Writing, Real Life Events, and the Works of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Georgette Heyer and Louisa M Alcott


3f2d6d5a693742ecd2ef850e8192b69eWriters, of course, would not be human if many of the circumstances of their lives did not affect their fiction. Even writers of the fantastic must combine these impressions with the imaginative creations in their books.
The authors world of fantasy is to some extent part of his or her particular ‘take’ on reality, his or her attempt, often, to make sense of it.

This connection between real life events and themes in a writer’s fiction is often obvious when reading a little of the biography.

This is so, for instance, the writing of Louisa May Allcott, writer of ‘Little Woman’ and the rest (and also of some lesser known and wonderfully lurid gothic pieces such as ‘A Fatal Love Chase’). She went through the tragedy of losing a younger sister to a long and painful decline – how she reconciled that, and the other suffering and injustice she saw all about her, with her faith in a God of mercy was clearly to some extent one of the themes of ‘Little Women’.Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

Outrage at witnessing the suffering and injustice all about was, of course, one of the motivating factors of Victorian writer Charles Dickens. It is well known that his miserable personal experience of being confined to a debtor’s prison on his father’s bankruptcy, and being forced to work in a blacking warehouse at the age of twelve, forever shaped his attitude towards the dispossessed, inspiring such works as ‘Oliver Twist’ ‘Hard Times’ and ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’.

It is lesser known – though still fairly well known – that in middle age he outraged the family values he notoriously voiced in his magazine ‘Household Words’ by separating the wife by whom he had fathered ten children due to his obsession with the eighteen year old actress Ellen Ternan.200px-Ellen_Ternan

The character of Lucie Manette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and of Estella in ‘Great Expectations’ are reputedly based on Dickens’ perception of Ellen Ternan. This is intriguing, as while Lucie Manette has in common with her husband Charles Darney a good deal of insipidity – Estella certainly has not. She is cold and heartless, brainwashed by the embittered and jilted Miss Havisham into being a man hater.

Though then, and for some time afterwards, Dickens insisted that Ms Ternan was as ‘innocent as one of my own daughters’ – his unfeeling treatment of his wife appalled many fellow literary figures, including WM Thackeray, who remarked tersely, ‘Poor matron’ and the devout Elizabeth Gaskell, who regarded him very coldly thereafter.
Elizabeth Gaskell was always admired as – unlike her contempary George Elliot – a wholly respectable, devout and exemplary female author.

I have always thought this was to underestimate her subtlety  and her irony – ‘Mrs Gaskell’ was a sharp commentator on and social and moral issues. Her novels ‘Mary Barton’ on the industrial poor of Manchester and ‘Ruth’ on a seduced seamstress aroused some outrage among contemparies.

Calm as Elizabeth Gaskell’s domestic life was, her biographer Winifred Gerin notes a connection between her personal life and her writing, and it is an intriguing one for a Gaskell Geek like myself.Cousin-Phillis

In 1857 the daughter with whom she was closest, Meta, had become engaged to a charming and dashing Captain Hill of the Madras Engineers. Some months later, she came by information that made her question his character, and as he made no attempt to defend himself against the charges, while his sisters were forced to concede that the stories were true, Meta broke off the engagement.

The Gaskells never revealed to anyone else what these charges were. Perhaps they were womanising, for the romantic interest in Elizabeth Gaskell’s next novel ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is certainly a Lothario. Winifred Gerin suggests that in ‘The first long novel that she wrote after the event, “Sylvia’s Lovers”, the plot is deeply and sustainedly concerned with the subject of the suffering and perils of ill-judged love’ while she writes of ‘The extrovert Kinraid, whose rattling talk and easy manners with women is both entertaining and convincing, while most subtly conveying the hollow core within. Could Kinraid have been based on Captain Hill?’

Meta, while maintaining a cheerful and busy appearance, long mourned the loss of an admired love object in Captain Hill, so that her health eventually suffered a prolonged lapse. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novella ‘Cousin Phyllis’ also concerns the love of an deeply feeling young girl for a charming and emotionally shallow young man.

On a lighter note – both literary and emotional – a couple of years ago, I was amused to read in Jennifer Kloester’s biography of the novelist Georgette Heyer that she was largely ignorant of what was then termed ‘homosexuality’, even overt, let alone repressed.georgette-heyer_new2

This seems astonishing to modern understanding, but Heyer seems, for a twentieth century author, rather out of touch from modern thought about sexuality and the unconscious. Of course, according to the description of her son, using the jargon of the time, she was ‘Not so much square as cubed’.

By the account of her younger brother, she was so appalled when she realised in the 1950’s that one of her novels, ‘The Great Roxhythe’, was being interpreted as portraying the romantic love of the male narrator for the hero Roxhythe that she withdrew the book. It may also account for why, in her novels, there is a strong gay seeming relationship between some of the male characters. I have commented in another post,for instance, on the emotionally intense relationship between the hero Sir Tristram Shield and the secondary hero, his rebellious much younger cousin Ludovic Lavenham in ‘The Talisman Ring’.67bbfdae95268c648ca5903e441dd883

I was also amused to read in this biography that the ‘straight’ in all senses of the word Heyer routinely dosed herself with a combination of dexedrine and gin, so that she could write through the night. This, apparently, was part of the secret of her remarkable productivity.

Intriguingly, one of the well known side effects of the amphetamine dexedrine (besides increased alertness and performance) are mild hallucinations – and isn’t that just, if we are honest, what authors may well need?

That was in the days when drugs now perceived as potentially hazardous, and only available on prescription or on the street were easily obtainable from a chemists.

I quite envy her constitution in being able to do that routinely without a terrible headache…

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2 thoughts on “Writing, Real Life Events, and the Works of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Georgette Heyer and Louisa M Alcott

  1. Very insightful, Lucinda. I think our experiences inevitably colour our writing; perhaps fiction is the alchemy whereby we make sense of them, or rob them of their horror. Interesting information about Heyer, too. Just as society becomes more lax in some respects, so it becomes more puritanical in others – it’s astounding (to the modern mind) to think of being able to get hold of hard drugs just by walking into a chemist’s shop!

    1. Thank you for commenting, Mari. It’s fascinating, isn’t it about areas of liberality and repression both in society, and in the psyches of the writers reflecting the mindset of the times? I believe, too, that back in Victorian times, Sherlock Holmes could have got that beloved cocaine of his quite legally…

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