I am part of what I call the PolyWogg Reading Challenge, a year-long “book club” with low intensity, lots of variety, and monthly themes. It’s nothing big, a small group of friends/family and myself, with me acting as ringleader. Part of the goal was to encourage me to read more and to have small discussions with others without being overwhelmed by the firehose approach of sites like GoodReads.
Most of the time, I read for simple pleasure. Many of my choices are murder mysteries — detectives, lawyers, detectives and lawyers, amateur sleuths, coroners, consulting detectives, etc. Way back in the ’90s, I followed an online discussion group and they had a list of rules for participation, one of which said that members were not allowed to discuss Anne Perry’s backstory. I didn’t even know who Anne Perry was, but she was the only author whose “history” was essentially verboten. I learned from others that she wrote historical fiction, and I didn’t know much about what that entailed. The closest I came was Sherlock Holmes, Murder in the Rue Morgue or Agatha Christie. Not “historical” in any sense other than it was previously contemporary fiction but written at the dawn of mystery writing.
I sought out some Anne Perry books to try one, and I tried a series with Charlotte and Thomas Pitt. Basic premise is 1860s England, Charlotte is not the typical society woman / lady, will never get married because no man is likely to take her opinionated self, etc. Thomas is a detective who befriends her. Joint sleuthing leads to affection to love to marriage, etc. I enjoyed the series and some of the sense of time and place. I bought a few in the series, but didn’t advance too far just by time and interest. In case you are wondering, the reason the author’s backstory was banned from discussion was that as a teen, her and her friend committed a murder, knocked down to manslaughter, and both were found guilty. Soooo, lots of people have views about reading a murder mystery written by someone who killed someone in real life. Most of the time you see current concerns more like cancel culture; this was way before that and discussions erupted with strong reaction on both sides until the moderators finally said, “Knock it off, no more discussion of her life, we’re here to discuss books.” Personally, it meant little to me, I just liked the books.
What did I say about resonance?
One of our past months had the theme of “history” and the goal was to read a book that was set or written before 1965. I included Anne Perry as one of the formal “challenge” authors, and I dusted off some of the old copies. One of the other series is a character named William Monk and most sites list the books as the “Monk” series. There’s something ironic about the fact that the other series lists both the husband and wife as the series name, but this series is marketed as the William Monk series yet has two other characters, Hester Latterly (a former Crimean nurse) and Oliver Rathbone (a solicitor & barrister). Hester figures prominently in the series, as does Oliver in many of them, and deals extensively with the role of women as a plot device, yet ironically it is the “Monk” character that gets sole billing as the protagonist.
In the first book, one of the most interesting aspects of William Monk was that he had had an accident and is suffering from some degree of amnesia. He didn’t remember his name, nor remember any part of his past, yet he was still functionally able to converse, talk, understand, etc. None of his functional abilities are impaired in any way, he just didn’t know who he was.
A police captain comes to see him, he finds out his own name, and he is scared that if someone finds out he is an amnesiac, he’ll be fired. And have no money on which to live. So he fakes it until he makes it.
I remember when I first read it, I was intrigued by the idea of nature vs. nurture. As Monk detects, he also starts to see how others react to him and he gets a picture of himself as a relatively harsh person. Regularly cutting, frequently ruthless in his dealings with others if he feels they don’t measure up to his professional standards, intolerant, aggressive, abrasive, and virtually no friends. He lived for the job, and while he was well respected by everyone for his abilities, it seems like no one likes him very much. He’s an ass regularly, just brilliant at his job. But it rubs him raw. His “new” self doesn’t much like his “old” self.
In short, without all the layers of nurture/experience from his life, he has been reset to a bunch of core values of duty and honour, and even justice above both of those. The inherent “nature”, perhaps. In the novels, much of the mystery of his past is contrived. For example, he remembers he has a sister who lives in the country and he goes to see her. She’s warm to his arrival, but it’s clear he hasn’t stayed in touch much, nor reciprocated her feelings. There’s no animosity, they’re just not very close. He has a thousand questions, and he tells her nothing. Rather than simply say, “So a funny thing happened when I got knocked on the head, I don’t remember any of you or mom+dad, do you think you could fill in the blanks?”, he remains silent. It may work as a primary plot device in a lot of TV shows, but as a literary device, it’s a bit shallow. At least in a TV show, you wouldn’t be privy to all his thoughts at the time. And in many situations, he prides himself on showing courage and just asking something, facing his fear, but when it is his sister and the safest space he knows, he says nothing. Yawn.
But some of the books have been fascinating to see different aspects crop up. In one book, he remembers a woman that he cared about deeply, but not the context. He investigates, narrows it down to three possible cases, and goes to visit them. In all three, the people involved in the old case react to his arrival in both shock and awe, more signs of his ruthlessness and brilliance. But when he finally meets the woman, she reacts very harshly to his arrival. It’s a bit convoluted, but essentially they did both love each other, but she decided he was too much of a drama queen with the lows of feeling injustice for others and the highs of success in thwarting them; she preferred a more even keel, and chose a nice, quiet, safe life over being around his potential ruthlessness and passions, even if not directed at her. When they parted, they agreed that he would never return, yet here he is, so she ain’t happy. He’s devastated by the truth of the memory and also that he allowed himself to misjudge her. He’s not as upset about her, as he is about himself.
It’s a tough nuance, but that idea resonates with me. Revisiting old behaviour, reinterpreting how that behaviour played out, even your own motives for why you behaved that way. I find the idea compelling. Not to judge OTHERS or reinterpret their behaviour and ascribe motives that weren’t present at the time, but in analysing my own motives to find any hidden truths. While I didn’t get conked on the head, I have spent a lot of time in my life looking back at previous behaviour, analysing it, examining my motives, and not always liking what I found. There’s also an element in there of the “road not taken”, not in the sense of wondering “what if”, but more of the idea that a thousand little decisions affect the way your life unfolds. Simple decisions like choosing to sit in the second row of a lecture hall and meeting someone who if you had sat in the third row, you wouldn’t have. And perhaps they introduced you to someone else who introduced you to someone else who introduced you to your spouse. A domino effect that started simply because you sat in one row rather than another. In Monk’s case, he comes face to face with the one who got away and while he gets closure, it comes at a heavy price.
Sustainable employment income
Because the books take place in the 1850s/60s in England, of course there is very little evidence of a welfare state. The difference between classes is almost a sub-character of its own in both series, and one overwhelming theme is “what money will I live on?”. For Hester, the nurse, she does not want to rely on her brother to look after her, so she works as a nurse in various homes for those in higher society (i.e. those with money to pay her). It puts her a bit above servant, but not much. Yet she has to work because she needs money to live on. The books don’t dwell too much on whether she has any savings or if she’s literally living one paycheque away from disaster, but it’s not a soft cushion, if she has one. In that regard, it is something commented upon for most of the female characters.
They can’t own property, they cannot inherit anything, most of them cannot work without losing societal status, and many of the stories revolve around women and whether all of them married for money or occasionally love. It could sound almost cliché, and at times, it is.
But Monk himself is not too far off that point. He is terrified in the first book that he will lose his job, have no income after 2 weeks, and might end up in a workhouse which almost nobody ever leaves. I went to university, even law school for awhile, and I’ve worked for the government in a good job for the last 28 years. Yet I can remember wondering when I was in high school what would become of me.
Would I find something I liked? I sucked at pretty much anything manual, but had no real idea of what other types of jobs were out there. I never really saw any jobs where I thought, “I could do that. I could make a living at THAT.” When I was in university and working at the library, I loved it. Some of that was the nature of the job, and I’ve blogged about some of that previously, but some of it was straight cause and effect — I worked and I got paid. And they liked my work enough to keep hiring me. I was GOOD at something. So, for awhile, I thought, “Hmm…I like books, I like working in the library, maybe I could become a librarian.” Or one of the back office staff.
I *saw* jobs that would generate income and that I could foreseeably do. I had, in short, options. But I remember all too well when I didn’t think I had any options. I didn’t know if I could/would go to college or university. It seemed so expensive to me, it was not a “guaranteed” option for me. But I got a summer job at the library. I earned real money for a change, not the previous temp stuff I had done for pocket change. I started at a minimum wage of about $8.50 an hour or so, but within a few years, I was above $12, and I thought I was amazing.
More importantly, I was starting to see other jobs I could possibly do. A step above my station, as it were. It wasn’t until I went to work for the Ministry of Education in B.C. for a co-op that I saw what government really was like and saw TONS of jobs I could do. A myriad of options.
Yet when I look back, and partly because of the nature of my job now that focuses heavily on the labour force and what “skills” people need to have for various sectors, I wonder if there are students like me who are in high school with no pathway in front of them that they can see. Not because they have no pathway, or that their options are too limited, just that no one has said, “Hey, do you see this path over here? Or over here? Or over here?”. For some people, that was what guidance counsellors were for, except most guidance counsellors had no real training or special information about jobs. The internet has helped with finding information, but if you don’t know what to look for in the first place, how do you know where to start looking?
For many people, they’ll do a career quiz. If I pretend I’m a high-school student, and looking at potential careers, there are a lot of career quizzes out there. Many ask you questions you have no idea what the answer is…would you rather be an auditor or a politician? Umm, neither? Both? As a high school student, you may have no clue what a production manager does, or if it says “salesperson”, do they mean a telemarketer, a retailer, or someone who works for a company selling company products to other businesses?
For fun, I did one quiz, and I tried to answer as if it was me 35+ years ago. It came back with 30 suggestions…financial played heavily with accountant, auditor, actuary, bookkeeper, financial aid officer, financial analyst, foreign exchange trader, business valuator, and financial planner. That’s not a bad list, to be honest, although trader wouldn’t be anything I would like. But 18yo me wouldn’t have known that. It would have given me a starting point, I suppose. But I was already taking accounting in high school, and liked it enough to win a small local accounting contest, so that was already on the possible list. Court reporter showed up, as did a corporate lawyer but not a general lawyer (partly as I said I didn’t want to convince people in adversarial arguments, probably).
Weirdly, some health care stuff shows up…Health care administrator, hospital administrator, research tech? Sure. But dental lab technician or geneticist? Huh?
Other odd ones include surveyor (?), economist (yes, but back then I would have had no idea what that meant), food service manager (okay, a little specific), office manager (generic), IT manager (okay), systems administrator (hmmm), systems analyst (okay, but would have no idea what that was), venture capitalist (umm, I think I would need some capital first), small business owner (never), quality assurance engineer (maybe), and consultant (pretty generic).
The weirdest two go to opposite ends of the spectrum. The REALLY weird “hard pass” was sommelier. That is just plain laughable. Not only do I not like or appreciate wine, I have no discerning palate or nose for it either.
But the one that struck me as really odd, a hard yes of sorts, was not something that showed up ANYWHERE in the questions…astronomer. Unless the quiz pulled my browser history, that seems like a really weird coincidence.
Yet the problem with all of it is that nowhere in that list is “government employee”. Economist, perhaps, although when you click their link to see what they mean, they generally mean at a large banking institution. It’s just natural, most HR advice out there is geared towards the private sector, not based on an equally detailed knowledge of the public sector.
But I digress
As I read the books, and the various options available to women, it seems generally like it would collapse down to a much smaller list:
- Get married
- Servant or servant+ (professional nurse, not a general nurse)
- Shopkeepers, general rabble
Sure, I know it’s historical fiction, not a documentary, but I find some resonance in wondering “What do I do?”. We of course have a safety net, but it doesn’t stop people from asking themselves a fundamental question…not “What do I do or even want to do?”, but the simpler question, “what CAN I do?”
Some of that despair permeates through, and combined with the question of “Who are we if we are not surrounded by our decisions, if we were to break free and start fresh tomorrow?”, I find some of the thoughts consuming.
It’s strange to me that those ideas should resonate with me so much.