Boyd Tonkin: Abbey habits and market forces

The week in books

What would the up-to-date, well-informed viewers of a century ago (remember, they could have been going to the pictures since 1896) have made of Downton Abbey? My guess is that they would at first have hooted in amused derision. Yet those late-Edwardian guffaws might have been supplanted by a groan of apprehension that, 100 years on, this high-class hokum could somehow come to represent England, their England.

As much as any of its almost 12 million followers, I enjoyed Julian Fellowes's prime-time tour upstairs, downstairs – and in my ladies' chambers - through his stately home. Yes, I understand that the dynamics of the plot turned on a procession of modern challenges – from free love and feminism to class conflict and, finally, European war – chugging down the Earl of Grantham's drive like a fleet of veteran motors out for a Sunday spin. And yes, the principals – masters and servants alike – grasp that they live in the twilight of a doomed way of life. The clouds gather; the shadows lengthen. Cue a favourite chunk of elegiac Elgar.

All the same, the notion that this land of not so long ago should take on a defining shape thanks to Downton's soaring, crenellated towers – not to mention Maggie Smith's soaring, crenellated eyebrows – seems quite as silly as a series set in British schools c.2010 that adopted Hogwarts Academy as its model. So: what did the keynote stories of 100 years ago have to say about the people and the places that inspired them? In brief, market forces – and a revolt against the rule of business values – mattered more to major writers than rolling acres or ancient titles. They did not bother too much about earls.

Let's take the British fiction of exactly a century ago: 1910, just before the Downton plot arc, from the Titanic's icy finale to the arrival (by telegram, on the show) of total war. That year saw one undisputed masterpiece: Howards End by EM Forster, with its very contemporary stand-off between the new-money, proto-Thatcherite Wilcoxes and the liberal, tender Schlegels. Their intimate feud ends, after all, in an emotional politics of coalition.

In 1910, HG Wells published The History of Mr Polly: fretful and debt-ridden small businessman drops out in pursuit of a pleasure-seeking rural idyll in a pub. Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger set its dreamy heir to a printshop fortune in the Potteries on a collision course with the self-made father who, sharp elbows out, had raced from rags to riches. For light relief, our fiction fan could have giggled over the young PG Wodehouse's Psmith in the City, with its farcical take on business life in London at the "New Asiatic Bank". Wodehouse drew on his own less than gruntled spell at the old "Honkers and Shankers" – which (now as HSBC) has hardly faded into the mists of history.

Also in 1910, Henry James published his final volume of stories, The Finer Grain. Now James knew his way around a Great House with a stealth and subtlety that would make that Fellowes chap look like a muddy-booted under-gardener. Yet this collection's most startling tale, "The Bench of Desolation", features a ruthless "modern woman" who comes by a large stash of money via mysterious means that – according to James's shrewdest readers – can only have involved work as some kind of upscale courtesan.

Not only does the actual fiction of a century ago grapple with its fast-changing world more boldly than Downton-style costumed fantasy would ever dare. It squares up to our world, either in embryo or – when it comes to skirmishes over status, class and cash - pretty much in forms that we encounter now.

No one should haul Sunday-evening TV entertainment into the dock of history. But you may detect in much of the praise that has rolled up to the Abbey doors a trace of what EP Thompson called "the enormous condescension of posterity". Or even a smidgeon of snobbery. Not, I should add, the vulgar prejudice of rank, alien to the gracious Earl and his kin. This sort of contempt or condescension can grip the most egalitarian of us. I mean the snobbery of the living towards the dead.

Michel loves it when you hate him

What would posh book prizes do without dissenting judges? Very predictably, the Prix Goncourt has gone to Michel Houellebecq for La Carte et le Territoire. So the Goncourt needed a scandal on a scale to match the media-savvy satire of the winning book. It has one. In the summer, Tahar Ben Jelloun - Goncourt laureate, and a member of the permanent jury for France's top fiction prize – flayed Houellebecq (right) in a scathing critique for Italy's La Repubblica. No book, he said, ever forced him to waste as much time reading it. I deeply admire Ben Jelloun – a great novelist, a lovely guy – but he should have held his fire. After all, on Planet Houellebecq, no publicity is bad. That's his point.

Could Boris be baron of books?

If the coalition's do-more, spend-less "Big Society" has a poster-boy in the world of books and reading, it must be Tim Coates. The library campaigner, and former MD of Waterstone's, shocks the hacks in the stacks by agitating for radical reform rather than simply intoning "fight the cuts". He says he has never come across a council that could not slash its spending by a third with no loss of quality. Typically, in a recent speech, he argued that there is no reason why "a swingeing cut" in budgets should not still leave "a wonderful library service – with proper management and good buying it really is possible to get more for less." Coates, who as a consultant famously turned Hillingdon libraries around, has now proposed a drastic solution to the wave of branch closures and stock reductions likely in London as the cuts begin to bite. Scrap council control in the capital, and hand the lot to the Mayor. Have one library authority, rather than 33. So what does bookish Boris think?

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