Apparently Stirling University has now refuted reports that it has ditched Jane Austen from its English course. Personally, I would have applauded the decision, as I have never understood Austen's appeal. To me, she seems snobbish, cold blooded and singularly uninterested in the wider world, where not only was the British Empire developing – and ignoring the slave trade – but Napoleon, the Putin of his day, was attempting to take over Europe.
Years ago a reviewer, whose name I've now forgotten, explained why Charlotte Bronte wasn't an Austen fan either. However flawed, the former's fictional characters, and those of her sisters, were the opposite of Austen's snobbish, mannered creations and were passionate, emotional and committed.
Of course, there is always the problem of judging the work of past writers by our own 21st-century cultural norms. Many great writers, like Buchan and Kipling, are blamed for expressing views apparently supporting the idea of empire, when critics forget that, often, these are the views of the characters rather than of the author. If you ever thought that Kipling was an unapologetic advocate of empire, read the dazzling Plain Tales from the Hills
where he leaves the reader in no doubt of his contempt for much of the colonial rhetoric of the time.
I would, though, admit that whatever his faults – he was as snobbish as Austen on occasion – I have a soft spot for Trollope. In Barchester Towers
, he can be as cutting as Austen about some characters, but in the development of the growing romance between Eleanor and the Reverend Francis Arabin, he displays an understanding – unusual for a Victorian – of how a passionate relationship between two difficult people can develop. I love Arabin nearly as much as Sandy Arbuthnot. He has no concerns that Eleanor is the more sexually experienced – she's a young widow after all – and readily accepts her young son. And he's honest enough with himself to admit that part of the attraction is the financial security she might offer him. Their story reads as convincing, and like much of the Shakespeare canon, psychologically believable.
I found it interesting that several of the short-listed contributions to the Scottish Schools' Young Writer of the Year
competition were questioning the relevance of the online world, when I had assumed that for the majority of young people, the relevance of the internet and of online culture was a given. Is it losing its allure?
When it is working, I have a few online sites I use fairly regularly, although I don't now tend to comment on Twitter much since I was banned for a day for apparently 'encouraging suicide' by suggesting that one Jeremy Vine should jump off a cliff. Although I had only a vague idea of who this person was – I think he's a TV personality – I was clear I had no particular wish to end his life. There are many further up the list and I'm still not sure what Vine is supposed to have done. But I was concerned that this murderous intent had been linked with me, which raised questions about how the whole thing works.
Without the help of my son, who generally understands the online world, I would have far more trouble with it, especially my PC's latest trick of 'unhooking' itself from the internet, usually at the most inconvenient moment. This creates a weird sensation of panic that I am cut off from the world, when in reality I have several good friends within walking distance who physically exist, in contrast with many online contacts.
The PC's latest spate of bad behaviour left me practically in tears as I had a fairly important Zoom meeting to attend, yet my son, who eventually got it going again, remarked: 'It's only a computer, it's not worth getting that upset about'. Maybe the younger generation who were its pioneers are now realising its limitations?
Leaders we deserve?
I particularly enjoyed a recent piece in SR on leadership by Philip D Welsby
, which chimed very well with that of Gerry Hassan
on the abysmal moral standards of current public life. I wrote a few weeks ago how the late Mr B and I used the term 'Leadership B******t' about much of what has been written on the topic, often by US management 'experts' advising rising young executives on how to become great leaders, along the lines of Richard Branson et al
, where leadership is regarded as a synonym for financial success.
Philip's piece was much more about the dark side of leadership, where leaders are nothing more than power-crazed thugs determined to grab whatever domination they can and to enjoy its financial benefits, although how they can enjoy anything when they must be constantly worried about being toppled by the next thug must be questionable. However, to retain their power bases, they often rely on the fact that good men, and women, will be so busy being good that they will let them away with their misdeeds.
Today, I was having lunch with two nice ladies from 'Middle Scotland' who were both, as nice people are, very upset about the plight of the Ukrainians, and who strongly believed that it was time to forget all about 'Partygate' and the fact that we now had a Prime Minister and a Chancellor who had both been fined for their actions 'because there's a war going on'. (One wonders about the press outcry if our own First Minister had indulged in such lockdown-busting behaviour.) 'And I'm sure,' said one, 'that the Prime Minister knows far more than we do!'
Such is the ability of a significant number of people to believe the mainly right-wing press, where the Daily Mail
and others attack 'the left' for pointing out the politicians' misdeeds are a resignation matter, when 'there's a war on'. Toxic leaders will sadly exploit the ignorance of a significant proportion of the population. In a democracy, which in spite of its faults is probably the least toxic form of government, we need to better educate such people not to throw away their own power on leaders they don't deserve.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant