Mari Biella’s recent intriguing recent post on anachronisms
set me thinking recently about general discrepancies in stories. Then, in a fine piece of synchrnonicity, I came across at least two when reading George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’.
This in turn brought to mind several I’ve come across in recent years, from a whole spectrum of writers, from the brilliant Susan Hill to that churner out of Victorian best selling romantic melodrama Charles Garvice.
That so polished a writer as Susan Hill could make a mistake of this type is guaranteed to make any writer wonder, with a shudder, if there is something she has overlooked in turn in her own stories; some howler, which makes the plot impossible, or at least, in need of revision.
Or –nearly as bad – but, our egotism being what it is, not quite so bad – have we let down the friends for whom we have done Beta reads, and left one in? Maybe an anachronism of the sort mentioned by Mari Biella, for instance, potato stew served in the UK of the Middle Ages.
On anachronisms – in true geek fashion – I want to say something irrelevant here. I was dismayed to learn that people who write children’s novels set in the Middle Ages are often advised to fudge the issue that for approximately three hundred years after the Norman Conquest, the upper class spoke Norman French, while the ordinary people spoke Anglo Saxon. Talk about re-writing history!
All writers surely go in dread of such mishaps as publishing a book with discrepancies. They are so easy to do, particularly in historical novels. It is so easy to get those wretched travelling times wrong, through a lack of information about which roads there were; so easy to make the post more efficient than it was, so that a letter arrives too early.
The Susan Hill discrepancy – and I hasten to add, this is the only one I have ever come across in all her books, all of which I greatly admire – is to do with the decade in which the otherwise brilliant (and terrifying) story ‘The Man in the Picture’ is set.
It seems to originate in a few sentences overlooked in the editing, which possibly relate to an earlier version (and don’t we all have so many earlier versions of our stories, where we hadn’t developed this or that theme).
The story begins with a man visiting his old friend, an academic at Cambridge, where ‘there were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles.’ Some years later, again in Cambridge, the porter has ‘a fire in the grate’ and there is ‘a solitary policeman on his beat’. This policeman is seen ‘trying the doors of the shops to see that they were secure’.
All this seems redolent of the 1930’s. Yet, only a few months pass, and suddenly, we are in the age of mobile phones, the narrator marries a female barrister and they fly to Venice for their honeymoon.
This inconsistency, by the way, didn’t at all detract from my pleasure in the story, and so far as I know, only a couple of reviewers have picked up on it; so good is the tale, with the atmosphere so wonderfully done, that it’s hard to put down, and is nearly as good a sinister read as ‘The Woman in Black’.
The discrepancies in George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ come much later in the story, and revolve around the fact that while the fact that while Adam guesses who fathered Hetty Sorrel’s poor baby, and confides in the vicar Mr Irwine, these two, who wish to talk of the matter as little as possible, are the only ones who do know the details. Despite this, shortly afterwards, by some strange process of clairvoyance, all the servants in the hall know that it is Arthur , and this detracts from their enthusiasm when they welcome him home as the new master.
A smaller error concerns a minor character, Bessy, who is described as married to Wiry Ben in the beginning, with two children. At the fete where he dances, they suddenly both become single again, the children disappear, and he hints that he wants to marry her. A time warp has clearly been in operation…
Thackeray went one better. Dobbin, his dull hero in that ‘novel without a hero’ ‘Vanity Fair’, appears in England when the reader has been told that he is serving in the army in India; a clear case of teleportation, and typically, his astral self does nothing but the sort of dull but worthy stuff he always does. Apart from Amelia’s mother changing her name from Betsy to Mary, though, mistakes in a very long novel which I believe was first published in serial format are very few.
Elizabeth Gaskell rarely edited her works, so that the standard of writing is all the more impressive; still, in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, as Graham Handley has pointed out, the timing doesn’t make sense if the reader accepts the action as starting in 1795, the date she gives; the timetable is out of kilter unless the action starts in 1793.
There are other discrepancies; Philip Hepburn’s age, and Charley Kinraid’s financial position are but two, but overall, the degree of consistency in the plot in a writer who rarely re-read her work is quite astonishing.
Finally, to Charles Garvice. I am sure the modern readers of ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ can be counted on one hand, so almost certainly nobody will have any idea what I am talking about here. But what I have to say is instructive, because it shows, if nothing else, how sloppily his editor performed.
Because this novel is so bad, I have remained fascinated with it (perhaps I would have been equally fascinated by whichever Charles Garvice novel I first read, as Laura Sewell Mater was intrigued by ‘Verdict of the Heart’ , the first Garvice novel she sampled, for more or less the same reasons). Therefore, I’ll give some background to it.
The hero of that melodrama, Lord Fayne, is a bad man who turns into a good man because an innocent young girl tells him he should (he also goes busking in the country among the ‘simple country folk’, and that finished the process). He’s a viscount, but goes round dressed as a coster monger, and getting into fights in music halls. He does this primarily to annoy his relatives, as his politics are anything but radical.
During one such fight in a music hall, he is hit on the head by a decanter and only comes to himself with a bleeding head some time towards dawn. No mention is made of a headache or such sissy symptoms of concussion as nausea.
He goes on to run into a homeless girl who just happens to have been seduced by the villain of the story, gives her his golden cuff links and buys her some food at a stall, giving over his watch as security. His friends are still drinking in his house when he arrives home at some time in the morning. Having shown some anti Semitism by threatening to throw a Jewish moneylender out of the window for requesting his bill, gives his friends a brilliant performance by singing and playing the piano and violin, and then kicks the lot of them out with his ‘air of indefinable command’ and falls asleep with his head among the dirty glasses.
When next we see him, he is asleep outside the gates of his parents mansion. The heroine mistakes him for a tramp and adjusts his cap over his injured head (this isn’t portrayed humorously, unfortunately). He tells her he has walked from London and goes on to sleep some more a bit further off, where he sees her pony bolting and through a desperate sprint, saves her from a terrible death in a disused copper mine.
He remains incognito throughout, but her father has read of the brawl in the music hall in his paper, and mentions that Lord Fayne appeared ‘in a police court’ and was fined £5.00 (a hefty fine in 1894).
There appear to be all sorts of weird discrepancies in the time frame here. When did Lord Fayne appear in court? How long did it take the papers to report it, and how come it only seems to take even the athletic Lord Fayne a day or so to walk from London to what appears, from the topography, to be Devonshire, particularly if he is suffering from concussion? Perhaps he (horrors!) lies to the heroine, and he took a train. Certainly, though, when she demands to see how much money he has in his pockets, he only has some silver.
But from someone who is concussed, he gives a sprint worthy of a gold medal. Presumably he has come to apologise to his parents, but after being conveniently by to save the heroine’s life, he seemingly wanders off again to menace the locals in a local tavern (the fresh country air doesn’t have a reforming affect on his character in this bit). When next we see him, it is in London, where he seems once more to be in funds…
Garvice’s novels are no doubt peppered with such contradictions, and it is only because of my interest in the history of the development of the romantic novel that I have have read this twice. I am sure almost nobody else could endure such entertainment twice over, and most people would say, and rightly, that such twaddle is unworthy of any analysis whatsoever, and Garvice only made the roughest attempts to provide some sort of basic coherence to his plots.
Still, he had, supposedly, an excellent secretary, and I am surprised she didn’t pick up on these contradictions; maybe it was more than her job was worth to pick holes in the novels her pipe puffing, complacent employer dictated. Perhaps his editor could not bear to read his stories through…
However that may be, such discrepancies as the ones above are one of the banes of a writer’s life.