‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas: Certainly a Page Turner

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I read ‘Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas because I was intrigued by the praise given to it in the excellent book of writing advice ‘How to Write a Page Turner’ by Jordan Rosenfeld. The author was evidently drawn in by the series of which this is the first, and a great admirer of Maas’ writing in general.

I wasn’t actually sure if this was aimed at a Young Adults or adults. The level of erotica is slightly higher than might be expected in a typical YA, but mild for an adult novel.

I was pleasantly surprised – even staggered – by the strength of the writing. I thought the plot well thought out but as wildly improbable as fairy stories normally are, yet that powerful writing did indeed make it exactly the page turner Jordan Rosenfeld found it for me.

It is a version of The Beauty and the Beast theme. Rather disappointingly, this beast isn’t really ugly at all, being forced to wear a mask instead. To me that slightly undermines the moral of the fairy tale. However, he does turn into a beast, a giant wolf, when he wants to travel outside the realm of the Spring Court where he rules. It is in this form that Feyre first comes to know him.

Feyre comes from a family of déclassé gentry reduced to living among the villagers in what seems to be a form of mediaeval Great Britain. This realm has been invaded and taken over by magical beings known as the Fae , and after a bitter war the humans have been driven back to an area that on the map in the beginning of the book is an equivalent to the south east and south west of England and some of the lower home counties.

Feyre’s family don’t seem to be any good at growing food, and there is besides no mention of the common land and grazing rights available to peasants under feudalism, so they accordingly largely rely on her to support them through honing her hunting skills.

One day she fights and kills a great wolf, skins him, and sells his pelt in the market. Unfortunately, this is actually a High Fae in disguise.

In due course, his great friend Tamsin, High Lord of the Spring Court, comes to claim Feyre whom he will keep in bondage in exchange for the murder.

Fortunately, this bondage does not include sexual abuse, as it might in some dismal Fantasy Come Bodice Ripper.

In fact, once at the court, Feyre is left more or less to her own devices, and only gradually develops any sort of a relationship with Tamsin and Lucien. At first, she is enthralled to have the materials and the time to indulge in her passion for painting. Tamsin shows himself generous in obtaining materials for her, and his interest in her work is what first brings them together.

Then, gradually, Feyre begins to learn the history of Tamsin, his relative Lucien, the masked servants, and the threat that surrounds them from the dread place under the mountain.

Normally, a writer can get away with a good deal of improbability by employing humour and introducing a spoof element into the work, or to provide an element of ironical detachment. This is not a technique that Sarah J. Maas uses. In fact, it is a comment on how impressive the writing generally is she tells this fantastic tale largely without any recourse to irony and yet still draws the reader in to the wildly improbabable events.

On so many occasions, I asked myself, ‘Why am I  so eager to read more of this?’ and yet, I always did go back to it. In other words, Jordan Rosenfeld was quite right to use it as an example of a book where you have to keep reading. This book draws the reader in and keeps her/him reading whether or not s/he wishes it, and surely that is exactly what all writers want.

No doubt the tension that Jordan Rosenfeld emphasizes as the key component to writing gripping fiction is a part of it. In fact, Maas uses all the tricks that Rosenfeld recommends in her writing advice –- which is no doubt one of the reasons why Rosenfeld admires her writing. Overall, then, it is worth reading ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ (and no doubt Maas’ other books) quite apart from any entertainment value, as examples of how a writer can use various techniques to arouse reader interest and sympathy, and keep her or him turning those pages.

Above all, the writing is exceptionally vivid. For instance:
‘But it was not my own doom that I contemplated into dread and rage and despair. As we rode on – the only sound snow crunching beneath paws and hooves – I alternated between a wretched smugness at the thought of my family starving and thus realising how important I was, and a blinding agony at the thought of my father begging in the streets, his ruined leg giving out on him as he stumbled from person to person…’

The developing love between Tamsin and Feyre is particularly well done. I feared some distasteful Stockholm Syndrome theme of a Captive Falling for Her Hateful Abuser, but thankfully, the story keeps well away from that. There is no question of the sexual relationship between Tamsin and Feyre being anything but consensual on her part.
Whether SM Captor Captive overtones are avoided as successfully in the next in the series, where I gather that the wickedly purring Rhysand claims Feyre was his for a certain number of months of the year, remains to be seen; still, after this first read, I am optimistic.

Generally, then, this was an impressive read. If it is YA, then it is enjoyable for adults as well. It is often exciting and the scenes are vividly portrayed. The characters are skillfully drawn, and the connection between between the female and male lead is very well done.

Feyre is a sympathetic herione. She is her own person, and honourable. Though outstandingly good looking, she is no Mary Sue, the sort who is admired by everyone she meets, even in rags. She gives little thought to glamour.

When we first meet her, she is in her role as hunter, tracking in the icy winter forest. She is loyal to her family (though resentful of having to fight to support them) and as good as her word to her mother to look after them. Raised to be a ‘young lady’ she is used to dismal poverty.

This is her reaction when she sees the ornate furniture of the Spring Court: ‘I didn’t need to know the worth of everything in this room to understand that the emerald curtains alone – silk, with gold velvet – would have fed us for a lifetime. A chill scuttled down my spine. It had been days since I’d left. The venison would be running low already.’

Tamsin, at first a remote and cold figure, oddly devoid of any social graces for the ruler of a once populous court, becomes increasingly symapthetic as Feyre and the reader come to know more of him and the demons he fights.

I have got three complaints; one is about the incongruous use of modern US speech by these characters who seemingly inhabit a version of the UK of the Middle Ages(and I don’t mean Shakespearian expressions like ‘trash’ and ‘right now’), but by using constructions such as,  ‘Stay the hell out of the cave.’

Another is the use of such sentences without pronouns or verbs, ie, ‘A growl.’ These are presumably done for effect, as I am sure so acomplished an author knows herself  that they are ungrammatical. Perhaps the editor put them in, believing that they make the text more readable for young adults.

I was also disappointed at the anachronisms. I know this is set in a fantasy version of Mediaeval Britain and not the real one – well, obviously, since as far as I know, we were never invaded by fairies, though we were by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Norman French and many others – but there are great problems about the way that this mediaeval economy is depicted.

For instance, luxury items like chocolate (which of course, contains sugar) and tea, necessarily imported from abroad, are freely available to the general population in what seems to be a feudal economy with a small surplus and primitive transport. In the real Mediaeval UK, tea wasn’t affordable for most people until well into the eighteenth century, and then only as a treat, and honey was largely used as a sweetener instead of the luxury item ‘sweet salt’.

Then, there are incongruous features such as ‘the London Season’ being mentioned in passing. The London Season was a much later development, based about the timing of the sitting of the Houses of Parliament, and so odd in this presumably feudal setting.

Again, this seems to be a version of mediaeval Great Britain where birth control other than coitus interruptus has been discovered.  Feyre mentions using it, apropos her enjoying a fairly casual sexual relationship with the village youth Isaac. I suppose that would have been arguably possible in an era of a primitive understanding of science;certainly, it is true that various ‘primitive’ cultures have had a good understanding of women’s fertility and have used herbal means to control it. I assume that the difference regarding the influence of the Church from the Great Britian of the real mediaeval age is one reason why Feyre’s having a lover outside marriage is not seen as wholly outrageous. She is also allowed to dress in trousers without comment, which of course,  would have been wholly beyond the pale in the non fantasy UK of that era.

Overall, though, despite these minor drawbacks, ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is a fantasy story that draws you in before you know it and one which I recommend. I will probably go on to read the others in the series.

Purple Prose and a Rapist ‘Hero’: The Original Bodice Ripper: Review of ‘The Flame and the Flower’ by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

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Marty-Stu rapes Mary-Sue and then they find a love so true…
I am so glad that I have finished this (by the way, I read it for research: honestly!). I detested reading it; and it was epic length. The only reason I am not giving it one star is because an online friend of mine said that it had helped her in dealing with memories of sexual abuse.
It has been argued that the whole ‘rape to love’ theme so beloved of the Bodice Rippers of the 1970’s developed from the fact that the US was many decades behind the UK and parts of Europe in accepting a woman’s right to sexual pleasure; this being so, readers of this age group were attracted by the comforting fantasy of a man who is at first a sexual aggressor coming to love and treat the object of his lust with tenderness and respect.
This being so, I will give it two stars. This is the most acid review that I have written about any book. As I have often said, I don’t like giving low star, savage reviews and only award them for novels which romanticise rapist so-called heroes or the brutalisation of women.
Even so,being a softy, I doubt I would have been able to bring myself to write it, had the author still been alive.
This story seems to be a verison of Georgette Heyer’s ‘Devil’s Cub’ meets Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’.
From ‘Devil’s Cub’ there is the abduction on a ship by a seemingly wicked man who misunderstands the female lead’s purpose and mistakes her for ‘a light woman’, the male lead making a rape attempt (in this case, after earlier successful ones) with the words: ‘Be damned, I’ll take you’ , the male lead’s murderously violent temper, his showing unexpected kindness to the female lead when she is seasick, etc.
Birmingham is also as a sea captain from Charleston, like Rhett Butler from ‘Gone With the Wind’, though Rhett Butler has the ability to laugh at himself that this ‘hero’ does not, and is far likable and intelligent generally. Birmingham’s late mother and the female lead are obviously based upon Scarlett O’Hara’s mother Ellen; the countless other similarities include a version of the sharp-tongued Grandma Fontaine, who in this case becomes one of a chorus devoted to singing the female lead’s praises and running down other women.
I have to find some positive things to say about this. I suppose the writing can be described as vivid; in some passages, it is even striking if overburdened with adjectives and adverbs. For instance, this description of a storm: –
‘Horse and rider entered a forest gone wild. Once lazy branches lashed and stung and whipped and clawed. The trees bent and swayed in what seemed a frenzied determination to snatch her from the horse and failing, moaned their frustration to the wind.’
In its day, it was a phenomenal success.
Views about rapist ‘heroes’ have changed, and I am frankly disturbed that it still receives glowing reviews.
On the writing style, unfortunately, this is far more typical:–
‘To her he appeared as some splendid, godlike being. Murmuring her love to him, she slid her arms about his neck, pressing her soft breasts into the mat of hair that covered his chest …’
For someone who is supposed to be devout, the female lead doesn’t seem very troubled by the First Commandment. Elizabeth Gaskell would have pointed the moral to that.
Purpose prose abounds. Such tautologies as ‘He laughed at her with mirth, throwing his splendid head up high’ are typical. I felt that if I read once more about her, ‘looking up at him timidly’ or the muscle in his jaw ‘twitching spasmodically in his anger’, or ‘the elderly ******* grinning from ear to ear’ I would turn into a dung beetle. Sometimes, the ‘hero’s’ eyes are like ‘flames of fire’ or ‘burning with passion’s fire’. At other times, he ‘chuckles softly’. He is very fond of doing that.
I lost count of the number of times the allure of these ‘soft breasts’ is mentioned, or of descriptions of Heather’s ‘ flowing dark tresses’, or her other charms. Possibly more often than we hear about his ‘dark, handsome face’.
There is no man who meets Heather who doesn’t fall for her, and all the women long for Brandon Birmingham, which surely qualifies the pair as fully paid up, card-holding members of the Mary-Sue and Marty-Stu club .
All men are seized by violent desire the minute they set eyes on Heather. Fat, repulsive ones are stimulated to unusual athleticism in trying to rape her, and as a result are thrown out of windows or knocked flying into bushes by the male lead.
Interestingly, fat people in this are invariably evil, with the exception of Hatti , rightly described in a Goodreads review as a ‘Cringeworthy Mammy stereotype.’

Here
And after all, she is merely, ‘ample’. She is the black domestic tyrant slave wholly devoted to the interests of her white owners. A typical speech from her is: – ‘Oh Lordy, Master Bran, we done thought something bad had happened to you.’
Interestingly, by contrast, none of the black men in this are given any personality or indeed, any sort of distinguishing personal characteristics at all.
At least, the racism of Margaret Mitchell in ‘Gone With The Wind’ had the excuse that was published in 1936, and begun ten years earlier. This novel was published in 1972, long after the Civil Rights movement. Yes, of course there was slavery in the US of 1799; but should it have been portrayed wholly uncritically?
Everyone regards the ‘hero’ with admiration, even those who suspect the rape, though a couple express misgivings over it . All the single local women swoon over this fellow. In fact, his jilted former fiancée continues to pursue him shamelessly. Just why everyone admires him, when he is depicted as being as callow and insensitive as a boy of fourteen at the age of thirty-five or six, isn’t explained, except by his being handsome and rich and something of a bully. Neither does he have the excuse of having lost his mother early; she died when he was twenty-five.

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*Warning: spoilers follow*
This fiancée is understandably humiliated when the ‘hero’ turns up with a bride at the port where she comes to greet him back to the US. Here, one wonders at his total lack of social graces. Even given that overseas post would be disrupted by the French Revolutionary Wars, he might have had the sense to send one of his men with a note ahead of him before coming ashore, asking his brother to get his former fiancée out of the way. No, such delicacy is beyond him, and all of a piece with his performance as a rapist.
This rejected fiancée makes a point of aiming cruel barbs at the poor, helpless Heather (her late nineteenth century name being one anachronism among many concerning the late eighteenth century UK).
This woman, Louisa, is referred to as a ‘blonde bitch’ (off topic: as one born with light coloured hair, I find the way two terms are commonly casually linked in light novels to be wholly unfair).Strangely enough, the ludicrously named ‘Brandon Birmingham’ -it may be that the author had never taken note of what an unromantic city the Birmingham in England is- though he is portrayed as a macho man, shows a feminine streak of spite in his replies to these taunts.
For instance, this exchange, when the ‘hero’ is seen by his ex- fiancée carrying the now heavily pregnant Heather upstairs, is typical:
‘”Do you do this every night, Brandon?” she enquired jeeringly, with a raised eyebrow. “It surely must put a strain upon your back, darling…’
‘His face was expressionless as he made his reply, “I’ve lifted heavier women in my life, including you…’
Louisa keeps walking into these put-downs as if she can’t see them coming, though she is supposed to be so socially confident. In fact, she is, like most of the characters, wholly unbelievable.
Credible characters can make a wholly incredible plot seem believable, but these are as unreal as the events in the story. These characters are caricatures.
Though the story begins in England, the author shows a remarkably blasé attitude towards the need for any familiarity with the topography, language or customs of the UK of the late eighteenth century.
In fact, the action begins in ‘the English countryside’, with no county specified. The description is apparantly much admired, and is certainly striking, but it is set in a geographically impossible location of moorland which is nevertheless within a day’s journey of London on the appalling roads of 1799. Also, here, there is apparently a climate so dry that on a hot summer’s day dust hangs continually in the air. Even when roads were only partly paved, there could be no place in England, even in a prolonged drought, dry and hot enough to create that effect.
These anachronisms are so numerous that it is not worth listing more than a couple.
Heather presumably has lived through the terrible winter of 1794-5, when birds fell dead out of the trees, and in fact, even the mildest winter in the UK is decidedly cold and damp. Despite this, she does not think to order any flannel petticoats or warm underwear to take with her on a winter’s voyage across the Atlantic. This gives the male lead an opportunity to show he cares by having fashioned for her some quilted underwear.
Then, why does Brandon Birmingham (whose father was apparently ‘an English aristocrat’ who during the American War of Independence renounced his citizenship and therefore, any title he had, though we are never told exactly what his was) think that he would be entitled to ‘the axe’ for rape and abduction? It would have been a short drop hanging for him along with the hoi polloi.
There are myriad misunderstandings following on not, it seems, from Birmingham’s raping Heather three times on board the ship, or for his Dominic Alistair impersonation in the inn. No, none of that matters; what does come between them is that Birmingham has told Heather that as he suspects she was in the plot along with her aunt and the others to force him to marry her. Accordingly, he vows to punish her by treating her as an upper servant, allowing her no money, and refusing to consummate the marriage.
For months, he is tormented by desire for her soft breasts and firm youthful body, and finally he resolves on another rape as a way of solving their problems. This, however, proves unnecessary. Heather is already waiting for him in a provocative nightdress of the sort they definitely did not wear in the late eighteenth century.
This, apparently, is very romantic and exciting.
I think what outraged me most is that the rapes that take place when first they meet are recalled by both as finally a good thing, a fit subject for joking, and even a topic for sentimental recollection (by the by, Heather has no ambiguous feelings, no distaste, about having a pregnancy as the result of the rape).
For instance, Heather reflects at once point that she ought to be grateful to him for ravishing her, as her life was so hard before with her abusive (and naturally, obese) aunt. At another time she says, ‘I was nothing before he met me.’
He is sentimentally attached to the dress that she was wearing when he first raped her – regarding it as ‘Their Dress’. He sternly admonishes her for bartering it for some cloth which she uses to make him a Christmas present. She sheds tears and apologises.
At the end, before a wholly improbable piece of love making – though the ‘hero’ is pale from blood loss from a shooting, he can always rise to the occasion – he and Heather have this exchange. He says of one of the many would-be rapists in her life: –
‘”He got what he deserved for trying to rape you.”
She looked at him slyly. “You were the one who raped me. What were your just deserts?”
He grinned leisurly. “I got my just deserts when I had to marry a cocky wench like you.”’
He then threatens to spank her. The timid Heather shows some apprehension. Then he reassures her smugly, ‘”Madam, you amaze me. Never once have I laid a hand to you and yet you still act as if you expect me to.”’
As a critic said of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: ‘It is sentimental and obscene. The obscenity lies in the sentimentality.’

Some Popular Victorian Reading: ‘Jack Sheppard: A Romance ‘ by Harrison Ainsworth.

CRIME/JACK SHEPPARD

These last few days, I have been reading Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘Jack Sheppard.’  I knew little about this writer before, save that he wrote sensationalist literature at about the same time as Charles Dickens, including a novel called ‘Rookswood’ which reputedly featured a highly glamorised version of Dick Turpin.

It seems that he was at one time massively popular with the Victorian reading public for his ‘neck and axe’ adventure novels. ‘Jack Sheppard’ was his third novel, and ran concurrently in serialised form in one of the Victorian literary magazines, ‘Bentley’s Miscellany’, with Charles Dickens’ ‘ ‘Oliver Twist’.  It seemed that there was a controversy between the two men over the subject of ‘Newgate Novels’. Though Dickens left the magazine as a result, he was the eventual victor, for while the public greedily devoured Ainsworth’s melodramatic blood-and-thunder novels, he was despised by critics, and never came to equal Dicken’s stature as a writer. His fame barely outlasted his lifetime. These days he is largely forgotten.

One critic even wrote of him: ‘ Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored.’  I think this criticism is undeservedly harsh, though of course, this was written around 1875, before Charles Garvice’s romantic melodramas showed critics what successful bad writing truly is.

I can see from the half of the novel that I have read so far that Ainsworth’s prose is often turgid, and he has a passion for the lurid and melodramatic. However, in an age when novels moved along at a snail’s pace, his tales are comparatively eventful and fast moving: I found it difficult as a modern reader not to find this a great relief. His stories are gripping and the action is vividly portrayed.  While Thackeray and Dickens wished to stimalate thought, and often, indignation in the reader, Ainsworth is obviously less out to point a moral than to give the reader an exciting tale.

Not only that, but if Ainsworth’s prose is turgid, his research immediately struck me as impressive. I know how exacting and time consuming research can be, even with the internet to hand. Ainsworth knew all about the topography of  London, the sort of buildings extant in 1703 in  The Mint, the ‘rookery’ where Jack Sheppard was born, and the architecture of the first London Bridge. He could depict the dress and manners of all classes of society in that era, and also, bring to life the famous (or infamous) characters who featured in Jack Sheppard’s tragic history; for instance, the dreaded informer and thief catcher Jonathon Wilde, and the ruffianly Bueskin.

This industrious research is not a quality one associates these days with a poor to mediocre author, and it is intriguing that while Harrison Ainsworth acquired a name as a purveyor of sensationalist tales that tickled popular taste in the Victorian era, Dickens – whose writing also has very strong senstationalist themes – is seen as the writer of a grander form of literature, the ‘social protest novel’.

Well, I promise I won’t rant here about the lurid popular view of the French Revolution, all rolling heads and snapping guillotines, that began with Dickens.

Certainly,  it is true that Dickens was the writer of the Victorian age who set to work to expose social injustice, who attacked hypocrisy and who had a wonderful sense of the ludicrous.

Still, Dicken’s writing also comes with a great supply of  faults – for instance, the infamous sentimentality and male and female leads so dull I wonder that he could bear to  write about them at all.

And I have to say that if you compare Ainsworth’s style with that of various other generally far more respected writers – and the earlier Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney immediately comes to mind – this novel at least comes out as a good deal less lurid and improbable.

Of course, the tragically short life of the anti-hero  of the story, the eponymous Jack Sheppard, in itself reads like something made up by a writer of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’.  A renegade London apprentice carpenter turned thief, he soon became famous – or infamous, depending on the point of view – for his escapes from prison.

His career was short but brief, for he made an enemy of the hated thief taker and informer Jonathan Wild, who schemed to destroy anyone who would not work for him.

At last chained to the stone flooring of his cell, the young man managed to escape again, but was captured when blind drunk.  In gaol in chains and a secure inner cell, he was painted by the king’s painter James Thornhill. The gaolers charged high society figures four shillings a time to view him. There were petitions for leniancy from various well known figures, but these were rejected.

Stealing a sum valued at above five shillings in those days meant a death sentence.  Jack Sheppard was offered a reduced sentence if he informed on his associates, but refused, and huge, admiring crowds turned out to follow the procession to Tyburn on 15 November 1724.

He had planned to cut himself down from the gallows with a penknife, but unluckily the guard found it.   Failing that, he had hoped to be revived following his official death by the gruesome process of hanging by a short drop, and perhaps that is why the crowd did not surge forward to give him a quick death by swinging on his legs, or perhaps the platform was too well guarded for this to be possible. His slow death is not mentioned in the novel, but is in other accounts, and makes a grim end to a likable villain. However, there seems to be some disagreement as to whether or not people who are being hanged are conscious after about twenty seconds, as they usually die of strangling (cutting off the blood to the brain) rather than oxygen strvation (cutting off blood to the lungs) although the body still makes spasmodic movements until brain death, so hopefully he did not suffer as much as the crowd imagined.

To our own age, to hang a man of of such obvious talents and wit at the age of 22 seems an absurd waste.

Harrison Ainsworth, writing 120  years after Jack Sheppard’s death, was hardly the first to recount the dramatic story of his life. Within weeks of his hanging a pantomime was performed about him, and he influenced the depiction of Macheath in  John Gay’s ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ and other dramas.

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I knew well enough that the eighteenth century was a brutal and violent age, but even so, the amount of beatings that this anti-hero endures in the course of one day at the grand old age of twelve is astounding. He is beaten for idling by the master carpenter to whom he is apprenticed, knocked down by the master’s stepson Thames for saying he wants a kiss from that master’s daughter, then slapped in the face by the girl herself (whom he is inclined to worship, as he does Thames himself), slapped much harder by the master’s wife, who resents his being in the house at all, and finally beaten by the constables in Wild’s pay. However, he is still apparently not too stiff to be able to break free from custody.

Such treatment would surely be enough to make a rebel out of anyone, even in an age when thrashings were the general form of chastisment, and in the story it is the slap in the face from his master’s wife which finally tips the balance and makes Jack decide on a life of crime.

Whether this depiction of so much corporal punishment in a day is a matter of sloppy editing on Ainsworth’s part, or was put in by him to indicate the harshness of life among the London poor, it certainly makes the latter point vividly.

Here are a couple of  typical samples of Ainsworth’s writing in ‘Jack Sheppard’, showing both his excellent background information and his lively style.

Here is Jack making his first prison break:

‘As Jack concluded his ditty, the door flew open with a crash, and Thames sprang through the aperture. This manoeuvre was so suddenly executed that it took Abraham completely by surprise. He was standing at the moment close to the hatch, with his ear at the keyhole, and received a severe blow in the face. He staggered back a few paces; and, before he could recover himself, Thames tripped up his heels, and, placing the point of the spike at his throat, threatened to stab him if he attempted to stir, or cry out. Nor had Jack been idle all this time. Clearing the recess the instant after his companion, he flew to the door of the he flew to the door of the inner room, and, locking it, took out the key. The policy of this step was immediately apparent. Alarmed by the noise of the scuffle, Quilt and Sharples rushed to the assistance of their comrade. But they were too late. The entrance was barred against them; and they had the additional mortification of hearing Sheppard’s loud laughter at their discomfiture. “I told you the prison wasn’t built that could hold me,” cried Jack.’

And here is a depiction of his mother’s house:

‘The room in which this interview took place had a sordid and miserable look. Rotten, and covered with a thick coat of dirt, the boards of the floor presented a very insecure footing; the bare walls were scored all over with grotesque designs, the chief of which represented the punishment of Nebuchadnezzar. The rest were hieroglyphic characters, executed in red chalk and charcoal. The ceiling had, in many places, given way; the laths had been removed; and, where any plaster remained, it was either mapped and blistered with damps, or festooned withdusty cobwebs. Over an old crazy bedstead was thrown a squalid, patchwork counterpane…’

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Whatever the criticisms that the critics may have levelled at Ainsworth, he tells an engaging story, and I am puzzled that this book has disappeared so completely from view. In that, of course, it shares the fate of another robber novel,  Christian Auguste Vulpius’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ (1798).

 

Formulaic Writing: Romantic Melodrama and Charles Garvice, ‘The Great Bad Novelist’.

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I have written before on this blog about the terrible allure of bad writing, both good bad writing, that is, writing that is so bad it’s good – like ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’  and frankly terrible writing.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading another late Victorian best seller by that writer of melodramatic romances, Charles Garvice. The very title reveals how bad the subject matter is going to be:  ‘Leslie’s Loyalty:  Or His Love So True’.

Dreadful stuff; and horribly compelling.

I would like to add that this isn’t the only reading material I have been getting through in these last couple of weeks. I have also reading a science fiction novel by an indie author which is fascinating, but heavy going, intellectually.  In fact, to appreciate it, I find that I can only read about five per cent at a time. I am also getting to the end of E P Thompson’s  wonderfully insightful masterpiece on the suppressed history of working class radical organisation in the UK from the 1790’s on ‘The Making of the English Working Class’.

But to ask what might seem a glaringly obvious question: why is it so easy to read escapist nonsense– whereas challenging novels are not by definition an easy read?  Of course, it is partly that the latter may be introducing unfamiliar concepts, or a whole new way of looking at the world, which can be stimulating but tiring to read about. But it goes beyond that, and  beyond the fairly simple sentence structure and vocabulary that usually go with light reading –though these are important.

I suppose it is also that in formulaic, escapist writing no demands are made on the imagination either – because the reader knows with these stories where things are going. We know that there is going to be a happy ending, however improbable it may be. The hero may have fallen off a cliff  (this does in fact happen to the hero in one of his within the first two chapters) or been seemingly shot dead in front of the heroine’s eyes, but all will be well.

In her article on Charles Garvice, Laura Sewell Matter puts the lure of Garvice’s novels succinctly: ‘I had found something amazingly, almost unbelievably, bad…This was melodrama..The outcome was never in doubt… The characters were caricatures…the plot…was ludicrously improbable. I wanted confirmation that I had correctly inferred what would happen…I wanted both the expected outcome and surprise.’

She, of course, came across Garvice’s writing in a singular way, thorough picking up some water drenched pages on a beach in Iceland. It became to her a challenge to discover from what book of yesteryear this incredibly bad piece of writing came (she eventually was able to track it to the Iclandic translation of ‘The Verdict of the Heart’).

She sums up there the appeal of all formulaic writers who make a huge success of writing recognisably the same story over and again. The appeal of this sort of writer is that the reader knows where s/he is.

Garvice’s stories are always about young, wild, aristocratic young men. The extent of this wildness varies between novels and according to the requirements of the plot. The hero of ‘Only One Love Or Who Was the Heir’ is still welcome in society despite his brawling and gambling proclivities, but the male lead of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , through drinking before breakfast, fighting in music halls and dressing as a costermonger has made himself an outcast from society as well as the family in question (I borrowed these and other qualities for my anti-hero in ‘The Villainous Viscount  Or the Curse of the Venns’).

Often these young men have gambled away a fortune. They have usually have, or recently had, ‘a disreputable connection’ with one or more dancers or music hall singers, but they are immediately ashamed of these the minute they find true love with the innocent flower of a heroine and break things off.

Quite often another women  is in love with the handsome hero, but he cannot return her passion, although she is a desired by all other men and has a fortune.

Very often a Conniving Cousin is introduced into the mix. He also falls in love with the heroine and/or covets the hero’s title or his being heir to a title, or has some other motive for conspiring against the hero getting together with heroine. Sometimes, he conspires with the scorned ex-mistress, though not inevitably. Sometimes, he conspires with both she and the love stricken society belle.

The hero is framed for various wrongdoings ranging from faithlessness to seduction of innocents to bigamy and fraud and occasionally murder, and the heroine is broken hearted. However, after a few months or weeks, a series of co-incidences result in the villains and villainesses being unmasked (sometimes they have committed suicide or been killed off even before that). Then  all ends happily, with the hero and heroine brought together.

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Interestingly, when I began to read ‘Leslie’s Loyalty: Or His Love So True’ it didn’t seem to compare in badness to ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , ‘The Marquis, ‘A Life’s Mistake’ or other favourites of mine.  The writing style was mediocre rather than appalling. There were even an astute couple of remarks, and there were also some flashes of the humour ususally singularly lacking in Garvice’s books, in the description of the dreadful art work done by the heroine’s father, who considers himself a neglected genius (as I also wrote about a similarly deluded individual in ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’ I appreciated this).

I need not have worried; this was a glitch. Very soon the purple prose, the stereotypical behaviour and the hectoring authorial style reasserted themselves; wildly improbable co-incidences were happening; faces became taut with passion; plots were hatched between baddies, and it all turned into a typical Charles Garvice novel.

Laura Sewell Matter comments: ‘It is hard to imagine how a writer could be so prolific and widely read less than a hundred years ago, and totally forgotten today…The critics who found his work so risible that they would rather rend the pages from the spine and toss them into the drink have had their way in the end.’

I do find that one Charles Garvice style novel every few months is enough for me.

Even if I had the good fortune to be apolitical, and therefore could read such works without thinking about the ‘reactionary function’ which they must have played with regard to social class and women’s role, they are anyway rather like ready meals; it might be possible to get by on them, but it must be highly unsatisfactory. There is something intolerably bland about them; there’s nothing to get your teeth into.

So, it’s back to that science fiction novel for me…

But I will leave the last words to Laura Sewell Matter:

‘The formula that Garvice so successfully exploited – virtuous heroine overcoming numerous obstacles to attain happiness – is a predictable one, which any author might employ. His readers are now dead, and their Garvices – if they exist at all – moulder in the attics of the Western world where books like them, by authors who have learnt the same lessons and applied the same patterns to their fiction, are being read on the beach today.’

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Book Titles: Choosing a Title and some Good, Bad, and Indifferent Titles from Classic Novels

mrx%2BnecronomiconTitles are always difficult to decide on. This is all the more of a challenge, as the conventional wisdom of innumerable writers websites says you have to have an outstanding one that will make your readers want to start reading at once: – not an easy task.

Well, I find them difficult, anyway. I was stumped as to what to call the Sophie de Courcy and Émile Dubois story, until I realised that I had the title in the text in the quote from Lord Dale in Émile’s days as a highwayman: – ‘You’re that scoundrel, Émile Dubois: i can tell by your eyes!’

I believe this is often true (having difficulty in finding a good title, I mean, and then finding it in a line in the story, not identifying highwaymen by their eyes). That’s handy, given the sickening number of times an author must edit, re-write, and edit again. You can read through looking for a possible title, and the great thing is, these days, it doesn’t have to be conventional; it can be a question, or a threat, as in Harlan Ellison’s classic dystopian fantasy, of which more below…

I am never sure how far titles influence me as a reader. I would say only occasionally when I was younger, and perhaps more often now. Covers often interested me more then. Perhaps I have become less visual? Hard to say, as then I had seen so much less of both than I have now.

I was pulled in by a several titles, though, even then. For instance, when I saw that one of the late Philip K Dick’s: ‘”Flow My Tears,” The Policeman Said’ that acted as a hook at once (I would dispute that his surname had a Freudian effect on me, though!) .41cypvh7jfl

‘”Repent Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison was another. I knew I’d have to read that or burst, though I was fourteen at the time, and cynical about almost everything.

The Philip K Dick novel disappointed me slightly, though I really think I ought to re-read it, as I would understand the many references better now, and at the end the meaning of the title, elusive throughout , was finally illuminated in a cathartic scene.

‘”Repent Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman’ is surely a work of genius. I gather that it has won classic status, and deservedly. I realised, when reading that, just how you can write a story with a serious political or anyway, ‘social’ message, and still make it entertaining.

For anyone reading this blog who hasn’t read that story, I would urge: please do, even if it’s the only piece of fantasy you ever read. It is horribly prescient. Written circa 1965, it prefigures our present day Culture of Hurry in a hideous but comical dystopia of a world governed by clocks. The very rhythm of the story is reminiscent of the ticking of a clock out of synch.

It is grotesquely comic, and highly tragic. It’s wonderfully constructed, though this is done with such mastery that it seems almost by the style that it was slapped together accidentally.

wuthering heightsOddly enough, I have never read a review on it, so these opinions are just ‘off the top of my head’.

But some other classic best sellers have, to say the least, lacklustre titles. It would seem that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance, nobody was that bothered about a title as a form of advertisement. A title seems to have been used as a means of summarising the book, rather than that of selling it.

Samuel Richardson’s’ Pamela’, anybody? Well, that does have the subtitle, ‘Or Virtue Rewarded’. I am sure that those who have borne with me through many blog posts know at once what my take on that is: ‘Moral and religious hypocrisy and toadying to your would-be rapist rewarded, more like!’

For sheer yawn inducing lack of allure, try the title of the today little known sequel: ‘Pamela in Her Exulted Condition’. Yes; and the story isn’t much more exciting.

Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ has a dull enough sub-title: ‘The History of a Young Lady’. Maybe that was to put off those readers with perverted tastes who might plough through six of the seven volumes for the pleasure of reading of the rape (which anyway, takes place offstage to maintain propriety).

Then there is Fanny Burney’s ‘Evelina’. That’s a nice name, and unusual, but not exactly a descriptive title. Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Joseph Andrews’ are even less likely to enthral: unlike Richardson and Burney’s, those don’t even have unusual names.

In fact, I have been guilty of calling a novel simply after the name of a main character myself – in ‘Ravensdale’. I liked title, as both the protagonist Reynaud and the antagonist Edmund share that surname, and it is the name of the earldom which Edmund covets; besides which, ravens are seen as birds of ill omen and they circle about at the climatic points of the story. Still, potential readers don’t know that.images

Another early novel is a favourite mine of the so-bad-it’s-good category ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini, Captain of Banditti’. That is probably a title that promises much blood and thunder in the original German. I don’t speak, or read any German, so I couldn’t say. In that English one, it sounds like a take off of some school story of the mid twentieth century: ‘Renny Reynolds, Captain of the First Eleven’, or some such.

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is a name difficult to detach from its lurid reputation, but removed from that, it isn’t much of an advertisement for the excitement of that truly terrifying story.

Then we go on to the subtle, but sedate titles from Jane Austen: ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Mansfield Park’ etc.

‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Agnes Grey’ are again far from riveting titles; ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ are a bit more likely to stimulate interest.

thElizabeth Gaskell was another person who went in for sedate titles. ‘Mary Barton’, ‘Ruth’ and ‘North and South’ etc. ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ might be considered to be shockingly risqué for this most Christian of authors –except for the fact that ‘lovers’ had a completely respectable meaning in the mid nineteenth century UK…

Her one time editor Charles Dickens knew how to market writing – how to end his serial pieces for his magazine on a cliff hanger, and how to appeal to his audience – and yet, his titles were hardly of the sort likely to send rushing to buy a copy – ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘Domby and Son’, ‘Hard Times’ etc. For all that, he was of course, the most successful author of his age. He did seem be fascinated by bizarre surnames and of course, these often feature as titles, ie, ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’.

t2c-_carton_the_the_young_seamstress_before_going_to_the_guillotine_john_mclenanThen, at the beginning of the twentieth century, we have one of the most famous novels ever to be published in the UK – so famous that it is hard to detach the name from its reputation –’ Dracula’. That name is taken from the title of the sinister ‘Vlad the Impaler’ of fifteenth century Transylvania, Vlad Tepes. It seems that nearly until publication, Bram Stoker was going to call the book, ‘The Dead Un-Dead’.

Bland as many of those nineteenth century titles are, it is interesting how a slight alternation would make them either ludicrous or totally boring.

‘Balmy Valleys’ by Emily Bronte.

‘The Tenant of Mellow Meadow Bungalow’ by Anne Bronte.

‘A Saga of Two Suburbs’ by Charles Dickens.

‘Sylvia’s Acquaintances’ by Elizabeth Gaskell.

‘Flat 2B, Mansfield House, Mansfield Road’ by Jane Austen.

‘Humility and Open Mindedness’ by Jane Austen.

They do certainly lose an allure, so there must have been some thought given to those original titles, sedate or not…And on Dickens, how come I forgot last week to include the supremely dull virtuous hero of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay as a Marty Stu hero from a classic novel, or, in my post of two weeks before, Lucie Manette as a classic example of the true  Mary Sue as heroine?

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…

Mary Stewart, Romantic Suspense, and Her Quote on ‘The anti-brigade, the dirt brigade, the sicks and the beats’.

 

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“I don’t want any one made troubled or unhappy by anything I’ve written; perhaps ‘depressed’ and ‘hurt’ are better words.” She expressed her disgust with the “anti” trend of the 1950s, “all the ‘anti’ brigade, the dirt brigade, the sicks and the beats.”

This is a quote (or rant) from a writer who created a genre – what I believe is known as ‘romantic mystery’ and who I gather has, like Georgette Heyer, come back into fashion recently.

I read a couple of her books longer ago than I  care to admit, when I was fourteen. I didn’t take to them, though I could see that they were well written with complex literary allusions. Like Heyer, they have many admirers and also like Heyer’s, they struck me as being written very much from a conservative, conventional sort of perspective that drove me wild as a rebellious fourteen year old. Mary Stewart may have imagined her books offended nobody – but here’s one exception at least. Her books made me highly uncomfortable.

Mary Stewart in the above quote seems to be disgusted with people who are ‘dirty’ and while that would include the whole human race in the eighteenth century, and all the underprivileged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I assume from her phraseology she means the people of the mid twenties century who were supposedly infamous for dirt of body and mind – the dreaded ‘Beatniks’.

I have only ever met one elderly person who admitted to having been a ‘Beat’ in that era. I don’t know what happened to the rest of them – whether they vanished from the face of the earth, or were perhaps indistinguishable from the aging hippies I used to see about.90px-Beatgirl_(3)

The elderly man I met was not impressive, though for a member of ‘the dirt brigade’ his personal hygiene was unremarkable – he wore an old sheepskin coat and went about with a copy of ‘The Lord of The Rings’ in his pocket. He also sometimes carried about a guitar that I suspected he couldn’t play (I am not making any of this up). He didn’t seem to do anything much but smoke dope. I suppose he read that book now and then.

So, I have no reason to have any particular fondness for what I have heard of ‘The Beat Movement’. But I have to admit, I have only regarded them up to now as an aspect of social history and the protest movement of the young in the affluent, Cold War dominated nineteen-fifties and sixties.

Nevertheless, when I came on this quote recently, it ruffled me. It took me a minute or two to work out why (quick on the uptake, eh?)

I don’t like the assumption that any social protest movement is by definition merely ‘anti’. If you are ‘anti’ something, you are generally pro something else. It may be something bizarre or unpopular; it may even be nonsensical; but I have yet to encounter any human being who is only motivated by antipathetic motives. People almost by definition see themselves as being ‘for’ something. And if  you are for something, you will tend to be, however fair-minded you try to be, against something else.

So, what do I know about the Beatniks before I go and look on Wickipedia?

I believe that Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and other famous folk singers who were part of the peace movement were connected with Beats.

The look the Beatniks cultivated, I gather, long hair and beards, was based on the look of Fidel Castro, Che Guevera, and the other guerrillas who had recently won their guerrilla war in Cuba, and whose hair had grown long in the Sierra Maestra. They were obviously icons of complete rebellion, and  that look soon enough became fashionable.  If anyone was anti establishment and terrifying to middle class, middle-aged respectable people, it was Fidel Castro and Che Guevera. Therefore,  for a man to grow long hair and a beard was to align himself against the establishment.

Like them, too, I believe they challenged conventional materialistic values based on property ownership– though from a different ideological perspective. And while the ‘Beat Movement’ of that time may have attracted many individuals like the man in the sheepskin coat, some of the beliefs listed by their proponents seem to me entirely commendable. This is what Wickipedia has to say about some of their ideology: –

‘The Beat philosophy was generally countercultural and anti-materialistic and it stressed the importance of bettering one’s inner self over and above material possessions. Some Beat writers, such as Kerouac, began to delve into Eastern religions such as Taoism or Buddhism. Politics tended to be liberal, with support for causes such as desegregation…’ Now, for instance,  virtually everyone these days not a fascist would believe that segregation was an excellent thing about which to be highly ‘anti’ .

‘Many scholars speculate that a reason that many Beat writers were interested in and wrote about Eastern religions was because they wanted to encourage young people to practice spiritual and sociopolitical action. As a result, these progressive thoughts originating from East Asian religions, influenced the youth culture to challenge capitalist domination and break the dogmas of their generation. The Buddhist idea of achieving inner freedom was popular among the Beatniks. As a result, it motivated this movement to reject traditional gender and racial rules.’

From this, I suspect that Ms Stewart, who assumed that they were ‘anti everything’ only meant that they were anti the sort of standards which she upheld. Now, as I say I haven’t read any of her novels since I was fourteen. I found them too conventional, full of nice girls who hand over the steering wheel to a man and don’t do any Naughty Naughty Tut Tut stuff before marriage.

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Perhaps she had read, and believed, all the bad press Beatniks had.
Some of it is quite fascinatingly lurid; for instance, that gun waving grinning lunatic depicted in the film poster above.

I find this quote, and the bugbear of fear of Beatniks, fascinating. It is obvious that Mary Stewart had a blind spot; she could not see that her notions of the ‘decency’ she goes on to mention in that interview were not the only ones, and that it was  permissible to challenge these without being some sort of rebarbative ‘sick’ with twisted ideas.

At least,  I hope it is…

It’s instructive, because I sometimes can be in danger of falling into the same trap myself, from a wholly different social and political, literary and historical perspective.

Last of all, here’s a cover from one of Mary Stewart’s works.

 

 

Classic Novels That Were Initially Rejected

Sometimes I can be a Merry Andrew (or Merry Andrea?). This is a Polyanna Post to encourage fellow self published writers who feel a bit downhearted; cast down by lack of public recognition, perhaps, or dismayed at unimpressive sales figures.

The thing is, if you aim for any sort of originality, if you give reign to the imagination and strain the boundaries of convention and genre, a lot of people are going to be frankly puzzled. They won’t ‘get it’; or if they do, they may hate it.

If you write primarily to create something you believe in, rather than churning out four novels as a month or whatever it is that is recommended to keep you in the best seller lists at Amazon, then you have to run the risk of the work not receiving the recognition, the success of which all writers dream.

That doesn’t mean that it never will be successful; we hear all the time of writers who have broken the rules and made a success of it – and the irony is, that invariably means that they set off a trend. For instance, vampires were long out of fashion until the excellent Anne Rice revived them with ‘Interview with a Vampire’.

We are forever being told that ‘the market’ doesn’t like this or that, as though this said market is some sort of irascible god who must at all costs be appeased; in fact, a separate entity from the readers out there, who all have individual tastes and quirks.

Some of those readers might be the very people who will love what you have written, write rave reviews, set off a trend and lead to that elusive success and recognition.

Though writers would rather have recognition in this lifetime, the example of Emily Bronte is still something of a balm.Houghton Lowell 1238.5 (A) - Wuthering Heights, 1847.jpg

She died early of ‘consumption’ only a couple of years after writing ‘Wuthering Heights’, with no inkling that her only novel would become a classic. Critical response had generally been hostile; though some acknowledged the power of the writing, all were disgusted with the dark picture of unrestrained destructive passions she depicted. This review from Graham’s ‘Lady’s Magazine’ is fairly typical: –
‘How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.’

Then, to venture outside the world of writing, Vincent Van Gogh must be the ultimate example of the artist who, commercially an utter  failure in his lifetime, now has works that sell for millions.

A picture of two peasant woman digging in a snow-covered field at sunset. Their heads are bowed and their arms are abnormally long. The setting sun casts a warm glow over the cold fields of snow.
Perhaps the collectors forget that Van Gogh’s initial reason for wishing to paint was to depict the sufferings of the poor and oppressed. A group of male prisoners (or inmates), walk around and around in a circle, in an indoor prison (or hospital) yard. The high walls and the floor are made of stone. In the right foreground the men are being watched by a small group of three, two men in civilian clothes with top hats and a policeman in uniform. One of the prisoners in the circle looks out towards the viewer, and he has the face of a beardless Vincent van Gogh.

I always thought he never sold one painting during his lifetime,but here it seems I am wrong.  He did sell one, ‘The Red Vineyard’. laborers toil in the field, with all but one on foot and the other manning a beast drawn cart; a river curves in and out of the scene from the upper right with one person in it and the sun is prominently displayed among yellow lighting; the foreground fields are multicolored and the background fields are yellowish.

However, to return to my main theme.

The website
http://www.literaryrejections.com/best-sellers-initially-rejected/
lists various classics which were initially underestimated by those in the publishing world, including: –
CS Lewis received rejections for ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ for years, but continued to write.
Mary Shelley received numerous rejections for ‘Frankenstein’ until a small publisher agreed to print five hundred. They book only sold twenty-five in 1818, and it was not until 1831 and a third edition that sales started to improve.
A rejection letter to W Golding states that his book ‘The Lord of the Flies’ was, “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.’ LordOfTheFliesBookCover.jpg
DH Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chaterley’s Lover’ was rejected by every conceivable publisher in the UK and US, so that he had to self publish.
‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffeneggar was rejected by twenty-five literary agents.
Even those who write more mainstream novels have often received a staggering amount of rejections. Agatha Christie five years worth of them. Stephanie Myers was comparatively lucky with her ‘Twilight’ . It received only 14.

Stephen King became so discouraged by trying to write the later best seller ‘Carrie’ that he threw it in the bin (his wife later rescued it). He went on to receive dozens of rejections by publishers before that final acceptance.

So, there are many indications that writers have much to gain by continuing to write what they love and believe in. whether it meets with rejections from traditional publishers, or commercial failure or not.

However, personally, I am not a purist; I see no reason why one shouldn’t churn out a bit of stuff now and then for fun which you wouldn’t put under your main pen name.  That can be enjoyable; it might even meet with commercial success; but it isn’t the same as writing what you are inspired to write, which at those addictive times seems almost to write itself.

Those times of inspiration are priceless.

The Seven Most Annoying Heroes in Famous Novels – Uncharitable New Year’s Rant

Before I get on to being what followers of various forms of New Age ‘Courses on Miracles’ would call ‘negative’, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and especially wish one  to my wonderful fellow writers and to my readers. Thank you for all your inspiration and support.
The ‘negativity’? Well, as I was watching a James Bond film (not such a bad one as they go; at least the replacement ‘M’ was a woman and called him a ‘misogynistic dinosaur’) I reflected that he probably was the hero I detest most in books (all right; that particular film doesn’t come from a book; still, the character does) . Then in a truly charitable fashion, I effortlessly remembered another male lead of a book I disliked even more; but then I realised that I detested another hero of a well known book yet more – and before I knew it, I had a virtual shopping list of the Heroes I Detest Most.

As none of these novels were written by currently living authors, I don’t see why I shouldn’t publish this bitter list to give a laugh to those who, like me, feel a bit jaded after over indulging in the recent festivities, so here it is.

I warn readers that the list is based on personal prejudice and some of these heroes probably don’t, as ‘heroes’ go, deserve to be on it at all; there are probably much nastier or annoying male leads out there I have yet to meet and find objectionable.

Oh, and anyone who wants to nominate a vain, annoying, Marty Stu or downright obnoxious male lead in a famous novel by a deceased author is very welcome to do so.

Have I a list of annoying, obnoxious heroines, who may or may not be Mary Sues? Yes, but unfortunately my complaint about all these female leads tends to be the same – that once she gets together with the male lead she loses all her independence of mind and becomes half of a smug couple, or even if she doesn’t, that she loses all critical faculties regarding the man of her dreams. Therefore, my list needs some more work to make it in any way entertaining; but by way of a hint, Hippoylata in Mary Renault’s series on
Theseus, his captive Amazon who fights by his side against her former Amazon subjects and Fanny Burney’s Evelina are both on it.

Number One

Dominic Alistair, Marquis Vidal, the ‘hero’ of Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Devil’s Cub’ is totally obnoxious. Even at fourteen, I cringed when I read this. Oh dear. This fellow’s got problems; in fact, he needs intensive psychiatric treatment and a good kick up the backside (sorry!). He likes killing men who annoy him, and he half throttles the heroine at one time, and at another, tries to rape her. This doesn’t stop her from falling in love with him, though.
To be fair to the heroine, she does have the sense to try and shoot him during the rape attempt, but she’s so sorry to see him in a fever as a result of the wound she’s inflicted that she longs to ‘kiss his bad temper away’.
To be fair to Heyer as well, she never again had a would be rapist as a hero, and it’s unfortunate that the publishers have seen fit to keep this one in print. It still gets glowing five star reviews as a lot of woman readers think that the fact that the woman shoots at him makes things even.
I don’t. If he was shown as at least repenting of it, it might be different, but the whole sorry episode is happily swept under the carpet by heroine and many an avid reader alike.

Number Two

Theseus in Mary Renault’s ‘The King Must Die’ and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ .
By the living lord Zeus, this man annoyed me! OK, so he is meant to be over confident and machismo, and the men of the age didn’t see why women had any problems with being taken as war prizes (of course all Theseus’ war prizes adore him), but I detest him anyway, if only because the reader is expected to cheer him along as he avidly sets about destroying the nasty king-for-a-year sacrificing matriarchies wherever he goes (it’s worth noting here that it’s always on the one day a year that the King is due to be sacrificed that he comes across them). Everyone admires him, which isn’t surprising, as he generally kills off anyone who doesn’t.
I don’t see why the series isn’t called ‘The Queen Must Die’ as that’s what happens to all the women who marry him. He slowly chokes the unfortunate Phaedra to death (why, as an accomplished wrestler, he doesn’t use the quick and more effective strangle isn’t explained).
This fellow deserves to be made to clean the female lavs in Hades for a thousand years.
This series (brilliantly researched and in parts equally well written, by the way) also features the Hippoylata I mention above, who finds Theseus’ charms so irresistible that she joins him in promoting his patriarchal conquests.

Number Three

Heathcliff.

Now, I’ve said several times on the discussion thread on Goodreads that I started that I detest Heathcliff’s actions, not the pathetic character, who is clearly off his head. Also, I don’t believe that Emily Bronte intended him to be viewed as any sort of a hero, Byronic or otherwise. Still, I remain astonished that anyone can possibly find this fellow romantic, with his habit of boxing girls’ ears and bullying children. And then he’s so sorry for himself, and mourns his loss of Cathy for such a ridiculously long time.
I’m sorry to say many woman readers find his despising all women save his idol Cathy romantic. I can’t relate to that. I think too, that if he’d had his dream fulfilled he’d soon have tired of Cathy and started abusing her too. Also, he’s so mean that while he’s making a lot of money out of being a ‘cruel hard landlord’ he still rations the amount of tea the younger Cathy is allowed to offer to guests and has porridge for supper.

Number Four

James Bond. What can I say?
Well, I believe this fellow certainly suffers from serious sexual repressions of some sort as a compulsive Don Juan who goes in for such unimaginative seductions; for instance, why are the erotic episodes described so mechanically? Is it because I’m dyslexic that I particularly notice the way ‘his right hand went to her right breast’ or does this unconsciously betray the political bias of Ian Fleming?
This man deserves to be made to work as a peace campaigner for fifty years (zero hours and no pension).

Number Five

Charley Kinraid in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is almost an ideal type of a Marty Stu (I dislike the whining Philip Hepburn, the ‘real’ hero of the story, even more, but Charley Knraid is clearly meant to be the romantic interest so he gets the listing). It shows what an excellent writer Gaskell is that despite this, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is still one of my favourite novels.  Almost everyone, save the carping, envious Hepburn, admires Kinraid. He’s a brilliant harpooner, handsome, fearless, a good friend, a hard drinker, a bold fighter, irresistible to women and the life and soul of the party. Nobody dances the hornpipe like him.
This opportunist is indestructible and always falls on his feet with a merry quip.
There’s no pleasing me! Heathcliff exasperated me by mourning his loss of Cathy for twenty years; Kinraid annoyed me by forgetting Sylvia six months after his dramatic parting from her.
He starts off his glittering career as ‘the most daring Specksioneer (chief harpoonist) on the Greenland Seas’ during the French Revolutionary Wars. When on shore, he’s a dedicated flirt and heartbreaker, causing at least one girl to go into a decline when he loses interest in her. At one point he seems to be engaged to both the eponymous heroine and one of her neighbours at the same time (weirdly enough for Gaskell, this ridiculous situation isn’t portrayed humorously).
I disliked him for that, but I did applaud his standing up to a press gang operating illicitly, though I was sorry he shot dead two of its members. With his invariable luck, he escapes hanging for this through being ‘kicked aside for dead’. Later on, however, after he’s press ganged into the Navy, Kinraid goes in for more heroics, though this time on their side, and is promoted to Captain. As all Naval Captains had to rely on press gangs to raise enough men to go to sea, and couldn’t be too scrupulous about the rule of their having to be sailors, he’s obviously happy enough to collude in the press gang’s activities and forget he shot dead two men for doing what he now endorses.
When Kinriad comes back to claim Sylvia, whom he has sworn he’ll marry or remain single, only to find she’s been tricked into marriage by Philip Hepburn, he’s forgotten about her and married to a pretty heiress in no time. This silly girl admires him nearly as much as he admires himself.
Hepburn dies expiating his sins, while Sylvia, overcome with guilt over renouncing Hepburn for his trickery, dies of a broken heart. However. the shallow opportunist Kinraid complacently faces a glowing future in the new century. I found him and his undeservedly good fate supremely annoying.

Number Six

Lord Heriot Fayne in Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family’.
I disliked this hero initially for his habit of threatening to throw Jewish money lenders out of windows. For the rest, for some reason I found this cardboard baddy turned goody totally exasperating in that everyone who meets him feels inexplicably awed by his ‘air of command’. He inspires respect, it seems, even when he’s togged up as ‘Coster Dick’ to get hammered and brawl in a music hall. He’s so macho that when one of his opponents caddishly sneaks up behind and hits him over the head with a cut glass decanter, knocking him out, on coming to, he suffers no sissy symptoms like nausea, but happily lights up a pipe and strolls through the streets, rescuing the odd waif.
He also rescues the heroine when her pony bolts towards a disused quarry (he’s disguised as a tramp at the time). Then he saves a little girl who gets lost in a forest somewhere in South America (he’s gone there as a ranch hand). His reformation is effected by his going round the country as a busker. This course of behavioural modification is seemingly so swift and effective it is obviously to be recommended as a way of taming all young tearaways.

Number Seven

Ludovic Lavenham in Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Talisman Ring’.
To be fair, this fellow, who serves as a sort of ‘secondary hero’ , probably doesn’t deserve to be on here.

This is another Heyer historical romance I read at fourteen when snowed in. I  re-read it a year or so ago during several visits to a doctor’s surgery. I found this swaggerer purely infuriating as a teenager, and cringed with embarrassment at the way he flirted with his ‘little cousin’ when lying on his sickbed after being shot by excisemen:

Him: ‘Is that a tear, little cousin? Don’t you like your cousin Ludovic?’

Her: ‘Oh, yes! But I was so scared that you would die.’

After that scene, I’m sorry to say I almost wished he would. Reading the story again all these years later, (this research on romances) I expected to regard him more kindly. I didn’t. To be honest, I don’t know exactly why I find this Heyer hero in particular so annoying. True, he’s stupid and arrogant and full of over-the-top macho posturing, but that does tend to be so of several of Heyer’s young heroes and ‘Sherry’ in ‘Friday’s Child’ is equally idiotic. Ludo Lav is also, like Charley Knraid, really only a secondary hero, the real one being Sir Tristam Shield (get the names) his older and acidic cousin.

So, there’s the list, and probably in the case of the male leads who don’t go in for rape, throttling their wives or at least hanging their spaniels, quite unfair. Charley Kinraid, Heriot Fayne and Ludovic Lavenham are at least portrayed as being fairly gallant, even if they are Marty Stus. I’m sure there are many heroes out there, particularly in classical literature, who are far worse than even Dominic Alastair.

So, there’s a highly uncharitable post to start the 2015. How jaundiced; I think I’d better go and do some weights or change my resolution to vowing to be kinder about such male lead characters in general…