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 Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues

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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Mon 26 Mar 2012, 13:42

Chaucer. of course comes to mind at once but whilst reading Wilkie Collins. Man and Wife, I was struck by his powerful use and empathy with the many problems of women at the time. It is mainly about the odd and various marriage laws of the various United Kingdoms that had come to attention during a famous case in Ireland. He uses this with twists in a very readable novel. Later on it he reveals the awful story of the cook with a drunken husband who constantly takes everything she has or earns as well as abusing her most terribly... and what she does about it when there is no law in place to help her. Though what happens in the novel is predictable once he has set the scene, in 1870 it must have been a sensation when first published in magazine serial episodes that caused a sudden sales increase of 70 000. Later it was also dramatised.


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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Mon 26 Mar 2012, 14:21

Oh good, excuse for a little break from housework.

Interesting question, Priscilla - where on earth do we start? !9th century - Dickens, Mrs.Gaskell, Brontes...?

Mrs Gaskell's Ruth, about a "fallen woman" and the problem of illegitimacy, was a publishing sensation, while the Bronte girls caused absolute *outrage* with their novels.

Here's Lady Eastlake's condemnation of that "anti-Christian composition", Jane Eyre:

"There is throughout it a murmuring against the comforts of the rich and against the privations of the poor, which, as far as each individual is concerned, is a murmuring against God's appointment...there is that pervading tone of ungodly discontent which is at once the most prominent and the most subtle evil which the law and the pulpit, which all civilised society in fact has at the present day to contend with.We do not hesitate to say that the tone and mind which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad*, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written "Jane Eyre."...

And that was nothing to what they said about "Wuthering Heights" (with its extremely disturbing themes of violence, child abuse, alcoholism etc. etc. - not quite the depiction of English rural life that the Victorians expected - and wanted). And even gentle little Anne Bronte shocked with her "coarse" examination of the problems and misery caused by alcoholism - all the more shocking because the alcoholic described so vividly in "Tenant", Arthur Huntingdon, was a member of the upper middle class.

Perhaps rather more on-topic - Charlotte Bronte's novel, "Shirley", was concerned with - among other things - the Luddites, although it's odd that a writer with such a reputation for realism, truth and feeling did not allow the contemporary suffering of the Chartists to inform her portrayal of these earlier protesters. CB had heard about Luddites from her father, Patrick Bronte, but it must be said that her handling of the theme in "Shirley" was not actually (surprisingly) a particularly sympathetic one.

Makes me cross when modern film versions of the Brontes' novels suggest that these women were writing chick lit - soppy love stories for dippy females. Of course the "love" (for want of a better word) element is there - but so much else! Lady Eastlake was actually right - it was revolutionary stuff.

* The Bronte novels were all published during the late 1840s/early 1850s - those years of social unrest and revolution in Europe.

*


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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Mon 26 Mar 2012, 15:33

Much of science fiction does precisely this. I might even exaggerate and say that, other than space opera, all serious SF is written precisely to do this.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Mon 26 Mar 2012, 22:07

Anthony Trollope's books are based on political events and their effects on people, and his writings about women's place in the world is interesting. I found that about Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone too - absolutely wonderful book and quite modern in its attitudes to social issues.

I suppoe DH Lawrence was trying to change attitudes to sex and sexual mores, though he seems to have lost some of his reputation as a writer in the last 50 years.

But certainly the first one who comes to mind is Dickens.

What does 'past authors' mean? There are plenty of novels whose main theme is to condemn war - specifically off the top of my head is Catch-22 . I have only read one of Siegfried Sasson's George Sherman books (and it was great) but assume the later ones would be of that nature. But maybe they are more objectively descriptive.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Tue 27 Mar 2012, 10:52

As stated by others here, there are many authors in many genres who fit the bill here. But it got me thinking about who amongst them could be said to have had any great effect, especially in their own lifetime?

Dickens springs to mind in an English context and Hugo in a French - both in their own way survived "intellectual panning" of their work and managed, through the sheer popularity of their output amongst the great unwashed (in Hugo's case and Paris, quite literally), to force their respective parliaments to take some of the social issues each had raised into account within their political agendas. Gladstone was fond of citing Dickens characters in support of some of his social reform policies, almost as if they were living peoples' actual cases to which he was referring but knowing that as references they were instantly understood by everyone. In Hugo's case the publication of Les Miserables led eventually to a reluctant imperial government examining reforms in the judicial and prison systems, and even a huge and much belated financial contribution towards improving Paris's sewage system.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Tue 27 Mar 2012, 10:59

Harriet Beecher Stowe is credited with having a serious contribution in supporting the abolitionist cause even if her book is now seen as a collection of stereotypes and the main character used as derogatory name for a submissive black person.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Tue 27 Mar 2012, 11:11

Caro, I used the word past to avoid too much about modern authors jumpimg on newsworthy or sensationalistic bandwagons.

A passing thought - Shakespeare did not use his plays thus, I think?
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Tue 27 Mar 2012, 12:52

There is much speculation about the extent to which Shakespeare made oblique commentary in his plays regarding the politics of his day. One thing is certain - it most certainly had to be oblique. The penalty under the late Tudor and early Stuart regimes for what could be construed as overt criticism of the monarchy and the policies it instigated was severe, to say the least. However I am not convinced myself that this was ever a part of the playwright's agenda in any case. When I read how, for example, King Lear can be interpreted as having been intended as a comment on the issues surrounding succession which obsessed the English royal court at this time then I am inclined to feel that a supposition is being expanded into a theory for no great justifiable reason. For one thing the issues in the play and those in reality do not complement each other saliently, only superficially, and the same can be said for that other claim often made about Shakespeare - that he included subtle references to his allegedly catholic sympathies in many of his works. For the other it would only have taken one member of his audience not to wish to engage in "knowing humour" and to report him to the Lord Chamberlain or Master of the Revels for Shakespeare not only to be out of business overnight but most likely arraigned for treason if the complaint went as far as Walsingham, the "spymaster" and Secretary of State whose job it was to locate and eliminate sedition. To the best of our knowledge Shakespeare did not enjoy effective patronage, Henry Wriothesley notwithstanding. Risking his neck for the sake of some subtle social commentary under Walsingham's regime would have been foolhardy, and risking his livelihood and that of his employees at any stage afterwards equally so.

But, having said that, he wasn't beyond inserting subtle references to censorship itself - and had a very pointed go at the state for its alleged role in the death of Marlowe. In "As You Like It" a character says "When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room." A very clever pun indeed - ostensibly deriving humour from its punning of Marlowe's "infinite riches in a little room" while retaining a less than oblique reference to the circumstances of Marlowe's death. At least some of his audience, not least the spies amongst them, would have got the joke. I wonder how many dared laugh.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Tue 27 Mar 2012, 20:16

@Priscilla wrote:
A passing thought - Shakespeare did not use his plays thus, I think?

I don't believe any of Shakespeare's plays betray an ideological turn, search as we may. And search people certainly do - and find.

In recent years we've had "textual evidence" trawled up to support suggestions that our lad was a Marxist, a republican, a monarchist, a feminist, an imperialist, an anti-imperialist, a Catholic, a gnostic, an atheist, a nihilist; we now, God help us, even have an ecocritical Shakespeare (not just WS - Sarah Stanbury has produced an offering with the intriguing title of "The EcoChaucer: Green Ethics and Medieval Nature". But I mustn't scoff, because I haven't read it, and it might be good).

So yes, Priscilla, you can get all sorts of social commentary and any ideology you fancy out of Shakespeare - if you try hard enough. Odd how people assume that the "serious current issues" of *our* times must also have worried Shakespeare! Meanwhile, he just keeps on smiling enigmatically at us: what his actual views were about anything (if indeed he had any definite views) is anyone's guess.

That said, he was a great observer of man's inhumanity to man (and woman), and I believe there really is evidence in "Othello" to support the view that WS had thought deeply about - and that he disapproved of - the way negroes and other people "of colour" were treated in Elizabethan England. Three of the characters in the play - Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio - all make comments about Othello that today would be immediately recognised as racist, and it is significant that not one of the three characters is likeable: Iago, in fact, is perhaps the most loathsome villain in English Literature, let alone in Shakespeare, a man whom I could easily imagine as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Iago is determined to destroy Othello, constantly refers to the Moor's physical characteristics and, as white male supremacists usually are, is obsessed with the racist stereotype of the sexually voracious black man.

PS I think we can safely say that Shakespeare loathed the Puritans - the politically correct (and hypocritical) brigade of his day.

PSS Sorry to add to an already long post, but going back to Victorian novels, there's also "The Water Babies" - all about Tom the little chimney-sweep. Kingsley was writing about Christian redemption, but used WB to argue that England treated the poor badly, and that child labour was an abomination. Believe CK wasn't always so charitable about others though - he was apparently none too fond of Americans, Jews and Catholics.


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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Tue 27 Mar 2012, 22:44

You left out anti-semite (he was banned - M of V - in several US states on those grounds but - ironically- has been voted the all-time best playwright in Israel)
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Wed 28 Mar 2012, 08:45

You raise a very valid point regarding Shakespeare - namely at what point is it Shakespeare talking and at what point the character in the play? The more quotations from his plays (often taken out of context) that are used to distil the playwright's "opinion" the less credit is being given to him as a playwright. Very rude, in fact!
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Wed 28 Mar 2012, 09:07

I still puzzle over "The comicall History of the Merchant of Venice, or otherwise called the Iewe of Venyce." The last two centuries of stage tradition have made Shylock a hero-villain, but the text cannot sustain such an interpretation. It *is* an anti-Semitic work, yet Harold Bloom, who is always right , confidently tells us, "That Shakespeare himself was personally anti-Semitic we reasonably can doubt..."

Marlowe's Barabas, the Jew of Malta, is far more outrageous a character, but somehow less disturbing.

Did Shakespeare really have the unfortunate Dr. Lopez in mind when he created Shylock? Lopez, Elizabeth I's physician, had been more or less framed by the Earl of Essex; the doctor was falsely accused of trying to poison the Queen, and he died the terrible traitor's death in 1594, the mob howling with laughter when Lopez, a Portugese converso, declared (according to William Camden) that "he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ".

Was Shakespeare in the crowd that watched poor Lopez die, I wonder? There was a hugely popular revival of Marlowe's "Jew of Malta" that year, and "Merchant" was written soon after. Shakespeare, as ever, striving to show that anything Marlowe could do, he could do better?

I know nothing about the history of the Jews in England - is Bloom correct when he says,

"Shakespeare's England did not exactly have a Jewish "problem" or "question" in our later modern terms; only about a hundred or two hundred Jews, presumably most of them converts to Christianity, lived in London. The Jews had been more or less expelled from England in 1290, three centuries before, and were not to be more or less readmitted until Cromwell made his revolution."
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Wed 28 Mar 2012, 22:58

I read The Merchant of Venice fairly recently and didn't find it anti-Semetic to any real degree. There were people with strongly anti-Jewish attitudes but I didn't take them as necessarily representative of Shakespeare's views. The speech of Shylock where he talks of bleeding when he is pricked seems to me a very sympathetic view of an outsider and not written by an anti-Semite. I suppoe SS was living in a time when Jews weren't very acceptable and Christianity was very much the default religion and this would show in anyone's writing. (I'm thinking now of an ad that has caused offence here - it begins with "Vegetarians look away now" and later says, "Ah, it's a carrot. No, just joking, it's a sausage." People haven't been very sympathetic to vegetarian complaints about this (and nor am I), but it's interesting that they are a group who can be mocked happily with no one really minding.)

I also think Shylock's distress at his daughter's marriage and her rather insensitive comments don't show an anti-Semitic author. It is a disturbing portrayal but any main character by a major writer should have more than one element to them, and should be able to viewed in different ways by different characters (and different audiences).

Mind you I don't see The Merchant of Venice as a comedy either. A more or less happy ending doesn't make a comedy just as a death at the end of a book doesn't automatically make it a tragedy.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Thu 29 Mar 2012, 06:30

Rather an interesting article here from the Telegraph, Caro.

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/3676981/Was_Shakespeare_antiSemitic/

Like you I never regarded the play as anti-Semitic until I read this from Harold Blooms's "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human":

"One would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognise that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy "The Merchant of Venice" is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work. Yet every time I have taught the play, many of my most sensitive and intelligent students become very unhappy when I begin with that observation..."

(Bloom goes on, as mentioned above, to say that that doesn't mean Shakespeare was necessarily anti-Semitic.)

Did Shakespeare actually know any Jews? There were not supposed to be any in London - only "conversos" - ike Doctor Lopez - or those of Jewish descent like Emilia Bassano (one candidate for the "Dark Lady" - Emilia had been baptised, and was later married, in St. Bodolph's church). It's quite a shock to realise that- officially - at this time there simply *were* no Jews in England - and no synagogues.

I wonder if the "serious current issue" that Shakespeare wanted to explore was usury? He may not have known any Jews, but he would certainly have known usurers, beginning with his own father, who had twice been accused of violating the law by charging usurious interest. Shakespeare himself dabbled in moneylending. The laws on moneylending had apparently been "eased" in 1591 - what they had been in England and in Europe (all those wealthy Italian bankers?) and how the various Popes viewed moneylending (weren't they always borrowing?) I'm not sure about.

The banking and investment system in England and Europe during the 16th century - discuss!!

Will do some "research" later on this if I get time.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Thu 29 Mar 2012, 09:53

I remember reading some time ago the reason Jews in England at least became so likely to be money-lenders; it was to do with other occupations being closed to them. Not allowed to join guilds? Other people wouldn't trade with them? I can't remember the details or what I was reading.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Thu 29 Mar 2012, 15:07

@Caro wrote:
I remember reading some time ago the reason Jews in England at least became so likely to be money-lenders; it was to do with other occupations being closed to them. Not allowed to join guilds? Other people wouldn't trade with them? I can't remember the details or what I was reading.

I don't think it was a matter of guilds or anything else being closed to Jews - there simply were very, very few Jewish people in England after the Edict of Expulsion of 1290.

In 1600 the population of England was around 4.4 million; and of that number (as far as we know, as there were no official records) only a few *hundred* openly practised the Jewish faith. These *tiny* communities lived in ports such as Bristol and London. They may have been involved in commerce, but they were certainly not wealthy "bankers" or "moneylenders". (I think perhaps they were elsewhere - in Antwerp, for example - I'm not sure - still reading about this.)

I found this very hard to believe at first: that there were no Jewish "moneylenders" in Shakespeare's England. Jews, moneylenders or otherwise, were simply not *allowed* in this country until the Interregnum. There were the "Conversos" or "Marranos" - former Jews, mainly Portugese or Spanish - who had converted to Christianity, but who had still had to flee from the Inquisition. They, like the unfortunate Doctor Lopez, made sure they conformed, at least in public.

Usury is different from banking of course (or it should be!). The Jews were hated throughout Europe because they were seen as the "loan-sharks" of the money markets: *usurers* because they charged *excessive* rates of interest. Mind you, the great Florentine and Genoese bankers like the Medicis and the Fuggers don't seem to have done too badly out of financing various wars - the Renaissance Popes and their opponents relied heavily on them. Interest rates charged during the 16th century varied between 12% - 15%. Not bad, but apparently not so excessive as to have the Medicis or the Fuggers labelled as usurers.

So was Shakespeare actually all that concerned about the so called "Jewish question" in "Merchant of Venice"? Or was he really more interested in exploring other issues? What's the value of anything? What's anything really worth? What price do we put on wife, daughter, friend, lover, a faith - even our own lives?

And because Shylock has come to dominate the drama, we sometimes forget that he is not the only "displaced spirit" in this "problem" play (it's never listed with the other "problem plays", but it should be), this "comedy" that indeed does have such a difficult ending. There is after all the actual Merchant himself, Antonio, the melancholy homosexual whom Bloom calls Shylock's "companion in hatred". It's an interesting description. Companion in alienation is perhaps more appropriate. And perhaps alienation - whether racial, religious or otherwise - was the "social issue" WS was really interested in.

PS: I thought Jakob Fugger (died 1525) was Jewish, but the family was acually Catholic. JF was one of the richest men ever. It would be interesting to have a Sunday Times type list of richest men in history.

PPS: I was going to change "homosexual" to "probably homosexual", or something vague like that, but I'll leave it.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Fri 30 Mar 2012, 09:12

There has been some debate in the past regarding the provenance of the storyline Shakespeare employed in "The Merchant of Venice". Since a London audience (or Shakespeare himself) would not at the time have had anything but a tenuous cultural understanding of the integration of Jews into European urban life - London having long since expelled that class and denied them citizenship - it is probable that Shakespeare, as with other works, relied heavily on another person's work (or maybe several) to populate his drama and provide him with the important dramatic turning points and plot which could be reconstructed as a play. While there is no record of any other work which closely parallels Shakespeare's version in terms of narrative there have been numerous suggestions for where a character such as Shylock might have originated, but they all point to incidents in which the Jew is portrayed as grotesque caricature. This appears to have been something Shakespeare attempted to avoid, even if performances of his play were typified for many years by just such a characterisation of Shylock by the actors playing him.

Robert Schneider in his controversial examination of the character in the book "Shylock, the Roman" suggests a radical but plausible explanation in that Shylock, he suggests, is the result of a fascinating (if true) experiment on Shakespeare's part. Shylock's motivations, behavour and character as depicted in the play, Schneider maintains, are completely in conformity with the notion of Roman honour - a theme which Shakespeare had already tackled several times prior to writing "The Merchant". By taking the same character type yet again but dressing him in the caricature-laden personality of a Jew (and such a Jew would have been known to Londoners almost exclusively as a caricature at the time) Shakespeare explored the real value and nature of "honour". He also got his audience - or at least the cleverer members - to examine their own prejudices, not just with regard to anti-semitism but on a much more fundamental level. At what point does one downgrade one's own recognition of what is honourable in order to service a prejudice? And if one finds one does this, is it something which conscience dictates must not happen or is it something which forces one to change one's notion of conscience in order to accommodate it?

I cannot say whether Schneider has a valid point with regard to Shakespeare's own motive (who can?), however it is obvious from an historical study of the play's performances over the centuries that Shylock, no matter with what prejudice, style or sympathy he is played, never fails to make his audience uncomfortable and it is hard not to reflect inwardly on one's own reaction to the character after seeing the play. In that sense I reckon Schneider has a very valid point indeed.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Fri 30 Mar 2012, 14:05

As is your wont, Nordmann, you have come up with something different, something that makes complete sense, and something I did not know anything about.

I have never come across Robert Schneider's book, but perhaps this article - "a previously unpublished text (originally a lecture) that provides quite a good overview of the entire book - covering the major points, without getting lost in the scholarly detail" - is a good starting point?

http://www.alan-shapiro.com/radical-skepticism-and-the-logic-of-shakespeare%E2%80%99s-artistry-by-robert-schneider/

I knew nothing about The Twelve Tables of Rome (oh heck, "one of the seminal legal documents of Western civilisation" - clearly something one *ought* to know about), and I had no idea that Roman law not only "permitted creditors to cut flesh from the bodies of the debtors", but said also that "an exact measurement of the flesh did not matter."

How interesting to read that Portia's judgement is an exact inversion of this part of the Roman law, and that "Shakespeare's comedy was based on ancient Roman comedy...performed on festival days, when it was customary to make fun of Roman law and morality. In this light, it seems that Portia does what a character in an ancient Roman comedy would do: she turns Roman law and morality on its head."

So besides Shylock being (according to Schneider) "in a deeper sense representative of ancient Roman honour", we also have have to rethink our ideas about Portia:

"This approach to the play is truly revolutionary in the original sense of the term: it turns upside down everything that's been thought about the play so far. We have inverted two opposite extremes; we are interpreting the play as if Portia represents pagan immorality, when Portia has so far been believed to represent Christian morality."

As you say, the cognoscenti in the audience would have known exactly what Shakespeare was up to.

Fascinating stuff - thank you for pointing me - us all - in this direction!

Will go away now, and mull over your comments about conscience and prejudice.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Fri 30 Mar 2012, 14:48

PS But we should always bear in mind:

"So may the outward shows be least themselves.

The world is still deceived with ornament...

The seeming truth which cunning times put on

To entrap the wisest."

What a riddler the man was.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Fri 30 Mar 2012, 14:52

I hope you're not insinuating I'm trying to con you ma'am!
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Fri 30 Mar 2012, 18:05

Well that has all been most interesting and informative. Before we examine Portia too closely..... never liked her much... next I'm getting to wonder about G B Shaw and his plays. Had they serious intent, do you think?
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Fri 30 Mar 2012, 20:58

Yesterday I found Shaw's St Joan among my books and peered at it, wondering if it could join all the books I was bringing inside with the intention of reading in the not-too-distance future. My immediate reaction was that I felt Shaw was very much writing to make a point, and I didn't know if I wanted to read something so didactic. I think I put him in a similar category to DH Lawrence where his writing is less for literary purposes than to provide a vehicle for his opinions.

But I haven't read Shaw so this may be quite wrong, but it at least means people think they had serious intent in the sense of highlighting issues.

The discussion on the Merchant of Venice has been fascinating, thank you - though with all the brains in the world discussing Shakespeare I would have thought if the Roman analogy was as obvious as it seems there it would have been considered before.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 07:06

@Priscilla wrote:
Well that has all been most interesting and informative. Before we examine Portia too closely..... never liked her much... next I'm getting to wonder about G B Shaw and his plays. Had they serious intent, do you think?

Priscilla, you sound just like an excellent dinner party hostess who is alarmed that the conversation is wandering off in a strange direction. You do right to bring us back to a more suitable topic.

I haven't read much Shaw - only know St. Joan really - but I believe GBS was an extremely witty Irishman who believed we should all become vegetarian Socialists.

He was a passionate advocate of the avocado, and he believed that nut patties, lentil rice roast and walnut cheese balls were the answer to all our problems. He lived to be 94 and only died because he fell off a ladder whilst pruning a tree in his lovely garden in Hertfordshire. A happy death.

PS Sorry about the off-topic witterings about Portia. It's just I found the Robert Schneider theory really interesting, once I had assured myself that a book about Shylock the Roman was not an early April Fool's Day joke.

PPS You can buy a George Bernard Shaw cook book:

http://www.amazon.com/George-Bernard-Shaw-Vegetarian-Cookbook/dp/0913990515
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 10:59

I haven't read any Shaw (oh, I don't think that's true - from somewhere I am dredging up a school memory of one of them), but I'm struggling to see how he would have managed to drag vegetarianism into St Joan. Reminds me of one of LM Montgomery's Anne books where she wins some prize when her friend sends in a story for a baking powder competition and has to add the name of the baking powder at appropriate or rather not very appropriate moments (eg during the proposal scene). Oh dear, that's not very on topic. Almost the opposite, in fact.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 11:01

Shakespeare's Shylock was not a deviation from the theme of the thread - especially if one gives credence to Schneider's theory.

Shaw, as far as I could ever make out from his plays, was more obsessed with transmitting a "message" in keeping with his Fabian ideology than he was successful in getting it across. His plays are often peculiarly disjointed affairs as a result, with characters and plot lines that serve the purpose of delivering occasional bon mots and with very little else to commend them. Churchill got it right when he called the characters in Shaw's plays "ideas walking". In as much as his plays coincided with the rise to political prominence of socialism British-style, a process of which Shaw broady approved and actively engaged in (he even collaborated with Keir Hardy in drafting the ILP's first manifesto), they can be included as characteristics of that social development, but I would not go so far as to suggest that they fuelled the process - merely attempted to portray facets of it in dramatic form.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 11:42

@Caro wrote:
I haven't read any Shaw (oh, I don't think that's true - from somewhere I am dredging up a school memory of one of them), but I'm struggling to see how he would have managed to drag vegetarianism into St Joan. Reminds me of one of LM Montgomery's Anne books where she wins some prize when her friend sends in a story for a baking powder competition and has to add the name of the baking powder at appropriate or rather not very appropriate moments (eg during the proposal scene). Oh dear, that's not very on topic. Almost the opposite, in fact.

My remarks about Shaw's vegetarianism were made tongue-in-cheek, Caro: I think his plays *were* more concerned with politics - not veggie cooking!

Shaw strikes me as being one of a long line of champagne Socialists: I'm always a little wary of ardent reformers who own beautiful property outside the capital (Shaw's Corner, a large and lovely house near Hatfield, is now owned by the National Trust) *and* who run a second establishment in London itself. The Shaws' London residence was in an elegant Georgian square - Fitzroy Square where that other Fabian, Virginia Woolf, also lived.

But how mean-spirited I am. I must try to be fair: Fitzrovia in the early 20th century was much more Bohemian than it is today. It's now a very, very posh area indeed.

And I do like Shaw's witticism about drink from "Candida": "I'm only a beer teetotaller, not a champagne teetotaller."


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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 11:52

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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 11:55

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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 12:16

Some authors' veiled criticisms of social ills are all the more effective precisely because they have been so adeptly veiled within a narrative. George Eliot's "Silas Marner", for example, is superficially a simple moral tale - the baddie gets his just desserts and the title character, after much tribulation, is ultimately rewarded for his forbearance and innate charitability. But buried within the story are several strong condemnations of organised religion, as well as pointed attacks on the rapid industrialisation of society, an issue which Eliot was probably one of the first to raise alarms about in this way. She also has a go at another issue which was prevalent in her day, the inordinate and often totally unjust effect of the power some individuals held over others purely because they happened to belong to the "upper" class.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 13:00

And perhaps it's wiser not to start on "Middlemarch".

"Gender, Class and Social Evolution in George Eliot's 'Middlemarch' ".

Now there's an interesting dissertation topic for someone.

I much prefer Jane Austen who apparently wasn't in the least bit interested in writing about serious current issues, political or social. It's fashionable nowadays to say she was having a "fling at the slave-trade" (to quote Mrs Elton from 'Emma') in 'Mansfield Park', but I'm not convinced.

PS "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest."

But, as with Shakespeare, you never can tell with JA: the above quotation from the end of "Mansfield Park" is deceptive. *Moral* issues certainly did concern her - the whole book's about them.


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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 13:34

Ethics were also Eliot's primary theme in nearly all her stories, but I did not think a view on ethics necessarily qualified for discussion under Priscilla's opening question, which asked about how authors addressed "serious current issues" in their fiction. Austen was an acute recorder of manners and a sharp commentator on the morality of social intercourse at a particular level of the society of her day, but one could never accuse her of addressing serious current issues of the same period. Her books are populated by people who also seem extremely astute at avoiding involvement in those issues too, partly because Austen wrote them that way and partly because the type of people she wrote about were equally aloof to such issues anyway so she was just portraying them faithfully.

A contemporary of Austen, Maria Edgeworth, took a diametrically opposite view when writing about the same class. Edgeworth, for whom no narrative that did not embrace hot political issues of her day was worth the effort of writing or time in reading, presented her reader with an impressive array of the gentrified class throughout her books and through which she managed to convey her strong views on issues as diverse as the inequality in the law's treatment of women to the Whig policy of governance as it applied to Ireland. I imagine if Edgeworth and Austen had met in the Longford Rectory in which Maria wrote most of her novels then Jane would have been at the receiving end of the polite but stern rebuke dished out to Helen in Edgeworth's novel of the same name; "Women are now so highly cultivated, and political subjects are at present of so much importance, of such high interest, to all human creatures who live together in society, you can hardly expect, Helen, that you, as a rational being, can go through the world as it now is, without forming any opinion on points of public importance. You cannot, I conceive, satisfy yourself with the common namby-pamby little missy phrase, 'ladies have nothing to do with politics'!"

Had Austen retorted with the quote you provided above, Temp, I imagine she would have been run out of the neighbourhood of Edgeworthstown with the contemporary equivalent of the epithet "Stupid Twit!" ringing in her ears.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 14:18

Maria Edgeworth - who ? Haven't seen any of her books done on the tele, so *she* can't be much good. ME would never have got the better of Jane Austen.

Read this hilarious Chapter 14 from "Northanger Abbey":

http://www.pemberley.com/etext/NA/chapter14.htm

It contains the nicely ironic comments, "...from politics it was an easy step to silence", and the sentence beginning, "The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have already been set forth by the capital pen of a sister author...".


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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 14:30

Introducing Austen into a discussion about authors who used their fiction to address "serious current issues" is still shoehorning your own favourite into a literary theme in which she does not really belong, however "hilarious" her characters might behave in Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14. In my view her characters often converse in long speeches too exquisitely polished and edited to sound natural, but they are still vehicles well used to convey Austen's attitude towards the class they inhabit. Unless pleonasm had been identified by Austen as a serious current issue of her day (and if her rendition of her subjects' speech is accurate then it was indeed an issue of chronic proportions) then her books cannot really be trotted out in the same company as Edgeworth's, or indeed Eliot's, in this thread at any rate.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 14:41

Points taken about "shoehorning" and "trotting out".

Perhaps you'd like to discuss Edgeworth's treatment of anti-Semitism in "Harrington", a novel she wrote in response to criticism that she had created Jewish stereotypes in earlier novels? "Harrington" contains the first sympathetic Jewish character in English Literature.

But I'm off to Sainsbury's now, so I'll leave you to it.


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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sat 31 Mar 2012, 15:03

There is little to discuss in the case of Harrington. Edgeworth presents anti-semitism as a form of phobia and relates how her character becomes "cured". This of course simply showed that Edgeworth herself really did not understand what anti-semitism was, and we can conclude had not really therefore confronted her own anti-semitism, despite her good intentions.

In her very next novel "Ormond" she even had the phrase "White Connell is a fat grazier who will make her as rich as a Jew" emanate from the mouth of one of the most stereotypical stage Oirish characters ever committed to paper. A willingness to address burning social issues did not preclude resort to unconscious prejudice, it seems, and in fact this is a prime reason, I imagine, why it will be a long time before you see any Edgeworth novel serialised on TV.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sun 01 Apr 2012, 06:45

As George Eliot is an approved author for discussion on this thread, may I mention "Daniel Deronda"?

It's not a book I particularly enjoyed when I read it years and years ago (it is indeed what Henry James would call a "baggy monster", a criticism that could never be levelled against any of Jane Austen's novels, but that's beside the point), but it caused a sensation when it was published in 1876. "Daniel Deronda" not only had a Jewish hero and delineated Judaism with extreme sympathy, it also contained "a passionately Zionist message".

Tantalising first page of a Jstor article here:

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3852979?uid=3739256&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=47698827056577

The book has since been criticized by postcolonial critics as "a propaganda tool to encourage British patriation of Palestine to Jews". Don't know if that's true or not - not a subject I know anything about - and it's probably not relevant to the thread anyway.


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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sun 01 Apr 2012, 06:48

Forgot to put this link - really good article about DD from the Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/feb/10/zionism-deronda-george-eliot
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sun 01 Apr 2012, 09:33

Eliot's "Daniel Deronda" prompted a response from the young novelist Amy Levy, "Reuben Sachs" in 1888. As a product of an Anglo-Jewish family she was well positioned to counter Eliot's romanticised version of Zionist Judaism as manifest in Britain with one based entirely on experience and observation of the "real" Jewish community in London. Levy, whose friends included Oscar Wilde (her publisher) and Eleanor Marx, was not concerned as much with explaining any Zionist agenda per se as she was with portraying its growing appeal in particular among British Jews and how it was expressed by those who subscribed to it. However she went further in also portraying how an equal antipathy to this development was also prevalent within this community, and how it was simply irrelevant to as many more, the overriding challenges facing any Jew in Britain being those of integration, social advancement and accommodating a huge, if not always blatant, prejudice directed against them.

Levy, who the modern literary reviewer Lisa Allardyce has called "the Jewish Jane Austen", committed suicide at 27, leaving "Reuben Sachs" as her most accomplished work. Despite (or maybe because of) the trumpeting of its worth, first by Wilde and then by members of the later Bloomsbury Group, it quickly became one of those "forgotten classics". Which is a pity - its balance between satire and hard-hitting social commentary did much to convey the message to a contemporary readership that the situation of British Jews was precarious, but not in the way Eliot had depicted. It was even more so, in fact, and in several more ways than Eliot understood, and was so for reasons which had as much to do with serious flaws within the Jewish community itself as with those which Eliot had highlighted in British society.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sun 01 Apr 2012, 11:14

Thank you both for all of the above. I make observation about each - to myself - and hardly like to interrupt he flow. George Elliot, yes. I had her in mind when I started this thread - and Jane Austen? The only real issue of her time which she highlighted with caustic penetration was the awful predicament of women in waiting to be harvested for suitable marriage. Her readers must have empathised with that though I doubt it jolted reaction.
i had not even heard of Edgeworth and she is now on my urgent reading list. Thank you for that.

Last summer I spent on Mrs Gaitskill and sugget that she belongs here but have yet to formulate an entry to my own thread on it. Someday soon I hope there will also be a thread on the history - and true meaning of -anti semitism.

Because I am unlikely to make serious ongoing commitment to a discussion for a couple of months, I also dangle, 'The Water Babies' for any one to take up on my behalf when the current most interesting discuss runs dry.

And yes Temp, I can keep a good dinner party dialogue going - though some guests can be hard going.... which is when my teaching experience became invaluable. Keeping 10 year olds engaged in discussion in paths you want explored - and damn the curriculum - is a sort of professional art form.

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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sun 01 Apr 2012, 11:30

A bit like keeping people on topic in discussion forums ...
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sun 01 Apr 2012, 18:02

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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Mon 02 Apr 2012, 13:26

Benjamin Disraeli's novels are rarely read today, but he was definitely a "Condition-of-England" writer. His "Sybil, or The Two Nations", came out in 1845, and was concerned with the misery of the labouring classes: the novel was influenced by Engels's "The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844".

Disraeli's earlier work, "Coningsby", was, like Eliot's "Middlemarch," set against the backdrop of the First Reform Bill of 1832: this novel "examines the need for social justice in a newly industrialised society". BD gives two of his characters - both political activists - the delightful names of Taper and Tadpole.

Oscar Wilde is usually considered today to have been simply a gay man who wrote extremely clever, witty, but superficial, comedies. Yet Wilde was far from superficial: he was a thinker who cared deeply about many things, including, after his own terrible experiences, prison reform.

"The Ballad of Reading Gaol", written while he was in exile abroad, was published under the pseudonym of C.3.3 - Wilde's own prison number during his incarceration at Reading Prison: Block C - Third Floor - Third Cell.


Wilde had been traumatized whilst there; the brutal conditions nearly killed him, and he was deeply moved by the hanging of a prisoner convicted of murder ("Yet each man kills the thing he loves..."). Wilde was appalled by the treatment in the prison of children (especially the little brother and sister who were inside "for the rabbits"). The Ballad was hugely successful, and, although poetry, was read by the public more as "a pamphlet on prison reform".

But I have no idea whether the poem actually had any effect on those who devised and ran the penal system in England.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Wed 25 Apr 2012, 19:24

Apologies for exhuming this old thread, but I've just been listening to last Friday's programme from the excellent "Shakespeare's Restless World" series on Radio 4. This episode was all about violence on the streets of London. Neil MacGregor commented that "Romeo and Juliet" - a play we all think of as a play about young love - was "just as much a play about gangs of lads slicing one another to death - a forerunner not so much of 'Love Story' as of 'A Clockwork Orange'. 'Romeo and Juliet', with its upmarket knife gangs and its blood-stained streets, shows that urban violence for Shakespeare and his audience was one of the big issues of the day."

The artefact which prompted the programme was a beautiful dagger found on the foreshore of the South Bank of the Thames - dated around 1600, this lethal weapon is now on display at the Royal Armouries in Leeds.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sun 22 Oct 2017, 17:16

@Priscilla wrote:
I used the word past to avoid  too much about modern authors jumpimg on newsworthy or sensationalistic bandwagons.

Prompted by Meles’ raising the question of the history of Alaska on the Dish of the Day thread and also by Nielsen’s reference to the Louis L’Amour novel Sitka, I was minded of one of L’Amour’s contemporaries James A. Michener and his book Alaska. An avid fan of Michener’s work, I hugely enjoyed his historical novels such as Tales of the South Pacific (1947), Hawaii (1959) and Poland (1983) to name just a few from his prolific output. The publication of Hawaii was timely (particularly from his publisher’s point of view) as it coincided with the year that country acceded to the U.S. as a member state. Alaska also acceded to the U.S. that year but had to wait 29 years before Michener wrote an eponymous novel based on the history of that territory.

This was in 1988 and the publication of Alaska also turned out to be timely although perhaps unwittingly. The reason for this is that the book was published a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall (an event which very few people could have foreseen at that time) and yet in it there is a curious episode in which a Russian academic muses upon the future and foresees a time (after the Soviet Union has ended) in which Russia will patiently yet determinedly re-stake its claim to Alaska. Russia’s case would apparently be based upon ‘the three sacred rights of history’ which the academic lists as being ‘discovery’, ‘occupation’ and ‘established governance’. He even goes on to surmise that Russia might achieve this goal around the year 2030.

I’m not sure where Michener got the concept of the ‘three sacred rights of history’ from, or what the native peoples of Alaska such as the Aleut and the Tlingit etc might make of them. However, when one considers that the book was written in 1988 when the Soviet Union was still very much in existence, the Cold War was ongoing and the idea of international border revision was quite literally fanciful, and then when one considers the events of world history in the nearly 30 years since, the inclusion of this concept in the book is truly remarkable.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Sun 22 Oct 2017, 18:35

Vizzer,

I think Alaska will never leave the US, even with the examples of Catalonia and the North of Italy which is not sure if that will be ever possible in the EU. BTW: Can a US state try to seccede under the constitution?
No, it will I think rather geopolitical cooperation between Russia and the US as counterweight to the Chinese expansion plans...
As for instance the Alaska-Siberia Railway:



There were already "avances" from Russia.
https://www.wallstreetdaily.com/2015/04/02/russia-alaska-superhighway/



Kind regards from Paul.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Mon 23 Oct 2017, 11:02

I had not realised Oscar Wilde wrote the "Ballad of Reading Gaol" anonymously. Some while ago I watched an early 1960s film with Peter Finch playing the part of Oscar Wilde. (I think it was called "The Trials of Oscar Wilde"). Of course, it was made before 1967 (decriminalisation in the UK of being gay) so any affection between OW and Bosey was by way of the spoken word rather than touchy-feely. I couldn't help wondering if Oscar had let the Marquis of Queensbury rant and rave and not brought a case against him things might not have gone so badly for him. (Of course the film may well have taken dramatic licence - so many films do). Apparently after the scandal erupted (this wasn't in the film) Oscar Wilde's wife was asked to leave a hotel in - I think - Switzerland and changed her surname and that of their children. I did feel sorry for Oscar at the end of the film.

I read "Alaska" by James A Michener some years ago now - and a number of his other books - and liked it (and his other books that I've read). It seems he was one of those writers who was still writing up till his death aged 90 in 1997. I also read (but this was some time ago and I can't find the reference so can't vouch for its veracity) that he sued or wanted to sue the people who adapted his book "Caravans" as a film because the adaptation diverged so far from his novel. (It's about Afghanistan in the 1940s or 1950s but the country is called by a made-up name and not called Afghanistan and I don't think the nomads referred to in the novel have the same freedom of movement nowadays).

Now back on topic, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell alluded to social problems in at least (some) of their work. "Mary Barton" and "North and South" mention the problems of the poor and David Copperfield had a hard time of it after his mother's death while he was in the factory before he sought sanction with Aunt Betsy Trotwood - and although in "Nicholas Nickleby" the Whackford Squeers character is ridiculously "over the top" Mr Dickens does (did?) make a fair point about "natural" children being despatched out of the way to dreadful schools.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Mon 23 Oct 2017, 11:14

Despite racking my brain I can't remember the name of the story, but there was a series in the early 1980s on (I think) BBC about difficulties encountered by the rural poor post-enclosure. It was quite depressing (the shepherd's son cries when the old dog is shot because it is past its usefulness and Dad hits him with a belt for crying for example and a little girl went into a private wood and was caught in a man-trap). I had had the idea that the source material for that series had been written around the time the issues it highlighted had occurred. I had the title "A Shepherd's Life" in my mind but when I looked on the internet the only book I could find with the title was referenced as being printed in 2015 so could not have been the source material for something broadcast in the 1980s. Maybe Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" made a point about how hard it was for a poor but bright child to receive an education (a complete education anyway) - terribly depressing book though.
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PostSubject: Re: Past authors who used fiction to highlight serious current issues   Mon 23 Oct 2017, 11:27

Oh dear, I have been remiss in not reading the whole thread and only the most recent posts. Mrs Gaskell and Mr Dickens have already been cited some 5 years ago! Priscilla mentioned Wilkie Collins upthread - I suppose Mr Collins' "No Name" might merit a mention - describing the plight of two daughters who find out that some niceties of the law exclude them from their parents' estate because the parents were not married at the time of their births. There's more to it than that but I have a tendency to use 6 words when one would do so I'm trying to keep things short.
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