Sunday 7 January 2007

Tracts With Plots

Last July there appeared on Metafilter a front page post about a book called From The Ballroom to Hell, by T.A. Faulkner. As MeFites were quick to point out, Faulkner’s books is basically a type of porn, containing such passages as:

Her head rests upon his shoulder, her face is upturned to his, her bare arm is almost around his neck, her partly nude swelling breast heaves tumultuously against his, face to face they whirl on, his limbs interwoven with hers, his strong right arm around her yielding form, he presses her to him until every curve in the contour of her body thrills with the amorous contact.


When she awakes the next morning to a realizing sense of her position her first impulse is to self-destruction, but she deludes herself with the thought that her "dancing" companion will right the wrong by marriage, but that is the farthest from his thoughts, and he casts her off — he wishes a pure woman for his wife.

She has no longer any claim to purity; her self-respect is lost; she sinks lower and lower; society shuns her, and she is to-day a brothel inmate, the toy and plaything of the libertine and drunkard.

Hot, huh? As you can see, all the elements of porn are there. A nineteenth-century Christian reader could get the safely vicarious and voyeuristic pleasures of reading about behaviour considered wrong, and because the depiction of such behaviour is presented in a framework of moral condemnation, could at the same time delude herself or himself into the belief that the real motive for reading such material is a religious one.

Although I hadn’t previously ever seen or heard of this particular book, its existence and contents are no surprise to me, because mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century religious pulp fiction for both children and adults (basically, tracts with plots) is one of my guilty pleasures.

It's standard practice for this genre to argue strenuously against any and all indulgence of dancing, card playing, drinking, and theatre going, and often the characters refer to actual works of non-fiction in order to back up their arguments. No, I haven't seen anything referred to that is as salacious as this linked one, but one I do see mentioned is Plain Talks About the Theatre, by Herrick Johnson. I haven't ever seen the book, and it doesn't seem to be online anywhere, but I'm sure it's a gem of its kind and evinces the sort of facile logic and belief in absolute truth found in religious pulp fiction. For instance, it makes the argument that although there may be wholesome and moral plays, one cannot attend these plays without giving one's patronage to theatres which also run objectionable plays, and therefore the only morally safe course of action is not to attend any plays at all. The fact that this argument would also apply to book publishers and thus make it a moral imperative to refrain from reading almost all books never seems to occur to either Johnson or the characters who quote him.

I don't have that much patience with the worst of the genre, which tends to feature hysterically melodramatic touches such as disobedient children getting eaten by bears and young men becoming instant alcoholics upon their first sip of wine. The Elsie Dinsmore series, for instance, is maddening. Elsie’s father, Horace Dinsmore, demands absolute obedience from her. Elsie isn’t allowed to eat or drink anything without her father’s express permission, she mustn’t ask him the reason for any of his dictates, and at one point Horace orders eight-year-old Elsie to go to her room without any explanation because she had forgotten that her father had told her once months before that she should never sit on the floor. Morbidly conscientious Elsie soaks the pages with her tears in response — and is then severely lectured by her father on the importance of self-control. I collect children’s fiction and I have two of the Elsie books because I think them representative of a significant subgenre in children’s literature, but I can’t say they’re enjoyable. While reading them I amused myself by keeping a mental list of the psychological disorders a real child raised in such a fashion would have as an adult. And I regret that the edition of Elsie Dinsmore that I now own does not have the same illustrations as the one I read as a child. As a ten-year-old I found it hysterically funny that Horace Dinsmore, in his checked suit and pompadour, looks remarkably like The Joker from the sixties-era TV show Batman, and the humour of the coincidence has not worn thin though I'm now 33.

My enjoyment of and interest in this genre is rather complex and I'm not even sure I understand it. I read it to laugh at it, yes, but it's not as simple as that. An ironical enjoyment is a limited and superficial one and palls quickly. Someone who rents the occasional B horror movie is enjoying them for their kitsch value; someone who has a number of B horror movie DVDs and videocassettes lining the bottom drawers of his or her entertainment unit has a deeper stake in them. So… if I, hypothetically, had a stash of nearly 150 such books in old dresser in one corner of my attic studio, had ongoing automatic searches for particular books set up on E-bay, and occasionally whiled away the odd two or three hours reading them on Project Gutenberg and such sites, it might be fair to say that I get more from this genre than ironical amusement.

The religious aspect of these novels is not what I value, at least not in their literal sense. As an agnostic, I skim the most irritating passages that hold forth on Christianity as the only possible moral course. I get irritated with the worst of what can arise from that mindset — the endless self-chastisement, the looking-glass circular logic, the obsessive preoccupation with religious subjects, and the aggressively evangelistic tone. But this overtly religious content doesn’t bother me as much as they might other non-religious people, because I spent most of my childhood and adolescence steeped in that sort of thing. And if I had never learned to strip away the Christian trappings to get to the truly valuable philosophical teachings that usually lie within, I would be significantly the poorer for it.

Then, too, seen in the context of all other works written in the period, these “Sunday School books”, as they were called, don’t seem so excessively religious. It was an era in which almost everyone attended church as a matter of course. It wasn’t considered respectable not to, and there was considerable social pressure brought to bear on many of those who did not. And so practically all novels from this time have a vein of religion running through them. If I couldn’t accept this, I couldn’t read Jane Eyre, nor Little Women. And, in fact, some of Louisa May Alcott's work borders on inclusion in this religious pulp fiction genre. Alcott herself referred to it as "moral pap for the young".

I see these books, and the principles they espouse, very much in the context of their day, and this understanding has probably given me a better understanding of the role and place of religion in society. Even if one sets aside the fear of spending eternity roasting in hellfire like a weenie on a stick, so many of the taboos do make irrefutable practical sense.

In The King’s Daughter, by Isabella Alden, the heroine Dell Bronson refuses to marry a man she loves because he won’t sign a total abstinence pledge. She quotes Bible verses to him by the yard, and it’s laughable in a way because her suitor, an earnest minister who takes no more than the occasional glass of cider and who has shown no signs of susceptibility to addiction or any sort of substance abuse, is not at all likely to become a drunkard. However, let us look at the larger picture. Dell’s father is an alcoholic who runs a hotel which contains tavern. Dell is therefore called upon to live in the hotel, and is shunned by others in their town for being a saloonkeeper’s daughter. And then, too, given the socio-economic strictures of the time, a woman who married a man was choosing not only a companion and father for her future children, but an economic status. She would be completely economically dependent on him for the rest of her life. And there was no feasible escape from marriage in those days. Divorce was considered a disgrace, and was prohibitively expensive and difficult to attain. Women had limited earning capacity. If a woman had some capital she could set up her own business, but otherwise she would be fortunate to eke out a marginal existence as a factory worker, cook, laundry worker, etc. And if the woman had children to support, well, the picture becomes so much darker. There was no treatment for addiction, no child support, no alimony, no battered women’s shelters, no welfare, no calling on the police for protection. Yes, these modern safeguards work imperfectly, but try to imagine being without them. An abused wife’s best hope was that her birth family would be able and willing to take her back and assume her support again, but not every woman would be so fortunate. A woman in those times had much more reason than now to fear alcoholism in the man she loved. Let us remember that the women’s suffrage movement was originally an offshoot of the temperance movement. Given Dell’s particular circumstances and the harsh realties of the day, Dell’s insistence that her suitor show his commitment to remaining sober by signing his name to a temperance pledge becomes much more understandable. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.

Examining the religious dictates in these books, I find they boil down to stern pragmatism most of the time. There is much said about self-reliance, and one’s duty to help others. The late nineteenth century was the time in which we came closest to having a libertarian society, when there were the fewest industrial regulations and next to no social safety net. People and their families were especially vulnerable to catastrophe, and more dependent on themselves and each other. Plain as it is that individual measures can be inadequate in the face of larger problems, that society as a whole must make a concerted effort to help ensure the well being of its populace and minimize suffering, it’s reasonable that nineteenth century reformers should have begun with self-reliance as a first response. As for the insistence on chastity, if I had lived in the days before reliable birth control and access to abortions, I would have remained chaste too. Of course there’s much more emphasis on female chastity, but this too is understandable, if not excusable, given that the consequences of an illegitimate pregnancy would fall inescapably on the woman while the man at least had the option of refusing the responsibility.

Some of these authors wax indignant over very silly and trivial matters, such as dancing, or specific styles of dress or hair. Isabella Alden’s niece Grace Livingston Hill, who wrote about a hundred books between 1900 and 1946, was quite obviously fit to be tied over many small, harmless, fashionable “vices”, such as fingernail polish, backless dresses, and jazz music (described by one character as "the music of the lost”). She has several of her twenties-era heroines declare that they won’t bob their hair because “God gave me my hair and I’d like to keep it”, a scruple that doesn’t seem to keep said heroine from cutting her fingernails. Also these authors make many pronouncements against reading “third-rate dime novels”. This is where the ironic enjoyment comes in. I also have been known to curl up happily in bed with a temperance-themed novel and a delicious hot toddy.

Besides the fun of snarking, and the educational experience of coming to understand the relationship between the evolution of religion and prevailing sociological and economic needs, I also learn a little history from these books. I have very little interest in contemporary Christian fiction, so the history component must constitute a good part of my enjoyment. These old pulp novels familiarize me with the social mores and customs and mindsets of this era, and as someone who wishes to write at least one historical novel, I can consider them research.

But it seems that when I dig right to the bottom of my enjoyment in these books, I find that I take a certain escapist pleasure in their moral certainty. This moral certainty, and its accompanying neat resolution of plot, isn’t only to be found in nineteenth-century religious fiction. It’s also found in contemporary romance novels. We’re all familiar with the course of events — heroine meets man, conflict arises, heroine and man work through conflict, and then live happily ever after. And the fact that this is not realistic does not seem to keep Harlequin novels from selling at the rate of one every six seconds. I know behaving well, working hard, keeping my home neat and tidy and sticking to my principles doesn’t ensure a happy ending any more than does finding a man named Hunter with a chiselled jaw and abs (though the latter sounds like a more straightforward and immediate kind of fun), but after a day of dealing with a complex and sometimes seemingly random universe I sometimes find it comforting to retreat into a world where it does. And yes, it’s very odd to choose “late nineteenth to early twentieth century religious fiction” as my escapist genre, but I still find them more interesting and less tiresome than most contemporary romance novels or fantasy or sci-fi, and I can take something intellectual away from them.

Finally, these books are sometimes surprisingly well-written and enjoyable in their own right. The American Isabella Alden (1841-1930) is one of my favourites. Alden was incredibly popular in her day, and very prolific, writing or editing over 200 works in her long ifetime besides leading what is reputed to be a very full personal life. She wrote under the pseudonym of “Pansy”, and since that name has acquired connotations that must have whatever is left of her remains spinning in her grave, her modern publishers have chosen to go with her full name. I got a perfectly unironic satisfaction from her heroine, the independent and witty Dell Bronson, who refuses her (stubborn and insufferably arrogant, if temperate) minister’s proposal when he refuses to meet her conditions for marriage. Her suitor marries someone else, and Dell remains serenely single to the end of the book with no regrets, and decides to believe that there are better things in store for her.

Alden’s books do tend to melodrama and can’t be considered literature by any stretch of the imagination, but her characterizations are realistic and their psychological profiles sometimes astonishingly complete, her dialogue natural, and her plots usually interesting and not formulaic if extremely contrived at times. Moreover Alden was obviously a woman with a good sense of humour. In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s classmates gather at lunchtime to read a Pansy book out loud to each other — apparently her books were considered a treat back in the day.

I can’t pretend to have even a working familiarity with all such authors, as I’m sure there were many more than I will ever get to, and their books extremely hard to find if not completely unavailable, but of the dozen or so authors I have read, Alden does stand out as superior. L.T. Meade was perhaps Alden’s English counterpart in terms of popularity, but Meade is far less readable. I suspect the quality of her work suffered from her extreme prolifacy, as she produced an astonishing 280 novels as well as a number of short stories and articles in a 48-year career.

And now I must go fulfill some sort of duty before I get eaten by bears.


Anonymous said...

My impression is that Meade doean't have Alden's fundamentalist Christianity - I don't have any Meade to hand, but I don't remember scenes in her books like the one in The Chatauqua Girls at Home where they use the Bible to decide whether dancing is Christian (it's not, of course). As far as I recall Meade's ethical perspective is much less directly stated. Also, again as far as I recall, her books are much longer than Pansy's pithy ones. (Have you come across the farmer in Jean Webster's Dear Enemy? He starts reading Pansy and is then spoilt for anything else, as he finds her books so exciting.) - paduasoy

Orange Swan said...

No, Meade's novels are definitely not as explicitly religious as Alden's, and I don't see that kind of fundamentalist content in them (but then how common was that Alden-style Christian fundamentalism in England?). I suppose Meade's books can't exactly be classified as a "tract with a plot", but they could be described as "moralistic pulp fiction", so I included her willy-nilly;-)

There's a general strain of "lying is very wrong and you must kneel down and ask God to forgive you" in Meade's books, and they were evidently the sort of thing considered appropriate by Sunday School teachers, as my copy of Meade's School Queens was given to my Great-Aunt Clara by her Sunday School teacher for Christmas in 1923.

And I must read Dear Enemy, which I see is available on Project Gutenberg. The idea of anyone finding Pansy the only author worth reading fills me with an unholy glee.