Monday, 7 October 2013

Jane Austen, fantasy fiction and the morals of our children


A slightly edited version of this article first appeared in The Independent.


The children of Britain are sliding into a terrifying quagmire of moral abandon. Or so certain commentators would have us believe. Joanna Trollope’s remarks that fantasy stories give children little moral guidance (Sunday Times, 6.10.13) echo those of Michael Gove back in May, when he declared "You come home to find your 17-year-old daughter engrossed in a book. Which would delight you more... Twilight or Middlemarch?”

Along with Twilight, Trollope singles out The Hunger Games as books that should be ‘countered’ by teaching more classic fiction in schools, and goes on to say: “fantasy doesn’t really relate to the real world.”

Aside from the issue of a writer who hasn’t understood the concept of metaphor – no fiction, fantasy or otherwise, means anything to us unless it relates to the experience of being human – Trollope seems to be unaware of what is actually going on in children’s publishing. It’s hard to imagine an industry that thinks more, knows more and cares more about the quality of what it puts before its customers.

The central power of The Hunger Games is precisely the fact that Katniss is put in a terrible moral conundrum – should she kill in order to survive? Readers would not be gripped in their millions by these books if that question meant nothing to them. The fact they are shows that they have healthy morals, even if they’re (rightly) horrified by what Katniss goes through.  It’s ironic that Trollope picks on Twilight; simply because Stephanie Meyer’s books are Austen’s. Twilight is full of morals (which you may or may not like depending how closely your views are to Mormon Meyer’s) but its power for readers comes in returning modern teenage protagonists to the tension-laden salons of Austen’s heroines. By introducing the danger of the vampire, Meyer reboots the loaded sentence and the aching glance, and puts them into the school canteen. ‘Gosh, did Edward/Mr Darcy just look at me? I wonder what his intentions might be to poor little me,’ says Bella/Elizabeth Bennet.

Trollope’s remarks support the publication of her modern reworking of Sense and Sensibility, one of 6 titles in The Austen Project. She states that Austen’s book tackles “love, money and class”, and has messages that make it relevant today, and argues that modern reworking of texts should be used in schools if children find the original language difficult. This very assertion seems to imply there is something ‘wrong’ with the classics – if you want to teach them, teach them as they are, with their original text and un-bowdlerized power.

And they are being taught: it seems Trollope may also be unaware of what actually goes on in our schools. One of the main pleasures of my job is the opportunity I have to visit schools across the land; state and private, city and country. If you were only ever to watch disappointing things like Educating Wherevershire, you could be forgiven for believing that our children are wild, abandoned monsters. My experience teaches me something different: every week I am delighted, though not surprised, to meet hundreds of our country’s engaging young people, reading all sorts of things, from Twilight to Wild Swans to Captain Underpants to, yes, shock of all shocks, Jane Austen. Personally, I believe the main thing is that they’re reading, and enjoying what they’re reading, for that opens the doorway not only to the vast world of literature; it can also lead to the desire to embrace diversity, something Joanna Trollope seems unwilling to do.

6 comments:

Jax Blunt said...

Excellent post. I'm getting ever so tired of everyone having a go at fantasy fiction and lauding great tomes of the past, which do more to put children off reading than, well, just about anything.

sarahball said...

Well said! I would actually prefer my children to read both Middlemarch and Hunger Games. Better to be a curious reader and love stories in all their forms without pride or prejudice - I suspect Jane Austen would agree also.

Katherine Langrish said...

While I wouldn't agree that Elizabeth Bennett and Bella from Twilight have anything in common, I do agree entirely with everything else Marcus is saying here. Good fantasy, like all other forms of good literature, engages with moral questions. Bad literature glides over them with a greasy cloth.

Girl Friday said...

So does Trollope's brain explode when she reads classics that are fantasy, like, say, The Odyssey or Gulliver's Travels?

Jill Berry said...

Found this interesting, Marcus - thanks.

I was in the audience at Brighton College when Michael Gove asked the Twilight/Middlemarch question. Just for info, I wrote this is response:

http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/may/15/twilight-middlemarch-michael-gove

sensibilia said...

Interesting that JT used the word "classic" to decry "The Hunger Games" by comparison. In fact, if you look at the structure of the dominant society in HG, it is based on a version of the Roman Empire, and some of the names used derive from Latin (as in JK Rowling).

And "Haymitch" is a derivation extremely similar to one used by Thomas Hardy to denote a rural bod in "Two on a Tower". As in Hardy, it seems to be a corrupted version of "Amos" or "Hamish". Like "Katniss" the corrupted derivation from words we recognize denotes the degraded society in which the victims live.

I avoided reading "Hunger Games", thinking that because my children had grown up, there was no point. However, when I did pick it up, I was totally gripped, and I would describe it as a modern classic.

It is no accident that some books simply take the world by storm. They are clever. "Middlemarch" was, in its day, the same thing, but it was written in a time when only the leisured classes could read, and boy, did they have some leisure. To get through a book that long and complex, you need time that modern people don't have, unless they switch off all social media and the TV. Having said that, it is a lovely book.