In my last two posts, I discussed the dismal topic of getting really scathing reviews, and how a novice writer friend of mine had her confidence knocked through being on the receiving end of a particularly savage one.
On that, I’d like to add that perhaps that is better than the lukewarm reaction over my latest I got from an associate the other day: – ‘I’ve been reading your book. It’s all right; but nothing like as good as the first. Maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. I’m glad you’re doing something different with your next.’
I see. Thanks for that.
Now, in a way, isn’t that indifference almost worse than having someone write a rant instead of a review of your book?
Anyway, I was wtiting about whether or not it is necessary to have sympathetic characters in order to like or become fascinated by a book, and how far this depends upon genre.
Then – wait for it, regular readers – I mentioned how in fact, I didn’t really care for any of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.
I might as well add at once, that I found it hard to sympathize with the active whaling community depicted in the book. I tried, by doing that act of historical distancing which allowed me to see that while they were decimating the whale population, they couldn’t see it, or that it was wrong. For all that, the descriptions of the battles which the Specksioneer (Chief Harpooner) Charley Kinraid and the heroine’s ex-whaler father have with the whales may have impressed Victorians as heroic, but struck me as downright barbaric and pitiful.
I have written before of how unsympathetic I find the two flawed heroes, the lovers (in the old fashioned sense) of the heroine Sylvia Robson: Charley Kinraid and Philip Hepburn.
The romantic interest, Charley Kinraid, ‘the boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’, is dark and handsome, hearty, fearless, a brilliant raconteur, able to drink endlessly without showing it, the life and soul of the party, irresistible to women and admired by men. In short, he is an early example of the ‘Black Hole Marty Stu’ described by a blogger:
‘His gravity is so great, he draws all the attention and causes other characters (and, often, reality itself) to bend and contort in order to accommodate him and elevate him above all other characters. Characters don’t act naturally around him – guys wish to emulate him and all the girls flock to him regardless of circumstances. They serve as plot enablers for him to display his powers or abilities… He dominates every scene he is in, with most scenes without him serving only to give the characters a chance to “talk freely” about him…’
This, basically, is why Charley Kinraid, though overwhelming, isn’t convincing. As Graham Handley observes, he ‘comes but fitfully to life’. He is a walking macho stereotype. Such a man would never suffer form sea sickness, or fall flat on his face.
Philip Hepburn has the misfortune to be the polar opposite of a Black Hole Marty Stu. He is the indoors type with a sallow complexion, quiet, humourless, and influenced by his grim quasi stepmother Alice Rose into the belief that any form of fun is sinful. Nobody admires him but Alice’s daughter. As an early critic observed, his whole personality seems to revolve around his obsession with Sylvia.
This might be interesting, for a short infatuation; but his drags on during years of indifference from Sylvia, who makes it painfully obvious that she worships his rival. This makes him a dismal character to read about.
Generally, then, to me, both flawed heroes seem curiously one dimensional and incomplete, as if they need to merge into each other to form one three dimensional character. As if in some bizarre way they are aware of this, they seem to be more interested in their rivalry towards each other than they do in the heroine Sylvia Robson.
At first I sympathised with Sylvia in her longing to have adventures at sea herself. However, as this is impossible for a respectable Victorian girl, she can only realise this wish by transforming it into a longing to have the man who personifies those adventures.
Unfortunately, then Sylvia Robson suffers the fate of any female character who falls for a Black Hole Marty Stu – she remains trapped forever in his event horizon, seemingly frozen in time and seemingly static, though she has in fact, vanished. In other words, she ceases to have an independent existence of her own.
Part of this dissolution of her personality is bound up in her tragic fate. She believes that Charley Kinraid is dead, but in fact, he has been taken by the press gang, and though Philip Hepburn knows, he keeps quiet about it so that he can marry her himself. Naturally, Kinraid returns, imagining that they are still troth plighted. Sylvia swears never to forgive Hepburn. In the end, after Kinraid has humiliated her through an astonishingly speedy marriage to an heiress, and Hepburn has heroically saved both Kinraid and her daughter, she does.
Most of the time for the second two volumes, the once high spirited and rosy Sylvia is depicted as pale and suffering, mourning Kinraid’s loss almost obsessively. As the critic T J Winnifrith remarks, ‘Kinraid is finally shown to be a shallow character; but the depiction of him is always so superficial that this makes it difficult to understand the depths of Sylvia Robson’s love for him.’
The melodramatic tone and improbable co-incidences in the last part of this novel are notorious. However, I thought that the problems started far earlier, in the strange interdependence of the characters. Just as Hepburn seems to have no passion in life except in being Sylvia’s lover, so Sylvia very soon comes to have none except in worshipping and then mourning the loss of, Charley Kinraid. This fate – far more usual in a female than in a male lead – finally makes them both dismal.
Of course, one of the things that Elizabeth Gaskell was attempting to explore in this novel was how wrong (in her eyes, blasphemous) it is to ‘make an idol’ out of any other human being. She was also, as her daughter had recently gone through the disillusioning experience of having to break off an engagement to a charming man with a questionable past – one Captain Charles Hill – exploring the painful consequences of ‘ill advised’ love.
In fact, when I came to sum up the novel in a sentence, here is what I came up with: –
‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Charley Kinraid worships himself, and finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’
But, as I said, for all the unsatisfactory nature of the characters – for all that they aren’t markedly sympathetic, I have been intrigued by this novel since I first read it in 2002.
True, I found Sylvia’s extended mourning of Kinraid tedious; I found Hepburn’s destructive pursuit of Sylvia frankly distasteful, and I found Kinraid to be about as rounded a character as a cardboard cut out. Also, I am disgusted by whaling and how we decimated the whale population in the Greenland Seas. Yet, still it remains one of my favourite novels.
It can’t be ‘comfort reading’ as there is scarcely any worldly comfort to be found in it, but clearly, there are elements in the depictions – perhaps, the vivid descriptions of life in the late eighteenth century sea faring community of Whitby (called Monkshaven in the novel), which have made me unable to dismiss it.
…And the same is true for me of ‘Vanity Fair’. There, again, I don’t exactly like any of the characters – though I do feel sorry for Amelia – and yet, that is a novel I have read three times. True, it contains some unsurpassed passages on the battles of Quartre-Bras and Waterloo – but that is in the middle; much of the later part is taken up with the society career of the vain, unfeeling Becky. I suppose this book is also remarkable, in having in Becky Sharp what falls only a little short of a Black Hole villainess (a Mary Sue she most certainly is not).
Therefore, perhaps when advice to novice writers on how to draw in readers includes the invariable: ‘To draw readers in, you must create sympathetic, fully rounded, convincing, developing characters’ – then the exceptions from classic novels which continue to be read but which have signally failed to do that just might noted?
Finally, for anyone interested, here is my link for my article on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ published a few years ago on the F Word website: here