2010 will go down as my most adventurous year to date for a lot of reasons—I left my job of five years, started my own business, traveled in Central America and went on a solo vacation for the first time in nine years.
(I’m not an adventurous person. Every adventure-type experience I’ve had has required me to fight tooth and nail against the grain of my personality, which would like to drink tea and take leisurely walks in the park every single day.)
2010 is also the year that I read only books by British authors. (If your eyes glazed over, it’s cool, just quietly click away now.) This is much more my style, since I don’t have to get dressed, or even out of bed, to read.
To begin with, this wasn’t intentional. I started the year by re-reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, kind of as a treat, since it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read. Then I read two books by Muriel Spark, who I had never read before, at which point I realized I was on a roll. It seemed like an interesting project—devoting an entire year’s worth of reading to one (especially prolific) island.
I made a few rules.
1. Aside from Jonathan Strange, I must choose books that I have never read before.
2. Each book must be written by a person from England, Scotland or Wales.
3. The primary setting can be anywhere except North America.
4. Any genre is okay, as are novels, non-fiction and memoir.
British Read-a-Thon 2010 has motivated me to read more than usual and to read books that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise (Burgess’ A Dead Man in Deptford had been untouched on our bookshelf for…eight years?).
It’s always contrived to search for overarching themes; but we humans can’t help but look for patterns.
Rather than a strong sense of Great Britain As a Place (which is probably what I had expected), what has emerged more than anything is how British authors confront the notion of outsiders, aliens, fish out of water; not foreigners necessarily, but nonconformists or people who don’t fit a mold. American literary heros tend to be eccentrics, lone wolfs and outcasts. Not so with the British, whose most sympathetic characters tend to outwardly conform while inwardly maintaining a greater sense of intelligence and perception than those around them (Elizabeth Bennet may be the prototype).
I wonder: Do the British view themselves as essentially conformist? Characters on the outside seem to provide a mirror of otherness that reflects a comforting sense of belonging back to other characters and the reader.
Difference is titillating and sinister and full of potential—but not something to be emulated.
In Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Dougal Douglas is a satanic-seeming Scot who singlehandedly tears apart an insular neighborhood of salt-of-the-earth working class Londoners. Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie, a fascist admirer of Mussolini, also wreaks havoc among her self-selected group of naive school girls. Both characters are at least intentional outcasts, choosing a life of interesting ostracism over complacent belonging.
Also in the category of intentional outcasts are Jonathan Strange and Edward Norrell, eccentric magicians who ultimately forsake society in order to live alone in a literal permadarkness. But several supporting characters become unwilling outcasts, held captive by the world of Faerie, which is a (at times very direct) stand-in for mental illness, possibly the most universally terrifying manifestation of difference. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, more than in any other Dorothy L. Sayers mystery, a heartbreaking portrayal of the post-traumatic stress suffered by World War I veterans is much more memorable than the solution of the mystery itself.
The nuances of religious differences, however slight, also serve to create outcasts and delineate heroes and villains in Anthony Burgess’ A Dead Man in Deptford, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth and Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers. This is befuddling to an atheist—especially since all of the parties involved are Christians. What the what?!
My perceptions regarding the British portrayal of otherness could change as I go on. Right now, I’m reading Trollope’s masterpiece, The Way We Live Now. I think I have my list for the rest of the year pretty much set, but I am open to suggestions.
I’ll check back in on my progress from time to time.