There’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.