Same as it Ever Was*

Classic links to todayThere’s an old expression Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more it’s the same thing). There’s some wisdom to that saying if you think about it. Certain things about human nature, and certain kinds of situations have happened for a very long time and still happen.

When we see that sort of thing in a novel, it can help us connect with the story, even if the story was written decades or more than a century ago. Times certainly change, culture changes and technology changes. But some things seem timeless, and they can add to the modern-day appeal of a classic or Golden Age crime novel.

For instance, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House has as its focal point the Jarndyce case, a longstanding dispute over a will. In fact, the case has been languishing in the Courts of the Chancery for generations. The fact that this case concerns a contested will certainly resonates even today. Wills can lead to a great deal of turmoil and contention, particularly if a lot of money is involved. And in this case, the dispute has been a very protracted one. In fact, Dickens uses the novel in part to skewer the legal system of his day, and many people still agree with some of his criticisms. If you’ve ever been involved in a long and complicated legal battle, you know what I mean. Each party’s attorneys do their best to win. And sometimes that means continuations, negotiations that go on for a time but fall through, and other things that can drag a case out for a long time. Even if you’re not fond of Victorian literature or Dickens in particular, you can probably relate to that aspect of the novel.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder, one of the central characters is the Reverend Mr. Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, in Cornwall. His old friend is Dr. Pendrill, the local physician, and the two enjoy regular dinners and conversations about books. They also engage in interesting and spirited debate about the roles of science and faith in thinking. At one point in one of their conversations, for instance, Pendrill has made a scientific, reasoned point:

‘‘Oh, I grant you that! I grant you that!’ The Vicar was getting shrill in his excitement. ‘But why base all truth on scientific proof? What about Faith, my dear chap?’’

The relationship of reason, science and faith isn’t the reason for the murder in this novel. But it’s an ongoing debate in the novel, and people still struggle with it today. We each resolve it in our own way, but those issues resonate even in modern times.

So does the mixing and blending of families when two people marry. Even for people who don’t live near their families of origin, there’s a perennial set of issues around whether the two sides of the new family will get on together, and how each spouse will be received by the other’s family. Sometimes, it goes well; sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always a question. That very question is addressed in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey and mystery novelist Harriet Vane have finally married and are off on their honeymoon at Tallboys, the country house Wimsey has bought for his bride. At one point, Harriet pays a visit to her new mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. Here’s what the duchess writes about it in her journal:

‘She walked straight up to me, rather as if she was facing a firing-squad, and said abruptly, in that queer, deep voice of hers, ‘…Do you honestly not mind too much, about Peter and me? Because I love him quite dreadfully and there’s just nothing to be done about it.’’

The duchess reassures Harriet immediately, and it’s soon clear that they’re likely to have a good relationship. But new spouses and partners everywhere will understand that anxiety.

I think each of us can also relate to certain perennial idiosyncrasies of our own professions. For instance, retailers have always had to deal with rude/fussy/miserly/etc… customers. And anyone who’s ever been in higher education will understand this:
‘He was returning…from one of those innumerable educational conferences which spring up like mushrooms to decide the future of this institution or that, and whose decisions, if any, are forgotten two days after they are over…’
That bit comes from the beginning of Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly, and describes the return of Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature, to Oxford after such a conference. Soon afterwards, his sense of tedium is forgotten when a member of a visiting theatre company is murdered on campus. The novel was published in 1944, but as anyone in academia can tell you, that aspect of higher education life still resonates more than 70 years later…

And finally, here is an interesting observation from Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Fans will know that this is the story of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. She and her new husband Simon are in the second night of their honeymoon cruise of the Nile when she is shot. At first, the most likely suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was until he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jackie could not have committed that murder, so Hercule Poirot, who is on the same cruise, has to investigate further to find the killer. One of the other passengers is Rosalie Otterbourne, daughter of once-famous novelist Salome Otterbourne. In the last few years, sales of her mother’s racy books have been plummeting, and here’s what Rosalie says about it:
‘She got discouraged. Her books didn’t sell any more. People are tired of all that cheap sex stuff… It hurt her-it hurt her dreadfully.’

In that comment, we see a very similar issue to what writers face today. Will people tire of what have often been called trashy novels? Will they stop selling? It’s an interesting issue that’s as relevant now as it was in 1937, when Death on the Nile was published.

And that’s the thing about certain experiences, debates and issues. They really are perennial, and part of the overall human experience. So they resonate, even in books that are a hundred years old or older. It’s arguably those aspects of such novels that keep them interesting, even if the language is a bit dated, or if there are ‘isms’ we find offensive today, or…..or…

What things have you seen in classic/Golden Age fiction that still resonate with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, John Bude

18 responses to “Same as it Ever Was*

  1. I think that’s a very interesting point, Margot. Sometimes you can read a book from decades ago – even centuries ago – and it feels fresh and relevant, and other times it seems so dated it can be almost unreadable. I suppose, thinking about what you’ve highlighted, that it depends on whether the author is concentrating on something ‘of its time’ or something ‘timeless’. So for writers I suppose they have to decide whether they’re aiming to have a big success now and then let the book fade, or whether they’re hoping their books will achieve a kind of immortality…

    I have wondered in the past if my old friend Rebus will last into the distant future, because the plots are so often based on a burningly contemporary subject – be it the independence vote or the G8 conference. It’s one of the reasons I’m almost reluctant to go back to the earliest ones and re-read them. But I think he probably puts enough into the characterisation to allow them to be reasonably timeless…

    • You’ve put that very well, FictionFan. I think those ‘timeless’ themes and issues are the ones that make a book seem relevant, no matter how old it happens to be. Certain debates, ideas, issues and so on are really important now, just as they always were. On the other hand, the ‘of its time’ sort of book can be very popular at the time, because it captures the ethos of that time and may touch on things that are hot discussion topics then. The trouble is of course that before too long, books like that may seem quaint and ‘period pieces’ at best, and as you say, undreadable at worst. For the author, that balance is tricky. I’d suppose that the author really has to ask: what things in this book will draw readers in and invite them to identify with what’s going on? And what about years from now? It’s one reason, as an aside, that too much emphasis on technology can date a book so horribly. Technology changes too quickly to focus too much on it.
      As to Rebus, I think there are some really interesting larger and relevant issues there. For instance, what, really, is a Scottish identity? How do politicians, business people and sometimes criminal elements impact each other? And what happens when you can’t quite tell them apart? Lots of other issues too of course, but that, to me, is what keeps that series interesting.

  2. Kathy D.

    Well, for some reason, I’ve noted that some friends and bloggers are reading or reading Dickens’ Bleak House. There must be issues that resonate that in the book.
    As far as trashy novels, I’m afraid they do sell and will continue to be published, if what I see on supermarket shelves are any indication. And, also some of the best-seller lists reflect that. And I’ll say this about the “50 Shades of Bad Writing” books. A reader-friend read the first one just so “she could have an opinion,” and said they were not only “trash,” but “badly written trash.” Yet, these books are sold. I wonder if there’s hope for humanity when I hear this.
    And it also is reflected in the TV shows over here, those guaranteed to lower IQ’s of the viewers.

    • Kathy – I give your friend credit for being willing to make up her own mind on that book. Not surprised at all at her verdict, either. You have a really interesting point too about the kinds of books that show up on best-seller lists and the kinds of stories that show up on television. A lot certainly aren’t what you’d call intellectually engaging, to say nothing of, well, enjoyable. I suppose ‘trash’ has always been around in some form or another. But books such as Bleak House endure, in my opinion, precisely because they aren’t like that. They do have other themes and so on that resonate and are relevant. If you do get a chance to read Bleak House, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  3. Kathy D.

    I would love to read Bleak House, but it would require time and focus, hard things to come by these days. It’s like War and Peace, which a friend just reread and another read for the first time. The will is there, but the time and patience? Anyway, Bleak House is on my TBR Mount Kilimanjaro.
    Trash: When I was 15, I wanted to read a trashy bestseller because “all my friends were reading it.” My father, who steered me to good books, including my first mysteries about Sherlock Holmes and other great detectives, told me not to read it as it was trash.
    But being 15, I read it anyway. Because I was used to reading good books, and those with social issues, I decided the trashy one was indeed terrible, and then decided never to read another book like that again. (Note to parents: Discouraging books makes them more attractive to teenagers.)
    Also, I can’t remember anything about that book, but I can recall The Grapes of Wrath, An American Tragedy, The Jungle and other good
    books I read at the time.
    I wring my hands about what’s on TV and some of books on bestsellers’, libraries’ and bookstores’ popular book lists and shelves. Do people not want to think? Do people just want distractions from work, family and news? Can’t people read good books that are diversions?
    And, what book by Rebecca? What did I miss here? Let me know so I can look for it.

  4. Kathy – if you’re meaning the book by Rebecca Bradley, it’s called Shallow Waters. I hope if you read it, you’ll enjoy it.
    And I know just what you mean by the TBR list. Mine is getting frighteningly long… You make a good point about parents, too. Young children do need supervision and help when it comes to their reading. But as teens grow up and become adults, they benefit from making their own choices. And they make them more wisely than we may think if they’ve had a print-rich home with parents who read thoughtfully.
    As to today’s reading and TV choices? I sometimes find them very had to explain…

  5. Margot: To Kill a Mockingbird has become a classic because of its enduring themes. Growing up and learning from a good father, the strength of racial prejudice and a defence counsel fighting injustice. No bullets nor sex needed to create drama.

    • Bill – To Kill a Mockingbird really does have powerful and enduring theme. And I think one of the things that makes the novel this strong is that, as you say, it doesn’t rely on sensationalism or explicitness to tell the story. Even decades later, we can identify with, for instance, wanting to set a good example for one’s children. The story is told at a very human level, too.

  6. Kathy D.

    Bill’s point is well-taken. It’s true. Wish more books were published like To Kill a Mockingbird and more people read books like that now.
    When I was a teenager, I read Sinclair’s The Jungle (made me a vegetarian for awhile) and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which educated me about the terrible poverty in the 1930s Depression and about the will to survive and for people to help each other.
    Some of these classics should be reread.
    And then as an adult, I read many books with incredible educational and ethnical value, as well as good writing, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which taught me about the evils of slavery like nothing else.

    • Kathy – Oh, I remember The Jungle! It’s such a well-done look at corporate power and the immigrant experience, for one thing. And The Grapes of Wrath really does have themes that still resonate. Even simple things like taking a ‘road trip’ and coping when things happen during that drip are things we can still identify with today. So is the idea of people working together. And yes, Beloved is definitely a classic as well, I think.

  7. Kathy D.

    Beloved won Toni Morrison the Pulitzer and then she won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
    Middlesex is a great book, too, by Jeffrey Eugenides; won him a Pulitzer. It’s not only about an interesting social, gender and health issue, but it is a hilarious family saga about Greek immigrants to the U.S., life in Detroit.
    I wonder if I should reread books or try to find new, good ones?
    I read many terrific mysteries, and sometimes want light reading, even murder light, but then again hefty, well-written whodunnits can be good, too.
    I had far less tolerance for trashy books than ever.

    • I know what you mean, Kathy. I’ve not a lot of tolerance for ‘trashy’ books myself. There are certainly times that are just exactly right for a light, fun book. But I also agree with you that some of those deeper, ‘meatier’ novels are really worth re-reading.

  8. Col

    I’ll take a pass on this question, GA mysteries aren’t my preferred reading. I’ll sit in the naughty corner!

    • No need to, Col. Classic/GA mysteries aren’t everyone’s cuppa. They did lay the groundwork for today’s crime fiction in a lot of ways, and I do think we still see some of those same themes and topics pop up in today’s fiction. But they aren’t everyone’s top choice.

  9. Margery Allingham likes to look at the position and role of women in her books, and I really like that. Amanda keeps here important career in engineering even after marriage, although unfortunately Campion’s fashion designer sister thinks she must sacrifice career to man. But always Allingham is thoughtful, and makes you realize that these issues are not new….

    • Moira – Now, that’s an interesting point about Allingham’s writing. Just in the fact that Amanda has to balance home and career, we see some of the same issues then that women are still facing today, and you’re right; it gives the novels a timeless quality. I don’t know how easily we’ll ever get that one sorted.

  10. tracybham

    I cannot think of any examples but this is a very interesting topic, Margot. I just read a PI novel published 1955, Murder in the Raw by William Campbell Gault, which was set in Beverly Hills. Except for the cars and no computers and obvious things like that, the attitudes and behaviors really did not seem that different from today. Many books written at that time are very different though. What are the defining years of GA mysteries (in your opinion)?

    • Interesting question, Tracy! Everyone is different, I admit. So you’ll get ten different answers if you ask ten people. But I see it generally as going from about 1925 or so to about 1947 or so. And I’ve had the experience too of reading books set during those years that still resonate. I think it has to do with the overall themes in the books.

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