I wasn’t intending to review Josephine Tey’s 1949 mystery, The Franchise Affair, but that was before I discovered that it was a jaw droppingly right wing treatise on social issues, rather than the gentle cosy detective story I’d been expecting.
Tey’s tale pits fifteen year old Betty Kane against socially reticent Marion Sharpe and her forbidding elderly mother. Kane accuses the two of kidnap and battery, and local lawyer Robert Blair is drawn in by circumstances to investigate.
It’s remarkable how different attitudes to fifteen year olds were in the age before the invention of the teenager. Although “growing up too quickly” is a common lament these days, there is much more legal protection around our youngsters than there was in the 1940s and there is no way a fifteen year old in a modern novel could be accused of the sort of behaviour that Tey puts the character of Betty under, not without at least some heavy duty psychological explanation.
This lack of characterisation made me think of the contrast with Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, which Rachel put me on to. Franklin, although much younger than Tey when she wrote her novel (she was sixteen) and writing during a much earlier period, shows much greater understanding of the way environment, social and physical, and experience have a profound effect on the way people turn out.
My Brilliant Career is about a fictional sixteen year old, Sybylla Melvyn. The novel is set at the end of the nineteenth century in rural Australia. It’s a tough life, full of struggle, and intensely described. Just as things are looking the-pits-kind-of-awful, Sybylla gets an opportunity to go and stay with a better off relative, and we follow her adventures as she negotiates adolescence and an up and down relationship with her mother, lurching from poverty to riches to servitude along the way.
Miles Franklin’s own story is also fascinating. Although she did go on to have a career, which involved writing, the publication of her outspoken first novel was to be the most brilliant part of it. The public assumption that Franklin had written a purely autobiographical work caused her much distress, and she subsequently withdrew it from publication, which is a shame, because as well as her remarkable understanding of personality, the character of Sybylla is so passionate and memorable and easy to relate to.
The other thing that The Franchise Affair reminded me of was Jon Ronson’s You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I wasn’t going to read this – too scary – but was lulled in by the Kindle sample, which started off much more gently and humorously than I had expected. Ronson is at his bemused and beguiling best as he describes what happened when some university students tried to impersonate him on the internet, showing how his helpless outrage turned into a mini crusade, and what happened when the internet swung to his rescue. Yet it was also this experience that caused him to question the moral momentum behind these movements, and why the public mobilises into self-righteous mobs, and what effect it has on the people who are pursued by them. In The Franchise Affair, this takes the form of angry locals besieging a house and breaking windows. You’ve Been… shows how the modern virtual incarnation of mob rule is no less damaging to people’s lives.