A librarian friend of mine has this theory that books talk to each other and that whatever book you pick up next it will have some link with the one that you’ve just finished. I think she formed this one year when she found herself reading several books, one after the other, in which people performed various unmentionable acts with sheep. I can’t be sure about that. I have to say that despite her enthusiasm I wasn’t exactly drawn to the subject matter. Anyway, I found myself thinking about that earlier this week when the Dickens course moved on to Oliver Twist. One of the critical passages we were asked to read detailed Queen Victoria’s response to the novel and the entry she made in her journal about a discussion of the book she had with Lord Melbourne. Her Majesty had been much moved by the plight of the people in the workhouse and wished to know what could be done about it. It was Lord Melbourne who, in this instance, ‘was not amused’. He wanted nothing to do with the book and Victoria quotes him as saying:
I don’t like those things; I wish to avoid them; I don’t like them in reality, and therefore I don’t wish them represented.
In other words, if I don’t have to look at them I don’t have to acknowledge that they exist and thus cannot possibly be expected to do anything about them.
Coincidentally (or was it really books talking to books again) on Monday I lead a group discussion of Karen Joy Fowler’s wonderful novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. This followed what was a third read for me and details of the first two and my response to the book can be found here. One of the things that I appreciate about Fowler’s work is that she recognises that the question of whether or not animals should be involved in developing life-saving drugs is only easily answered if you or a member of your family is not in need of the resulting medication. Nobody’s arguing these issues are easy, her main character, Rosie, says. But in an interview the author offers a more nuanced position that is also explored in the book.
What I can say is that I think we should not be doing things that are invisible to us. I think that people would not stand for the factory farms if they saw them. We’re removed from this. And now there’s a great effort to make it illegal to go into these farms and show people what happens…If we can’t bear to look at it then we should not be doing it.
What the eye doesn’t see the heart needn’t grieve over.
Nearly two hundred years apart the sentiments are the same. Look the other way and we can pretend nothing wrong, nothing evil, is happening. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.