This Reuters article describes how the British publishing house, Jonathan Cape, was forced to release Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, early because the Evening Standard broke a publicity embargo and ran an interview two weeks to soon. Naturally, other newspapers, not wanting to be scooped by the Standard, also ran stories about McEwan’s book too early. Suddenly, Saturday was getting tons of press, but the books weren’t in stores, and now Bertelsmann’s Random House, which owns Jonathan Cape, wants the Standard to pay for the lost revenue that resulted from the runaway publicity chain reaction. The subtext to all of this, especially if you consider the story in light of the creation of the new made-for-tv Quill Awards, is that publishing companies, most of which are now owned by media conglomerates, are trying to market and sell books in the same way they might market and sell movies or music. In Hollywood, the financial success of many a film is determined by the opening weekend, or even the opening night, and all the marketing resources go towards getting people into the movie theatre on the opening weekend. The primary – though unstated – purpose of awards shows is to convince people to see the movies or buy the music that is being honored, not simply to honor it. My experience as a bookseller tells me that books don’t work this way. The book is the ultimate “word of mouth” product. The desire to read a good book is many times more likely to be initiated by a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader (or bookseller) than by a piece of clever marketing or even a prominent review. It’s my opinion that publishers shouldn’t be pushing for the huge first week numbers – forcing a book to boom or bust – but they should give books a chance to survive and thrive on their own merits… the way McEwan’s last book, Atonement, did.
The ripples from the Hollywood writers’ strike are felt well outside of the Hollywood pool. Broadway has gone darker than the plot of a Eugene O’Neill play as the stagehands show their solidarity. Production workers for NBC’s “The Office” are out on their ear. Ellen DeGeneres caught in the middle (She and Oprah have both had tough Novembers). Others like Leno and Elaine from Seinfeld seen walking the picket lines with their pasty, underpaid worker bees (dust off the sensible shoes). The windows of houses across the nation glow blue with original “unscripted” Reality TV programming. One feckless young man with literary aspirations turns entrepreneur by selling shirts that read ‘Striking Writer.’ Somewhere, Aaron Sorkin weeps. Eugene Debs shudders in his grave. France smiles knowingly. Alex Rodriguez laughs.The rest presumably writes itself…
Last year, as we noted here, the source material in the Oscar category for Best Adapted Screenplay was immaculately fiction-free. All five screenwriters looked elsewhere for inspiration — to memoirs, investigative journalism, reportage, and, weirdly, to an earlier screenplay which, under the arcane rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, qualifies as “previously published or produced material.” I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: that last nomination was a little too inside-baseball for me. But don’t forget, we’re dealing with Hollywood here.
Before last year’s Oscar went to John Ridley for his adaptation of Solomon North’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, I suggested that the writers of adapted screenplays needed to start mixing a little fiction into their reading diets. In 2014, I’m happy to report, they did. A very little. A grand total of one of this year’s five finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay drew on a work of fiction.
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as 1998, all five Best Adapted Screenplay nominees were inspired by novels. (The statue that year went to Bill Condon for Gods and Monsters, based on Christopher Bram’s novel, Father of Frankenstein.) Through the years, the scripts of Oscar-winning movies have been based on novels by a gaudy galaxy of literary talents, including Jane Austen, Colette, Jules Verne, Henry Fielding, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sinclair Lewis, Harper Lee, E.M. Forster, Robert Penn Warren, Larry McMurtry, Mario Puzo, Ken Kesey, Michael Ondaatje, and Cormac McCarthy.
But the novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better, yet something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
So I say fiction lovers should rejoice that this year Hollywood is paying homage to something — to anything — produced by a novelist. It doesn’t happen every day (or, obviously, every year), and it’s becoming increasingly rare as Hollywood continues to play it safe while trying to connect with an audience that’s less and less likely to read serious fiction.
This year’s finalists for Best Adapted Screenplay are:
The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson based his script on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. Purists could argue that Anderson has settled for Pynchon Lite instead of the heavy goods (Gravity’s Rainbow, say, or V., or even Mason & Dixon). Let’s not quibble. Anderson has streamlined Pynchon’s novel while remaining true to its spirit, which is the essence of a successful adaptation. We get a fine facsimile of Pynchon’s wake-and-bake private eye, Doc Sportello, played with zest by Joaquin Phoenix in sandals and sizzling muttonchops. Doc’s search for a missing real-estate developer takes him through a post-Helter Skelter L.A. labyrinth of surfers, hustlers, dopers, and other less benign parties. It may be Pynchon Lite, but I’ll take it any day over Toy Story 13.
“I couldn’t give a fuck about the Iraqis,” Chris Kyle wrote in American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History (with ghostwriters Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwan). “I hate the damn savages.”
The screenwriter Jason Hall captured Kyle’s machismo and his Manichean worldview in his screenplay for American Sniper, which found the ideal director in Clint Eastwood, no stranger to the notion that evil is at large in the world and it’s the duty of good men to use any means, including deadly force, to crush it. Kyle claimed to have killed more than 250 people during four tours of duty as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq (160 are confirmed), and he was not inclined to apologize for his work — or even ponder its moral ambiguities. Neither was Eastwood. Kyle was shot dead at a Texas gun range by a fellow veteran in 2013. American Sniper has taken in $250 million so far at the box office, and it has further divided a country already deeply divided over our forever wars. Michael Moore hated the movie; Sarah Palin loved it.
The Imitation Game
The screenplay for The Imitation Game is the least faithful to its source material of this year’s nominees — and therefore probably a lock to take home the Oscar. Graham Moore’s script was adapted from Alan Turing: The Enigma, a biography of the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing, written by the brilliant British mathematician and gay rights activist Andrew Hodges. In telling the story of Turing’s heroic work breaking World War II German codes, Moore and director Morten Tyldum have gone the predictable Hollywood route, turning Turing into an ur-nerd, which he was not, and making him dapper, which he was not. (Turing, according to Hodges, was eccentric but likeable, and a bit of a slob.) But this is Hollywood, and so Turing, as played by the mesmerizing Benedict Cumberbatch (who is up for a Best Actor Oscar), is turned into a cartoon: he’s the heroic gay misfit struggling against an uptight homophobic society. The movie ends on this note: “After a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy, Alan Turing committed suicide in 1954.” There is, however, no conclusive evidence that Turing committed suicide, and much ongoing speculation that he died accidentally, or even was murdered. But this is Hollywood, where complexity must never get in the way of a good cartoon.
The Theory of Everything
Stephen Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde Hawking, wrote a queasy memoir about the joys and trials of being married to an award-winning cosmologist who suffers from debilitating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen, became the basis for Anthony McCarten’s screenplay for The Theory of Everything, which tells the story of the couple getting married, raising three children, separating, marrying other partners, and somehow remaining close through it all. Felicity Jones, who got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Jane, told an interviewer, “That’s why I love Jane and Stephen, because they seem like very English, uptight, repressed people from afar. But as you get closer, they’re these extraordinary bohemians, these people who have adapted and changed and lived a very unusual life.”
Last year the controversy was over Before Midnight, writer-director Richard Linklater’s third installment in the ongoing romance of another pair of extraordinary bohemians. The screenplay, written by Linklater and his stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, qualified as adapted because it was based on the earlier screenplays.
This year the controversy belongs to Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, which tells the story of an aspiring drummer and his fanatical, abusive teacher. Back in 2013, in an effort to raise money for the project, Chazelle showed an 18-minute segment of the unfinished film at Sundance, where it won the prize for Best Short Film. The prize attracted money, and last year the completed, 107-minute feature won the Grand Prize at Sundance. The Writers Guild of America designated the script “original;” but based on its metamorphosis from short to feature, the Academy placed in the “adapted” category. Call the screenplay what you will, this shoestring movie, shot in just 19 days, has been nominated for a stunning five Oscars, including Best Picture. If you’re fond of Cinderella stories, this one’s for you.
Which brings us back to novels and screenplays. Four of this year’s eight nominees for Best Picture are based on adapted screenplays. The only adapted screenplay that didn’t also get the nod for Best Picture was the one based on — you guessed it — a novel by Thomas Pynchon.
Image Credit: Flickr/Prayitno
Seamus Heaney’s seminal 2000 translation of the Old English epic Beowulf brought the work, first put to paper by an unknown Anglo-Saxon about a thousand years ago, into the 21st century. Heaney considers Beowulf “one of the foundation works of poetry in English.” Now that cornerstone is getting the Hollywood treatment, and, as you might expect, some of its rougher edges have been smoothed over.Most of us are familiar with the story: Beowulf, the Geat, comes to the aid of Hrothgar and the Danes by slaying Grendel, a man-eating monster that has been terrorizing the great hall at Heorot. I had a wonderfully illustrated version of Beowulf by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Charles Keeping that I would read and look at often growing up, and returned to the tale when someone gave me Heaney’s translation. But the illustrations in the book I had as a kid have defined the visual elements of the story for me.In what I always considered a bizarre and chilling twist, Beowulf, after vanquishing Grendel, tearing the beast’s arm off with his bare hands, is forced to do battle with Grendel’s mother in her lair at the bottom of a miasmic mear. The beast’s mother? How weird, to use an Old English word in its modern sense. Keeping’s drawings of the she-beast in the illustrated book are indelible (a sample).So imagine my surprise when I found that, for the motion picture adaptation of Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is played by… Angelina Jolie? That’s right, the she-beast has been scrubbed just a bit, as you can see from this still. Apparently the movie’s writers took other liberties with the story as it relates to the relationship between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. Well, that’s Hollywood, and hey, a sexy makeover can make any mother’s day. But what I would really like to see is Jolie voyage to the Danish countryside and return with a hulking, hirsute, one-armed ogre with a taste for human flesh as the latest addition to her ethnically diverse brood of adopted children. Monsters need love too.
When it came out in 2005 — midway through my senior year of high school — Brokeback Mountain rocked American culture. For all its critical acclaim and star-studded cast, the media seemed to fixate on the most titillating feature of the “gay cowboy movie:” two men falling in love and having sex. From news coverage to late-night talk shows to viral videos, you couldn’t escape the sophomoric parodies any more than you could the predictable conservative outrage
A decade later, Carol drummed up a respectable amount of excitement of its own. Fans of lesbian pulp fiction were thrilled to see the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt bucking the long history of unhappy endings in stories about lesbian, bisexual, and queer women. The fanfare, however, was mostly just that; what little controversy, or heterosexual hilarity, it generated was buried under its accolades and award nominations.
The advancement of American LGBT rights in the decade between these movies is certainly one explanation for the differences in their reception (though I can think of plenty more). Since Brokeback Mountain premiered, same-sex marriage has been legalized, and 17 states have adopted legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing, or public accommodation; even non-binary genders are inching toward legal recognition. For depicting two working-class men falling in love against the backdrop of rural America, Brokeback Mountain was considered truly transgressive. Ten years later, Carol was merely a long-awaited boon for lesbian cinema.
Regardless, even in 2016, a mainstream movie about gay people isn’t exactly standard, and I was looking forward to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-wook’s lesbian-revenge fantasy par excellence. A fan of Park since my sister turned me on to the Vengeance Trilogy as a teenager, my lofty expectations for his newest erotic thriller, inspired by Sarah Waters’s Victorian-era novel Fingersmith, were tempered by my own reservations as a queer movie-goer in the midst of an upswing in mainstream stories about queer people. As movies like The Danish Girl have demonstrated, it’s become popular to render female LGBT experiences — particularly those of trans women — for trendy but toothless Oscar bait. Any follower of Park, however, knows that progressive brownie points are not among his priorities (if you’re thinking about the sexually predatory female prisoner in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, you’ll know what I mean). In his hands, I wondered, would Fingersmith be worthwhile, or would the story just get bogged down in all that male gaze? For that matter, as a white American with a limited knowledge of Korean cinema and culture, would I even be able to tell the difference? As opening weekend approached, I vacillated between high hopes and dismal apprehension.
Naturally, Park delivered with predictable complexity: The Handmaiden managed to meet all of my expectations, both optimistic and otherwise. Intricate and visually stunning, with an airtight cast of expert actors who brought love, lust, and heartache to life with consummate skill and pitch-black humor, it was everything I could have hoped for from Park as a director and writer. Recalling the erotic texts hoarded by the villainous Kouzouki — a Sade-ean nobleman obsessed with Japanese culture, and our protagonists’ greatest enemy — The Handmaiden plays out as a reverse palimpsest. When laid across the first act, the second reveals and then resolves, in the same graceful motion, the story’s dark subtext; is that a heart beating beneath the tatami of subterfuge, or is something far more sinister trapped down there?
Everything in this movie about lesbians was perfect, with the exception of the lesbian sex itself. As the mysterious noblewoman Hideko and her would-be con-artist ladies maid Sookee (played by Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-Ri, respectively) came together for the first time, my girlfriend and I began to squirm in our seats, and not in a sexy way. The camera bouncing frenetically over their bodies, their first tentative kisses swiftly transform into hysterical scissoring, culminating in an impressive display of immediate sexual mastery, the likes of which are tough to swallow, even when taken into account alongside the film’s other larger-than-life elements. Park’s work in the bizarre has long bordered on the magical, but within this revenge fantasy (in which the second word carries as much weight as the first), it’s hard not to be reminded of a certain genre of “lesbian” porn made for straight men — defined by foreplay-less arousal that somehow morphs into screaming orgasms over the course of a few seconds — and even harder not to snicker at such transparent tourism. In The Handmaiden’s final scene, we watch Hideko and Sookee, again unaided by foreplay, or even a little lube, rapturously inserting fist-sized ben wa balls into themselves before beginning to scissor yet again, the chimes inside them sounding like some victorious invocation of #LoveWinning.
Though impressed by the movie in every other respect, my girlfriend and I walked out of the theater rolling our eyes. What is it with straight people, especially straight men, and scissoring? Among the many sexual acts that queer women perform with each other, this one seems, at least in our experience, to be the one that fascinates them the most. More than strap-ons, fisting, or cunnilingus, it holds a space in the straight imagination that manages not only to reduce us to what’s between our legs, but to even limit the sexual possibilities therein. It was certainly distracting enough to make it difficult for an alternative analysis, one entertaining Hideko and Sookee’s sex as a calculated artistic choice, rather than mere fetishization. Was this highly stylized porniness perhaps in conversation with, or a foil for, The Handmaiden’s themes of Japanese erotica, sexual deceit, or femme resistance to colonialism? Who could know for sure?
It’s a distraction I’ve been mulling over since my very first queer relationship. When I came out, I was living with two straight guys, who were nice enough, for bros. So when one of them began to tease me about scissoring — demonstrating, with the index and middle fingers on both his hands, how two lesbians go about having sex: by repeatedly mashing their crotches together — I took it in stride. He wiggled his substantial eyebrows to show me it was all in good fun, and though I felt uncomfortable, I always laughed it off.
That bro continued to make those jokes until I moved in with said girlfriend a very unadvisedly short time later, and we began seeing far less of each other. By then, my discomfort with his sense of humor had expanded, because as it turned out, my girlfriend and I didn’t actually engage in scissoring (or tribadism, as the act has been known historically). Though curious and confused, our newly queer sex was also exciting and experimental — and yet it never included the very act that the two of us had been reduced to by that man, and many others. I knew it was something that porn actors did, but I also understood that porn didn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality.
And that was just the thing: other than porn, there were few cultural resources that I could draw from to learn what this whole queer sex thing was really all about. Desperate for information, I spent my baby dyke years immersed in a variety of queer communities, both online and off. I also assigned myself cultural homework, burning through my college library’s DVD selection of Lesbian/Gay movies. This gave me welcome exposure to indispensible queer cinema like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Happy Together, but I found little enough about the kind of sex that people like me were having.
This isn’t to say that, outside of porn, the practicalities of intercourse are being served up on a platter to young heterosexual people, even these days. But for straight people raised in straight households, almost all examples of intimacy, affection, partnership, romance, and even implicit sexuality are performed by heterosexual adults. In schools lucky enough to have it, sex ed is unrelentingly cisgender and heterosexual — and why shouldn’t it be? Beyond school, the mechanics and textures of acceptable sex that are hinted at, or performed, in the non-XXX discourses that make up our society’s art, religion, and culture, are nearly as straight.
Overcoming the suffocating sense that there is a right way to do sex is daunting for most. For queers, and for queer women and non-male people, it’s especially hard. Whether you’re looking for a model of what to be, or for something less didactic — representation, for example — there still isn’t much out there if you don’t have the benefit of a queer community, or access to queer art, queer literature, and the study and research by and of queer people, all of which is niche by definition. That presence is undeniably spreading in the mainstream, but it’s an uphill battle, and one taking place on a front that was demonstrably fiercer when I was newly queer (which wasn’t all that long ago). Back when the Internet was still relatively new, back before I had discovered the cornucopia of queer experiences to be found in on sites like Tumblr, like many queer people, I had only porn. Some of it was wonderful and eye-opening and educational; a lot of it reinforced oppressive power structures and behavior, which I internalized harmful ways. Either way, it was all I had.
So when, as a baby dyke, my ignorance butted up against the monolithic ignorance of heteronormativity, of the story being told about me and my sexuality through the myths and generalizations and creepy “jokes” of straight people, I was at a loss. Was that bro telling me something true about myself, or something false? Was he seeing me as I was, or was he not seeing me at all? In watching the love story of Hideko and Sookee, by turns tender and tempestuous, unfold over the course of The Handmaiden, I had that same feeling of confusion. Was this attributable to cultural differences, and the whiteness of my own gaze, or even to Art gone over my head? In feeling as if I wasn’t being seen, and therefore taking this story about lesbians all too personally, was I committing an erasure of my own?
Like all rhetoric, the concept of “visibility” tends to flatten the real issues affecting those living on the margins. The public debate surrounding the civil rights of trans people and the assimilation of national LGBT organizations (which despite their growing power seem loath to serve the interests of anyone other than white and cis gays) are just two of the many issues that counteract the often overwhelming mandate to be seen. In the 21st century, “We’re here, we’re queer!” feels less like a rallying cry, and more like an exhausting redundancy.
This isn’t to say that visibility, a humanization of us in the general culture, hasn’t benefitted certain queers (in many ways, myself among them). But for others, that being seen is not always a blessing, especially when it doesn’t come with other tangible benefits. When I think of the maelstrom of anger targeting trans teens who just want to use the bathroom, or of Chelsea Manning’s nightmarish struggle for humane treatment, let alone gender-affirming medical care, I’m reminded of Michel Foucault: “Visibility is a trap;” at the very least, it’s a mixed bag. Still, ask me to choose between a man threatening to rape the gay out of me and an immature college boy who can’t imagine how queer women might fuck without a dude present, and without hesitation, I’ll take the latter.
As I gradually came into my own as a queer person, absorbing the shibboleths and inside jokes of the various communities available to me, I noticed that for many queer women, scissoring was rarely a neutral issue. I can’t count the times I’ve heard a queer woman exclaim that female frottage is a myth, a fantasy catering to men, and one that betrays straight people’s limited understanding of what sex between two queer people is, or could be: If “normal” heterosexual intercourse means connecting “corresponding” genitalia between a cis man and a cis woman, surely homosexual intercourse between (implicitly cis) women is an attempt to approximate that. Needless to say, scissoring in practice is actually a lot more complex than the crotch-mashing in my bro friend’s “joke,” or even as it’s depicted in The Handmaiden. Having done it myself, I should know.
It’s probably unwise to rely on art for information, let alone representation. It’s probably equally unwise for those who haven’t yet seen this movie to trust my interpretation rather than see it for themselves. My personal distaste for their lovemaking doesn’t outweigh the gravity of Hideko and Sookee’s wrenching toward self-actualization, as Jia Tolentino describes it in her excellent review of the film, but neither, I think, does it negate the movie’s tribadism problem.
Park is known for his earth-shattering plot twists, and The Handmaiden has several. But its greatest maneuver is that it manages to completely to skirt and subvert cliché, and yet simultaneously fall into its trap completely. It turns out that othering, as a machine that makes myths of other people, is also a double-edged sword, an implement far more treacherous than a pair of scissors.
 Although I’d like to be clear that neither his harm nor this reinforcement is limited to pornography as an industry, not by any stretch of the imagination.
In the house where I grew up, the child of English teachers, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre connoted “classiness” in at least two senses. On one hand, its filmed adaptations of classic novels added a touch of literary refinement (and sometimes even of eat-your-vegetables self-improvement) to a television schedule larded with junk food. On the other, it offered a place for us churchmice to indulge our fascination with “class” in the baser sense: idle wealth and posh intrigues and butlers who ring for tea at three.
In America, I’ve lately come to feel, this latter is the love that dare not speak its name. We’re a nation whose hereditary upper class keeps insisting there’s no such thing (see gubernatorial scion and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tweets from Carl’s Jr.), and where even the concept of “class” is dismissed as taboo (see the suggestion, ibid., that income inequality is something best talked about “in quiet rooms”). But Masterpiece, safely couched in the past, and usually overseas, remains one of the public venues where the upper crust, albeit fictional, can exercise their privilege without scruple, and where the rest of us can go to gawk. Those houses! Those costumes! Those accents! (In this light, The Forsyte Saga, which launched the series 41 years ago, appears almost proto-Kardashian.)
The current Masterpiece feature, Downton Abbey, mashes both class buttons hard. In the economic sense, it centers on the Earl of Grantham and his fabulously wealthy family, and on the eighty-eleven-dozen servants who attend to their every whim. On the cultural front, it offers a whiz-bang pastiche of three centuries of English literature. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is a venerable type: part Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, part Thackeray’s Miss Crawley, part Dickens’, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (likewise played by Smith in a Masterpiece adaptation)…maybe with a touch of Professor McGonagall thrown in to keep things lively. Carson the Butler surely owes some of his imperturbability to Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves. The central romance, between the earl’s eldest daughter and her cousin Matthew, hews closely to the Jane Austen playbook (though, two episodes into Season 2, it’s still not clear who’s Elizabeth and who’s Mr. Darcy). And Downton Abbey, the titular estate, is like a mash-up of Brideshead and Wuthering Heights.
I doubt any of this is accidental. Downton Abbey‘s creator, Julian Fellowes, has adapted Twain and Thackeray for screens large and small, and has gone so far as to nick the Crawley surname for his own aristocrats. Nor is his erudition limited to English-language literature; this is the kind of show where, when a Turkish character appears, his name is an amalgam of two of the greatest living Turkish novelists: Kemal Pamuk. (I’m still waiting for the American character named Melville von Updike.)
Needless to say, Downton Abbey is also serious fun; it’s become a surprise successor to Friday Night Lights and Mad Men as TV’s current “must-watch” show. But when, in the dead days between finishing Season 1 on DVD and waiting for the premiere of Season 2, I rummaged through my Brit-Lit shelf looking for some upstairs-downstairs action to sustain me, I was shocked by how little of the actual aristocracy I found.
It turns out that my sense of the “classiness” of the English novel is like my sense of the monolithic “classiness” of English elocution — that I suffer from a kind of cognitive foreshortening, wherein important distinctions disappear. In fact, what the English novel is overwhelmingly about, in class terms, is not the hereditary nobility but the middle classes: the downwardly mobile landowners, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.
Granted, the English class terminology is hopelessly confusing (sort of the way over there “public school” means private school.) But consider the seminal novels of the 1700s. Richardson’s Clarissa may moon around a swell house, but she hails from a family of arrivistes. And though Fielding’s Tom Jones lives with Squire Allworthy — a member of the landed gentry, if I’ve got my terminology correct — he does so as “a foundling.”
Then there’s the 19th century. Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 income, could probably give Allworthy a literal run for his money, but his Pemberley estate is more the Maguffin in Pride & Prejudice than its setting; Jane Austen’s eye keeps returning to the raffish Bennets. Or take the Bröntes. We experience the grandeur of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall only through the eyes of Jane Eyre, the governess. Class roles are more fluid in Wuthering Heights, but between Heathcliff and Catherine, one is always on the way up and the other on the way down. Even Thackeray’s Crawleys, with their titles, are really supporting characters. The main attractions in Vanity Fair are the upper-middle-class Amelia Sedley and the scheming Becky Sharp. And perhaps the very greatest of the 19th-century English novels, Middlemarch, declares its allegiances right there in the title.
It’s possible to account for the English canon’s emphasis on the middle purely as a matter of dramatic interest. Unlike earls and princes and duchesses, the gentry and the striving bourgeoisie are people with places to go, with something to gain…and to lose. Still, compare the English novel of this period with the Russian — all those counts! — or with Proust’s elaborate explication of the Guermantes line, and you remember that aristocrats have plenty to lose, too, starting with reputation. (Indeed, questions of reputation animate some of Downton Abbey‘s key plotlines.) And surely readerly interest in lifestyles of the rich and fabulous isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, I suspect that the overlay of aristocratic intrigue in a novel like Vanity Fair is an attempt to satisfy it.
But the rise of the English novel parallels historically the rise of the middle classes; these are the classes from which most of the great novelists hailed, and to whose upper reaches their profession would have limited them. Dickens, one of Karl Marx’s favorite writers, offers the archetype of Victorian social cartography. Sure, you’ve got your Lord and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, but more often the aristocrats resemble the generic Oodle and Boodle and Noodle, who in Little Dorrit form a kind of choral backdrop to a foreground of slums and inventors’ workshops and banks and debtors’ prisons.
To really get your fill of the aristocracy in between visits to Downton, you might look to the second tier of the 19th-century canon. There’s Eliot’s brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda; there are Trollope’s Palliser novels and some of the Barsetshire ones. (There are also glimmerings of nobility throughout the top-shelf corpus of that American interloper, Henry James.)
Or, interestingly, you could just move on to the 20th century, in whose early years Downton Abbey is set. For here and only here, with the aristocracy in decline, does it move to the center of the English novel. (I guess you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.) Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End are palpably influences on Downton Abbey. In each, a sense of nostalgia for the days of real privilege hang heavy; in each the shifting sands under the aristocracy’s castles are viewed through the prism of war. Portions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music Of Time likewise concern the titled classes. I’ve not read At Lady Molly’s, but I might well be forced to turn to it a couple of months from now, when I’m once again going through Downton Withdrawal. Perhaps the single most Downton-y book I know of — I’d be shocked if Mr. Fellowes (er…Sir Julian) hadn’t read it — is Henry Green’s miraculous short novel Loving, from 1945. Green’s beautifully impacted idiom is short on exposition, and when I picked up Loving a few weeks ago, I found it enriched by the hours I’d spent in Fellowes’ world. That is, I suddenly understood the difference between a head housemaid and a lady’s maid.
The two most astute novelists of class currently working in England, I think, are Edward St. Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. St. Aubyn hails from the social stratosphere himself, and the terrific first three novels in his Patrick Melrose cycle — Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — detail what’s happened to the Granthams of the world three or four generations on from Downton. Spoiler alert: the titles and the dough still linger, but the culture has moved on, leaving in its wake terrible boredom and worse behavior. Hollinghurst’s finest novel, The Line of Beauty, can’t properly be said to center on the aristocracy, but retains some of Waugh’s nostalgia (and much of the flavor of mid-to-late period James). Who has replaced the hereditary nobility, at the top of Margaret Thatcher’s England? Callow politicians and oil millionaires. Still, like a title and a castle, parliamentary clout and petro-pounds are not available to everyone, and so our protagonist, Nick Guest, occupies a familiar position: nose pressed to the glass.
In the end, this is the secret to Downton Abbey’s success, as well. The glamour of the earldom draws us in, but it’s the vividly realized characters who surround it — especially the servants below-stairs — that hold it in perspective, and so give it life. We live now in the Age of Austerity, and as a sometime practitioner of what Romney has called “the bitter politics of envy,” I feel a little weird being enthralled with this show. But then I look at what else my poor TV has to offer, and I find myself murmuring, Burgundy-style, “Stay classy, Downton!”