In Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve just wrapped up our discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It’s been an interesting fall to be teaching this course. I always open it with some discussion of the differences between “literary” and genre fiction–not just what those differences are presumed to be but how they shape people’s expectations and evaluations of books on either side of the supposed divide. I imagine, however, that to students already accustomed to a literature curriculum that incorporates not just popular culture but a wide range of media (we have courses on both Chaucer and comics, on Shakespeare as well as Tolkien, on poetry and on television and video games) it sometimes seems as if in advocating for the intellectual gravitas of our course material I am arguing against a straw man.
This term, however, both Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail and Luke Brown in the TLS stepped up to show my students in real time that the debates about the literary merits of crime fiction are ongoing and can be both intense and judgmental. Wente published an op-ed decrying the degradation of our curriculum–yes, ours in particular: she singled out Dalhousie’s English department and Mystery & Detective Fiction was among the courses she specifically mentioned as symptoms of our decline. (I won’t link to Wente’s column, because I don’t want her bad faith and shoddy practices rewarded with clicks, but here’s a link to a tweet showing the letter I wrote to the editors in response to it.) Brown, in his turn, wrote a rather grudging review of Belinda Bauer’s Snap, which was (regrettably, in his opinion) long-listed for the Booker Prize. Not satisfied with explaining why he didn’t think highly of Snap in particular, Brown drew broader conclusions about mysteries as a necessarily lesser form of fiction. As part of my commentary on Christie, I also quoted Peter Keating’s 2018 book Agatha Christie and Shrewd Miss Marple (which I reviewed myself for the TLS), in which he observes tartly at the outset that Christie is “hugely read, greatly loved, widely admired, and critically ignored” — a situation his own book, of course, sets out to correct.
I bring these “show and tell” materials into class because I think it is valuable for students to see that our work has resonance and relevance outside the classroom. These are debates that are actually going on “out there”–though not always, as Wente’s column exemplifies, to a very high standard. She is not well-informed, but they will be, and I hope this helps them see that there is both a place and a need outside the university for what they are learning–not so much the assigned content of the course as the nature of the conversation we’re having about it.
In 19th-Century Fiction we’ve just finished our work on The Warden. I’ve written a couple of times already about why Trollope feels unexpectedly pertinent to our current moment, whether as a respite from or a tacit commentary on its crises. Working on The Warden during Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS hearings was … well, disorienting. Could there be a sharper contrast between meek Mr. Harding–who, faced for the first time with a challenge to the privilege he has so enjoyed (and, by some lights, done such amiable good with), resigns rather than live at odds with his now-provoked conscience–and Kavanaugh, who ranted and raved in outrage at the very idea that he should be investigated thoroughly, never mind held accountable, for any past misconduct? When John Bold rather sheepishly tells Mr. Harding that he is launching a legal inquiry that may prove damaging, the Warden replies, “if you act justly, say nothing in this matter but the truth, and use no unfair weapons in carrying out your purposes, I shall have nothing to forgive.” Then, even after he is assured that Bold’s complaint will fail and there is no legal or regulatory reason for him to give up his contested position, Mr. Harding is not satisfied, because “he was not so anxious to prove himself right, as to be so.”
The Warden is an odd little book, and in many respects it is hardly a radical one. As we discussed in class, for instance, the bedesman who speak up for what they think is theirs by right are characterized as greedy and ungrateful, and they are ultimately punished for it, ending up worse off both economically and emotionally than they were under Mr. Harding’s wardenship. The novel’s social vision is fundamentally paternalistic. There is something at least potentially radical, though, about its ethical vision–about its casting as a modern-day hero someone who, when criticized, does not lash out but turns inward, and who then will not be dissuaded even by the most powerful people around him into ignoring what his conscience decides is right. Mr. Harding’s resignation does not really fix anything: the novel explores at several levels the complicated relationship between individuals and larger systems and institutions, and in doing so it raises timely questions about the possibility of meaningful moral agency in corrupt circumstances. I think a lot of us are struggling with this right now: the things we can do on our own seem so insufficient that it is tempting to stop trying to do anything. There’s some encouragement to us in the vicarious satisfaction we get from seeing the Warden persist. Even Archdeacon Grantly, imposing bully that he is, is ultimately no match for him! We all probably face a version of the Archdeacon’s exasperated “Good heavens!” sometimes, maybe especially when we try to take some small, imperfect, corrective action of our own. The Warden is not about taking to the barricades–but most of us aren’t going to do that anyway. Mr. Harding might at least inspire us to play our imaginary cellos with renewed vigor as we carry on living our own ethically complicated lives as best we can.