Novels That Shaped Our World – BBC 2

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This featured a bloke from Prestwich as the choice of guest to talk about social mores in Jane Austen novels, which might rather suggest that North Manchester should be full of Mr Darcys, Captain Wentworths and Henry Tilneys. Sadly, it is not, but, hey, that’s life.  It was a surprisingly interesting hour’s TV, though: it didn’t look that good from the trailers, but I decided to give it a go anyway, and I’m glad I did.

Not many of the books on the BBC’s “100 novels that changed our world” list would have been my choices, there are a lot of omissions I find surprising, and, quite frankly, I’ve never even heard of some of the ones they’ve included; but I think that people sometimes get too worked up over 100 most influential/must-read/must-watch/must-see lists. We’ve all got our own likes and dislikes, and no-one’s saying that anyone else’s are right or wrong. Most of the novels discussed in the first episode weren’t even chosen from the list, which was rather strange, and a little disappointing – I’d been looking forward to seeing how they were going to get Pride and Prejudice, Ballet Shoes, Forever, Riders and Adrian Mole all in there together! – but some very good points were made about the history of the novel, and how that ties in with the history of women’s role in society.

When it started off by talking about The Handmaid’s Tale, I had an awful feeling that the impression I’d got from the trailers had been right, and it was just going to be an hour of women slagging off men and saying that everything written more than a few years ago was anti-feminist, but it wasn’t. It soon moved on to female characters in early novels – first of all by noting that Robinson Crusoe, the 300th anniversary of which was the reason for the series, virtually ignores women, and then by discussing Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, published in 1740, in which the heroine’s employer tries to sexually assault her, only stops when she faints, and she then falls in love with him and marries him! This was apparently considered very romantic at the time – to the extent that the book’s considered to have had a huge effect on the development of novels, and it was one of the first books to generate associated memorabilia.

Then it moved on to how novel-reading itself came to be seen as a women’s thing – something which my class at school discussed at length whilst we were studying Northanger Abbey – and how Gothic novels became popular, and also more realistic novels such as those of Jane Austen. It mentioned the sarcasm about Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey: perhaps, if there’d been time, have mentioned the sarcasm about “sentimental” novels in Sense and Sensibility. I love Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice is definitely in my top 5 all-time favourite books but I do sometimes wonder why she found it necessary to be so sarky about other people’s choice of reading matter! As I’ve just said, we’ve all got our own likes and dislikes. But most things about Jane Austen’s books are wonderful 🙂 , and that was made clear … not least by Howard Jacobson, who used to be my grandparents’ next door neighbour.

The emphasis then shifted to the authors themselves, and what attitudes towards them in the 19th century said about attitudes towards women – notably people’s surprise at finding that Frankenstein had been written by a woman, and the use of male or gender-neutral pseudonyms by George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. I could have lived without some of the “drama” stuff – what did someone driving a taxi have to do with Frankenstein?! – but I appreciate that the modern idea seems to be that people don’t like just watching a lot of discussion in a studio.

From there, it moved on to politics, and the importance of suffragette novels, which was extremely interesting – it’s an aspect of the suffragette movement which is often overlooked. I didn’t find the talk about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando so interesting, partly because I’ve never read it, but some good points were made about how ideas about gender fluidity are certainly not a recent thing.

I was about to say that it came bang up to date with a discussion about Bridget Jones’s Diary, but, hard as it is to believe, that book is now nearly 25 years old! I believe that the BBC have commissioned a documentary for its silver anniversary next year. 25 years of big pants and “singletons”! It’s such an honest book. OK, it annoys the hell out of me that Bridget is so stressed about her weight when she never weighs more than 9 1/2 stone – I would give almost anything to be 9 1/2 stone – but it does say so much about modern women in the real world. Then it finished by talking about novels written for and or about black women.

It was great, because it managed to include discussion about the role of women, about transgender identity, and of issues particularly affecting black women, without anyone making insulting comments about men, or howling that Robinson Crusoe and practically every other novel ever written should be banned for being racist, sexist and everything else-ist. It was just a very interesting discussion by people who clearly loved books, and whose lives had been significantly influenced by them.

Of the 100 books on the list produced to accompany this series, there are only 8 which I’d say were favourites of mine. I haven’t read most of them, and I’ve never even heard of a few of them. There are plenty which I am extremely surprised haven’t been included. But it doesn’t matter. No-one’s saying that you’ve “got” to have read all or most of the novels on this list. No-one’s insulting your faves by not including them. And, sadly, no-one’s saying that Mr Darcy, Captain Wentworth and Henry Tilney are about to come wandering along my street. But what’s important is that people are talking about books. The BBC’s selection of novels may not have shaped your world, but some books probably have done. A lot of novels have shaped my world. Hooray for novels!!!