I find myself delving into fiction written in the first half of the 20th century as a way to relax and switch off the 21st. Mobile phones, computers, and the overall constant urgency that our lives are full of these days gets to me after a bit. I need to escape. So the 1920s and 30s in particular beckon. Maybe it’s the clothing. Maybe it’s the rise of the flapper, with her bobbed hair and her strident feminism. Maybe it’s the music. The pace of life was certainly slower and I feel myself calm down in the company of Mapp and Lucia, Fanny Logan and her Radlett cousins, or Lord Peter Wimsey. Toss in some Agatha Christie and Scott Fitzgerald for good measure, early Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh… I am also the proud owner of three Girls’ Own Annuals from the 20s, complete with knitting patterns, recipes, very high-moralled articles (which I skim) and serial novels (which I devour).
I also enjoy reading recently-written novels set in the 1920s. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series is wonderful escapism, and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, while technically set in the early 1930s, is another I enjoy. Both of these are mystery series as I do love a good murder or two.
There’s a real difference in the tenor of novels actually written in the 20s and those modern books set in the 20s however. Times have changed and the political correctness we are inured to is very evident in modern novels. Vintage fiction can be sexist and racist, and while I condone neither in the big scheme of things, that’s the way things were back then. That’s the way people thought, and you have to accept that when you read these books. They are very much a product of their time.
Modern novels get around it; our heroine comes across a character being sexist or racist and pulls them up on it. How dare he call that man a Chink (or insert whatever racist term you like)? In the vintage books, this wouldn’t happen. Our heroine would probably refer to said victim in the same way, albeit possibly with a nicer tone in her voice. The humour can be waspish and brilliant, but any author who wrote such works today would be crucified by the mass media.
I suspect that modern novels set in earlier times wouldn’t get published unless a modicum or indeed large dollop of political correctness crept in there. Is this gilding the way people behaved almost a hundred years ago? Is it a slur on the authenticity of the period in which the book is set? And have we really become too po-faced in our acceptance of older fiction and the time and place it was written in? (Think of Enid Blyton’s Noddy, banned for years.)
Historical fiction tells us an enormous amount about the community and accepted behaviour and language of the time. That time existed and while we’ve moved on to a more complex age in just about every sense it’s that ring of authenticity, that behaviour and language which is audacious by today’s standards, that makes these books thought-provoking, compelling reading.
Oh yes, and it was the cocktail era. It’s been a long day. Time for a Sidecar.