“I Don’t Know Any Better”

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.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

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“I Don’t Know Any Better” — 8 Comments

  1. You may have fixed upon the dividing line between the top-tier writer and the second-rank. A top-rank writer somehow allows you to get past her cultural biases; she writes for the ages whether she knows it or not. A writer of the second rank is OK, but you’re always tripping over that sexism or racism or whatever.

  2. I think the reason you react more strongly to Orczy is that the intent of his work was political. It was a statement, almost a defining moment in class warfare. Maybe he was battling Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. Who knows, but I think he was out for blood. Bronte and Alcott were not trying to make a statement.

    • The Baroness Orczy (if I’m remembering correctly) had a big axe to grind: her family had left Hungary in fear of a peasant uprising. She married an Englishman, and as near as I can tell, her abiding beliefs for the rest of her life were 1) the peasants will revolt unless sternly repressed, and 2) England is nobler and better than anywhere else, and its peasants are kept properly under control.

  3. The closest perhaps to any racism possibly glimpsed perhaps in Alcott is with the African American servants at Plumfield. Which to me seemed more of class condescencion than race — unlike Hawthorne — ooh, he’s a bad un, when it came to race and slavery. But then, of course, his beloved ‘friend,’ was Franklin Pierce, who conducted slave trading for his personal recreation and profit within the oval office. By contrast, the Alcotts were abolitionists and pro-integration into all facets of society all their lives, and actively so.

  4. Constance, have you read Alcott’s Work? It’s fascinating–the “good” and “appropriate” book she wrote after Moods, which her parents disapproved of. Her treatment of African American characters in the book are kinder, she still tends to render them as pathetic by virtue of their noble suffering as personified by the Harriet Tubman-like character of Hepzibah (I don’t have the book in hand, but I have a vague recollection of Hepzibah’s noble suffering as being rather cow-like). Despite her family stance (and her own), she was as guilty of certain kinds of stereotyping as any other writer of the time. I still adore her. She has her prejudices–a distinct distaste for the Irish and some other eths (I don’t think the German immigrants do well, and while she loved the Scots, she can be pretty snippy about the English). In some ways I think she reflects the jingoism of Young America–filtered through the superior philosophical underpinnings of the Transcendentalists.

    (I have to say that, with a few exceptions, I loathe Bronson Alcott and his fellow travelers and want to kick them all. But they were right on abolition and integration, God wot.)

  5. I read MARCH, the novel about LITTLE WOMEN that won the Pulitzer, and was struck by what a total pill Mr. March was. Indeed worthy of kicking! He was closely based upon Bronson Alcott. The novel displays his pilliness, without judgment; the reader is left to cry aloud, “My god, I would kill him!”

  6. All this discussion reminds me of the importance of paying attention to context with older works. This is particularly important if they’re being taught in school. Teachers must place the racism and other problems in the context of the time the book was written. Perhaps all literature classes except ones concentrating on very current work (for which the students presumably know the context) need to be history classes as well.