A few weeks ago while I was in the midst of navigating the treacherous waters of the holiday season, I came across an editorial in The Globe and Mail discussing a rewrite that had recently been done, and gone viral, of the classic Christmas song, 'Baby It's Cold Outside'.
It's a song that has gotten some serious flack from activists in the past few years due to the lyrics, a back and forth between a man and a woman, that feature a man continually trying to convince a woman to stay at his house, and a woman continually making excuses and trying to leave and go home. It's been argued that the song goes against rules of consent, and fails to understand that when someone says no, it actually means no.
That being said, while I certainly consider myself a feminist and am all for equal rights and consent and everything related, I personally find the controversy over the song a bit ridiculous, which is a point of view shared by the writer of the editorial I mentioned, Elise Thorburn, a sociology professor at Brock University.
Thorburn argues that the original lyrics to the song are:
'heavily reflective of the era's sexual mores- in 1944, women were to be chaste and coy, men were to be predatory and inflamed. She really can't stay any longer ... But the song also attempts to subvert those same sexual mores: the woman feels desire, but is hemmed in by the societal expectations of her own chastity rather than her lack of want.'
Thorburn goes on to support this viewpoint by going through the woman's lyrics, where she makes excuses to leave, and then excuses to stay, which seem to indicate she doesn't really want to leave. But either way, whether you agree with Thorburn that this modern rewrite is a bit overkill, or not, it does bring up certain questions as to how we read (or listen to) older texts that feature statements and opinions that clash with our 21st century ideals and values.
Which leads me to Wilkie Collins' famed masterpiece, The Moonstone. Featuring the great Scotland Yard detective Sergeant Cuff, the novel is widely considered to be the first detective novel written in English. I would say in most ways it's one of the best too, because in pretty much every way, it's an enchanting tale full of mystery, intrigue, and surprising twists and turns.
The novel begins with an account of a British soldier stealing the Moonstone, a famous diamond said to have been originally set in the forehead of an Indian Moon god, from a temple in India (you can probably start to see where I'm going), that he proceeds to bring back to England much to the chagrin of a great many Hindu worshipers. Years later, the British soldier, on his deathbed, wills the Moonstone to his estranged niece Rachel, to be received on the night of her 18th birthday.
Of course, with a trio of Indians set on reclaiming the Moonstone, the diamond being one of the largest, most beautiful, and most valuable stones in the world, and the novel being a work of Detective Fiction, it's pretty clear the Moonstone isn't going to stay with Rachel for very long. By the morning after her birthday, the diamond has gone missing, and so commences an epic hunt for the famed jewel.
For me, with the exception of the plot itself which features romance, intrigue, scandal and even opium, the highlight of the novel is the manner in which it's told. Rather than simply be narrated in an omniscient manner, the novel is told from varying perspectives, which are given to us as accounts written explicitly for the purpose of telling the story firsthand, in the clearest fashion.
Following the Prologue, where the original theft of the diamond is narrated by the soldier's cousin, the opening of the novel begins with an account told by the loyal, somewhat stuffy, but endearing Gabriel Betteredge, the 'House-Steward in the service of Julia, Lady Verinder', Rachel's mother. We then proceed to the zealously religious voice of a cousin, Ms. Clack, to the family's solicitor, Matthew Bruff, to Rachel's main love interest, and sometimes rival, Mr. Franklin Blake, to a doctor's opium addicted assistant, Ezra Jennings, and, eventually, even to Sergeant Cuff himself.
Collins does an excellent job of creating distinct, highly flavorful voices that each depict a certain class and societal position. Furthermore, he subtly works to show each narration to be somewhat unreliable, stemming from the fact that they naturally have biased, subjective opinions. Ms. Clack in the opening of her narration calls Betteridge a 'heathen old man', while Franklin Blake calls him 'my old friend Betteridge'. The majority of the narrators adore Rachel, while Ms. Clack finds her to be nearly insufferable. Narrating the novel in this manner gives it a depth that wouldn't be found otherwise, and adds a layer of intrigue to the novel: we're never sure if what we're being told is accurate, and, in turn, we have to do some detective work of our own.
That being said, for all its merits, The Moonstone certainly has its flaws, which although perhaps unavoidable considering it was written in 1868, are nonetheless noticeable for me, at least. As I've said above, the premise of the novel hinges around an exotic Indian jewel and a trio of Indians who are determined to get it back, and this leads to a rather heavy sort of stereotyping throughout the text that the great scholar Edward Said would surely define as Orientalism.
Said spends his entire work, Orientalism, discussing this concept, but essentially what he argues is that there is a prevalent, almost systematic distinction between the East and the West made in Western culture, and particularly its literature. Furthermore, its a distinction that puts the East in a marginalized position, where it is considered inferior, and Other, to the West. As Said states, 'The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, 'different'; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, 'normal'.'
From the opening pages of Collins' novel, we have examples of Orientalist discourse. The Prologue tells a fantastical tale of a diamond belonging to a Hindu Moon God, that is worshiped, and commanded by the deity to be watched 'by three priests in turn, night and day, to the end of the generations of men.' Even after it has been seized by a Sultan, and then the British soldier hundreds of years later, it is continually watched by 'three guardian priests' who follow it across the continent while keeping 'their watch in secret'. It all has an element of the exotic and magical, exactly what Said would call a typical Western representation of the East.
As the novel progresses, this dichotomy of East and West continues. We have an account of three Indians acting as jugglers with a little English boy, performing some mysterious trick of 'hocus pocus' where 'the Indian took a bottle from his bosom, and poured out of it some black stuff, like ink, into the palm of the boy's hand' in an attempt to get the boy to have a vision of where the diamond will be found. As it is described later by the solicitor Bruff, 'The clairvoyance in this case is simply a development of the romantic side of the Indian character. It would be refreshment and an encouragement to those men- quite inconceivable, I grant you, to the English mind- to surround their wearisome and perilous errand in this country with a certain halo of the marvellous and the supernatural.'
Collins does give us a narrator in the novel, Ezra Jennings, who is conceivably of Eastern decent, but shown to be admirable, intelligent, resourceful and integral to the resolution of the mystery. However, even he is given an air of magic and mystery, as well as being shown to be an outcast and opium addict. Furthermore, his appearance is described as almost mystical, and leads Mr Blake to look at him 'with a curiosity which, I am ashamed to say, I found it quite impossible to control'. Although he isn't completely disparaged, I wouldn't say Ezra Jennings completely breaks from the mold of what you might consider a stereotypical representation of an Eastern figure.
And so, we have our problem. On one hand, The Moonstone, is a rich, masterfully crafted novel that is a delight to read. On the other, it profoundly perpetuates a stereotype of India, and Indians, in general, that is diminishing, insulting, and contributes to a rather essentialist discourse of Orientalism. Hence, we are brought back to the problem of how to read a text from a different era. Should we simply read them and excuse their prejudices because they were written when such characterizations were acceptable? Should we discard them completely despite their various other merits? Should we rewrite them as was attempted to do with 'Baby, It's Cold Outside?' What's the answer?
I think, the problem is, that there really isn't a simple one. If you chose to discard every book that showed racist or sexist tendencies, you'd essentially be throwing out a huge chunk, or pretty much all, of the literary canon. If you just ignore their presence, that isn't really fair either, because it still isn't right to essentialize about entire cultures or peoples.
For me, I think the answer is to continue to read these texts, but to examine them with a critical eye. Acknowledge their contents, and where they are flawed, and discuss them. This is the perspective literary departments the world over have done by incorporating courses on topics such as Queer Literature and Colonialism/Postcolonialism that re-examine historical texts and their marginalized characters, and I think it's the only answer that treads a middle ground between extremes.
And so, in regards to The Moonstone, I would certainly recommend it as a spellbinding read. As far as detective novels go, it's one of the best I think I've read. But that being said, I would argue it also needs to be read with a grain of salt, and a critical eye that examines, rather than absorbs, some of its old fashioned representations of Eastern culture.