Selfish is as Selfish Does

Date: 18 October 2013

Books Completed: 181

Books Left: 19

I love reading classics. I think it somehow ties in with my love of history in general, because there is just something about reading a book that was contemporary 100, 200 years ago and feeling connected with that past time and place. I am currently reading Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. It’s about Newland Archer, who struggles with the dual sides of his personality. On the one hand, he loves the sense of order that comes from strictly adhering to the rigid protocols of Victorian New York society, but on the other he has avant-garde tastes in literature, music, travel destinations and even some acquaintances. This duality results in a major and eventually moral conflict when he willingly enters into an engagement with the ever-so-conventional May Welland and then finds himself falling in love with her ever-so-bohemian cousin, Ellen Olenska. I’m more than halfway through the book and I am very interested in how Newland, May, and Ellen will handle the impending, inevitable crisis.

I don’t know if it’s because my last post about author patterns is fresh in my mind, but I find myself connecting a character from this book with others from additional classic novels. May Welland’s father must have everything just so, can see no viewpoint other than his own, and ultimately is a great inconvenience to those around him. His family, however, humors and enables him in his thoughtless and selfish eccentricities. Just like Mr. Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma. The whole neighborhood of Highbury caters to Mr. Woodhouse’s peculiarities—arranging their social engagements, menus, and even living arrangements so as not to disturb his hypochondriac whims. Then I was reminded of Mrs. Douglas, who, in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of the Island, cruelly made her son promise not to propose to the woman he loved until she (Mrs. Douglas, that is) was dead. A victim of emotional blackmail, John makes said promise—and keeps Janet waiting 20 years. Catherine Sloper, of Henry James’ Washington Square, has to wait even longer for a marriage that never happens. Dr. Sloper, who has always treated his daughter abominably, refuses to admit Morris Townsend as Catherine’s suitor. She permits herself the rebellion of an engagement, but ultimately will not marry without her father’s consent, which is never forthcoming.

These examples don’t show author patterns as I explored before, but character and plot patterns in classic literature. Mr. Welland, Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Douglas and Dr. Sloper are a similar character type that doesn’t seem to have a contemporary counterpart.  At least, I can’t readily think of any characters in current novels who fit the pattern. Perhaps this is because modern characters would be unlikely to put up with their antics.

When I read about Mr. Welland et al, the thought that comes most often to mind is how selfish they are. These characters are willing to sacrifice the hopes and dreams or even just the daily living of those around them simply so they can have things the way they want. It is commonly said that successive generations breed more selfish creatures, but I wonder if this is so. It seems to me that in the past the older members of society were the selfish ones, whereas currently, we save that epithet for younger denizens. Time was younger people were expected to be dutiful to their elders, which apparently meant catering to their every desire, no matter how self-centered or unreasonable the demand might be.

Or did it? Perhaps it was more common back then for younger people to acquiesce to the wishes of older friends and family, but these extreme novelized examples are exaggerations, devices used by authors to set up conflict, something no story can live without.

Whatever the case, it is hard for me to imagine current-day characters willingly sacrificing anything/everything they hold dear for the capriciousness of someone else. Maybe the generations have gotten more selfish over time. 100+ years ago, only old people were allowed to be selfish. Now we all are.

Same Old Song

Date: 1 October 2013

Books Completed: 175

Books Left: 25

Rereading books multiple times, as I so obviously do, I am bound to notice author patterns. The question becomes, when is it style, when is it overkill, and when has an author stayed too long at the party?

Louisa May Alcott believed in healthy appetites, exercise, and educating girls equally with boys. She also had a disdain for popular theater entertainments that promoted immoral lifestyles. It makes sense that these themes come out in all three March family books, since we are dealing with the same characters throughout. However, they also appear in the non-March books I’ve read. Style or overkill?

What about when author patterns include repeating plot points? In the Anne books, Lucy Maud Montgomery introduces us to several sister pairs with strikingly similar situations. They are ten years apart, both unmarried, physical and personality opposites, and the younger, prettier, sweeter one finally has a chance of marriage. The only time this alters is with the West sisters, as they end up in a double wedding. Miss Montgomery repeats this scenario in additional Avonlea books that are “outside” the Anne series as well as in the totally non-Avonlea book After Many Days. In that book you can even find speeches and expressions from Anne characters revisited. Not to mention (back to the Anne series) that Anne’s daughter Rilla even repeats some of Anne’s experiences (they both raise children when they are quite young themselves, they both save babies from croup, they both turn down marriage proposals, etc.). Style or overkill?

This repetition is not restricted to children’s book authors. Barbara Taylor Bradford has a series of books about Emma Harte and her family. Emma’s granddaughter Paula emulates her grandmother in many ways—even to essentially living the same life. Both women had a first husband (who was not a great love in their lives) get killed in an accident. Both women suffered an attempted rape. Both women gave birth to twins. Both women found the loves of their lives with tall, dark, handsome, and cocky men. Both never made a mistake in business. Et cetera, et cetera. Style or overkill?

I’ve seen the trend with screenwriters as well. In my opinion, Aaron Sorkin is past master of rapid-fire, smart, smart, witty dialog. However, he tends to repeat himself in characters and plot. Check out these examples from the TV shows Sports Night (a show that left us much too soon) and The West Wing: Dan/President Bartlett have cold, unfeeling fathers who could be emotionally cruel; Jeremy’s/Sam’s fathers each had a secret ongoing extramarital affair with a woman for over 25 years; Dana/Josh spend a day walking around saying she/he “has absolutely nothing to do.” Jeremy meets and becomes intrigued with a porn star—OK, with Sam’s it’s a prostitute, but you have to admit there’s a similarity there. Style or overkill? (Not to mention the thought that Mr. Sorkin may have some father issues!)

Perhaps it’s neither style or overkill—perhaps it’s a matter of staying too long at the party.  Miss Montgomery’s Anne books originally had 6 books in the series. After it was completed, she went back and added two more books that filled in multiple-year-long gaps between novels. The two additional works are very different in tone and style and actually don’t really seem to fit in. As much as I love the Anne books, Miss Montgomery stayed too long at the party.

**(SPOILER!!!)**  Helen Fielding just came out with a new Bridget Jones book. I read an advance summary that revealed that Mark has died, leaving Bridget a widow. To me this shows that Miss Fielding knows Bridget fans are so vested in the success of the relationship with Mark that separating them by any other means would be intolerable. So in order to continue Bridget’s story as a singleton, Mark needs to be 6 feet under. Yeah, for me, Miss Fielding definitely stayed too long at the party.

Heather Vogel Frederick has emphatically said that Wish You Were Eyre is the last of the Mother-Daughter Book Club series. The girls in the books are still in high school and their stories could continue, but after 6 books, Mrs. Frederick would put herself in danger of repetition. She left the party right on time.

Wendy Mass just released The Last Present, the 4th book in her Willow Falls series. 11 Birthdays, which told of Amanda and Leo’s adventures, was a stand-alone book. Then came Finally, which wasn’t really a sequel. Rory is the protagonist, and while Amanda and Leo make appearances, they don’t figure hugely into the story, so it could also be a stand-alone. 13 Gifts, however was different. This time we are in Tara’s story, and Rory, Amanda, and Leo play large roles. Miss Mass also gives readers an unfinished ending, begging for another installment. We get that in The Last Present, which I totally loved. This is once again Amanda’s and Leo’s story, with Rory, Tara, David, Ray, and Connor in important parts. The carry-over from 13 Gifts has been resolved, but as the kids are only 13, their stories could go on. I, however, hope they don’t. I longed for the fourth book and was quite satisfied with it. This would be an excellent time to leave the party.

So while I love the works of all the authors I’ve mentioned (although, admittedly, Mrs. Bradford’s works are totally guilty pleasures!) I do wish some of them would have been a little more inventive or known when to stop. They are all wonderful storytellers. A new tune or one with fewer verses might have been wiser than singing the same old song.