Saturday, January 14, 2006

Breaking the Mood

Just finished indulging in Rebel Angels, the sequel to A Great & Terrible Beauty, a YA fantasy novel that I dismissed on first reading and then discovered surprising depths to when I re-read it. Both books stand out among the current crop of YA fiction for being set in historical London, as opposed to a fictionalised historical London (like the Bartimaeus books). They remind me of Phillip Pullman's Ruby in the Smoke series, both in having the requisite feisty heroine, and in their fascination with the diverse and dirty nooks of Holmesian London (there's even a character in Rebel Angels who lives on Baker Street).
Of course, the feisty heroine is surprisingly modern - in a way that reminds the reader just how modern the educated women of the late nineteenth century were. Yet Gemma Doyle is not just advocating for women to get the vote; her liberal thinking encompasses revisionist feminist history, anti-racism, a narcotics harm reduction policy, sexual liberation, an awareness of sexual abuse, bulimia and self-cutting. All this in 500 pages. It's a heavy book in more ways than one. Jan Mark describes the weight of this generation of YA novels when she writes in her review of Girl & Gander that "[there was] a time when it was believed that children were not equal to the demands of long books. Now it has been established beyond doubt that they are, it need not be forgotten that they can still appreciate short ones."
On the one hand, I salute Ms. Bray, the funky livejournalling New Yorker who hit the bestseller list with A Great & Terrible Beauty, for her courage in including these meaningful contemporary issues, and considering how they might play out in Victorian London, with its opium dens, Indian servants, corsets and "benevolently" dictatorial patriarchy. On the other (and in fairness, I've read very few Victorian novels but more than the average 14 year old), the inclusion of these glaringly modern tropes - particularly the character who cuts herself - is as jarring as twentieth-century Americanisms like "intermission" (for "interval" at the opera) and "gotten."
But while a careful editor might have picked up on the rips in the linguistic fabric (which, to be fair, are few and far between), it requires a complete rethink on a narrative and symbolic level to imagine telling the story of young women in another era through the bodily and emotional tropes through which they would have conceived themselves. Bray is excellent on fainting, dancing and suitors, but in her attempt to make the book "relevant" and educational - or inclusive - to contemporary teen readers, she destroys the very illusion that makes the book so compelling: the construction of a world that is different from our own, that may experience the same situations, the same feelings, but expresses them in its own way. While I'm all for the conceit of a fantastic feminism (inspired, in the novels, by a magical realm controlled by a powerful group of women known as the Order), Gemma's inclusion of her friends in the new Order - one sexually abused by her father, one poor and self-harming, one an Indian servant, one insane - smacks simultaneously of modern multiculturalism and of a tokenist sentimentalism for the victimised that is all to Tiny Tim.

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