I RECENTLY picked up Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, her sharp and witty comic novel about upper-class society in the Britain of the mid-20th century. It was the first modern copy of an older novel I have bought for some time. I was at first irritated and then intrigued by the wording of the trigger warning added by publisher Penguin Random House which I found on the opening page. It was not the mere existence of this warning that troubled me; I am well aware of the current tendency of publishers to insert such warnings into their older works, most recently into the novels of P G Wodehouse, or even to edit such works wholesale to remove any ideologically suspect content and protect the apparently tender sensibilities of younger readers. Rather, what intrigued me were the presumptions which appeared to underlie the warning Penguin had added to Nancy Mitford’s work.
Of particular interest was the trigger warning’s clear implication that certain opinions and attitudes portrayed in the novel are in violation of an unspecified, but apparently external and unchanging, moral standard. The warning insisted that while what it called the ‘expressions and depictions of prejudice’ in the book ‘were commonplace in British society at the time it was written’, those prejudices ‘were wrong then, and are wrong today’. In making this statement, Penguin is averring that the moral acceptability of an attitude or an opinion, in other words its ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’, is unrelated to and cannot be determined by reference to its social acceptability at any given time. What Penguin appears to be saying is that just because something was commonplace and socially acceptable in the 1940s, this does not mean that it was morally acceptable even at the time. This raises a fundamental question: what, in Penguin’s eyes, the ultimate determinant of the moral acceptability of an attitude or an opinion should be. For if morality is not merely a social construct, an unstable reflection of the majority view within any particular community at any particular time in history, then it must have an external source outside that society. Without such a source, morality can be only contingent and relative; my society will have its moral standards, and your society will have separate moral standards of its own. But while Penguin is adamant that the ‘prejudices’ portrayed in Nancy Mitford’s work were wrong in the 1940s even though the majority of people at that time allegedly shared them, at no point does it explain what is the external source of the moral code it is applying to the novel, or why its value judgments should apply to works written in the 1940s as much as they do to anything written in the 2020s.
Of course, for the Christian, this question would pose no difficulty at all. For us, the arbiter of all right and wrong is God, the creator of all things, the source of all goodness and light, who sits outside time and space and whose statutes and commandments, revealed to us in the scriptures, stand for all time. However, judging from the website of Penguin Random House, the statutes and commandments of Almighty God as set out in the pages of the Christian Bible are not its go-to source for moral and ethical guidance. Instead, with tiresome predictability, Penguin Random House appears to draw its moral standards from the same progressive, left-wing source as do most other large multinational corporations today. This is apparent in the fact that its website trumpets the usual litany of progressive views: an obsession with tackling man-made climate change, an enthusiasm for identity politics, and an adherence to expressive individualism, all encapsulated in Penguin’s expressed desire to be an ‘equitable and inclusive home where all are welcome and where every person is empowered to be themselves’. Precisely why these fashionable values should be applied not just throughout today’s world to all persons currently living, but also back through time to countless generations of our predecessors, is nowhere explained.
Linked to the above point, a further oddity about the wording of Penguin’s trigger warning is the seeming inability it reveals on the part of its authors to recognise that our current era in history does not constitute the end-point of all time, but is merely one era amongst many. With its emphatic assertion that certain opinions portrayed in the novel are unquestionably wrong, Penguin’s trigger warning constitutes a classic example of chronological snobbery, defined by C S Lewis as ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited’. Such confidence in the attitudes and opinions of our own time, with its consequent denigration of the attitudes and opinions of the generations who preceded us, is if anything particularly unmerited today, given the extraordinarily transient nature of the moral principles espoused by our current political and cultural elites. If the last 20 years has taught us anything, it is that what our culture’s leaders and opinion-formers declare wrong today, they could very easily declare right tomorrow. To see that, one need only look at the dramatic about-turns on the topic of same-sex marriage by politicians such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden, both of whom went in only a few years from staunch backers of traditional Christian marriage to passionate supporters of same-sex marriage and LGBTQIAA+ rights.
Thus, far from being based on an eternal, unchanging foundation of timeless certitude, the values and presumptions underpinning the trigger warning now inserted into Nancy Mitford’s novels are based on nothing more than the shifting sands of social media noise and cynical political positioning. Hopefully Penguin Random House and its fellow publishers will soon come to a belated recognition of that fact, and remove these useless and poorly reasoned texts from all future editions of classic works.