Wednesday, 19 November 2008
The photos say it all. The 19th century maids may be wearing caps and aprons - even carrying a kettle to show their "service" - but they are dressed in their best for the picture. They gaze out, confidently or nervously, holding the required pose before resuming their complex, interesting lives. They are hard-working women whose leisure activities and concerns for friendship and family cannot be shown in this photo.
If a 19th century photo can show women domestic workers as human beings, why do writers in the 21st century still get it so wrong?
I've been listening, casually, to the P.D. James serial on Radio 4. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that I don't turn it off. It follows The Archers and Front Row and I leave the radio on so that I can catch the 8.00 p.m. news headlines.
The serial is one of the later novels featuring James's posh, poetic detective Adam Dalgliesh. I used to read P.D. James. She created an early woman private investigator and I liked the idea of combining crime and poetry. Buit gradually P.D. James' take on class began to grate on me. In the end I couldn't bear to read her any more. The radio serial has reminded me just what is wrong with her writing.
The victim in this serial is a politician - posh and sensitive like James's detective. But the investigation, as usual, means interviewing the servants. The other evening an entire episode featured an interview with the victim's cleaner.
I had to listen. The first thing I learnt was that the cleaner lived in a council flat - just like my mum, who also worked as a cleaner. When I was growing up I knew lots of cleaners who lived on the estate. (For the benefit of P.D. James, that's a council estate, not the kind of estate owned by the landed gentry.) I enjoyed their conversation about their employers - it was gossipy and satrical. The wealthy employers were good material for a laugh, before talk moved onto more serious topics: politcs, family, books, television, etc.
Of course, the cleaner created by P.D. James was there for a purpose - to provide a clue to the mystery. But upper and middle-class characters in James' mysteries have complex lives and face ethical dilemmas. The cleaner didn't. She was called Mrs Minns - such a stock name for a domestic worker that it's also used by Enid Blyton in the first of her Famous Five books. And listening to the interview with Mrs Minns, as created by P.D. James, I longed for the ethical complexity of Enid Blyton.
Mrs Minns was not a character with a credible independent existence. She was an attribute of her employer - her role was to admire him. It was impossible to believe there had ever been a Mr Minns because people who get married are human beings with human emotions and Mrs Minns was a cardboard cut-out. (I've seen cardboard cut-outs who are more convincingly human.)
Mrs Minns' role involved the discovery of a book. It was, of course, a trashy romance with a lurid cover. My mum's favourite authors include Dickens, Shakespeare, Moliere, Plato, Borges and late 20th century magic realists - but that would be too much complexity for P.D. James to handle. Cardboard cut-out cleaners don't enjoy literature or art or think about politics - they leave that to real cleaners.
By the end of the episode I was angry. How could the BBC perpetuate this travesty of characterisation - this lack of literary imagination?
Before blogged about it, I had to be sure that it mattered. So I thought it through.
It matters that we see other human beings as complex individuals. Seeing people as cardboard cut-outs is dangerously close to seeing them as sub-human. If people are treated as sub-human, no-one will care what happens to them. We're already close to that when thinking of people on council estates. The government is threatening to move families out of their council homes, as a punishment for being unemployed or being too successful. This policy assumes that people in council estates aren't attached to their homes, communities or schools - are mere units who don't matter and can be moved around the country for political convenience. (But I, my brother and my parents were not sub-human. We loved our council-flat home.) P.D. James' fictions feed into current anti-working class prejudice and policies.
P.D. James is also in a position of power. She has been a magistrate. She has been a governor of the BBC. As Baroness James of Holland Park (an unelected member of the House of Lords) she is a lawmaker - she speaks and votes on matters that affect the people she fails to see as complex, interesting individuals.
Mrs Minns is not just a failure of literary skills. She's a failure of human understanding. She shows that P.D. James' grasp of ethics is dangerously narrow.