Sir Walter Scott’s Aunt Meets the Suck Fairy

Once upon a time there was a Scottish lawyer (and poet and novelist and, eventually, a baronet) who had an elderly aunt.  She was an avid reader, and had been for all her life, and as happens with avid readers, one day she took it in mind to revisit a remembered favorite author of her youth.  Because she was having trouble finding copies of the lady’s work, she wrote to her nephew requesting that he procure for her some of the writings of Aphra Behn.

Her nephew was somewhat take aback by the request, since Behn’s literary star had undergone considerable eclipse since the days of the Restoration, and her personal reputation along with it.  (She wrote for money.  She wrote about sex.  She had no visible husband, and possibly never did have one.  She had Catholic sympathies.  She worked as a spy for Charles II, who never did pay her for it – which is where the writing for money comes in.  Which was all to the good – except for the “not getting paid” part, of course – during the rock-and-roll years of the Stuart Restoration, but didn’t play quite as well under the House of Hanover.)

But young Walter Scott (for it was he) was a good nephew, and sent his aunt the books she had been looking for.  Not long after, she sent them back to him with a note requesting that he get rid of them:

 But is it not, she said, a very odd thing that I, an old woman of eighty and upwards, sitting alone, feel myself ashamed to read a book which, sixty years ago, I have heard read aloud for the amusement of large circles, consisting of the first and most creditable society in London!

What she hadn’t known was that in the intervening years, the works of her old favorite author had been visited by the Suck Fairy, that malevolent sprite who sneaks into the pages of fondly remembered texts and sprinkles them with (these days) racism and sexism and other problematic isms (or, for Sir Walter Scott’s elderly aunt, rude language and sexual content.)

The good news about the Suck Fairy, though, is that she doesn’t necessarily stick around forever.  It’s too late now for Sir Walter’s aunt to recover her fondness for the works of Aphra Behn, but present-day literary scholarship has recovered somewhat of Behn’s reputation, and no less a writer than Virginia Woolf said of her, in A Room of One’s Own:

All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.

As for what writers of our own time will have their works visited by the Suck Fairy in twenty years, or fifty, or a hundred, and what writers whose works are now regarded as irrecoverably visited by suck will be rehabilitated by readers and scholars of a future age—

All I can say is, like so much about this business, it’s a crap shoot.

 

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