Great Fun

John Bayley

  • Gossip by Patricia Meyer Spacks
    Chicago, 287 pp, £9.25, November 1986, ISBN 0 226 76844 9
  • The Bonus of Laughter by Alan Pryce-Jones
    Hamish Hamilton, 263 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 241 11903 0

In Northanger Abbey we learn that nothing very awful in the way of immurement or assassination of wives, or any such Gothic goings-on, can occur in an English village, because of its ‘neighbourhood of voluntary spies’. In this chilling phrase Jane Austen indicates the social benefits of gossip, and also implies with secret amusement that the moral benefits of novel-reading follow from the fact that the novel is a licensed vehicle for gossip. In the course of an intelligent and informal analysis of the concept, chiefly in its relation to literature, Patricia Spacks remarks on the absence of adolescent pregnancy in China, and connects it with the compulsory retirement, under the Communist regime, of men at 55 and women at 50. There is thus a vast reserve of voluntary spies whose socially acceptable – indeed more or less compulsory – occupation is to keep an eye on young love and nip it in the bud.

Jane Austen, and Georgian and Victorian society, would hardly have been surprised at this. For comprehensively ideological motives, a Communist society applies exactly the same sort of social pressures to its members as did an old-fashioned ‘free’ society. Both have ways of making you conform. In such an environment gossip is an instrument with real teeth: your job and your home may depend upon it. Is gossip still a killer in the Western world? Liberalism has gone to a lot of trouble to draw its teeth, and to make sure that whatever you do you won’t have to suffer for it physically at society’s hands. In her novel The Groves of Academe, Mary McCarthy has a no-good college teacher who can’t be got rid of, in the earnestly liberal atmosphere of a campus, once he has cunningly spread the rumour – quite untrue – that he had been a member of the Communist Party. This bestows tenure, a job for life: a modern version of the secret sexual licence acquired by Horner in Wycherly’s play The Country Wife when he has gossip give out that he has been made impotent by venereal disease.

The author of two good books about poetry, and of two studies on fashionable contemporary themes, The Female Imagination and The Adolescent Idea, Professor Spacks is also listed on the cover of her new book as chairperson of the English Faculty at Yale, once an academic centre for the more arcane sorts of abstract literary theory. Perhaps this means that the teaching of literature is reverting to its old comfortable function of gossip about the people in books. Is Satan good or bad? Why exactly did Iago hatch his plot, or Isabel Archer decide to marry Gilbert Osmond? Such speculations need the exercise of just as much intelligence as does the higher jargon, and for most people they are more fun to make. Dr Spacks ends her preface with the comment that although the ambiguities and perplexities associated with gossip appear endless, ‘to explore them has been great fun.’ A heart-warming point, and we can have it both ways because, as she implies, there is just as much material for class or seminar in this way of doing things as there is in the verbal meccano-work of literary theory.

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