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A novel way of looking at things

The furore over The Da Vinci Code and the continued popularity of Jane Austen’s work proves that, as a genre, the novel is still a real force. Chris Leadbeater meets the director of the University of Aberdeen’s new Centre For The Novel

The summer of 2006 may well become known, in the film world at least, as ‘the summer of The Da Vinci Code ’. The movie hit cinemas across the globe in May, and quickly turned into the blockbuster smash of the season.

The film was not exactly greeted with universal approval. Its controversial religious content – in particular the theories that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, and that the Catholic Church has spent 2,000 years suppressing the secret – sparked widespread protests. In the Indian city of Mumbai, thousands of Catholics marched in the streets, one protestor even promising a hunger strike to death.

Dan Brown’s influence

A brief history of the novel

The birth date of the first novel is still unclear. Some people believe it made its debut in 1605, when Spanish writer Miguel De Cervantes published Don Quixote de la Mancha . The story of a low-ranked nobleman who, obsessed with knighthood and chivalry, embarks on a grand quest across Spain to protect the oppressed, remains a key work today.

Whether or not Don Quixote was the first novel, it was certainly one of the earliest examples of fiction mutating into a longer form. Written fiction existed well before 1605 – not least in the ancient civilisations of China, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Often, though, the favoured form was verse, as seen in The Iliad and The Odyssey of Greek writer Homer (whether Homer’s work is fiction or historical account is another debate entirely).

‘Romances’ – epic stories, usually of daring knightly deeds – were hugely popular between the 12th and 15th centuries, partly because they translated easily into the performances of travelling players.

These too were rooted in verse – as was the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, England’s most famous 14th-century writer, whose Canterbury Tales is a series of short stories narrated by a band of pilgrims.

The invention of the printing press in the 1450s was to have a major effect on the production of popular fiction, although the novel was not really to appear until the 17th century.

What counts as the first novel in English is also a contentious issue. Some give the credit to Aphra Behn, and her two novels Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684) and Oroonoko (1688, the tale of an enslaved African prince).

From there the novel in English flourished, via Daniel Defoe ( Robinson Crusoe , 1719), Jonathan Swift ( Gulliver’s Travels , 1726) and Samuel Richardson ( Clarissa , 1748). The 19th century was fertile ground, with the advent of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens and George Eliot.

Some might say that the 20th century was the era of the American novel, with the rise of the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald ( The Great Gatsby , 1925), John Steinbeck ( Of Mice and Men , 1937), Ernest Hemingway ( For Whom the Bell Tolls , 1940), and Truman Capote ( Breakfast at Tiffany’s , 1958).

Of course, The Da Vinci Code had been causing a storm long before May 2006 – in its original form as a novel. Written by American author Dan Brown and published in July 2003, the book tells the fictional tale of a Harvard professor who uncovers ‘the truth’ about Jesus and Mary Magdalene during a search for the Holy Grail. By April of this year, the Catholic Church had been moved to comment, a Vatican official denouncing the book as ‘anti-Christian – full of calumnies, offences and historical and theological errors.’

No matter. By the time the movie came out, the book had sold over 40 million copies and been translated into 70 languages. Debate still rages over whether The Da Vinci Code is anything more than an enjoyable, disposable page-turner (reviewing it, the UK’s Guardian newspaper called it ‘irritatingly gripping tosh – preposterous and sloppy’). But, such issues aside, The Da Vinci Code has certainly achieved one thing. It has become a clear reminder of the power of the novel.

Half a millennium after its birth, the novel is in rude health. Even in a world of realistic video games, huge-budget movies, and instant online communication, it holds its place as a crucial element of life and society – something with the power to entertain, to educate, to shock and – as The Da Vinci Code has shown – to provoke.

No other medium, it can be argued, has such an ability to stimulate discussion. Half a century after its publication, Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece Lolita – the tale of a university professor and his love for a 12-year-old girl – remains controversial due to its treatment of the subject of paedophilia.

And only last year, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin set off an explosion of debate with its dark story of a woman who cannot bring herself to love the new baby that she blames for ruining her marriage and career. Sixteen years down the line, she wonders whether her cold parenting is the cause when her son murders nine people in a high-school massacre.

The Oscars

 A glance at the list of winners and nominees at the 2006 Oscars ceremony also shows the continuing strength of the novel. There were plaudits for The Constant Gardener , The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe , and Pride and Prejudice , all movies lifted directly from novels – 193-year-old novels in the case of Jane Austen’s glorious tome.

Of course, such success is nothing new when it comes to Austen. Sense and Sensibility was similarly applauded at the 1995 Oscars. Throw in recent adaptations of J R R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, any number of Charles Dickens classics, and even the big-screen versions of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter tales, and it’s clear that the power of the novel is not lost on filmmakers. For all the novel’s power and versatility, though, it has perhaps never been given that specialist place in academia occupied by other media. Film, art and drama schools are common, but an educational centre dedicated specifically to the novel is something of an unheard-of concept. Or, at least, it was.

Back in March, the University of Aberdeen opened its Centre For The Novel, a new establishment dedicated to literary fiction – the first of its kind in the UK. Those without any knowledge of UK history or the development of education in this country might look at a map and wonder why Aberdeen should be the location for such a centre. It is the UK’s second-most northerly city – only Inverness is nearer the Pole – and a metropolitan outpost in the wide-open spaces of the Scottish Highlands, a long way from the big publishers of London or Oxford. Why open such an establishment there?

The Scottish option

The answer, of course, is that Aberdeen is a city of great educational pedigree. Its university is the fifth-oldest in the UK (only Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews and Glasgow are older), dating back to 1495. It is also an institution of impressive literary heritage. It held the status of a ‘copyright library’ between 1710 and 1836, meaning that it received a copy of every book published in the UK during that period (a rare and valuable badge of honour only otherwise held at the time by the likes of Oxford and Cambridge Universities).

Nearly two centuries on, the books and novels collected during that period stand as a veritable treasure trove for the literary student. More recently, the university recently acquired the Walter Scott Collection, a set of original manuscripts from the pen of the father of the Scottish novel (1771–1832, author of classics such as Rob Roy and The Lady of the Lake ). So perhaps, despite its remoteness, Aberdeen is the ideal location for a Centre For The Novel.

The university has further enhanced its literary reputation of late by being the preparation ground for two great endeavours – the first complete scholarly edition of the works of Jane Austen since 1923, and a similar compendium of the ‘Waverley Novels’ of Walter Scott. Fittingly, it is the editor of that nine-volume Austen spectacular, Professor Janet Todd, who is the director of the Centre For The Novel.

There can have been few more qualified candidates for the position. As well as being a published expert on figures such as Aphra Behn (1640–1689, arguably the first English novelist) and Mary Wollstonecraft (writer and pioneer of feminism, 1759–1797), along with Austen, Professor Todd can point to a CV of great variety. She’s studied in Cambridge and Florida, taught in Ghana, held posts at a number of US universities, and taken key roles at the Universities of Cambridge, East Anglia and Glasgow. Having been appointed to a Professorship of English Literature at Aberdeen, she quickly realised that there was lots of written material at her fingertips.

‘I was struck firstly by how we had these two huge editions going through the university, and that we had a remarkable expertise in the art of editing a novel,’ Professor Todd explains. ‘That made we think we had a good basis for such a centre.’ Then there was the matter of the extensive library.

‘This university has an unrivalled collection of popular fiction from the late 18th and early 19th centuries,’ she continues. ‘It was a copyright library, and when other people were throwing out what they saw as junk, Aberdeen was keeping it. When we had our launch, we put on a display of some of the library holdings. And there was this huge run of the Minerva Press, which was the big Gothic press of the 1790s and early 19th century, in their paper covers.

‘People have looked in our library and discovered things that they can’t find elsewhere. A lot of these books have never been touched. You open them and find letters or cuttings that are really useful. I think, to an extent, the library has been under-utilised. One of the things we are doing is to encourage scholars to come to work with us.’

Branching out

The Centre already counts among its staff experts on Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and James Joyce (as well as Austen and Scott) – a firm foundation, Janet Todd hopes, for research projects to come.

‘Our aim is to think about the novel as a genre, and the ways it impacts on every aspect of life,’ she adds. ‘The novel has taken over from all other genres so that it’s the dominating form. It spills into television, video, film, everything. It’s still hugely important, to the point where you have bishops commenting on The Da Vinci Code .

‘This is what fiction does – and what it did in the 18th century too when people wrote to Richardson telling him not to let Clarissa be raped ( Clarissa , by English author Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), shocked readers at the time with a scene where the heroine is raped by her lover). There’s that same sense of fiction seeping into reality.’

While the Centre’s bread-and-butter area will be the novel in English, its gaze will also take in great works in other languages. ‘We will be exploring where and how the novel in English interacts with the continental novel,’ Professor Todd goes on, ‘You can’t talk about the way the novel forms modern consciousness without thinking about the great continental novel as well. You’re not going to get (18th-century French philosopher and novelist) Jean-Jacques Rousseau without Richardson, for example.’

The Centre will not confine itself to research projects. There will be day conferences, with events on Austen and Dickens already planned for the next few months. More importantly for postgraduate students, there will also be a taught element. October will see the rolling-out of a Master’s (MLitt) in The Novel. Students will be able to immerse themselves in the history and theory of the genre, via courses on everything from early novelists such as Aphra Behn, through the 18th-century Gothic period, and on to the Victorian novel and the writers of the early 20th century.

Bearing in mind the Centre’s location, there will also be opportunities to delve into the Scottish novel. ‘When you’re in Aberdeen, so far north, there’s an attraction in stressing regionality and dissecting Scottish and Irish writers,’ Professor Todd says. ‘We will do things on Walter Scott and the Scottish novel, and probably bring James Joyce into the frame as well. The creation of national heritage through the novel is a fascinating subject. And Scotland’s image has been heavily made by Walter Scott.’

The Centre has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which also supports a centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at Aberdeen. Purists will note that there is no space in the curriculum for study of The Da Vinci Code . But they but will not be surprised, taking into account the boss’s expertise, to hear that there is ample room for that other current favourite of Hollywood, Jane Austen – something that Janet Todd thinks would meet with the approval of the lady herself.

‘I think she would be delighted to know her novels are being studied,’ she adds. ‘She would probably find us very funny, and would maybe write a splendid skit about us. One of the popular misconceptions about Austen is that she did not want fame. She did. She was not humble about her abilities. She knew that she was very good. So yes, I’m sure she would be extremely pleased that we’re looking at her in such a way.’

Chris Leadbeater is a freelance writer who specialises in education, arts and music.

Read other Humanities research papers, including research from 2007 about Breaking Down The Barriers and a 2008 research paper on Crime & Punishment.