plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it remains the same)
Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, 1849
I only know two Karr quotes, and the other – the other on the abolition of the death penalty – is also a fine dryly humorous comment : ‘Let the men who do the murders lead the way.’ But what brought the more it changes to mind was the fact that at a garage sale I picked up three Australian century old children’s novels. As I figure that they formed some of the foundation of the nation I emigrated to, and that I am trying very hard to become a part of, I thought they’d make good homework. (Yes I know. That’s just depraved. The correct, approved multi-cultural attitude is to remain ignorant and expect my host culture to adapt and learn mine. Not happening. I’m not that stupid.)
They’re by Mary 3-Names. No, not sf/Fantasy’s one, but Mary Grant Bruce (plus ça change?).
A century plus on from the first one… and they’re still readable. Things have changed, of course. But the language is still readable, the story entertains, and the dialogue is not as stilted as some far more recent novels. It’s a bit like reading Enid Blyton set 30 years earlier, and in Australia.
There are a couple of very noticeable differences to modern tales in that the food is very Enid Blyton-ish (something that is much less described in modern books, to my mind) and of course the attitude to fathers and brothers is vastly different. That’s probably the biggest single difference, that actually kept hitting me about the head. The girls (and it was, I suspect principally written for a female audience) are resourceful and plucky, and somewhat tomboyish, with unruly hair, less interested in what the author rather derides as the female pastimes of the urban girls of the day (and yes, those too seem to have changed only in details). That, and the fact that hard physical (and often monotonous) outdoor work (for both sexes) are lionized, and indoor city work… well, it’s like going to the toilet. Necessary but not a subject of praise or discussion. Second best to working the land.
The boys, and men, particularly the fathers, play a far larger role than I think I’ve seen in a MG or YA novel in twenty-thirty years. They’re portrayed with – for want of a better description, a far higher expectation of kindly, generous and out-right noble behavior, and with intelligence and ability. When in one of the later books a father fails to live up to this – does not defend his daughter from the demands of his second wife (her stepmother) it’s held up as an abnormality, and a thing of disparagement.
I sometimes wonder about modern portrayals –as people do try and live up to expectations (particularly society’s expectations, as Adam Smith so eloquently explained way back in 1759. There’s a whole that he wrote about that hasn’t changed much either.) If you think about it, it’s what fashion and appearances, and all of the SJW virtue signaling come down to: caring about what others think of you. So yes, brilliant move, portray all men as bumbling incompetents or depraved sexual predators. That’ll give them something to live up to, eh?
Fortunately, society’s mirror is broken into many fragments, or heaven knows what further self-inflicted injuries the perpetual victim class would have to whinge about.
The inevitable comment made of Mary Grant Bruce’s work – with the usual anachronistic viewpoint that gets hissy fits about the ‘N’ word in Huckleberry Finn, is the usual complaint about racial stereotypes of Irish, Chinese and Aboriginal characters. Honestly – considering it was published in 1910 – she did a pretty good job. Yes, she may resort stereotype ‘accents’ – these stereotypes didn’t spring unbidden from the air – they have at least some basis in what the writer had heard. And –once again, considering the time, her characterization is remarkably ‘liberal’ (the Chinese, Irish, and Aboriginal characters are all minor heroes, and portrayed as kindly, nice people. Not what we’re told was typical of the time.
One of the obvious differences is sexual content. That is pointedly different – the heroine of the first book is I think 12 and appears entirely free of hormones. In fact even romance of any sort (even among adult characters) seems rather absent.
What endures (or recurs) is always worth noticing. These were enormously successful books in their day, for their target market. They had, I suspect quite an impact on the society of the day. I don’t think that was the author’s manipulation as is so often the case now – it was merely holding up a mirror to what was best in bush society rather than the worst, and telling quite entertaining yarns to carry it along.
But what struck was a worrying similarity, a lack of change, despite all that has changed. She was writing for the customers of the time. The people who read, who bought books for their children… And rather like YA’s lead characters being a year or two above most of the readers, she sets her lead characters among the Squatters (Australian term for a large landowner -rather like the Squirearchy but with slightly less servants, and more land, and actually doing some of the work themselves) – the upper class of large-landowners. They’re in her book fairly decent people, and some are in life. That’s not the point. The point was the upper and middle-classes of her time were her major customers. They could read, had money to buy books, had leisure time to read them. The lower middle class such as scraped into her customer base aspired to be part of that. The largest part of society… didn’t read much, and didn’t have much spare money for lots of books. At a coarse guess 50-70% were just below the radar.
But we’re a century later… and we have gone through – particularly with paperbacks – a HUGE popularizing of reading novels. Almost a feature of many of those was Joe Ordinary (not the secret prince, or squire, or even the squatter) – just a working stiff, getting into strife and and fighting his way up and out. Sometimes he ended up as the king or the squatter… but he didn’t start there. I like to think this was particularly true of sf. I think of Keith Laumer’s Galactic Odyssey, Simak’s ordinary farmer/countryman heroes, or Heinlein’s Glory Road as examples.
So… how come we’re drifting back overwhelmingly into upper or upper-middleclass settings, heroes, and indeed the values of particularly female East Coast Arts and Humanities Liberal authors? That was 1912’s market. Things have changed. There are more customers available, a lot of whom do not aspire to those values, and won’t.
Maybe we need more battlers barely making a living, not college graduates, or bluebloods.
Or maybe I should just stick to 1910 fiction. It had a lot of can-do, even if it did concern itself with the lives of those who automatically become the officer class in 1914-18.