Monday, September 12, 2016

A 19th Century Book in a 21st Century Head

First of all, can anyone name the song that this blog title references? I remember hearing it on the radio, though I admit I had to Google the lyrics to come up with the title myself.

Anyway, this weekend I finished reading Adam Bede by George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans). If you're not familiar with this novel, it was published in 1859 and is considered a classic of 19th century British literature. Most of the book is set in a small English town and revolves around the relationships of four people: the titular Adam Bede, a carpenter; a local squire named Arthur Donnithorne and is Adam's old friend; Hetty Sorrel, a pretty but vain seventeen-year old whom both men are attracted to; and Dinah Morris, a Methodist preacher who is Hetty's cousin. Although the book has received lots of praise since its publication, I found it hard to get into because in many ways it's different from the more recent books I normally read. I'm not even sure a traditional publisher would accept it today. Here are some of the things that I noticed about this book:

1. Sentences tend to be longer and more complex than in modern books.
2. Compared to modern books, the pace is slow. Much space is devoted to description, daily life (which is actually a feature that draws praise from critics) and to characters who don't impact the main plot--or do much of anything.
3. Dialect is spelled out, which sometimes means it's difficult to decipher.
4. Head-hopping in a single scene is common.
5. Authorial/narrator asides are common and are frequently used to "preach" at the reader.

These writing practices can work under the right circumstances, but for me and my modern tastes, they weren't that interesting. There was also a lot of overt and covert sexism and classism in the book, which is to be expected given the era it was written in. I did care enough about the characters to push my way through that book, plus I wanted to finish it so it would count for my reading challenge.

I do think this book shows how much fiction has changed in over 150 years. Will my books be read 150 years from now? Probably not. It does make me wonder how storytelling will change. I don't think our species will ever give up stories, but the mode of storytelling may be through immersive technology or something else we haven't thought of yet. The past and present stories that future generations find valuable will be translated into new forms. Let's see if this book makes the cut.


PT Dilloway said...

Books were different in the Old days but then not as many people could read either.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Older books had a lot more exposition and moved much slower. Even Lovecraft's work is old enough now that you really have to focus to get through it.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Good point, Pat.

Alex, it's amazing how quickly some works become dated.

Maria Zannini said...

The books I read in the 70s are vastly different from the ones today. There was a lot of head hopping and exposition.

I was used to it, but when the style started to change to more modern standards I remember not liking it much at first. It seemed cold and brusk.

I'm sure writing will morph again before the century ends.

Juli D. Revezzo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juli D. Revezzo said...

Will your stuff be read in a hundred years? Maybe. Think positive! :) As to Adam Bede: Yuck. I do think the colloquialisms were a major problem with that book for me. I read it _after_ I received a literature degree centered in 19th century English literature and didn't get what had happened (the major spoiler about Hetty) until I read an essay about the book, _after_ I'd finished the darned thing. :( I know that's a failure on my part, but man that was irritating. I adored Daniel Deronda but Adam Bede turned me off George Eliot completely.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Maria, it's amazing how much styles have changed in only a few decades! I wonder how styles will change (or if they will) now that writers can bypass the gatekeepers (agents and publishers).

Juli, that's another thing that made reading the book difficult: major plot points like that are buried so you can overlook them. And how did Hetty conceal her pregnancy for so long, anyway? The author was so shy about mentioning it that it took me a while to realize it.

Nick Wilford said...

I guess writing styles reflect the trends of what was popular at the time and that's no exception in the 19th century. It might seem different if you read a lot of modern stuff but it's interesting to preserve them as a kind of document of the era. I'd love to see what books look like in 100 years' time and whether there'll be any physical books at all!

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