Sunday, December 17, 2006

Campaigning Novels

I'll probably get shot down in flames for this post, but here goes.

In yesterday's Guardian Lucasta Miller writes about the recent discovery of a letter written by the Rev. Patrick Bronte soon after the death of his daughter Charlotte, which appears to disprove the established view that he was a domestic tyrant. Miller writes that it was Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte's biographer, who established this unfavourable reputation, demonising the Reverend in her attempt to present Charlotte as a victim and thus excuse what she considered the 'damaged imagination' which had given rise to what were seen as Charlotte's 'immoral and unchristian novels.'

I have been musing ever since why none of this surprised me.

Now there are many things I like about Gaskell, enough anyway for me to agree a few years back to write a serialisation of Mary Barton for Radio 4, and to work for a week on a treatment (until the BBC told my producer that sorry, their mistake, wires had got crossed, but there was already another writer-producer team working on the same project). And one of the things I like about her is her campaigning zeal. But the fact is that a campaigning zeal is not unproblematic - for a biographer (warping and supressing the facts in service of the campaign to improve Charlotte Bronte's image) or for a novelist either.

Gaskell's own biographer, Jenny Uglow, makes much of Gaskell's belief in stories (her biography is subtitled A Habit of Stories). Discussing the writing of Mary Barton, she says: Gaskell knew that stories had a persuasive power beyond that of rational exposition. However, the very wording of this sentence reveals Gaskell's view of stories as a means to a different end, in this case the (undoubtedly laudable) campaign to illustrate the plight of the working classes.

I know many people who love Mary Barton unreservedly, but all of these people are and always have been middle class. For some of us who hail from rather lower orders it's hard not to read this book without a sense of the sentimentality with which the characters are depicted, or a knowledge that this was a book written for the middle classes, or to get through the following passage without a sense of exclusion:
...what I wish to impress is what the workman feels and thinks ... there are earnest men among these people, men who have endured wrongs without complaining...
And, frankly, I find the novel schematic.

I feel similarly about some of the feminist novels of the seventies and eighties (excuse me now while I don my asbestos suit), in which organic aesthetic concerns were subsumed by a political voice - which is a hard thing to say because it risks seeming to endorse the view that all feminist novels were so.

But before someone writes and points it out, yes, I was on the judging panel the year Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories won the Portico prize - a work of impeccable scholarship and warmth which presents Gaskell in all her complexity. And, hey, I did love the TV adaptation of North and South not so long ago...
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