Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Ruby in the Smoke

I read Philip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke recently.

From the Gosh, I Sure Am Surprised department comes the initial description of Sally Lockhart, the protagonist,
alone, and uncommonly pretty. She was slender and pale, and dressed in mourning, with a black bonnet under which she tucked back a straying twist of blond hair that the wind had teased loose.
. Beautiful? Check. Pale? Check. Slender? Check. Bonus points for blond hair? Indeed! Fortunately, Pullman didn't go all Tamora Pierce on us and actually give Sally purple eyes, but our Waifish Victorian Heroine has a lot more going for her.

As if emerging triumphantly from a secret notebook of Frances Hodgson Burnett, Sally has Connections With The East. The beloved father isn't a dashing Anglo-Indian Army officer, but rather a former dashing Anglo-Indian Army officer turned shipping agent, and he croaks on schedule before the novel begins. Mother is of course also dead (double-plus dead, as it eventually turns out). Sally is left alone in the world with just her wits and her education.

Oh, and her education? Sally's education is explicitly masculine, capitalist, and imperialist.
Mr. Lockhart taught his daughter himself in the evenings and let her do as she pleased during the day. As a result, her knowledge of English literature, French, history, art, and music was nonexistent, but she had a thorough grounding in the principles of military tactics and bookkeeping, a close acquaintance with the affairs of the stock market, and a working knowledge of Hindustani.
I was fascinated by this choice because this is not the average YA protagonist skill set. In the books I've been thinking about recently, including His Dark Materials, protagonists have to acquire specialized humanities training, usually in the form of special reading skills (for instance, Lyra learns to read the alethiometer). In The Ruby in the Smoke, it turns out that the humanities (English literature, French, history, art, and music) are worthless. When reading skills are needed, the best training comes, not from The Golden Bough and the Blue Fairy Book, but from penny dreadfuls -- and it isn't Sally who reads them.
"It was Jim," Rosa explained. "He -- you know these stories he's always reading -- I suppose he thinks like a sensational novelist. He worked it out some time ago."
Of course, as I mentioned above, The Ruby in the Smoke is not fantasy, and I suspect the demand for humanistic knowledge is particular to fantasy as a genre. Sally, for her part, finds happiness in accounting.

The story rests on some charming period standbys like a Chinese woman full of cryptic wisdom; a victim of sexual violence who's turned into a mad, greedy hag; and a double-crossing Eurasian.

Oh, Philip Pullman. Always so partial with the surprises.

1 comment:

C. said...

I can't read the Sally Lockhart books; I find them insipid. The next one in the series--I think it's called The Shadow in the North but for once can't be bothered to look it up--is even weirder because it has an "I'm a Victorian industrial novel!" feel.

The BBC just did an adaptation of The Ruby in the Smoke starring Billie Piper, which was oddly boring. She plays Sally as wideyed and soft-spoken, I think purely to prove that she (Piper, not Lockhart) doesn't always have to be a strong, brash character, more's the pity. Seems like you can't get by as an actress, even a British actress starring in adaptations of the classics and thus a relatively "intellectual" actress, unless you can do wide-eyed and vulnerable.