Lydia Bews-Fullilove investigates how the popular novel continues to shape our lives
We all know at least one person who magnifies everything that happens to them – be it the good, the bad, but often the mediocre – way out of proportion. A cynic might say that their overreactions smack of grandiosity, as if vying to raise themselves to historic importance, or the stuff of fairy tales. Without, usually, having the charisma or luck to lead the remarkable life they seek in reality. They are the person who monopolises every house party, bad- mouthing their ex all night long until they are red in the face, forcing the other revellers to barricade the besieger from gatecrashing. Or who plays the Romeo by penning letters of apology which they sign with their own blood for added panache. They are writers of their own script, stage-managing their world to a fine-tune, making their life appear to be awash with tumult and bursting at the seams with excess, all to prove that they are a person of importance.
Of course these are extreme examples, and we all seek some recognition from others – it is a strategy that adds meaning to our lives. As Germaine de Staël once quipped: ‘One must chose in life between boredom and suffering.’1 But I have often wondered where our increasing dissatisfaction with reality can traced from, and why those things around us that can whisk us away from cold, hard reality, are so intoxicating. Even if it causes ourselves and others far more pain than pleasure, (I add in a vague, tortured self-reference, which goes to show how difficult it is to avoid romanticising oneself). There is no lack of inspiration today that we can imitate to prop-up a fantasy vision of ourselves: the golden-girl heroine, long-suffering anti-hero, or loveable oddball in movies, fantastical advertisements, high-stake feats on YouTube, self-glamourising on Instagram. But the idealisation of the self is far from just a 21st century phenomenon.
Since the founding of civil societies, there have always been the select few leaders of the pack who adorned themselves with material trappings and imposing language to set themselves apart from the rest and establish rigid hierarchies. For much of European history, the only stirring language that was authorised by the ruling classes to spark the emotions of the masses was found in religious tracts and sermons, intended to drive them to only religious ecstasy; not to celebrate ourselves, but to focus on our unworthiness. But now it is a function of our democracy that everyone is free and equal, and therefore equally important, and we are taught that we can and should display our own self-importance in any way we please. The rise of self-expression first came about through greater literacy in the Early Modern period, roughly starting from 1550 onwards, and stemmed from the letter which was useful for conveying our innermost ideas and emotions one-to-one. But it was the novel, at its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries, that drastically transformed culture on a mass scale that still reverberates today.
When we pick up a novel, we can dip into unfamiliar scenarios which we either long to or are loath to experience, and sample them in a second-hand way, that won’t leave us with the inconvenient trauma often faced by the characters, and sometimes the author. Oddly enough, most novels do not describe to us the picture-perfect lives we might desire, in fact, they mostly demonstrate our fascination with suffering. Goethe catapulted to fame in the late 18th century, writing ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ from his personal experience of unrequited love, and unflinchingly called it a ‘creation which I, like the pelican, fed with the blood of my own heart.’ During his stay in an idyllic German village, Werther falls in love with the engaged Lotte, and rather than leaving, tries to quietly love her in his mind – until he loses his own when his smouldering passion becomes too much to bear. The essence of Romanticism, it inspired young men all over Europe with a fanatical ‘Werther Fever’ which included emulating the character’s style of clothing and a spate of copycat suicides. As the main form of entertainment in an age devoid of technology, it is no wonder that novels were able to have such an impact – which makes it even more surprising that recent works of fiction like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, though excruciatingly unreadable, still have the power to incite hysterics and worldwide mania.
The novel took root as the original means by which the reader could manufacture emotions, often over non-existent characters and events, which might explain why it is sometimes all too easy to forget that novels are fiction. The novels of the 18th century, the ‘Age of Sensibility’, from Rousseau to Goethe, were drenched in tears. Readers found themselves able to physically participate in the emotional upheaval found in novels by weeping, which became a fashionable social skill, a sort of art de vivre. Voltaire could not hear a sad tale without dissolving into tears, the Enlightenment elite wept together in the salons after hearing a good story, while in the theatre it was ‘de rigueur to weep’, and a play was judged a failure if it did not elicit tears. It was not only important to cry, but to be seen to cry – even in England, later so famous for its stiff upper lip. During one heated exchange in the House of Commons, the two antagonists, Charles Fox and Mr Burke, both burst into tears!
Writers of the day were often keenly aware of the dangerous effect the novel could have on the reading public. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen is a case in point, as the airy-fairy sister Marianne gradually learns, like any well- adjusted person, to moderate her investments in others. Gustave Flaubert penned ‘Madame Bovary’ as a stark statement against Romanticism’s noisy sentimentality, in a novel about a highly-strung young wife who sighs over her drab existence and well-meaning but frankly dull husband, comparing it to the sensationalised exploits read about in novels, ‘She wanted to die, but she also wanted to live in Paris.’ Unattainable expectations lead her to embark on a series of crude love affairs, risqué sex in a carriage, and botched financial deals, resulting in a messy suicide. Hers is the ultimate self- sabotage, a classic literary theme that has saturated our culture. Just when happiness is within reach, our insatiable need for more, or the pressure, can often make us lose the lot, with the small comfort that at least even failure has a poetic quality to it. Our minds have been so coloured by the flights of fancy first inspired by the novel, that it might scandalise even the most grounded middle-aged accountant to realise how many exaggerated ironies or patterns they notice in the most laughable details on a daily basis.
So don’t blame it all on the millennials. If we are a generation of out-and-out narcissists, then we are only following the cultural standards that were passed down centuries ago by the Romantic movement. Today’s melting-pot of self-obsession is simply the by-product of increased democracy and freedom of expression. As the celebration of individuality has made it harder and harder for us to carve out a unique identity for ourselves, the images we project must inevitably grow more and more impressive, teetering on perfection. Still, as a whole we are far less melodramatic than our swooning and weepy-eyed forebears who often staged their emotions and engaged in grand struggles to stay in vogue – now the fashion is to project an image of flawless ease that we have it all. Novels preach that to live is to struggle, but if, as perhaps most millennials do, we lack the dire problems faced by those before us, all they do is indulge our fancies, distracting us from taking practical action to evolve or change our lives. Novels can inspire us, but they can also make us unhappy. They are a bittersweet fantasy, and like any fantasy, if we peel them back a layer they can reveal certain truths. At heart, they testify that the place where ourselves and others appear the most satisfying, is in our own imaginations.