I heard a World Service programme (yes, I am an insomniac) this week about Charles Dickens’ popularity in India, past and present. Apparently, his novels were set texts there long before they were studied in England where, presumably, his early career as an episodic magazine writer was snobbishly held against him.
Victorian English society has many similarities to contemporary Indian society: strict class divisions; rapid entrepreneurial expansion juxtaposed with dire poverty; family obligations trumping personal freedom, especially for women. Two young Indians testified to their enduring love of Dickens, which started when they were schoolgirls giggling nervously at Miss Haversham’s fate – possessing a yellowing wedding dress but no husband. Spinsterhood is a pertinent fear in a place where a single woman, much over twenty-five, is still widely regarded as a “prostitute” or a pathetic figure: Think Miss Bates in Emma.
I remember my Indian friends’ anxiety as they waited for parental consent to their engagement, which was in some doubt even though they were both doctors from the same state, caste, and religion. Though their families were old friends, their intended union constituted a ‘love marriage’, not an arranged one, so his mother feared that her 31 year-old son would be considered ‘wild’. His family were also slightly richer. ‘It’s not as if you’re a Russian pole dancer,’ I kept saying consolingly to the bride-to-be who would give a little sub-continental headshake: In retrospect, I think this meant, ‘You just don’t get it, do you?’
Obviously, the good docs have far more understanding of the constraints a Dickensian character might face than I do: Ditto Jane Austen’s love/money dilemmas which have translated so well into Bollywood movies like Bride and Prejudice. I started to think of other examples of how out of touch contemporary Brits are with the social mores of classic authors. I recall teaching a workshop to undergraduates on Jean Rhys’ On Not Shooting Sitting Birds, an autobiographical short story set in the early 1920s in which the narrator goes out in her new crepe de chine undies, intent on losing her virginity. Her date thinks she’s a chorus girl or similar denizen of the demimonde but, on hearing that her brothers shoot in Dominica, he says with disappointment, ‘”But you’re a lady, aren’t you?” exactly as he might have said, “But you’re really a snake or a crocodile, aren’t you?”’ To her chagrin and bewilderment, he packs her off in a taxi untouched by upper class male hand.
My students couldn’t grasp the young man’s dichotomy; if his date was a lady he couldn’t sleep with her, or at least not without repercussions, but if she were of dubious social class, N.Q.O.S., he could roger her with impunity. This went right over the heads of the online-dating, binge-drinking, condom-carrying undergrads, as did the implications of not shooting sitting birds, which is, of course, caddishly unsporting and as bad as shagging bona fide ladies.
We may soon need detailed footnotes to understand the social subtleties of literature from earlier centuries while in Dehli and Dhaka they are still all too comprehensible. On the other hand, like India, Dickens would have embraced new technology and turned his novels into e-books as fast as you can say ‘apps’.
On Not Shooting Sitting Birds from Sleep it Off Lady Jean Rhys (Penguin 1976)