Imagine you woke up one morning and there was no Internet. Radio was a relatively new, and untrusted, phenomenon. To learn of world events, you had to read a newspaper. But to learn news relevant to you, especially what your friends and neighbors were up to, you were limited to a landline telephone, the postal service, and physical interactions with others. A fantastic world, you say? Not at all. I’m merely describing life a century ago, in the early twentieth century.
In his Mapp & Lucia novels, E. F. Benson depicts life in English villages in the 1920s and 30s. We view events largely through the eyes of the fashionable set, people who have made or inherited their money, and live as graciously and comfortably as they can. Of course, they all want to be thought well of. In a world without easily accessible entertainment such as television or Youtube, they hope to be invited to all the best parties and social events. No one must ever have cause to exclude them! So after scanning the newspapers every morning, they go into town, and while walking around the square, or visiting the shops, they ask each other if they’ve heard any interesting news. Likewise, their servants must pick up the latest news about their friends, neighbors, and rivals whenever they leave the house.
With so much “news” flying around, one’s status in society could rise and fall by the hour. So, while gathering the most reliable and relevant news, a person like Mapp or Lucia also dispensed “news” that presented her in the best possible light. Of course, only the simple-minded personally stated such positive stories. The intelligent person hinted at the news she wished to convey, then relied on her friends and servants to confirm the veracity of her story.
A newcomer to the Mapp & Lucia series, or books about life in English villages of that era, might wonder if people back then were more self-absorbed. But people today are just as hungry to learn information relevant to them, and to correct misunderstandings so that their friends, employers, and peers think the best of them. So we use tools like our Blackberry, tablet, computer, or smartphone, and access sites like Facebook and Twitter to keep informed. All that changes is the way that we access and dispense that information.
Of course, some folks just look more fashionable than the rest of us while doing so.