I’ve recently finished the James Bond novel Goldfinger, the first Ian Fleming work I’ve tackled.
On the whole, I enjoyed the book. There’s a certain calculated calmness across its three acts, in which Bond plays cat-and-mouse, not to mention golf, with Auric Goldfinger. Unexpectedly, I didn’t imagine Bond as any of the actors who’ve played him on film. Rather, he became his own character with his own personal quirks.
Unfortunately, there are elements of his personality that age the novel badly.
In one scene, we’re told that Bond considers the Koreans – at least those who aid Goldfinger – to be lower than apes, an opinion that’s peppered throughout the rest of the narrative. In 1959, this might not have caught much attention, but it stands out today.
Furthermore, the female characters have barely any conflict with Bond; when he tells them to do something, they don’t question his orders. There is a hint of progressiveness as Pussy Galore is described as the leader of a Lesbian organisation – Fleming’s capital – but other casual digs set it firmly in a past era. These come to a head in the paragraph starting on page 221 of the Penguin Classics edition, in which it’s almost gleefully explained that:
Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterson was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed-up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and “sex equality.” As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits – barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied. He was sorry for them, but he had no time for them.
To me, the length and detail in this particular passage suggest the views aren’t simply the thoughts of James Bond but an authorial intrusion. As the protests surrounding the recently-elected US president have shown, they’re views that are no longer prevalent for many people. For further reading on this topic, I recommend the Grayson Perry book The Descent of Man.
Fleming has millions of fans around the world who read the books and watch the films, but would it right to remove these passages for a modern audience? It has been done relatively recently with a very different author.
In 2010, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were given a 21st-century makeover. The term housemistress became teacher, mother and father were changed to mum and dad, and in a more extreme case, dirty tinker was amended to traveller. Anne McNeil from Hodder also made it clear that the publisher would continue to release the classic editions of the Famous Five books with unchanged text.
I think the important factor to remember is that times always change and that nobody could’ve predicted how it would happen. Perhaps in 100 years, all of society will accept several gender identities without question, or perhaps eating meat will be seen as shocking. So when we read archive material, we don’t have to agree with the views of the day, merely acknowledge them.