was, that despite the modern style of Longbourn, the characters of the newer novel were ultimately no more complex than Austen’s. Yes, we get more of their emotions, we get their sexual lives, and a broader canvas altogether, but they are not necessarily more complete and multisided for all that.

This is particularly true of the male characters. James and Tol, Sarah’s two suitors, are both too good to be true, while Wickham, charming but dishonest and corrupt in Pride and Prejudice, is a potential child molester in Longbourn. The greater depth of characterization in this case has led to characters who are less morally complicated.

Characters, it turns out, can be complex and fascinating in ways quite different from our current style, and there is no better example than that the chief of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes, who is much closer to an Austen character than to a modern detective. He has a brother with whom he is not close. He is prone to depression and overly fond of the 7% solution of cocaine. He is rude to everyone but not without sympathies up and down the social scale, and he is obsessive about all manner of abstruse topics.

What he dreams, fears, desires, remembers – these are absent, along with any personal entanglements such as bedevil every proper modern sleuth. And yet, he is by far the most famous of fictional detectives, cited and quoted and imitated and parodied. One of his cases gave a title to the best selling – and theatrically successful, The Incident of the Dog in the Night, and one of his comments heads a chapter in The Emperor of All Maladies, a biography of cancer of all things. He shows no signs of going away, nor do Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, who share some of his characteristics.

Will any of our many fine detective and mystery protagonists rise to a similar iconic status? Are there simply too many of them? Or is psychological completeness and complicated personal life somehow against them? Perhaps Sherlock was successful because he was like a great theatrical role, waiting to be inhabited by our imaginations, a child not of psychology and melodrama, but like the best of Austen’s young women, of the robust rationality of the Enlightenment.

5 comments:

David Edgerley Gates said...

Nicely put. It reminds me of Forster's distinction between flat and round characters - and one of his examples is Mrs. Bennet, who surprises you (in Austen) with an unexpected interior life.

Eve Fisher said...

I'll have to check out Longbourn, just to see the domestic side of things. (Although I'm already put off - somewhat - by the idea of Sarah having 2 golden suitors, which is pretty ridiculous considering the extremely limited pool available to everyone back in the day.)

I think iconic characters are still possible. What drives me nuts is how many are cookie-cutter cutouts; as I said back in "Jalepeno culture": To quote myself (sorry): "I've seen too damned many lead characters who are damaged addicts (alcohol/drugs/gambling/sex), and/or whose significant other was brutally murdered by a mysterious serial killer, and/or who are promiscuous to hide their longing for love or their lack of ability to love, and/or who has significant PTSD and/or traumatic childhood experiences and/or mental illness and/or OCD/bi-polar/etc., and almost all of them are obnoxious to everyone around them (and mysteriously loved despite of it)..."

Sherlock Holmes was unique when he came out - today the only unique thing about him is that the original Sherlock had unshakable integrity.

B.K. Stevens said...

Fascinating post, Janice--thank you. I wonder if Lord Peter Wimsey is an example of a detective who starts out as a Holmes-like character and gradually becomes a more modern one. In the early novels, he's a brilliant eccentric with only hints of an inner life. In later novels, Sayers develops his inner life more fully, reveals more about his troubled past, even lets him fall and love. I'll admit I like the later novels more.

Your description of LOUNGBOURN reminded me of other modern works that focus on minor (or invisible) characters from classics. MARY REILLY comes to mind, along with ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD--and, of course, GRENDEL. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.

Art Taylor said...

Enjoyed your comments on these different kinds of characters, and the differences between those children "of psychology and melodrama" versus these big "theatrical roles."

janice law said...

The account of domestic work in Longhourn is detailed enough to make any sensible woman thankful for electricity or at least for running water.

Lord Peter is an interesting case and think BK is absolutely correct. Of course once he and Harriet were happily married the mysteries pretty much dried up. A case for readers of be careful what you wish for!