We like to think of books that have been written ages ago as testimonies of a past that has little to do with our present lives. There are many who would never even think of reading an old novel without being forced to. It’s certainly true that it can be a challenge to plunge into the world and the ideas of a writer from around 1900 or before because they are so different from the modern and fairly liberal ones that we’re used to. The mores of our society have changed considerably, too. What was called decadent then can be quite normal now.
Judging by setting and plot, Heinrich Mann’s Small Town Tyrant (and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel) as well as Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth seem rather outdated. Today hardly anyone would be upset at finding photos of barefoot dancing Rosa Fröhlich (or Lola-Lola) in the hands of almost grown-up boys. Most people wouldn’t see any harm in Lily Bart coming from a male friend’s flat by day or by night, either. Bare feet and being alone with a man have long ceased to be a sign of a woman’s low morals.
Neither of the novels is about questions of virtue or Times of Decadence. They are About Being Different and about the consequences that infringing social conventions brings about. Professor Raat (or Rath) isn’t supposed to fall in love with a shameless dancer in a club (or vaudeville) and even less to marry her. Lily Bart is expected to behave like any woman with her social background and to make a suitable match. Society doesn’t approve of their actions, it cuts and then drops them. In the end they realize that they don’t belong anywhere.
Marcel Proust was more fortunate than his fictitious contemporaries. His fate wasn’t fall from society’s grace, but social ascent in belle-époque France. He knew the rules and he was able as well as willing to play by them. His great advantage was that he wasn’t just the son of a renowned medical doctor with excellent manners and enough money to get along well even without a paid job. First of all he was a writer of genius and in his literary work he chronicled his time just like Heinrich Mann and Edith Wharton.
The value of old novels like Small Town Tyrant, The House of Mirth and the volumes of In Search of Lost Time, as they may already or not yet be found in the Project Gutenberg collection, isn’t only that they show us how life was like a hundred years ago. Nobody but historians would bother to read them if they hadn’t more to give, if they didn’t convey a timeless message that makes them true classics of literature. Our world has changed a lot and so have our social mores, but the nature of people hasn’t that much after all, has it?