Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters & the Moral Cowardice of Critics

Bloggers are reading and loving this.
Stuck-in-a-Book, an energetic blogger who has written about and revived interest in many neglected women's classics, is a fan of Viragos, Dodie Smith, Barbara Comyns, and Muriel Spark.  Since I am old enough to be his mother, and may well be older than his mother, I read many of these wonderful books long ago.  Nonetheless, I am pleased to see a new generation of bloggers engaged by such excellent novels, especially since, according to a few eminent literary critics and newspapermen, hordes of barbarian bloggers have ruined literary criticism and even literature. 

 In fact it would seem that book bloggers have revived interest in little-known classics, out-of-print books, and reprints.  We read Stefan Zweig after reading A Common Reader, Elizabeth Taylor's Collected Short Stories after reading Dovegreyreader, and Mrs. Oliphant's Hester after reading Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too. 

It is a pleasure to read intelligent short pieces about lost books ignored by the "mainstream" newspaper criticism/journalism cartel, whose focus is naturally on new books.  Bloggers live in an alternate world, where they can rave about the old as well as the new.   Recently the influential Stuck-in-a-Book created a craze for Diana Tutton's out-of-print novel,  Guard Your Daughters, after he compared it to Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. 

If you google Guard Your Daughters,  you will see at least six other bloggers have read this novel since Stuck-in-a-Book's recommendation, and who knows how many dozens of readers have enjoyed it?  Bravo, Stuck-in-a-Book!

I finished this charming novel yesterday. Stuck-in-a-Book is right about the influence of I Capture the Castle.   The Harvey sisters in Guard Your Daughters are very much like the Mortmains in Smith's I Capture the Castle and the Bennets in Austen's Pride and Prejudice:  the girls know no men, live in isolation in the country, and what on earth are they going to do with themselves?  But in Guard Your Daughters, the narrator, Morgan Harvey, and her sisters, Thisbe, Cressida, and Teresa have an even harder time than their Smith/Austen counteparts: their mad mother wants them to stay home and practically has a mini-breakdown at the thought of any of them marrying, or at Thisbe's going to London to visit their only married sister, Pandora.  Their self-absorbed father, a successful mystery writer, is so devoted to their mother that he ignores their interests.  So this is I Capture the Castle and Pride and Prejudice with a dark side.  

Here is the bad news, insofar as it is bad news. I am not enthusiastic about Guard Your Daughers.  I think it reads like a good children's book based on I Capture the Castle.  Not that it is a bad thing to be a good children's boook. Tutton's style is blunter than Smith's, and her narrator, Morgan, lacks Cassandra's gift for witty dialogue, shaping dramatic scenes, and portraying believable eccentric characters. But Tuttle obviously has a great time turning Smith's material upside down. For instance, in both books, the fathers are writers:  Morgan's father is a successful mystery writer, and Cassandra's is a blocked literary writer who reads mysteries all day.  And it is for Tutton's fun that we read this.  

Guard Your Daughters is an entertaining novel.  It enlightens us about trends in women's novels in the '40s and '50s, so it is an excellent thing that Stuck-in-a-Book discovered it for posterity.  You can even see the threads connecting it back to Little Women

And, honestly, most people seem to have loved it.   I liked it, just not as much.
THE MORAL COWARDICE OF CRITICS. Surely newspaper critics are not serious when they say book bloggers have ruined Literary Criticism and The Book? Most have stopped fulminating about it--it was a thing of the moment perhaps-- but Robert McCrum in The Guardian/Observer may have mentioned bloggers in an unfavorable light again the other day.  I can't say for sure, because I immediately left the website.

I must say that I think it moral cowardice for critics to blame powerless bloggers for the end of criticism when in fact the corporations that employ them are to blame for cutting back the number of pages for reviews.  Of course if critics blame their employers, they will get fired.  But why dink around attacking bloggers?

The two conglomerates that own Random House and Penguin are merging to form Random Penguin House, or is it Ranguin Pendom?  According to NPR, Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson (one of the conglomerates), said the merger will allow the companies "to invest more for their author and reader constituencies and to be more adventurous in trying new models in this exciting, fast-moving world of digital books and digital readers," she said.

That's gobbledygook.  

Can't blame that on bloggers.  

It is not the first time this kind of publishing caper has been plotted--wasn't this going on all the time in the  late '90s?--but it is something to be very concerned about. We need more people in publishing making different decisions, not fewer making the same.    
What can be done?


StuckInABook said...

Thank you for the lovely things you say! I was really pleased with the response to GYD - and I enjoyed reading your thoughtful take on it - but I wish I'd bought a spare copy or two before they all went from Amazon!

Frisbee said...

I'm not surprised it's sold out! This could be cross-marketed to the Dodie Smith AND D. E. Stevenson crowd. (I'm sort of a member of both.) Maybe someone will reprint it.

Frisbee said...

Ellen of Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too asked me to put up this comment:

One of the papers I heard at the conference I was at was about early to mid-19th centruy children's books intended explicitly for working and lower middle class girls. The same paradigm as Jane Eyre. She had few clothes and didn't want more; she preferred to stay in her place and fled the aristocratic debauchee; she worked her way up to content and then was rewarded. There is one for I Capture the Castle too: be on the side of the patriarch. It's okay to enjoy light-hearted fun fairy tale cant, but no good to believe it.

Frisbee said...

It's hard for me to think of I Capture the Castle in terms of partriarchy, but it is true that the blocked father and the polite American visitors-cum-landlords Simon and Neil, have fewer opportunities to make fools of themselves than do the women characters. Nonetheless, the women characters are the most important and the most interesting.

Now there is, on the other hand, a big strain of mother-hatred in Guard Your Daughters. I'll have to send you my copy, Ellen!