Notes about Isabel Dalhousie, by Nick Smith

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Airborne with Isabel

After several weeks globetrotting with an attractive literary Scottish divorcee, Nick Smith thinks that he might have found the perfect fictional heroine…     

You know when you’ve been travelling too much when you no longer care what the time is and you start to think that everything can be dealt with in American dollars, even in London. I’ve been to Vancouver, Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi and Stevenage, all in the space of a month. Had it not been for my constant travelling companion – the wonderful Isabel Dalhousie – I might have found it a chore.

Isabel is of course fictional. She’s the well-heeled, professional philosopher who gives her name to the series of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels that have titles such as The Sunday Philosophy Club, The Right Attitude to Rain and The Careful Use of Compliments. I’d been thinking of reading them for a while but, put off by their covers, I’ve allowed them to languish on the ‘not very probable’ pile. Conventional wisdom has it that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but since Adam McCauley’s stylishly evocative designs appear to propel Isabel unashamedly towards the ‘mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes’ sector, I fell foul of the trap. Until now I’d taken the expression to be metaphorical, and never really suspected it could be applied to actual books. And yet faced with a half-stocked Borders in Heathrow I decided to grab a couple of paperback Isabels and give her a whirl, covers notwithstanding.

The Isabel Dalhousie novels are deceptively light comedies of manners set in Edinburgh, McCall Smith’s hometown. Unlike the author’s fantastically popular No1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which is implicitly about moral philosophy, these books are explicitly about moral philosophy. His protagonist is editor of the quarterly Review of Applied Ethics, a journal that provides the serving spoon with which to dish up the moral dilemmas that confront Isabel and the ensemble cast of mostly well-to-do, well-educated, white Scotsmen and women. Although this may seem light years away from Mma Ramotswe’s Botswana, the two series share the core concern of how to reach an understanding of proper human behaviour (another similarity is that the heroines of both employ a sidekick called Grace). I read recently in The Ethical Executive by Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey that one definition of such behaviour is that which hurts no one while being of potential benefit to all: what game theorists call the ‘non-zero sum’ result. Resolving conflicts of interest with this outcome in mind is what Isabel Dalhousie, as both philosopher and human being, is striving to achieve, and this is what supplies these books with their plots.

After several days airborne with Isabel I confess myself deeply attracted to her. I disagree sharply with critics who find her wealth, moral integrity and beauty a little too good to be true. I find her fascinating precisely because she is perfect, as well as enjoying the comparative novelty of a central character without a tragic flaw. To include a plotline where a 40-something divorcee ­– no matter how visually splendid – can bag herself a ‘beautiful’ 28-year old bassoonist shows McCall Smith’s knack of demonstrating how predictable currents of probability can have an unexpected undertow. And yet it is her generosity of spirit, rather than her wealth or looks, that makes her so attractive. She is undeniably extremely rich by any standards, which is not in any sense a virtue, but she is anonymously philanthropic, which certainly is.

We also like her because she allows a fox to live in her garden, where it rears its young under the shed. Brother Fox is a moral test for the reader. Why would Isabel allow a fox to live in her garden when you’d have Rentokil around to exterminate it faster than you could say knife? The answer is, she’s inherently good: the sort of person who instinctively and deliberately cares for people who are emotionally less well off than her, for whom goodness is literally the day-job.

It would be nice to say that I’ve got a lot in common with Isabel, but she is, alas (for me at least) an inspirational character. But I do have plenty of sympathy with her as a professional journalist. As editor of the Review of Applied Ethics she has her imperfections, occasionally overstepping her remit by straying into the territory of moral theory, much to the self-satisfied irritation of some members of the publication’s editorial board. Again, I sympathise: I don’t claim to be an expert in moral philosophy, but I have edited more than my fair share of monthly magazines and I know that the most time-consuming issue, that requiring the most diplomatic agility, is that of dealing with ‘the constituency’. For those thinking the duties of the modern magazine editor mainly consist of literary luncheons in Bloomsbury, or knocking off the Telegraph crossword while flicking through a file of press releases from Faber & Faber, light Sauternes to hand, the truth will be a rude awakening (I certainly agree with that ­– ed). The grubby reality is that the job is a defensive role, where much time is spent fending off offensive skirmishes from the Awkward Squad, be they in the form of advertisers, contributors, editorial board members, publishers or even readers.

Usually I deal with professional journalists, seasoned hacks who know the ropes, who’ll chop you out 800 print-ready words before you can say ‘double whisky’. They can be a trying bunch, so I can only imagine Isabel’s life as an editor of a peer-reviewed academic journal, whose contributors appear to be driven by motives more greedy and devious even than the pursuit of money or alcohol. Their need to publish is not fuelled by the desire to contribute to the canon of ethics, to bequeath their wisdom to future generations, or even to cast light on the thornier points of current philosophical thinking. It is triggered by the need to draw attention to the self, to rack up wordage in order to climb the academic ladder, or to carve a notch on the academic bedpost, during the execution of which, if an arch rival becomes irked or jealous, so much the better.

Pity the poor editor. Isabel spends much of her time reading unsolicited paper manuscripts (she refuses to read electronic submissions on her computer screen, forcing her into the very modern moral circle of hell called sustainability.) Most of what she receives is borderline at best, such as a paper entitled ‘The Concept of Sexual Perversion as an Oppressive Weapon’, which doesn’t make it into print, or ‘On the Ethics of Pretending to be Gay When You Are Not’, which does, despite being a straightforward disquisition on lying, while pretending not to be. Then there are the papers submitted from PhD students, postdocs and other junior academics that have no realistic chance of making it into the Review of Applied Ethics. Before rejecting their work, Isabel treats these self-deluded souls thoughtfully, despite their uninvited arrival in her ‘moral proximity’. Although she is too polite to say so, this is amateur flotsam and jetsam from what a former colleague on a magazine in the Isle of Dogs used to call ‘the green Biro brigade’.

Politeness is, of course, what sets McCall Smith’s books apart. Over the past few years I’ve read nigh on two dozen of his novels and not once have I encountered so much as a syllable that would make a nun blush. His style is understated, breezy and polite – perhaps too polite, as I find myself serenaded into allowing his use of the formal third person singular, which one normally detests. Even when Isabel and Jamie (her 28-year-old bassoonist) consummate their affections in a country house in Scotland, there is a discreet cutaway to the morning after, with only a brief flashback to explain how they got there. Their love is that of ‘Eros’, while their union is symbolised by the housekeeper needing to resupply only one of their rooms the following morning with a fresh bottle of water.

That McCall Smith can get away with such lightness of touch, when we’re told the public demands ever more extremes of explicitness, confirms my long-held belief (and I suspect his too) that while sex may sell, some things are more important to the success of a novel, both in creative and commercial terms. And because he never underestimates his reader, he rightly assumes his readers will think so too. When The Right Attitude to Rain is adapted for television it will inevitably be treated with a heavy hand by producers who, thinking they know better, will crank up the raunch factor in an attempt to reach a wider audience. Of course, I can’t be sure that this is exactly what will happen, but there is plenty of form.

Somewhere, 35,000ft above the Canadian Shield I snap shut The Comfort of Saturdays, switch on the in-flight entertainment and wait for lunch to arrive. They’re rerunning Andrew Davies’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the one when Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy famously takes off his shirt. If I’m being charitable, the best I can say is it’s not particularly good. But TV adaptations never are because their producers always want consumer-digestible, zeitgeisty piffle no matter what the directors have in mind. It occurs to me that with each successive television incarnation of Jane Austen’s heroine, the amplitude and acreage of Eliza Bennet’s décolletage increases in inverse proportion to the editorial attention paid to the moral and social concerns of the novel. This is particularly sad because it is Austen’s almost imperceptible rebellions, rather than the pulchritude of her women, that make Pride and Prejudice so naughty in the first place. Travesties of interpretation such as this are not simply an error of professional or even literary judgement on the part of the television hacks, but an ethical issue concerned with how far we should be allowed to distort a classic in order to make it acceptable to a mass audience ­– a debate I feel certain that Isabel, for all her almost saintly perfections, would find impossible to resist.

 

 

 

 

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