Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Anthony Hope and the Triumph of the Public Domain

While in a local independent bookstore last weekend, I discovered that Penguin has reprinted The Prisoner of Zenda as part of their Red Classics series. While it looks like not everything in the Red Classics series looks like it's in the public domain much of it is.

But reprinting classic adventure novels isn't the triumph of the public domain. Everybody knows that Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story are reworked Shakespeare, and that when Disney's not fighting to eliminate the public domain, it's raiding it for plots and marketing opportunities. Of course, there's also Alan Moore's Justice League of Public Domain Victorian Characters, which was made into an execrable movie. That reuse and recycling of older material is the triumph of the public domain.

So how does Anthony Hope, the author of The Prisoner of Zenda, fit into this triumph of the public domain? Well, even if you'd never heard of it before today, you've probably seen one of the movies based on it: two of the most faithful adaptations of Zenda starred Richard Dreyfus and Kevin Klein. I also seem to recall the same plot being used for episodes of sitcoms over the years as well. And of course, the fictional European country of Ruritania is almost as famous as the British university of Oxbridge.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

May Book a Month Challenge: Mother

Jackson, Shirley. Life Among the Savages. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Young, 1953.

Shirley Jackson is best known today for her sophisticated horror novels, such as The Haunting of Hill House, but in the late '40s and early '50s she was writing light domestic comedy for the likes of Good Housekeeping, Harper's, and Mademoiselle. These columns were gathered together and published as Life Among the Savages, which tells of an urban pair of writers with two children who move from a New York apartment to a house in suburban Vermont. In 1997, a review in Library Journal described it as "good fun of the Erma Bombeck kind," which, while useful for identifying the genre and most likely readers, does not do it justice. Jackon's work in the antecedent of the rest of the American domestic comedies: Bombeck is good fun of Jackson kind.

While Life is well written and entertaining, it has two flaws that made it difficult for me to read at times. The first, and larger, problem for me is the tone of voice with which Jackson tells her stories. She frequently invokes a "cutesy ironic" tone, which might have been amusing in the '50s for her target readership of homemakers, but often grated for me. For example, while I can understand the humour inherent in a mother of three suddenly having to learn to drive, the naivete exhibited while the characters are car shopping is far broader than necessary ("We lacked only a car. This was adjusted by a gentleman who, saying he acted only from pure friendship, sold us one of his cars.").

The second flaw is that the stories feel slightly dated. Tales of the problems of hiring and dealing with mothers' helpers, the challenges of getting together for a night of bridge, and running short of money because one forgot to cash the cheque from one's husband do not resonate with the modern reader. I found it particularly difficult to accept the idea that Jackson was so dependent upon her husband for household cash while at the same time being a successful writer with her own income. Another example is Jackson's description of packing to go to hospital to deliver their third child: the idea that one plans for a relaxing getaway of a week or so in hospital following a normal childbirth is, today, inconceivable.

Over all, Life Among the Savages is an amusing light read, but not up to the level her other writing.