What Makes a Reader Empathise with a Lead Character is Often an Indefinable Combination of Things

Re-reading my favourite novel by Margaret Atwood, ‘Bodily Harm’, made me wonder, as I have done before, whether or not you have to identify strongly with the lead character to be really drawn in by a novel.
I like the main character, Renny Wilford, well enough – I like her courage, and her detached, cool humour. She is not an enthusiast (to use a wonderful eighteenth century term) about anything, but that is part of her appeal. Even in her relationship with her live in lover, Jake – who in fact stops either loving her or living with her as the back story progresses – there is this lack of intense commitment.
It is, of course, part of the interest of the plot that Renny stops being detached. Her terrible experiences in a gaol on a tiny Caribbean island as a suspected revolutionary (of all ironical charges) and the horrors she has seen as that hopeless revolutionary uprising is aborted, have changed her. Now such issues as the sort of jewellery it is chic to wear, or how to furnish your home on a budget economy no longer absorb her. Now she will write about what she has seen.
Still, like this lead character as I did, I didn’t strongly identify with her. I didn’t feel for her as I did for various other characters going through dramas far removed from my own experiences. Perhaps this was the author’s intention, that Renny, being detached herself, does not inspire strong identification in the reader?
For instance, I really felt for the female lead of Patrick Hamilton’s ‘The Slaves of Solitude’, the honourable Miss Roach, persecuted by a pair of closet Nazis in an English boarding house in the middle of World War II. I empathized  with Amelia, besotted wife of the insensitive George Osborn in ‘Vanity Fair’, for all  her sillness. Now I am re-reading ‘Ariadne’ by June Rachuy Brindle, and as before, I find myself wholly identified with the last matriarchal Queen of Ancient Crete in her struggle against the invasion of the patriarchs.
That last might be said to be wholly unsurprising – I am, after all, attracted by the matriarchal thesis and have never considered that it has been sufficiently disapproved, even if I have sadly never been a matriarchal queen. My sympathy with Miss Roach’s mental torture in the boarding house similarly may well come from my own experience of encounters with malevolent people with fascist sympathies, and foolish as Amelia may be, I did in fact elope myself as a teenager with my other half…
That must be a part of it. I don’t consider that this has anything to do with the vividness of the portrayal of the main character. Margaret Atwood’s portrayal of character is always superb, and Renny is more clearly drawn than many with whom I have identified far more intensely.
I tend to think that unfortunately for writers, it is largely a matter of chance whether or not a reader can strongly identify with a main, or indded, any character.
A writer can do his/her best to make a character sympathetic and interesting. The writer can give that character strong motivations, sympathetic weaknesses combined with admirable strengths, trying circumstances, not too much of a surfeit of admiration, etc – objectively,  according to the ‘How To’ writing books, that should result in a highly appealing character.
Still, finally, whether or no sh/e evokes empathy ino a reader depends on a whole lot of factors out of a writer’s control.
These include the reader’s frame of mind at the time of reading, his or her past experiences, his or her goals, attitudes, expectations, sense of humour, prejudices of all sorts, and a myriad of other factors; all these will define how s/he relates to that painstackingly defined lead character.
That is at once both an encouraging and discouraging thought.
Still, if you are like me, you don’t necessarily have to identify strongly with the lead character – or in fact, any of them – to enjoy a well written and skillfully executed story.
And while what constitutes a well crafted and skillfully executed story is also partly a matter of taste, perhaps it is less so than is the question of finding deep empathy with characters.

Drama and Melodrama in Some Classic Victorian Novels

 

A Tale of Two Cities
Sidney Carton looks seedy and jealous in this depiction of the back garden of Dr Manette’s house in the then leafy and breezy Soho.

     When writing tales of terror, it can be difficult to keep balanced along the thin line between the terrifying and the ludicrous – as I have commented in a previous post ‘The Thin Line Between the Gothic and the Absurd’.

     It is nearly as difficult at times to maintain that balance between drama and melodrama. Perhaps much of that relies upon sufficient psychological motivation in moments of dramatic tension within a novel.   

     This seems particularly true when one is reading novels reflecting and appealing to the tastes of another age – or anyway, popular taste, as there are always exceptions.  

     Dickens’ bursts of sentimentality are of course notorious, and presumably the general readership of his time found his emotive scenes genuinely touching. For instance, there is the life and death of the son of Charles Darney and Lucie Mannette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.

     This paragon would make Little Lord Fauntleroy seem realistic. Presumably, he is meant to reflect the qualities of his parents, as ideal a coupling of a pefect pair as you are likely to come across in a novel.

     This is his deathbed scene: – 

    ‘Even when there were sounds of sorrow among the rest, they were not harsh nor cruel. Even when golden hair, like her own, lay in a halo on a pillow round the worn face of a little boy, and he said, with a radiant smile, “Dear papa and mamma, I am very sorry to leave you both, and to leave my pretty sister; but I am called, and I must go!” Those were not tears all of agony that wetted his young mother’s cheek, as the spirit departed from her embrace that had been entrusted to it.’

     This is all the more extraordinary, as Dickens surely knew small children well, having ten of his own by his wife Catherine (oddly enough, and off topic, he held her solely accountable for having so many children, as if she had been guilty of a form of parthenogenesis).

     Presumably only Lucie Manette, who is depicted as an extreme of the domestic angel type Dickens so revered, could produce such a son as the one depicted here, and the one whom Sidney Carton sees in a vision before the guillotine.

   When this anti-hero finally rises to the role of hero and sacrifices himself for Charles Darnay by substituting himself in the cell for him, as he awaits his death he has a sublime vision, both of what will happen to France of the future, and of what will happen to the Darney family.

     As is so often the case with Dickens, the writing here in uneven, the sentimentality of the previous paragraph about the death of the Darnay son vying with the strong and evocative. That being so, I shall quote it extensively: – 

     ‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.
     ‘ I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years’ time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.
     ‘I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.
     “I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.
     ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

         Sidney Carton’s career has often been ignoble, but his unrequited love for Lucie Manette is depicted as transforming his sordid life, making him as much the founder of an honoured dynasty as his alter ego Charles Darnay. This notion worked very well for the mid nineteenth century readers, while modern audiences are certainly more likely to question the likelihood of such an unrequited love inspiring nobility in a bitter, disillusioned drunkard such as Sidney Carton. Stlll, then as now, many readers are caught up in the idea.

     When I read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ myself, I thought that the whole treatment of Sidney Carton might be more convincing if the explanation for his bitterness and hopelessness was ever given, but it is not. He is just depicted as being that way, and to be pitied for it.

     Because of this shadowy depiction of this melancholy doppelganger of the romantically successful Charles Darnay, and the sentimental effusions which form part of the first parts of this peroration, it don’t work for me at least. Interestingly, the renowned last sentence does. We don’t really have to relate strongly to Sidney Carton to feel the strength of that.

     Perhaps this shallow portrayal of a seemingly complex character is to some extent typical of the psychological understanding of that age. Certainly, in Victorian literature generally, ignoble characters sometimes seem to be inspired by the influence of supposedly exemplary ones to behave with startling self abnegation.
220px-cc_no_06_a_tale_of_two_cities

     For instance, in George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ the heroine, Dorothea, comes across her by then devoted admirer Will Ladislaw and the married Rosamond Lydgate in what to that age would appear to be a ‘clandestine meeting’. She leaves, visibly upset. Will Ladislaw then reveals his passion for Dorothea, and instead of being offended (she had considered him an admirer of her own) Rosamond Lydgate says that she will make all right with her. She is seemingly so affected by Dortothea’s noble character that she is drawn out of her own vanity and self-centredness.

     I have to say that for me, this seems wildly improbable. The critic Quentin Anderson says that Rosamond, on finding that Ladislaw ‘thinks her of no account’ is ‘temporarily awed into a generosity which brings Ladislaw and Dorothea together.’

     This makes no sense to me; given that Rosamond thinks of Ladislaw as sophisticated in that he knows the world outside Middlemarch, why should the fact that he takes so dim a view of her inspire her to right things for him with Dorothea? Would she not be more likely to feel slighted by his outburst? It is not even as if he is an admirable character himself.  After all, he has no occupation or means of supporting himself, relying on inheriting from a man he professes to despise; this hardly puts him in the position to despise Rosamond Lydgate.

Middlemarch image

      On the question of a Victorian novel failing to hit the right note in a scene of dramatic tension, I can’t help use as a final example the confrontation between the former Sylvia Robson, her returned former lover Charley Kinraid and her husband Phillip Hepburn in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

     Hepburn has concealed that he knew all along that Kinraid has been taken by the press gang, not drowned, as the rest of the community believe, has not passed on Kinraid’s message for her that he will return, and has married Sylvia himself, hoping that Kinraid is in fact, dead at sea.

     Both of the cheated lovers are of course, outraged. In this confrontation, the speeches of Sylvia and ‘the wretched guilty man’ are realistic. Those of Charley Kinraid, however, are not. The perceptive critic Graham Handley pinpoints the problem, which is that ‘Kinraid comes alive but fitfully’. Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrayal of him is always  uperficial.

    That is never so obvious as here. The critic goes on: ‘We have noted that Mrs Gaskell does not give him depth…but she does give him a number of trite phrases which would do well in the mouth of a straight adventure-story sailor. Here they ring false. “Oh, thou false heart!” “Leave that damned fellow to repent the trick he played an honest sailor” “I have frightened my poor love” – all these convey the feelings, but without the truth of expression that makes them real.’

     He asks Sylvia to leave with him, showing a naive (or possibly, professed) belief in his admiral’s ability to obtain her a divorce from Hepburn. ‘Your marriage shall be set aside, and we’ll be married again, all square and above board.’  Just then, as if on cue, the Hepburn’s baby cries, reminding Sylvia of someone she loves be#tter than her old lover.

     Kinraid, never normally reluctant to express himself or take the limelight, falls into complete silence while Sylvia gives a speech that involves her vow: – ‘I’ll never forgive yon man, or live with him as his wife again. All that’s done and ended.’ It finishes with her, ‘Kiss me once more. God help me, he’s gone!’

     This end to the scene is described by Graham HIndley as losing the vivid and believable quality of the earlier exchanges: – ‘Sylvia, in histrionic isolation, runs from the present to the past and back to the present again , while Kinraid utters no word of remonstrance to deflect her course. ..The effect is, like that of Kinraid’s words quoted earlier, a failure of truth.’



Some Thoughts on the Careers of Agnes Grey and Becky Sharp as Early Nineteenth Century Governesses

 

Vanity Fair Amelia and Becky
Amelia and Becky as girls

In my last post, I wrote about the realistic – and fairly dismal – depiction of a governess’ life in the England of the first part of the nineteenth century to be found in Anne Bronte’s ‘Agnes Grey’ , and contrasted her dismal life with the wild and harrowing adventures that are Jane Eyre’s improbable lot.
Both stories end happily because the man with whom they have fallen in love wants to marry them. Well, I suppose it is only fair to point out that both are in a position of comparative independence when they receive these proposals. Agnes is a respected teacher working in her mother’s school by the time that the former curate, now rector Mr Weston proposes to her, whereas Jane Eyre has inherited a fortune by the time she returns to visit the temporarily blinded Mr Rochester.
There was, of course, another famous author who wrote about the adventures of a governess – WM Thackeray in ‘Vanity Fair’ describes the lurid adventures of the heartless and manipulative Becky Sharp. She of course, has been at boarding school with Amelia. On the death of her alcoholic painter father, the proprietor Miss Pinkerton has taken her on to teach French to her pupils.
At this time, Becky shows her ill nature, and her only friend is the good natured Amelia Sedley, a rich merchant’s daughter loved by everybody. Now Amelia is leaving to be a young lady waiting for marriage to the son of another rich merchant, George Osborne. Becky longs to escape Miss Pinkerton’s academy , even if it means she must be a governess. First, however, she is to stay for ten days with Amelia’s family at Russell Square. Here she tries to draw in Aurelia’s absurdly vain brother Jos into proposing to her, but when the snobbish George Osborne sabotages her plans, she has to go on to her post at the uncultured, mean Sir Pitt Crawley in Hampshire.
It is interesting that Mr Weston remarks to Agnes that another type of woman in her position as governess might have made sure that she received far better treatment than that which Agnes has accepted.

This puts one in mind of Becky Sharp. Through unscrupulous manipulation, through making herself useful to the insensitive old baronet (she does his accounts), by flattering the family members, pursuing her own advantage at all times and spending almost no time teaching her two girl pupils, who are left to their own devices, she soon acquires some influence in the household.

At first, Becky is treated with no consideration. On the way to Queen’s Crawley in Hampshire, she is made to travel outside, on top of the coach. But soon, through honing her skills of flattery and manipulation – she stops being outspoken and rebellious as she was at Miss Pinkerton’s – she makes herself indispensable in the household.
In this, of course, she is helped by the fact that the second Lady Crawley is in ill health and of no account in the household, and that Sir Pitt is lecherously fascinated by her, and she is obviously able to keep him at arms’ length very cleverly; then she is able to draw his stupid guardsman son Rawdon Crawley into marriage by refusing his own lecherous advances.
Perhaps Agnes Grey might have made her lot rather more comfortable by the use of some judicious flattery and the odd piece of flirtation, by taking her duties as a governess less seriously, by in fact, not adhering to moral principle.
Becky, by contrast, never allows scruples of any sort to get in the way of her pursuit of money and social advantage. She shows how entirely callous she can be in Brussels. Here she encourages the foolish and vain George Osborne to become wildly infatuated with her, so that he is eager to visit the Crawleys in ther rooms. Here Rawdon Crawley cheats George at cards out of very small fortune he has left to him after his father has disowned him. This leaves Amelia virtually destitute. Becky is completely indifferent to her fate, or how wretchedly jealous she makes Amelia.
Just as Agnes Grey would not be herself if she ever compromised on the issue of moral principle. neither would Becky Sharp be herself if she had any moral principles greater than self interest.
Yet it is not quite true that in the fictional world, nice guys finish last. They might, from the point of view of material wealth. But nevertheless, Agnes Grey marries for true love and lives modestly but comfortably with the man she loves.

By contrast, the fate of her vain and frivolous pupil Rosalie Murray, who like Becky, is manipulative and heartless, is a dismal one. She marries the debauched and unattractive Sir Thomas Ashby because she coverts a title. She soon comes to hate him when angered by her carrying on a flirtation with her old admirer Harry Meltham, he forces her to live in the country. Not only that, but unhappiness does away with her blooming complexion and female curves, and she faces a dismal future.

George and Amelia's letters
George Osborn

 

 

Review of ‘The Time Machine’ by H G Wells: the First Time Travel Novel

The Time Machine Poster
Here, Weena is more as I imagined her than in the film versions.

I first read HG Well’s ‘The Time Machine’  in my early twenties, more years ago than I care to admit.

My impression of it then was that it was an intriguing but dated curiosity. Recently, reading a review of a Goodreads friend of mine, who was dismayed by the relationship between ‘The Time Traveller’ and the futuristic childish Weena, I thought that I would re-read it to see what I thought of it now.

That bit of the story did turn out to trouble me too, now, but more of that shortly.

H G Wells was, of course, a lifelong socialist, and this is reflected in his writings. He was also seemingly a supporter of the mild feminism encapsulated in ‘The New Woman’ of the late nineteenth century, one of his novels, ‘Ann Veronica’ (1909)  being about  aspects of female oppression in his era.  I read the first few paragraphs when I was working in public libraries years ago, but  for some reason which I have forgotten, stopped reading. I will have to try it again.

Anyway, he wrote ‘The Time Machine’ in 1895, at a time when he was very hard up, in broken health following a sports accident, and struggling to make ends meet through his writing. He determined on writing a commercially appealing novel, and decided to rework a theme he had approached as a student in a series called ‘The Chronic Argonauts’.

The story begins in  the house of a scientific invent tor known only as ‘The Time Traveller’, who seems very comfortably off, living in a house with various servants. He has a lengthy discussion after dinner with a group of male guests on the possibility of time travel, gives them a demonstration with a practice model, and then shows them his own machine.

This discussion, of course, is founded on the scientific boundaries accepted before Einstein published his work on the theory of relativity. In keeping with his own age, Wells’s  time machine is mechanical, whereas one in our age would presumably be seen  as electronic if it was described at all, though I must admit I have read few modern time travel stories.

The Time Traveller then invites them back to dinner the next week. He turns up late himself, dishevelled and disturbed, shoeless, and with bleeding feet, and eager to eat meat. Then he tells them that he has travelled to the year 802,701, and relates his adventures there.

The Time Traveller himself is barely described. His ‘queer broad head’ is commented on by one of the guests who serves as the narrator, so perhaps Wells shared Conan-Doyle’s view that a large brain needs a large head. We are told he has a pale face and grey eyes.

He appears to have a playful aspect to his character, as one of the guests comments on a practical joke involving a ghost he played on them last Christmas, and that, and the determination and courage he shows when stranded in the future and the condescending tenderness he feels for Weena, is more or less all that we know about him.   When recounting his experiences in the future, he describes himself as ‘no longer young’.

In this distant future, the human race has divided into two. The Eloi, who have, though indolence, deteriorated into frail, four foot, intellectually deficient  fairylke creatures, who spend all their time playing. They have even forgotten how to read or write or make fire, representing the old upper class, who live above ground in a rural landscape of decayed mansions.

The former industrial working class have degenerated into the Morlocks, sloth like creatures who dread the light of day, who have been forced to live underground among the machines that still support the idle lifestyle of the leisured classes who live above.

However, these oppressed toilers underground have had a revolution which has led to another terrible society. Possessing the strength lacking in their former oppressors, they have deteriorated into cannibals. To his horror, the Time Traveller finds out that they keep the Eloi as a form of cattle to eat.  For some reason, all domestic, and most wild animals have become extinct, and that  is their only way to obtain meat. The Eloi themselves live on fruit.

This would not appear so far fetched to late Victorian readers: many UK factory workers of that era, slaving for long hours in appalling conditions and wretched wages, rarely saw the light of day and had virtually no leisure time.

The fruit eating Eloi seem to have lost most of their capacity for strong emotional attachments. There is  little difference in appearance between either the sexes, or between adults or children. Family ties seem to have broken down, but no babies are mentioned and there seems little difference either in stature or mental development between the children and adults.

Perhaps, in writing for a Victorian audience, Wells thought it best to avoid discussion of whether general promiscuity goes on. He remarks that the Eloi spend all their time either in play, courtship or swimming in the river (the climate in Surrey, England, appears to be much warmer than in either Wells’ age or our own).

Swimming being so excellent for developing muscles, I am surprised that people who spend hours every day at it could be weak and not even be proficient swimmers, but this seems to have been Wells’ view.

When one of their number is swept away by the tide, the others make no effort to save her, giving it up as hopeless without any effort. The Time Traveller does. As a result, the woman, who has the ridiculous name of Weena, becomes devoted to him.

And here we get to the part of the story I found distasteful on this reading, the relationship between the ‘no longer young’ Time Traveller and this worshipping, four foot high child woman whom he carries about.

The Victorian ideal of womanhood was indeed a child woman – as for instance, the love object of the protagonist in Wilkie Colin’s ‘The Woman in White’, Laura Fairilie. Paedophilia was recognised as a perversion in Victorian times, but was little known, and for a man to be attracted to an extremely childlike girl was generally seen as normal.

One would have thought that Wells, as a supporter of women’s rights, must have been critical of such an ideal. He may be depicting it critically, though the text gives no sign of this. It may even be that in his depiction of the relationship, the intellectual discrepancy, the gap in power in the relationship between Weena and her adored Time Traveller are meant to be an ironic comment on how women might become, if the feminine ideal of the Victorian era was to be taken to its logical extreme.

It is the underlying factor of the massive difference in intellect, in emotional maturity, in size (surely the relationship could not have been consummated?) that led me to find the relationship between the protagonist and Weena unpleasant.

The first time I read this, I seem to have missed that the relationship between  the two was meant to be a love affair – the idea seemed to be ridiculous, and I assumed that the fact that it is depicted that way in films was to add a romantic element lacking in the original story. In the films, Weena is shown as a full sized woman – in some, she is positively Amazonian looking.

the-time-machine-by-hg-wells
An Amazonian Weena, while the Time Traveller is both young and lacking in his ‘oddly shaped braod head’.

 

Timemachinebook
The less than fascinating original cover.

However, on re-reading this, I do find quotes that indicate that there is, indeed, meant to be a love story between them. ‘She was exactly like a child. She wanted to be with me always. ..I thought it was mere childish affection that made her cling to me…Nor until it was too late did I understand what she was to me.’

He always refers to her as ‘little Weena’. As all her people are little – he doesn’t seem to distinguish between one or the other of the rest of them, and we don’t even know if she has any relatives – so this constant emphasis on her ‘littleness’ struck me as demeaning. As she is, like all the Eloi, illiterate, he says: ‘The bare idea of writing had never entered her head. She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was, perhaps because her affection was so human.’

It seems odd to equate literacy with humanity –  reading and writing are just useful skills, like making fire.  I believe various studies of isolated tribes of people have shown that  a culture without writing doesn’t necessarily preclude their having a capacity for abstract thought. However, this is a subject about which I know little, and is wandering from the point.

Overall, then, this time the relationship between The Time Traveller and Weena struck me as bordering on the creepy, and this did taint the novel for me. As I say above, perhaps it is intended to be an ironic comment on the ultimate ‘feminine’ helpless woman.

The Time Traveller’s machine has been stolen by the Morlocks. He strives to get it back, and to take Weena back with him to the nineteenth century (what he would do with her there doesn’t seem to cross is mind).  He loses her, however, in a forest fire, and it is ambiguous whether or not she has been taken by the Morlocks or killed otherwise.

Then he  fights it out with the Morlocks, using the box of matches he has found in the remains of the museum. Somehow, unlike the matches I buy to light candles, that brand haven’t stopped working in thousands of years instad of weeks or months. Well, he  gains his time machine and takes off to look on other times. Finally he arrives home.

The story ends with The Time Traveller returning with some strange flowers given him by Weena, with which he will not part. His friends are still sceptical, and he goes on another journey. Perhaps he has gone back to see what became of Weena. The narrator, however, imagines him as going back to prehistoric times. We are told that after three years he has not returned.

Overall, this was an intriguing story, and a great achievement as the first novella on time travel.   However, for me, the characters were drawn very sketchily. Perhaps that is in keeping with its Jules Verne adventure story aspect.

I didn’t like the Time Traveller – even apart from the Weena  relationship.  Of course, above all, he is something of a caricature of a dedicated man of science. He is unmarried, though ‘no longer young’, and seems to have no relationships close enough to torment him when he is kept from the nineteenth century for a week.

He is depicted as brave and resourceful, but out of touch with his emotions generally to an almost absurd extent.  He comments on the beginnings of his ‘friendship’ with Weena, ‘Perhaps I had been feeling bereft’ . That is, at being separated from his own time for thousands of years, ‘perhaps’ he feels bereft after his original hysteria on finding that the Morlocks have stolen his machine.  On my first reading, I seemed to get  a stronger impression of the loneliness which might explain such a relationship as he had with Weena.

Perhaps it is a shame that Wells never got round to expanding on this story. He was eager to get it published, for his landlady banged on his door, asking him not to squander candles by writing into the night…

Cardboard Characters, Lovable, Rounded Characters, Larger Than Life Characters,and Mere Ciphers: How Sympathetic Must a Character Be to Keep You Reading?

220px-PrideandPrejudiceCH3detail
Well, every Austen reader knows what scene this depicts. ‘She is tolerable,but not handsome enough to tempt me…’

My PC – which groaned and collapsed –  is finally working again (looks about nervously, scared to tempt fate). Someone has even offered me  an unwanted laptop. Incredibly, I’ve never had one, and I am terrified by the look of those Ipads.

Anyway, in my last post, I was talking about my new fledged writer friend being upset at the savagery of a one star review (though she felt a bit better when I showed some of the fine specimens I have come by). Readers of this blog might remember that the main criticism was that her book was ‘Boring!!!’

The second front was opened over the issue of the characters, who according to this reviewer, were both unsympathetic and unbelievable, in fact, so like a lot of walking cardboard cut outs, that it was impossible for the reader to care what became of the lot of ‘em.

While the image of a lot of cardboard cut out characters stalking through the pages of a story is intriguing material for a fantasy story – I must give one on those lines a go, sometime – those concluding side swipes obviously cut my notice writer colleague to the quick.

This is clearly the last thing that a writer – who has probably spent hours making notes on background details on the past life of those characters, to fill them out in her/his mind – wants to hear. Well, everyone’s idea of a sympathetic or believable character is different – some people even find Heathcliff sympathetic and believable (well, so do I, having the psychiatric treatment he so clearly needs)  but it did make me mull over how far it is necessary to like the characters in a story, in order to enjoy it.

Obviously, and unfortunately, if a reader both thinks the plot is dull and the characters  uninteresting, then there isn’t very much to hold the attention. Yet, as I said last week, and as I pointed out to the writer in question (just call me Polyanna) that as the reviewer  also maintained that she kept reading to the bitter end, something obviously did hold her attention, even if it was how much she hated the characters and the plot, so all was not lost. As I said in my first post, if someone keeps on reading, however much s/he hates what you’ve written, then I count that as a victory.

How much sympathetic characters matter depends a lot, obviously,  on genre. If you are writing some traditional type murder story where you are going to bump off a lot of the characters, then it’s probably best for the reader’s peace of mind if s/he doesn’t get too fond of them. Perhaps that is why most of the characters in traditional, ‘country house murder’ Agatha Christie type detective stories are like a lot of walking stereotypes, often deliberately made hateful.

If, as Colonel Blimp is holding forth about Young People Today and Hanging and Flogging from the depths of his armchair in his club, his face a fine shade of puce, and  all his captive audience suddenly see him snatch at this throat and gargle, dropping his glass of vintage port, nobody is going to feel much outrage.

All the interest lies in the intellectual puzzle: was it his Estranged Wife who poisoned the port? Was it his nephew, the Dastardly Young Heir (entailed property, you see), who is rumoured to have Anarchistic Tendencies? Or was it the Colonel’s daughter, who has been kept at home in dowdy clothes and quietly besotted by her cousin these ten years?  Or was it the Waitress, whose mother he Ruined thirty years ago? I just wrote that off the top of my head, and no prizes for guessing that of course it was the last.

On mystery and detective stories, the Sherlock Holmes stories are, of course, notoriously well written. But the secondary characters are necessarily, just a series of ciphers. There isn’t space for anything more  in a short story, even if the Victorian short story was generally far longer than one for a magazine today. There is the Spirited Governess, the Unimaginative Shopkeeper, the Dastardly Stepfather, the Haughty Unbending Aristocrat, and one of the nicest characters – the Gallant, Dashing Gentleman Sailor –in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’, my favourite.  I do like a love story as part of an adventure or mystery story – but I am wandering from the point.

Conan Doyle sometimes called Sherlock Holmes ‘a reasoning machine’. This is not doing justice to the subtlety of his creation. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’ when Watson and Holmes first start sharing rooms, Watson does create a list of the areas of Holmes’ supposed areas of knowledge and others where he supposedly shows a startling lack of it. For instance,  he claims not to know that the earth revolves round the sun, which I think we may assume was a joke at the expense of the sometimes credulous Watson. Later on, Conan Doyle ignored – or possibly, even forgot about – this list, much as he forgot about the location of Watson’s wound by the time of, ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Thus, while Holmes’ knowledge of literature is supposedly nil, he sometimes makes remarks on quite abstruse literary figures, for instance, his cynical (and  unfortunately, true, at least for women as sex roles stand) quote at the end of  ‘A Case of Identity’: ‘“There is danger for him who taketh a tiger cub, and danger also in whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.” There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.’

Then again, nobody seems to expect the characters in macho war stories to be anything but stereotypes. If they developed scruples about killing the enemy  or something stupid like that, it would spoil everything for the readership, so none of that.

220px-Dracula_Book_Cover_1916
Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.

Then again, as another writer friend of mine pointed out, in ‘Dracula’ (I think that was Mari Biella) while Count Dracula and his adversary Van Helsing are strongly drawn characters, the supporting cast comprising Mina and Jonathan Harker and her ex-pupil Lucy and her three admirers are very thinly drawn. However,  this doesn’t detract from the readers enjoyment of the story. The two main opponents have so much personality that there is no need for the others to need more than a few strokes of the pen.

That modern readers we require sophisticated and consistent characterisation from authors at all, shows how far our study, or perhaps, our introversion regarding human character has progressed since, say, the Bronze Age ‘Iliad’ or even the Mediaeval Arthurian Legends, when the characters often behave wholly inconsistently.

I suppose, though, it must be conceded that while most of the characters in these lasting stories (as distinct from the indistinguishable war hero types) are ciphers, they are carried by the strongly drawn main ones much like an outstanding actor supporting a while cast of mediocrities.

It is also certainly true that there are genres where characterisation is all important. This is true of most so-called ‘women’s fiction’ and is certainly true of psychological thrillers  and has to be true of love stories.

Even with love stories, though (I’m distinguishing these from ‘romance’ which is a separate genre, with set expectations of an inevitable Happy Ever After Etc from the reader) it is still possible to enjoy the story, if you find just one of the main pair appealing. That is rather similar to how it is when a friend sets her heart on someone who you think is as dismal a choice as she could make. You still want her to win through, even if you know disillusionment lurks round the corner.

I would appear to be one of the few readers of Jane Austen who doesn’t like, or admire, Mr Darcy. In fact, I thought he was a priggish so-and-so, and I delighted in Jo Baker’s less than flattering picture of him in her brilliant novel ‘Longbourn . ’ I never could imagine how Elizabeth Bennett could be happy with a man with whom she couldn’t share a laugh, and I still can’t.

However, I did like Elizabeth Bennett. So if she had the poor taste to want the boring fellow (and no, no, I’m honestly not saying anything about the  Freudian implications of her joke about the sight of the grounds of Pemberley swaying her choice) , I wanted her to be able to win him, so I stayed interested until the end.

I mentioned dashing sailors earlier, and on this, and good or bad love choices, and on how it is still possible to fnd a book fascinating while not liking any of the main characters, I can think of at least one classic novel which has long intrigued me where I didn’t particularly like any of the main characters. In one, I actively disliked the two rival flawed heroes and wasn’t especially fond of the heroine. Yes, it’s – wait for it  – ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, about which I have often written before.

But this post is getting too long.  So more of that next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plasticity,Recycled Characters and Beloved Brothers: Part One: Elizabeth Gaskell

SL old cover

In an earlier post, I discussed how Elizabeth Gaskell used a particular character type – suely largely based on her lost and beloved brother – the charming, brave, dashing and handsome sailor, three times, in slightly different variations.

She used this character type possibly four times, if I count the returned sailor ‘Poor Peter’ in  ‘Cranford’ ( I have yet to read that).

This reuse of a character type, is in fact, is contrary to the cliam which WA Craik makes of the author n her 1970 work ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel’, that this author never  revisits character types or situations. This is so untrue, that I was startled by it. It seems to show a startling lack of perception on the part of that biographer.

Having read some biographies of Elizbeth Gaskell, I am always struck by the fact that she never properly got over the disappearance of this brother, John,  who went unaccountably missing during a voyage to India (possiby onland: it is unclear).  He was in fact, fairly dissatisfied with life as a sailor immediately before he vanished, and his normally lively spirits were subdued, to the point, it seems, where he reported that he was nicknamed  by his shipmates ‘The silent man’.

I have sometimes wondered if th efamily knew more about the disappearance of John, and concealed it because it contained an element of social disgrace. Still,  here, I am spectulating without any solid basis for my suspicion, and merely because a  lie, or anyway, an obfustification,  plays a great part of the plot of several of the author’s novels;  further, it is connected with this character and his fate in at least two of them,  ‘North and South’ and  ‘Sylvia’s Lovers.’

The first incarnation of this character type, Will Wilson in ‘Mary Barton’ is guilesss and uncomplicated. He possesses the dark ringlets that Gaskell always gives to this Jolly Sailor Boy  type, has the liking to tell a good tall tale she always attributes to sailors besides, is upright and honourable and as his foster mother and aunt Alice says, ‘steady’.

Here, the character is essentially unevolved. Will has very little between his ears. He is, however, unfailing decisive and upright in his dealings. This is never more obvious as when, on hearing that he will be able to save Jem by acting as witness in his murder trial, he leaves his ship to join Mary, who has hired a boat to  pursue his ship up the Mersey to where it joins the Irish Sea.

He falls in love with Mary’s rather dull and prudish friend Margaret – who is suffering from a blindness brought on through early onset cataract – after hearing her sing, as her voice is spectacular.

At the end of the novel, the prim Margaret – whom we must hope as a wife and mother finds time to sing, as it is her one fascinating characteristic -and Will Wilson emigrate to the US, along with Jem Wilson and Mary. Margaret has had her sight restored by a successful operation (it is interesitng that cataract operations could be performed successfully so early) and all ends happily for the couple.

He is next used in her 1853  novel North and South. Here, Frederick Hale is wholly beguiling, possessed of startling good looks and  wide set, deep blue eyes besides the inevitable dark ringlets. He loves to tell a story, adores his fiance and newly discovered sister, risks his life to visit his family and his dying mother (he’s wanted on a charge of mutiny] and has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous.

He has to live as an exile as he has parcipitated in a mutiny against an abusive captain.  Justice might be on his side, but the law is on that of the captain, and he is – in a realistic piece of plotting – never able to clear his name in England. Still, he does marry an heiress abroad, and has his own happy ending.

He is, in fact, the polar opposite of the male lead, the grim faced, emotionally repressed John Thornton.

This Honest Sailor character type next incarnation is a bit of a deterioration. In fact, intriguingly, I was put in mind by the anecdotes about the psychic projections, the thought forms, made by the Tibetian monks of old. They warned  Alexandra David-Neale that ‘the children of our mind’ can escape the control of the creator, and gradually become tainted with unpleasant qualities. If Frederick Hale is the apex of this character type,  Charley Kinraid, ‘The boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland seas’ may have superficial charm, but morally and in terms of emotional depths, he is certainy a deterioration.

He is  ringletted, handsome, charming, dashing and brave, but emotionally superficial and something of an opportunist.  I have written elsewhere about his evolution from rebellious Specksiioner who opposes the press gang to the point of killing off two of its members without a qualm, to Royal Navy Captain who must call on the press gang to muster his crew.

It is part of his indistructable nature (this man is made of Teflon) that he survives two serious woundings, being taken by th press gang, some years’ imprisonment in France and various battles, to be vigorous and cheeful in the company of his superficial, sheltered wife at the end.

He has an unattractive history of betraying woman. According to his rival Hepburn’s work colleague in the haberdasher’s shop, the Quaker William Coulson,  these include his sister Annie (though our age would not credit Coulson’s claim that she died of a broken heart) and at least two others after her. There is also Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Courney , who is convinced that she is engaged to him at the same time as Sylvia (I always found it remarkable that this bathetic situation wasn’t treated with more humour, but I suppose the author thought that it would detract from the tragic tone of the novel).  None of this is exactly proved, but Coulson is after all a Quaker, who regards lying as a deadly sin.

Elizabeth Gaskell  also recycled another type at least twice – the Hardworking, Unornamental Stoic Hero type. This type deteriorated too between the early and later variation.

This character  doesn’t have ringlets – they’d get in the way of his Work Ethic and might even attract The Wrong Sort of Woman – but he does have a boundless capacity for devotion. He is steady and some. In fact, he can be so steady he comes to resemble a rock pinning the heroine down with his insistent love – but she does comes to see his worth.

His first incarnation is John Thornton in ‘North and South’. It is a mark of GAskell’s gift as a writer that she managed to make me feel for this character, for the man stands for everything I despise.

Until towards the end he’s a devoted upholder of merciless, unregulated capitalism, he is a ‘tireless champion of the overdog’ (no, that isn’t mine; I lifted it from a nineteen fifties film starring Arthur Askey – of all people.; he believes in Hard Work.
Hmm. We all know the old saw – all work and no play… You’d need a microscope to discover his sense of humour.

He seems totally arrogant and unbending, even in his unrequited love – but – after Margaret Hale has rejected his proposal quite as scornfully as Elizabeth Bennet does Mr Darcy, we see his vulnterablity: ‘When he had gone, she thought she had seen the gleam of unshed tears in his eyes; and that turned her proud dislike into something different and kinder, though, if nearly as painful – self reproach for having caused such mortification to anyone.’

That did make me feel for him.

He does have moral standards – he’s a great believer in honour and he is brave enough – but there is something inhumane about them, as his love object Margaret Hale is well aware. There is something puritanical about him.

We realise that his tragic background  has made him unfeeling towards his fellow men and women. His entrepreneur father failed in business and killed himself, leaving his family destitute and his mother consequently embittered and emotionally frozen, though she worships her son to an alarming degree. We come to  feel compassion for him; during the course of the story, he comes to recognise the humanity of his ‘hands’, the need for human values in business as well as private life and his obligation to safeguard the welfare of his workforce.

He also learns humility when his business nearly goes bankrupt, and we leave him and Margaret Hale in tender reconciliation.

I did like that…

Philip Hepburn in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is the second version of this mutating character, and I have to say that I didn’t like him at all. Puritanical, self righteous, cautious (except in his headlong almost masochistic passion for Sylvia) he really needs to write to a problem page about his attitude to life.

Fun? Never heard of it; interests? what are those? His interests in life are Hard Work and planning to marry Sylvia Robson.

His betrayal of Kinraid and Sylvia, when he fails to pass on the press ganged Kinraid’s message for her, is dismal. It is true that Gaskell makes all the excuses for him she can. – He has just found out yet more rumours about Kinraid’s womanising through the cheerful gossip of his fellow sailors in a Newcastle pub. He has found out, too, that Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Corney thinks that she is engaged to Kinraid at the same time that he has been pressing his suit on Sylvia – but the sheer self-serving treachery of his action or inaction –  it is still bad enough.

When discovered and rejected by Sylvia, Hepburn, full of repentance goes off to become a hero in the hope of impressing Sylvia and winning back her love.

It is an irony of the text that he does in fact become the very hero that Sylvia has wanted all along to worship, only to be so disfigured in an explosion that he becomes unrecognisable and fears that she will be disgusted by him.

Their death bed understanding slightly reconciled me to him. I could see an interesting turn of the wheel of fortune in the text.

In the beginning of the story, when Sylvia first meets Kinraid, she is so impressed by his brave act in getting almost shot dead while defying a press gang that she doesn’t mind that he looks like an animated corpse, ‘gaunt and haggard’. In fact, she becomes infatuated with him even before he gets his looks back, and is eager to speak to a man she regards as a wounded hero when he attends his friend Darley’s funeral.

In the end, Hepburn is disfigured and dying, but still, in having rescued his hated enemy Kinraid at the Seige of Acre and their daughter Bella from an opportune tidal wave – he is the hero it is part of Sylvia’s psyche to need to worship.  and he new found love for him is sincere enough in its own way.

This use of basic types, transforming their psyche (not as if that was a thing envisaged in Gaskell’s era) with a tweak here, a trait there, is very intriguing.

This recycling of a character type is, of course, only a more obvious example of what all authors do to some exent. If we add a physical feature here, add a quality there, drop one there, we have a totally new individual, and one whose experiences must necessarily be different. That is one of the fascinating aspects of writing.

Elizabeth Gasekll was only one of many who gave a characer several incarnations. Perhaps,  thoughs she was unusual in being so bound up with giving the happy ending that real life denied to a beloved lost brother, whose fate was almost certainly tragic.