Having previously commented on how quickly some novels can date, I’ve been thinking today about how some can seem contemporary even when they’re pretty old. And having been reminded of The Way We Live Now (not that it’s usually very far from my thoughts, bizarrely fond of Trollope as I am) it occurred to me that satire seems to have the longest shelf-life.
On the face of it, political comment and specific complaints about society as it exists at the time of writing don’t look like they’d stand the test of time, but unfortunately whatever their nominal leaning, one politician is generally very much like another, and the same can be said for numerous other categories of people at the top (greedy bankers, for instance – always good for a spot of lampooning). Trollope’s satire, heavy-handed as it sometimes is, is not only funny but often gives the impression that it could have been written yesterday. Strip away the conventions of Victorian society, and his interminable descriptions of fox-hunting parties, and Trollope could stand in for Simon Hoggart in the Guardian. A couple of years ago, with Blair still in Number Ten, there was a BBC radio adaptation of one or some of the Palliser novels, and whether or not that was the intention of the producer, I seem to remember the Guardian’s radio reviewer drawing striking parallels between Trollope’s original and the goings-on in Downing Street that month.
The book that set me off on this train of thought was Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, or specifically the second short story which accompanies that novella, Love Among The Ruins. It’s a none-too-subtle dig at the Welfare State, which in 1953 was still largely in its infancy with the NHS a mere six years old (don’t get me started on the 1945-51 Labour government). However, ‘in the new Britain there are no criminals, only the victims of inadequate social services’, prisons like luxury hotels, and a Britain where it’s considered a boon to be from a broken home could have emerged from the keyboards of any number of tabloid journalists in 2009.
I can’t quite decide whether it’s all an illusion and every age sees itself in past literature, or we really don’t learn from our gruesome mistakes.