You can't hurl an electronic file across the room into the bin or leave it stuffed down the side of a bus seat. Maybe it's just me, but when I don't like a book, I want it to know.
Choosing novels to take on holiday recently, and wanting them to be as light in content as in bulk, resulted in a hit and a miss. I've been rereading Daphne du Maurier's historical novels of late, each more irritating than the last, though it's testimony to her powers of storytelling that, despite their many flaws, they demand to be read to the end.
The quieter tone of My Cousin Rachel fooled me into thinking it might be the very thing for train journeys, but in the end it was as overwrought and ridiculous as the others. Only its Italian background made it bearable, though du Maurier's 19th-century Florence was a planet away from its modern counterpart. In case it might amuse the chambermaid to read about a beautiful fellow Florentine who destroys the men in her life, I left it behind for her.
My other choice, also set in Italy, was by Elizabeth von Arnim, whose classic novel Elizabeth And Her German Garden (1898) once made her as popular as du Maurier would later become. Her fame has evaporated, but Penguin Modern Classics have just reissued The Enchanted April (£8.99), and it seems that von Arnim – who was English, but married into German nobility – is being reclaimed as an early feminist. To judge from this delightful piece of sentimental comedy, published in 1922, she certainly was.
There is an English Channel between these novelists, the one moodily sinister, the other acutely observant, her frivolity in no way diminishing her barbed commentary on the relations between men and women. Yet these women do have one thing in common: the way they treat their characters. So used are we to the light touch that contemporary novelists bring to the page, it's almost a shock to find authors handling their creations as if they are already trussed for the pot. Whether it's du Maurier's hapless narrator Philip Ashley, possibly the biggest sap in 20th-century fiction, or von Arnim's four heroines, by turns wistful, idealistic, patrician and bored, each of their protagonists comes from a neat mould, stepping out of it ready formed. Lest the reader's attention wanders, though, the authors are quick to editorialise, labouring their points like a teacher drilling a class in irregular verbs.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but it does highlight the radical shift in the way novels are written and what we expect from them. Of course, the finest novelists have always given the impression of allowing characters to be themselves – Jane Austen, the Brontes and Virginia Woolf are very modern in their detachment (arguably, Woolf's voice has yet to be bettered). But the giants aside, even ordinary novelists have evolved dramatically in the past century, so that were a writer today to be so overtly judgmental as du Maurier or von Arnim, we'd probably throw the book away.
Indeed, it makes one wonder if the kind of people who were drawn to writing in the past were by nature more moralistic, more innately preachy, than now. Perhaps they were like one of von Arnim's characters whose do-gooding for the poor – who don't dare talk back – has unconsciously given her "the sympathetic superiority of the explainer".
By contrast, today's writers rarely sermonise or patronise. At its worst, this leaves the reader without a clue about what kind of character they're encountering, but at its best it gives a chance for individuals to emerge as if we are meeting them in real life and slowly finding out what they are like. Sometimes, as with du Maurier's cartoonish crew, you wish you hadn't made their acquaintance. The heroines in The Enchanted April, however, made it safely back to Scotland. Given the novel took up space that might otherwise have been filled with Italian delicacies, that is a real tribute. Again, a gesture harder to make in e-form.