The dissertation I birthed last year (it scraped a distinction, by the way) was about the assumptions regarding knowledge we all make when communicating, and how we justify them. Essentially, what do we feel able to leave out? If we refer to, say, Ophelia, do we explain that she’s a character in Hamlet? Then, do we explain that Hamlet is a play by Shakespeare? Do we explain who Shakespeare was? If not, why not?
And inevitably, I keep coming across bits and pieces that would have made good raw material for my thesis. In Richard Davenport-Hines’s An English Affair, about the Profumo scandal, we get the following sentence:
Bronwen Astor felt as disempowered by Cliveden’s traditions and staff as Maxim de Winter’s second wife in Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, after moving into his great house Manderley.Now, I would have thought that the general gist of Rebecca was pretty well known, even to those who’ve never read the book, from film and TV adaptations and just general conversation; especially among people who might choose to read a book of English social history about the early 1960s. Surely something along the lines of “Bronwen Astor felt as disempowered by Cliveden’s traditions and staff as Maxim de Winter’s second wife, after moving into Manderley.” would have sufficed?
Except that, only a few lines later, Davenport-Hines writes, “Nicky Haslam, who had been Bronwen Pugh’s walker...” and I had no idea what that meant, whether it was some arcane role in the fashion world, or a euphemism, couldn’t find it on Google, and had to go to Twitter to see if anyone could help. It turns out it means his job was to accompany her to social functions; and we can infer that the reader being addressed is one who knows this, but nothing about one of the most famous novels of the past 100 years.