#LetsDiscuss2020 – Reading Older Novels – TCL’s #DiscussionSunday #4.

#LetsDiscuss2020

Older novels… we’ve all read them in our time; often because we had to (for school). Many people hate reading them, or have a hard time reading them. Others love them. That made me think of writing about this topic:

Reading Older Novels.

Discussion Sunday #letsdiscuss2020

Not long ago, I was on a Facebook group where someone noted that they had just been reading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The person found it a chore, said “… daggone it was just so melodramatic. It wasn’t just a matter of there being one issue, everything was just such a big deal.”

Well… I think that this reader might have found it less of “a chore” had they understood Austen just a bit better. See, Austen was writing contemporary fiction at the time. She wrote what she knew. One of the things that she knew was that people in her circles could be terribly superficial. Obsessed with money, obsessed with making the right kind of match for their daughters, and obsessed with what society expected of (and from) persons from these particular classes. Austen also saw that the slightest misstep by one person in a family could ruin them all, and she didn’t like that in the least.

Begin AgainHowever, Austen couldn’t actually rail against these types of injustices in real life – it just wasn’t done back then. This was why I believe she decided to make fun of them, in a loving way. She amplified their troubles into melodrama, thereby showing people just how silly people could act, especially when something that was actually trivial seemed to be so vital to their own happiness. If we read Austen without keeping that in mind, we’re not reading the book that Austen wrote. This same thing almost happened to my husband when he read “Begin Again” by Ursula Orange. When I began to read it, I immediately realized what Orange was doing, and it seemed to me to be exactly what Austen had done in her books. That being, she was satirizing the society she was living in, which for Orange was the post Great War era. Once he understood that, he was able to enjoy that book for what it was, much the same as I.

It occurred to me that this doesn’t happen quite as much with novels by Dickens for instance, who also wrote contemporary fiction. Now, I’m not saying that misogyny is involved here (although that could be a part of it), but the difference between Dickens and Austen and Orange is that both these women were writing contemporary fiction, from within the same social strata that they were writing about. Dickens, on the other hand, wrote about elements of society as someone looking in from the outside, which might have felt somewhat patronizing at the time. However, I don’t think that was his intention. I believe that Dickens wanted to show people the harms caused by class-based prejudice, and various types of socioeconomic inequity, and he probably thought his books could spotlight some of those issues. That’s something he should be admired for, and I think knowing that makes reading his books more enjoyable.

So, it seems to me that we need to keep things in perspective when reading older novels, especially ones that would have been called contemporary, when they were published. We need to think about what was going on in history at the time these books were written, in order to assess them properly, and put them into the proper light. If we ignore that, I don’t think we’ll enjoy these books as much as we could, and that could lead to us dismissing our reading older novels altogether. Personally, I think that would be a shame.

Do you think being mindful of what was happening in history when a book was written and published would help you better understand an older novel, or not?

This post is my fourth entry in the 2020 Discussion Challenge, hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

2020-Discussion-Challenge

22 thoughts on “#LetsDiscuss2020 – Reading Older Novels – TCL’s #DiscussionSunday #4.

    1. Great answer! Here’s the thing… I do not understand why schools insist on making kids read that book today. It was great for when it was written, but there are tons of coming-of-age novels that would speak to today’s youth much, much more. Leave Catcher for the university students who can do the analysis and understand the perspective!

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  1. Oh I definitely agree that understanding historical context and taking it into account is vital to enjoy an older book. I mean, obviously it isn’t going to sound like it was written last year because it wasn’t! I do think that the story needs to stand up to the test of time of course. You know, I can’t help but wonder how many of us think we don’t like old books because of the feelings we associate with them as opposed to actually not liking them. I fully admit to not liking some when I was in school because I was salty that I was forced to read them instead of reading something I chose myself! This is a really great topic, very thought provoking!!

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  2. I’ll be the dissenting voice here. Not that I think historical context isn’t important. I think it’s vital to really get everything out of a book. But at the same time, one should be able to enjoy a book on its own merits as well. I’d like to think for a real classic, there’s enough magic in the rhythm of the text and the choice of words that can capture a reader, even without the background. I think of Jane Austen and her veiled insults and carefully constructed barbs, for example. Of course the stories make more sense when you know something about the time period, but they are just jewels to read for her language and character descriptions.

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    1. It was something I was privileged to learn when I was in High School, actually. We had a special program where we studied history through literature and literature through history. Maybe that’s why I love historical fiction so much, and can enjoy the classics as much as I do.

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  3. I definitely agree! One of the reasons I’m reluctant to reread my beloved Gone With the Wind is that I’m afraid that reading it through a 2020 perspective might not be as comfortable of a reading experience as when I read it in 1965! I recently read The Enchanted April and kept thinking how progressive it was for the time when 4 women planned a girls week getaway!

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    1. Exactly. Of course, right now, with all these orders to stay home and socially distance, I’m finding that everything I watch on TV or read gets colored by the lens of today’s reality. Very strange. It makes me think, what impact will this experience have on contemporary fiction writers?

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    2. Obviously there are worrying racial issues with Gone With The Wind, but, in “lockdown”, I keep thinking about Scarlett and Ashley talking about how to cope when your civilisation suddenly seems to have collapsed and you have to adapt to a whole new reality in which a lot of the things you were taught about life don’t work any more. Hopefully this is only going to be for a few months, whereas for them it was permanent, but I think it’s actually quite relevant 🙂 !

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      1. Actually, I think this might impact our world for quite some time after the virus is gone, if not permanently. Not exactly like the Civil War, but traces will stick with us for many years, if not decades.

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  4. Yes, it’s important to know what society was like when a book was written in order to fully appreciate it. That’s one reason that I think classics were more enjoyable to me when I was in school than they are now—we discussed them and I got a lot of context that I don’t have when I just pick up a book and read it for myself!

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  5. I don’t think they make much sense otherwise. I can’t stand Dickens – he definitely sounds patronising (don’t get me started on the subject of Hard Times!!) – but, if you want to read Oliver Twist, for example, you need some idea of conditions in London at the time. And the idea of the Hertfordshire militia in Pride and Prejudice being called upon to defend the realm in the case of an invasion by Napoleon is rather worrying, seeing as they spend all their time playing cards and flirting with girls 🙂 , but you do need some idea of why they’re around.

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