Like many avid readers of the bildungsroman, I have noted that coming-of-age novels never go out of fashion. Not a week goes by that there is not a review of a new coming-of-age novel. I often reread my favorites, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and The Mill on the Floss. My preference is for the nineteenth century novel; perhaps they did it better. Yet as I grow older, I appreciate the modern reinvention of the bildungsroman as a form that focuses on a transitional period, such as the beginning of middle- or old age.
So what exactly do we mean by this term? Doris Lessing insisted that her five-volume Children of Violence series was a bildungsroman. The first four are naturalistic novels minutely documenting the life of the heroine, Martha Quest, up to the age of 30. But the fifth is problematic.
Many 20th-century women readers identify with Martha’s desperate struggle to escape the limits of the family and geography that defined their parents’ generation. The last book in the series, The Four-Gated City, is so experimental that it stands apart as a separate entity, and redefines the novel: I love it, some hate it. it is the story of Martha in London from age 30 to old age, set against the history of radicalism and sexual politics in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Lessing also explores the wobbly definition and treatment of madness, and ends with the kind of apocalypse that will doubtless happen, where all is confusion, and no one knows the origin. So is this novel part of the bildungsroman? I’m not sure.
Lessing’s short 1973 bildungsroman, The Summer Before the Dark, is much more conventional. She focuses on one summer, the transition in Kate Brown’s life from busy, youngish wife and mother to middle age and independence.
That summer, her husband and grown-up children will be out of the country. So Kate is coerced into taking a job as a translator. Soon she is translating not only Portuguese into English, but the conference-goers’ needs and insecurities into information and services. And so she is upgraded to a manager, and realizes ironically that she is making a living out of her mothering skills.
Lessing, as well as Kate, wonders, Is this how Kate wants to spend the rest of her life? As a professional mother? And after the conference, during a month in a rented room in a hippie girl’s apartment, she changes her expectations, reads, and experiments with clothes: how do her looks affect how people see her?
Most important, she learns how to be middle-aged: you learn to adapt and move on or are trapped in a role that no longer fits.
Needless to say, George Orwell has little in common with Lessing. I recently reread Orwell’s novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, because I remembered that it is set partly in a bookstore. I did not recall, however, that the raging hero, Gordon Comstock, quit his advertising job to avoid the “money stink.” This novel is essentially a comedy, but it is also about working for poverty wages in a used bookstore and the demands of money in our materialistic culture.
In this mini-bildungsroman, Gordon is confronting (or avoiding?) the crisis of turning 30. What do you do when you quit your well paid job in your late twenties and take a job at a second-hand bookstore, because you are too idealistic for the “money stink”? Now he can barely afford to go out for a drink with his editor friend, Ravelston, or take his girlfriend, Rosemary, to dinner, and he refuses to let them pay his way.
Gordon is also a poet, the author of a slim volume of poetry, reviewed by prestigious publications. He glares at the bookshop’s poetry section. “His own wretched book was there – skied, of course, high up among the unsaleable. Mice, by Gordon Comstock; a sneaky little foolscap octavo, price three and sixpence but now reduced to a bob.”
Gordon has lost his inspiration, and his new manuscript is a crossed-out, inky mess. Orwell comically describes Georges desperation for cigarettes, his inconvenient lodgings, and a drinking spree that gets him fired. – so he falls down even lower on the social ladder. The question is: can Ravelston, Rosemary, and his sister Juilia, who lives in genteel poverty, persuade him to take a job that pays? His biological clock, or do I mean time bomb, is ticking: what does one do at age 30
And now I will end on a lighter note. I am a fan of a little-known bildungsroman by Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl, which is a kind of unraveling of a Vanity Fair, which the heroine radically rejects and shoots down. (Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying would approve.) Alcott, who had a contract to write girls’ books, is often criticized for her tendency to “moralize.” Yet this criticism reflects either ignorance or denial of her upbringing and idealism. Her father, Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist philosopher who socialized with Thoreau and Emerson, not only founded a vegetarian commune but started a radical school open to students of all races – which, alas, was shut down. In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Alcott pits the values of friendship and hard work against materialism and slavery to fashion.
The impoverished heroine, Polly, a lively country girl, is used to hard work and is close to her family. On a visit to the the Shaws, a nouveau riche family in the city, she is appalled by her worldly friend Fanny’s affectations. Money drives the family’s inappropriate actions and shallow manners, but Polly quietly smooths the relationships among Fan, her “fractious” younger sister, Maud, and their neglected grandmother, who has marvelous stories to tell.
As you can imagine, the lives of Polly and Fan differ in adulthood. Polly become a hard-working music teacher, while Fanny is still absorbed in parties, fashion, and love. Polly introduces Fanny to her bohemian circle of artistic friends, a struggling group of New England women striving to be taken seriously. And Fanny is impressed.
Becky Jeffrey, a sculptress, lives with an engraver, Lizzie Small, in a small studio; Kate King is an authoress, struggling with her new novel; and Fanny’s landlady, Miss Mills, a philanthropist, instead of living alone, rents rooms at low rates to impecunious people.
And Polly and Fanny do have to struggle to survive: they undergo radical changes and unforeseen difficulty. There is also romance.
And of course Alcott moralizes, but that doesn’t bother me in the least.