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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Most novels are about money but they don't want to admit it

I was listening to a programme about The Great Gatsby when the American author Susan Cheever said something that stopped me in my tracks.

"Most novels are about money but they don't want to admit it".

Where was this revelation when I was being introduced to serious fiction at the age of sixteen? It's the key to understanding Dickens, Austen, Eliot, Thackeray, Trollope and the other 19th century novelists. Their characters' lives are always overshadowed by the giant hand of inheritance, fortune, providence, expectations. Without the promise of the imminent arrival of money or the threat of it being withdrawn their stories don't work.

Of course if I had been told this at the age of sixteen I would have put it down to shallow acquisitiveness, which shows what sixteen year-olds know. We like to think we're beyond that now which is why, as Cheever says, people no longer like to admit that most novels are about money.

It could also be why we don't read novels in the numbers that people read them in Victorian and Edwardian times. The reading public of those days understood the importance of money every bit as much as the novelists did and they didn't mind talking about it, which is something that, for all the talk about materialism, people rarely do nowadays.

I just read Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth, which is about not just losing money but also two even more chilling but inescapable thoughts, the fading of a young woman's looks and downward social mobility. On occasions it's so fierce and real you have to put it down. I'm not sure anybody would dare to write it today. We like to think we're so grown-up, don't we?