The hero and heroine of my book In for a Penny love Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 book collecting together various pieces of Arthurian poems and legend.
Le Morte d’Arthur is the major source for most of our modern retellings of the Arthurian legends, but at one point it was out of print for almost two hundred years. The Arthur legends weren’t all that popular in Britain until the Romantic craze for all things medieval brought them back into fashion (and made Arthur a popular name for English boys again). Just a few years before my story starts, in 1816, the book was reprinted for the first time since 1634.
I fell in love with Arthurian legend in middle school and read about a dozen retellings, from Idylls of the King to The Mists of Avalon. But Malory always seemed long and dense to me, so I didn’t read it until a few years ago when I decided it would play a small part in In for a Penny. What immediately struck me about it was the complete lack of judgment in the storytelling. Malory simply relates “facts” without feeling the need to comment on them.
This was especially striking with the women. In this excerpt, the Damosel of the Lake has just done a spell to get the guy she had her eye on to stop being in love with another woman:
‘Sir Knight Pelleas,’ said the Damosel of the Lake, ‘take your horse and come forth with me out of this country, and ye shall love a lady that shall love you.’ ‘I will well,’ said Sir Pelleas, ‘for this Lady Ettard hath done me great despite and shame,’ and there he told her the beginning and ending, and how he had purposed never to have arisen till that he had been dead. ‘And now such grace God hath sent me, that I hate her as much as ever I loved her, thanked be our Lord Jesus!’ ‘Thank me,’ said the Damosel of the Lake.
And that’s that! There’s a strong strain of what I’ll call “judginess” (it’s a technical term!) in British literature. As far as I can tell, it got more pronounced throughout the eighteenth century and reached its peak in the Victorian era (*cough*Dickens*cough*), and has been relaxing only gradually since the turn of the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf described it best when she said about Dostoevsky, “There is none of that precise division between good and bad to which we are used.” The British reader is really, really used to a precise division between good and bad. You always know exactly which characters you’re supposed to approve of and exactly how much. Large portions of most major novels are devoted to explaining that, in detail. And the rules are very strict, especially for female characters.
That kind of story makes me uncomfortable. I don’t mind a book having villains, obviously–In for a Penny has several. But I don’t like stories where I feel like the author is punishing characters for being the wrong kind of person, or rewarding them for being the right kind. I don’t like stories that feel punitive. I’ve never felt particularly good or triumphant about seeing mean people get their comeuppance. When I read the Grimm version of the Cinderella legend and discovered that the stepsisters had to cut off their toes and then have their eyes pecked out by birds, I was horrified.
t’s not because I’m just a generous, empathetic person or anything. It’s because I always had a sneaking suspicion I was the wrong kind of person, that I was a wicked stepsister and not a Cinderella. Punishment being meted out made me feel uneasy and unsafe. The standards for being a Cinderella are pretty high, and girls who are angry or lazy, or even who just want things for themselves and not for other people or aren’t pretty enough or talk too loudly, don’t qualify.
When I was a kid and reading tons of classic English novels, I loved the books but I was pretty sure they didn’t love me back. They made me happy, but they also made me feel guilty and angry and sad. And that was me, growing up in late twentieth-century America with a feminist mom. To my nouveau riche, Jane-Austen-fan heroine, used to constantly policing her own behavior for sense and ladylikeness and modesty, I can’t begin to imagine how intensely refreshing Malory would have seemed.
Do you like stories where evil is punished? Did you ever read a story where you felt sorry for the villain? Tell me about it in the comments! I’ll be giving away a signed copy of In for a Penny to one commenter, chosen at random. Thanks for having me!
Thanks Rose! What an interesting question. I guess I hadn’t thought about it like that before. I can’t wait to see what everyone else has to say.
You heard the lady. Leave a comment answering her questions above and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of In For A Penny.