I’ll take some time off from writing comedy to put up a slightly less facetious post than my recent spoofs.
Surprisingly, a couple of years ago a teenager asked me to recommend some ‘strong writing’ (She even read them too, but that’s irrelevant here).
I assumed she meant writing that grips, and doesn’t pull punches, because come to think of it, I wasn’t quite sure what is meant by ‘strong writing’ – like intelligence, I only recognize it when I come across it.
I recommended two classics – ‘The Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad and the long short stories by Laurens Van Der Post collected under the title ’The Seed and the Sower (probably better known as the film ‘Merry Christmas Mr Laurens’).
Then, I realized that I had been guilty of unconsciously going along with sexist standards, and hadn’t recommended a women writer, and I added that by way of gothic melodrama with a truly foul male protagonist, ‘Wuthering Heights’ is brilliantly done for all its flaws. Then, there’s Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
But it’s interesting – while there are some books that maintain strong writing throughout, most books rise to it now and then,even ones that are sentimental in tone. You can find it now and then in works promoting an ‘All’s Right in a Pretty World’ approach (at least for the important characters, anyway, and that’s all that matters really).
I have even found this to be true in places in the writing of that most sentimental and embarrassingly emotional of all writers, the late Victorian and Edwardian novelist Charles Garvice.
Here we are with a paragraph where he stops telling us that his hero Lord Fayne has admirable traits, and just shows them.
This protagonist, a wild young Viscount who has gone to bad, and devotes his time assiduously to causing disgrace to his stately family by dressing as a costermonger, squandering the fortune he inherited from a relative in getting hammered and brawling in music halls. is meant to have many sterling traits nevertheless, including a native sense of honour and a disgust with petty minded spite and cowardice or underhand behaviour in general.
This will all make him, of course, a perfect future Earl once he stops dressing as a member of the lower orders and associating with shameless floozies at the Frivolity Music Hall.
Here he hears that the woman he worships from afar (not, of course, one who would set foot in a music hall) is engaged to his cousin and rival, who is called the wonderful name of Marshbank, which sums up his slippery nature –
‘”Yes,” he said, “He is a favourite of fortune. He has stepped into my place, he has got my father’s goodwill –that’s all right enough. And now he has won you! Oh yes, it’s all right! I’m paying the penalty; I’m reaping the harvest that I have sown. But oh God! It’s hard to hear.”
Despite the melodramatic language, I found that there was something moving about this, though I remained unmoved through pages of purple prose depicting this character’s desperate love of his Eva, his reformation and the opening of his heart to the ways of the simple country folk amongst whom he wanders as a sort of nineteenth century minstrel or busker, his tenderness to a little girl etc.
By contrast, here we have Lord Fayne declaring his love for Eva: –
‘”Forgive me, forgive me!” He whispered, brokenly, hoarsely. “I did not know what I was doing. I –“ he stopped, his dark eyes fixed on her imploringly, as a man pleading for his life might look. If she had met his eyes with a cold, angry stare, all might have been well; but there was something in her gazed which seemed to woo his next words, to draw them out of his heart: “I love you!”.
Eva drew a long breath, and sat like a statue…He stood looking at her in awe and fear..They neared Endell Square, then he spoke. “I will not ask you to forgive me (I thought he already had) he said, hoarsely, ‘I do not deserve it. What can I say? Only this; that – that you shall not see me again…”
She does, of course; he turns up to speak to her at least three times at dramatic points in the novel, including the last, where he proposes to her and then sits down to have her serve him lunch. But that’s after he’s become Good, which comes over him a while after he stops being Bad, a moral metamorphosis brought about by fresh country air.
Lord Fayne finishes:
“…Perhaps – perhaps some day, if I win the fight,; if I am less unworthy to be near you, I may come – to ask your forgiveness for – for – what I have said today…”
Yes, well…Lord Fayne rides off to be a Better Man, leaving Eva in a dream of virginal shock and romance: – “…Was it real, or only a dream? The world seemed slipping away from under her feet.”’
Then again, Mrs Humphrey Ward in ‘Marcella’ (written, it seems, as an anti-socialist tract on how women shouldn’t meddle in politics; Mary Ward was a strong supporter of the Anti Suffrage League) is unsparing in some of her details of the suffering of a wretched poacher’s family in a Buckinghamshire village. For instance:-
‘The cottage was thick with smoke. The chimney only drew when the door was left open. But the wind today was so bitter that mother and children preferred the smoke to the draught. Marcella soon made out the poor little bronchitic boy, sitting coughing by the fire….”Hmm! Give him two months or thereabouts,’ thought Wharton. ‘What a beastly hole! –on e room up, and one down, like the other, only a shade larger. Damp, insanitary, cold – bad water, bad drainage, I’ll be bound – bad everything…’
This is excellently and effortlessly done. But sentimentality will out in Mrs Humphrey Ward. Wharton, the liberal politician and rival for the rebellious Marcella’s hand to the sterling Tory candidate Mr Aldous Raeburn, eventually reveals himself to be a cad by stealing a kiss from Marcella and engaging in financial chicanery over his newspaper, and all ends as it should: –
‘’Forgive?’ he (Aldous Raeburn) said to her, scorning her for the first and only time n their history. “Does a man forgive the hand that sets him free, the voice that recreates him? Choose some better word – my wife!”
I would someone had given Mrs Humphrey ward the same advice about the above paragraph.
Of course, in line with the sentimental tone of the novel, Henry Wharton(no relative of Harry Wharton in Billy Bunter, I assume) is forced to recoup his fiannces by marrying an opportunistic woman – shockingly – ten years older than himself, and notoriously cruel to her servants.
I think that these brief extracts from a couple of late Victorian writers of popular fiction is fascinating evidence that even writers who choose to go in for melodrama and to pander to superficial emotions can write strongly enough when they choose – they just choose not to.