‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,’ is the opening line of The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley’s brilliant novel about self-sacrifice, self-denial and devotion to duty in the buttoned-up backwaters of Edwardian England. An England, that is, which was still recovering from a war whose outcome had been in large part determined by the self-sacrifice, self-denial and devotion to duty of its ordinary citizens.
The popularity of The Go-Between was such that decades after its appearance it was turned into an even more popular, Oscar-winning film. But if anyone wrote the same kind of story today I suspect they would have trouble finding a publisher. I suspect, rather, that they would be told that thanks to social media and its concomitant and complementary cultures of victimhood and entitlement, the arse has now pretty much dropped out of the Edwardian values market. And that their story would probably have more traction with modern audiences if they replaced the passages about self-sacrifice, self-denial and devotion to duty with passages about self-promotion, self-indulgence and devotion to, well, booty.
To be even surer of commercial success in this dog-eat-data world they might also be advised to distil their 400 lovingly crafted pages into 40 two-minute vlogs to be posted on YouTube or Instagram where, once they’d attracted a certain number of ‘likes’, they might be profitably punctuated by banner ads for acne treatments and weight loss programs. And while the bones of the original plot might be retained, much of the text would need to be comprehensively revised to chime with the zeitgeist. So that the opening sentence of a 2019 edition of The Go-Between might be something like ‘The internet is a different planet: they do things which beggar belief there’.
Even the most fanciful 20th century fiction writers, after all, would never have tested readers’ credulity with a character as unlikely as Belle Delphine. Yet apart from her obviously confected name and conspicuously prosthetic eyelashes, Belle Delphine is as real as the parking ticket on your windscreen. Specifically, (with apologies to the Speccie reader who already knew this), she is a lissom young Englishwoman whose Instagram account has acquired in less than one year a bigger UK following than L. P. Hartley’s 16-novel oeuvre earned him over a lifetime. And the phenomenal Ms Delphine has achieved this by doing nothing more intellectually demanding or aesthetically ground-breaking than talking into a webcam about the first thing that pops into her pretty, pink bewigged head while sitting in her bathtub.
But here’s the part that’s not just stranger than fiction but also, in its own way, genuinely impressive. In recent weeks, the enterprising Ms Delphine has monetised her somewhat narrow calling in a way which will not directly benefit any advertiser. That is, she has started offering her bathwater to her 3.9 million followers for £24 (AU$43) per Vegemite-jar-sized plastic tub. Who, you would be forgiven for asking, would pay anything at all for used bathwater? Well, quite a lot of Poms, it seems, because it is selling out faster than tickets to the Spice Girls reunion concert. And most of the buyers are, disturbingly, men; presumably the same kind of men who buy used schoolgirls underwear from machines in Japanese railway stations.
When most normal people hear the word bathwater they think of babies. But I think about my late lamented Auntie Jess, who lived through the England L. P. Hartley evoked so movingly, who never lost the habits of post-war austerity, who refused to incur the expense of having babies of her own and who never threw anything out. Visitors to her otherwise well-appointed bungalow were always surprised to find, on visiting the bathroom, that the handle of the toilet had been gaffer-taped to the wall, preventing you from flushing it. Instead there was an empty bucket and a bathtub still full of water from the last time my aunt had bathed. If she had lived another ten years my Auntie Jess would have been Belle Delphine’s oldest fan.
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