Friday, 23 November 2007

Jane Austen and the Missing War


When I was studying Jane Austen for ‘A’ Level, I remember reading some crass comment which criticised her for not reflecting any of the ‘big picture’ concerns of her time. From Austen’s novels, this person sniffily concluded, you would never have guessed that Britain was at war at the time.
Which seems to me pretty much like saying that Father Christmas doesn’t work on his tan enough.

Well, possibly ‘twas ever thus because you can look in vain for any mention of the current conflict in the Gulf in most novels published since we went to war in Iraq. Maybe, as with Jane Austen, authors fight shy of mentioning it because they don’t feel qualified to do so. Maybe it’s a case of 'out of sight out of mind', it’s a war that’s happening far away in another country, despite daily news updates on pretty much any medium you care to mention. It doesn’t actually impact much on us, here in Britain. In fact, it probably impacts less on us than the Napoleonic wars did on Jane Austen’s contemporaries. Think of her novels – half the men seem to be in the army and if there were no officers, who would all the silly women simper at?

Minette Walters’ recent novels have bucked this ignore-the-war trend. Both The Devil’s Feather and The Chameleon’s Shadow bring the effects of war right into lives lived here in England. And not just war in the Gulf. The Devil’s Feather concerns itself with current continental African conflicts as well as those in Iraq and the continuing effects of war on men who served in the Falklands comes up in the Chameleon’s Shadow. Chalky, a homeless Falklands veteran, provokes all sorts of unpleasant thoughts in the mind of the Chameleon’s main character, Charles Acland, recently invalided out of the army himself.

In both The Devil’s Feather and Tthe Chameleon’s Shadow, war both damages and attracts the damaged to it and the incursion of the brutality and damage of war into apparently ‘normal’ life back home is one of the fascinating things about the books.

The effects of the past – whether it be war or damaging family dynamics – is a theme which runs deep in all Walters’s books. And, when you know her back-catalogue it’s hard to read ‘The Chameleon’s Shadow’ and not feel a suspicion that Charles Acland will turn out to have been a very damaged personality before he was blown up by an Iraqui roadside bomb.

His anti-social personality – pre-existent or not - doesn’t necessarily mean he is a sociopath, or that he is responsible for a series of apparently homophobic murders. Or does it?
Walters teases us right to the end - is he guilty or isn’t he - asking us to search our souls and see if we would exonerate Charles of responsibility for his actions, given what has been done to him. Has his responsibility been diminished? If so, what diminished it, war or childhood? And would one provide more excuse for the commission of murder than the other?

Discuss.

1 comment:

Akasha Savage said...

Surely the reason most of us read is to escape from the drudges of reality and everyday life...including wars and times of unrest. Although saying that I do like reading novels set in WWI and WWII.

ps.I will be posting from the Darkside again within the next couple of days...but I find when I am lost in the cyberworld of blogging, I am wasting valuable Bathory time!!