Mumble years ago, when I was editing comic books, I had the opportunity to do a Classics Illustrated edition of The Scarlet Pimpernel. I won’t go into the tortured backstory on this particular project, only that we were doing Classics Illustrated comics as study guides, they were the joy of my heart, and when someone said “hey, can you do a CI of Scarlet Pimpernel” the answer was not How High, but When Do You Need It? The answer was, of course, Right This Minute. And thus I wound up adapting the book. Which meant that I had to re-read it for the first time since I was thirteen.
I will excuse myself for my first reading, because I was young, and was a vacuum-cleaner for story. And I will excuse myself further because my memory of the book was overlaid with half a dozen movie versions. But when I went back and read it: omigod, that’s a bad book. The basic idea is a perennial favorite: mild mannered fop is secretly Masked Anti-Revolutionary Super Hero! And there are two or three scenes that are terrific. But that’s two or three scenes out of a book. And what a bizarrely anti-semitic, pro-aristocracy book it is (this is the sort of book where all the nobles are…noble, all the English peasants are humble yet proud, and all the French are evil). And static? The last third of the book is a prolonged ride through the French countryside with the evil Chauvelin and our Hero (dressed as an elderly Orthodox Jew). And I had to somehow adapt this thing for a modern audience–and a modern audience that was expecting some action.
I had, in short, to somehow write the book I remembered–while remaining true to the book that the Baroness Orczy wrote.
I was thinking about this because of a nifty post that Jo Walton has up on Tor.com about The Suck Fairy. You can go read it (I’ll wait right here) but if you want the short form: the Suck Fairy is the creature that blows on a book you loved, so that when you re-read it you discover that it, well, it sucks. One of the things that’s gives the Suck Fairy her power is the difference between the Then and the Now. Attitudes change hugely (watching my kids watch some of the films I’ve loved for years and realizing that I can elide over stuff that throws them right out of Adam’s Rib or Desk Set has been instructive in this regard).
There are lots of books I can’t re-read. Many are badly-enough written that I don’t want to spend the time plowing through them for little reward. Some are just books I’ve outgrown. And some–well, I read right past the sexism or ageism or veiled racism the first time, but I can’t anymore. But where do you draw a line? Charlotte Brontë and Louisa Alcott don’t hit the racism gong as hard or with as much relish as the Baroness Orczy, but they’re certainly products of their own time–and yet I find them far more palatable. I’m not sure how I draw the line, either. Only I know that I do.
Years ago, when my grandmother was driving me somewhere through Los Angeles, we saw two little kids wrestling, and Grannie, without thought, said something that made my already curly hair curl further. The term she used was not the n-word, as they coyly say. It was considerably milder. But I’m a child of the 60s, and I was horrified. “Grannie!”
After a pause, and with considerable dignity, my grandmother said “Oh, leave me alone. I don’t know any better.” By which, when I unpacked the statement, I understood that my grandmother did know better, was abashed at what she’d said, and understood that what had bubbled up from a place inside her that learned about the world in 1900 was not appropriate to say in 1970.
When I’m reading Brontë or Alcott, I hear grandmother’s voice saying “I don’t know any better.” When I’m reading Orczy, all I hear is smug certitude.