A classic Victorian tale
Special to the Los Angeles Times
Vail CO, Colorado
As everyone who is not locked in a dungeon knows, the story of Anna Nicole Smith has received overwhelming attention in recent weeks. The mainstream American press, in fact, has taken a good deal of stick from highbrow readers for devoting so many inches to the unfolding narrative of this woman, her lovers and her child.
But how could it be otherwise? This story was destined from the outset to take over Page 1 ” precisely because it is a classic melodrama. Following its twists and turns, it’s impossible not to get the feeling that one is reading a good old-fashioned novel.
In 1878, Anthony Trollope (that greatest of Victorian storytellers) offered his readers “Is He Popenjoy?” It’s my favorite of the 47 novels he published, and it has an irresistible hook-in-the-jaw story. A British aristocrat, fabulously wealthy, goes to Italy and is trapped into marriage by a scheming foreign Delilah. He has a son and heir ” thus disowning the decent, and somewhat distant, English relative who had expected to inherit. But did the Marquis of Brotherton actually marry his foreign floozy? Is this young son indeed the heir, or is he a bastard? Can the lawyers save the day? A title, a vast fortune, a great country house hang in the balance.
That fundamental plot ” the child without clear parentage who ultimately stands (when his identity is finally revealed) to inherit a vast fortune ” was a favorite of the Victorian era. Think of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” or “Oliver Twist.”
Earlier in February on the British reality TV show “Celebrity Big Brother” (which had 9 million viewers glued to their sets), one bimbo-ish celebrity inquired of the other what she was looking for in a husband.
“Oil,” replied Bimbo 2. “Old, ill and loaded.”
Old, ill and loaded ” that’s the Anna Nicole Smith story.
But it also is another favorite plot of the Victorians; 19th-century fiction is as rich in “oil” as Kirkuk in Iraq. In Trollope’s “The Eustace Diamonds,” Lizzie Greystock’s problems begin when she marries an old, ill and very loaded aristocrat, Sir Florian Eustace. Can Lizzie, after he’s done his marital duty and died on her, hold on to the family diamonds? Or will the Eustace family break the will and disinherit the shameless gold-digger?
You strike oil everywhere in Victorian fiction. Trollope used the plot many times. But there also are big oil stains across the plot surface of William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” (Becky Sharp’s relationship with the Marquess of Steyne) and even in starchy George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” (Gwendolen Harleth’s cynical marriage to Henleigh Grandcourt).
The plots and story lines that fascinated people in the past aren’t likely to diminish in appeal any time soon.
There is a lot of snobbery about our addictive love of these stories ” whether in newspapers or trashy potboilers or the great Victorian novels. The fact is, we need them as much as we need oxygenated air. By my estimate, at least three-quarters of network prime-time TV is fictional narrative. Bookstores, walk-in and Web-based, sell more fiction than any other kind of book. The vast portion of what is shown in our film theaters and on the cable movie channels is fiction. Stories, that is.
Nonetheless, we persist in being snooty about storytelling. The best books, according to some critics, are those with the least amount of plot. There are more important issues, we’re told, than Anna Nicole Smith. Why waste the space on Smith, they want to know? Answer: because she satisfies our need for a good story.
Why are we so hung up on stories? Not because we’re narrative junkies, zombified fiction addicts ” but because of the truth their falsehoods tell us. It’s the paradox that Aristotle noted, 2,500 years ago, in his “Poetics.” A fiction like “Oedipus Rex,” Aristotle asserted, was “truer” than history. Why? Because fiction can deal with the essence of our human condition, unlike history, which is tied to what actually happened.
What truth, then, does the Anna Nicole Smith story tell us?
Take your pick:
“The American Dream is just that ” a dream.”
“Love of money is the root of all evil.”
“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”
And, finally, that truth of truths, given classic expression in Anita Loos’ title for her perennially readable story ” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
John Sutherland is professor emeritus of modern English literature at University College, London, and a visiting professor of literature at California Institute of Technology.