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.
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.
However, 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!