Thursday, January 7, 2016

out of pocket expenses

Some years ago I dipped into Jo Walton's Farthing, but I didn't get very far because I'm not enthusiastic for "cozy" country-house murder mysteries. But, having been so impressed by some of her more recent books, I decided to try again.

And true, Farthing does have some of the irritating typical features of that genre, but I should have trusted Jo Walton! It's also captivating and an excellent read in other ways. And its two sequels, Ha'penny and Half a Crown, which I immediately went on to, are not murder mysteries at all but suspense novels, a genre I much prefer. Ha'penny was particularly outstanding in, like Farthing, facing a dire ending unflinchingly.

They're also alternate histories - something that always raises my interest - and they're set in post-WW2 Britain, a time and place of which I've read much. So let's be clear before I go on any further: these are excellent novels, with intricate well-woven plots and some outstanding characters, told in a clear style that runs along like a series of raindrops flowing together, that I recognize as characteristic of Walton's work. I recommend them.

But Farthing in particular contains a number of factual errors about British nobility and political arrangements. These are something of a bugaboo of mine. I was shocked: Jo Walton is knowledgeable and learned, particularly about the country she was born and grew up in; how could she get these elementary facts wrong? There's much less of it in the succeeding books; did someone alert the author after Farthing was published?

The usual American mistake about British nobility is to treat the title "Lord" or "Lady" as a free-floater that can be attached indiscriminately to first name or last. Walton is not American and mostly doesn't do this, though there are a couple of cases where it does happen (Farthing p. 289; Ha'penny p. 277). Farthing is more likely to apply these titles to people who shouldn't have them at all (pp. 101, 124, 165, and others), though in the second book a character chides people who mistakenly do that. There's a character who's mostly a Duke but once an Earl (p. 125). And I don't think anybody says "my lord," even when they should (p. 140).

More seriously, there's a baronet (someone whose moniker looks like this: "Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, Bt") in the House of Lords (p. 101-2). Surely the author should know that a baronetcy is a hereditary knighthood and not a title of nobility, and has never by itself carried a seat in the Lords.

Nor do the highest-ranking political offices go to commoners as some sort of compensatory privilege in response to those that lords get, as both the omniscient and first-person narrators of Farthing suggest (p. 103, 242-3). Offices like Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been pretty much limited to the Commons only since the House of Lords was stripped of most of its power in 1911, and that's not as a privilege but so that they may be questioned by and hence be answerable to the more powerful House. Before then they were as likely to be in the Lords as not, and even since then there've been exceptions (there was a Foreign Secretary in the Lords as late as the Thatcher ministry). And the Lord Chancellor, one of the highest-ranking offices, before the further reforms of 1999 presided over the Lords and consequently was always a member of it. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is the office at issue here, has always sat in the Commons. The Chancellor's main job is to introduce the annual budget, and since finance bills by law must originate there, it would be not just uncustomary but practically impossible to have a Chancellor in the Lords where he couldn't introduce his own budget.

Problems in the succeeding books are more ones of tone, and I'm less sure of my ground with these. Would a civil servant conferring with top ministers address them only with the occasional "sir", as happens in Ha'penny (ch. 26)? Unless I missed something, it isn't until the third book that he says, "Yes, Prime Minister," which is what you would say. What Brit of the era would say "bathroom" when they mean the loo? (Ha'penny p. 158) Is there a Pesach seder tradition in which the children hide the afikoman (Half a Crown p. 257)? I've always known the tradition as an adult hides it; the children's job is to find it. And there's two conversations in the third book (ch. 8 and 29) that I don't believe at all, for what seem to me glaring plot reasons.

Could some of these be errors made by characters? Perhaps some, but in these books most errors made by characters are marked as such, and many of these are by characters who wouldn't make such errors. Others are expository, recounting Scotland Yard reports, and there's no intimation that Scotland Yard research is unreliable.

Could these errors be actual fact in this alternate history? Again, I think not. None of them would be required by the nature of the alternate history; Walton is conservative about postulating changes (Attlee is still leader of the Labour Party in this alternate 1949, which I'd have thought would be unlikely in the circumstances); and one of the points of Half a Crown is that no constitutional changes were necessary to put Britain under a dictatorship.

But these blemishes only stand out because I had such high expectations. I did like these books.

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