Heredity, the debut novel by Jenny Davidson, mixes a number of styles to produce a compelling, page-turning story that has been described as part detective novel, part twisted historical romance. It tells the story of Elizabeth Mann, a current day travel-writer/researcher, who, while in London, becomes obsessed with the historical character of Jonathan Wild, and the possibility of solving some of her 'issues' by giving birth to the clone of Wild. Wild, a real historical figure, who developed a morally ambiguous system of maintaining close contacts with felons in order to return people's stolen property was hung in Tyburn in 1725. Three Monkeys Online had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with Ms Davidson:
Your novel has been described as bawdy. You teach 18th century literature at Colombia University, New York: to what extent were you influenced by 18th century literature when writing the book?
I've always found the word ‘bawdy’ sort of embarrassing–I think it's a reviewer's lazy synonym for ‘sexy’ in a pre-1850 setting and it's not a word I use myself. (I also dislike the word ‘Rabelaisian’.) But it's a fair label in this case. The actual bawds and madams of 18th-century Britain were not far from my mind. I drew on Defoe's writing quite heavily–particularly the character of Moll Flanders–as I put together the story of Jonathan Wild. Defoe actually wrote about Wild, and more generally about the people he worked with and for, so it's not surprising that he's an influence, but there are dribs and drabs of other 18th-century writers there too (Swift's Directions to Servants and Smollett's diatribes about food adulteration in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker were two things I borrowed from pretty freely).
Elizabeth is a strong, morally complex heroine. What about the male characters in the book? Could you be accused of sexism in your portrayal of the male characters? I would argue that all the male characters are portrayed as either bumbling fools, or morally ambiguous and arrogant. Does it even matter, if the plot works well?
Yes, the male characters of Heredity are all more or less inadequate, either in morals or in manners. Is this sexist? Well, Elizabeth is bitter, partisan and highly judgmental. It's her story. My feeling is that especially in a first-person novel, you've got to take the whole package. She's a quite unreliable narrator, and while I don't think that she factually misrepresents the actions of the men she encounters, she often misinterprets their motives. I have a high tolerance for offensive content in fiction, and as a reader, this means that I often admire books whose depiction of women strikes me as deeply unfair or skewed (examples: Roth's Sabbath's Theater, Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles, both of which I found completely brilliant).
As an academic, did you cast a critical eye on your own novel, or does the imaginative process require a distancing of that persona?
I will answer this question in a purely practical way. I didn't turn the interpretive-academic eye on my own fiction; I think you're usually blind to that stuff in your own work. But in my academic work I've developed editing skills that certainly came in handy.
Both Heredity and Ishiguro's latest novel Never Let Me Go, deal, to some extent, with the idea of cloning. What was it about cloning that grabbed your imagination? Isn't there a danger, that by using an issue that is so contemporary, that, ironically, you date your novel.
I don't think the topic of cloning is ‘contemporary’ in the sense of dated. Throughout the 20th, well before it was technically feasible, people seized on the metaphor of cloning to write fictions about many different aspects of social relations. (And you could say that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein initiated this line in the English novel.) Speculative fiction always risks making extrapolations that will look goofy or embarrassing in retrospect, but I think it's a risk well worth taking. I've just read Ishiguro's novel–I have said for a long time that he's my pick for best novelist working in English today, and Never Let Me Go fully confirmed this opinion. It's an amazing book, and it uses the cloning premise to work through a set of arguments about all kinds of other things: family and community and obligation and memory and loss and stigma and lots of other good stuff. Adam Phillips has a great essay about cloning–he talks about a teenage boy who fantasizes about having a girlfriend who is his clone, and then mediates on the backward-looking aspects of that fantasy of sameness, which is a way of denying adult sexuality. The idea of cloning, as opposed to the particular techniques that are being used right now, is pretty much timeless, from the lure of the fantasy of an asexual reproduction (like grafting in plants) to the more complicated problems about identity and family and community it raises.