In Which Our Heroine Finds a Disliked Archetype

24 April 2005

Yesterday I read Beth's copy of Noel Streatfeild's A Vicarage Family. It was fictionalized autobiography, but I'm really not sure how or in what way: she said at the beginning what she had changed, but one of the two things she changed seemed pretty major to me, so I was left unsure of the rest of the book. That seems like the worst of both worlds, when it comes to memoir, but it was still a pretty interesting book for someone who'd read most of Streatfeild's work as a kid. (I think it probably wouldn't encourage someone to care about her life who didn't already.)

Two things struck me as annoying about this book, which I otherwise generally liked. The first was that Streatfeild was at great pains to explain about "in those days" what the customs were. But I read her "contemporary" fiction at almost as great a remove -- Ballet Shoes was published in 1937, as compared to her 1911-1914ish autobiography -- and even as a small child I didn't have difficulty intuiting the worlds she presented. She didn't explain that "in those days British children of that class often had old family servants for nannies" or "back then very few families owned automobiles." It was simply part of the story: they had nannies and no automobiles, and nobody needed to talk about it, and she didn't feel the need to talk about it because it was her current norm, her default setting at the moment. And what this says to me is what I already guessed: incluing works at least as well for children as for adults. Children are used to it. They're good at it. You needn't infodump unnecessarily on them just because they're young. They're at the height of their incluing powers, many of them.

(Incluing, for those of you who don't talk about writing SF much, is where people can figure out what the society is like and what's going on by how things go in the main flow of text itself -- things like spotting that no one seems to be pitying the family for their lack of automobile transportation, none of their friends are showing up in one, they aren't bewailing the lack, etc. Infodumping is when you spell it out. Both are valuable in their proper place and proportion.)

The other thing was that I confirmed that I have really, really little patience for Saintly, Unworldly Father. I particularly have little patience for the following sentiment of a girl character in books: "Oh, Father did the best he could, but he just didn't think of that sort of thing, the dear man. Still, you'd think Mother would have known." It's happened in mostly-autobiographical books before, and it makes me furious. First, I don't believe that character traits are an excuse for bad behavior -- a reason, sometimes, but not an excuse. Second, I don't believe unworldliness is an unlimited virtue (it may not be a virtue at all in the sense in which it's used in these books). And third, they're blaming the person who actually tried and letting the person who did nothing off the hook!

It really frustrates me when people say, "Oh, but you know that I'm ______," as if you knowing absolves them of all responsibility. But the Unworldly Father stories go beyond that. The Unworldly Father doesn't have to even make excuses, because his unworldliness is good, it shows that he's above all that. All that includes feeding and clothing one's children, in some cases. And Worldly Mother shouldn't snap at him for not paying attention to the material well-being of the family, never mind his wife's happiness, because his mind is on higher things.

I probably will yell at this characterization in a future book. (A specific one, not just some book.) It bothers me enough for book yelling.

What I enjoyed about Noel Streatfeild's autobiography is seeing what bits of things went into which of her books, kind of a "how it all started." That was good.

Also good: Madeleine E. Robins's The Stone War. I'm not done with it yet, but I'm really enjoying it as it goes. The main character's reaction to being away from his home when it was hit by a disaster rang utterly true to me. It felt like the days after the tornado to me. With that kind of a lead-in, I'm willing to follow Robins through pretty much whatever kind of story she wants to tell. She earned her authorial trust right there. I keep wondering why I didn't hear about this book before. It came out in '99, so I wasn't reading a lot online at the time, but surely someone has read it since. But they didn't mention it to me, if so; I picked this one up at Uncle Hugo's because Madeleine was sensible on a panel at WorldCon.

In good non-reading news, Roo now has the vocabulary and the occasional inclination to praise meals to the high heavens. "Missa! Dis is delicious!" just charms me.

I'm not sure they're of any interest to anybody but other Gusties (if even), but my pictures from my trip to the alma mater will be here when I get them into some reasonable size to stick on my webpages. The important ones are the pictures of my old dorm before it gets knocked down. I can't make serious arguments against this decision, but it hurts my heart anyway.

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