Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’: A Harrowing Depiction of Poverty in the UK of the Early Industrial Revolution.

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I have recently been re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’. I thought I had long since written a review of it; it seems not.

This is, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, published in 1847. It established her reputation as a writer who sympathized with the poor and oppressed, the workers in industrial Lancashire who were voiceless in the government of the country, and who suffered hideously during the times of economic depression.

In this, she resembled Charles Dickens. He was in fact her later publisher when she wrote for his magazine ‘All The Year Round’. Like him, too, she had a great dread of the rampant mob, and shares the almost morbid fear of trade unions which he showed in ‘Hard Times’. In the novel Gaskell depicts trade unionists with unintentional comedy, as having a conspiratorial aspect almost akin to a lot of Gunpower Plotters.

This, no doubt, was partly due to the fact that she was writing the novel in the era of  the Chartist protests, which co-incided with the outbreak of revolution throughout much of Europe.  The Chartist leadership was strongly divided over those who espoused peaceful methods and those who considered that they must win power by ‘Reason if we may,  by force if we must’.  Elizabeth Gaskell was a devout Christian who recoiled from violence and was shocked by the mutual antagonism of the mill owners and their nameless ‘hands’ who comprised their workforce.

The original protagonist of the novel was not Mary Barton, but her father John Barton, and this probably explains why he in fact comes across as a more fully realised character than his daughter’s love interest, Jem Wilson. Jem is accused of the murder that John himself has committed of the mill owner’s son, the caddish and handsome Harry Carson.

He has been angling to make Mary his mistress, though in her naivety, she thinks that he is interested in marriage. Eventually, in fact, when he realises that she won’t become his mistress he does make her an offer of marriage, which she scornfully rejects (no doubt Richardson’s Pamela would be astonished by that). By then, she realises her folly in rejecting Jem, who following his own failed proposal, is assiduously keeping away from her.

Jem is warned about Mary’s danger from Harry Carson by Mary’s Aunt Esther, who subsequently deserted by her lover, had taken to prostituion to support their child, and after her death, become a drunkard.  She has been keeping a covert watch on the Barton household, and wishes at all costs to keep Mary from suffering the same fate as herself.

Jem confronts Harry Carson, and they come to blows, but a policeman separates them. When he is later murdered, Jem is the natural suspect.

Now Mary resolves to save him from the gallows…

There are some harrowing descriptions of poverty and misery in the book, and the author leaves the reader in no doubt of her moral outrage that such conditions should be allowed: –

‘Never was the old Edinburgh description of gardez-l’eau more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women at the doors tossed out slops of every description into the gutter; they ran and overflowed into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated…our friends were not dainty, but they picked their way till they got to some steps leading down into a small area..You went down one step into the cellar…It was very dark inside. The window panes of many of them were broken and stuffed with rags…

…After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can  be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down…They began to penetrate the thick darkness, and of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay, wet, floor…They clustered round Barton, and tore from him the food he had brought with him..’

In fact, the mill owners of Manchester were offended at what they saw as Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfair portrayal of their indifference to the sufferings of the mill workers. They were better pleased with her later novel, ‘North and South’ where their viewpoint is depicted more sympathetically.

In this novel, certainly, Mr Carson, whose son is ritually assassinated as a sort of ‘legitimate target’  in a piece of terrorism by John Barton – who despairs of anything short of this moving the obdurate mill owners – is a highly unappealing character, who only arouses the reader’s pity after the death of his prized son. His wife, though thinly skethed, is another. Once a mill worker herself, having produced upwards of four children, has taken to indulging her ill health and treats her servants as her natural inferiors.

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Harry Carson is also thinly sketched,  which as he is to some extent the antagonist, is a shame. Had he been given a sronger role, the extent of Jem’s victory, over both his own jealousy towards Carson, and Carson’s attractions as a rival  love object for Mary, would be more striking.

The trade union leader is depicted as a wily opportunist, rather on the lines of Plutard (I think that was his name; I’m being too lazy to look it up) in Zola’s ‘Germinal’.  Perhaps he is depicted that way as a counter to the unsympathetic bourgoise in the novel, but one gets the impression that Elizabeth Gaskell could  not credit that anyone could be a dedicated trade unionist and Chartist without being either fanatical or self seeking…

Jem Wilson is depicted as a wholly admirable working man, capable of selfless devotion, and handsome ‘save for the marks of smallpox’, with dark curling hair and a stalwart build. Outstandingly brave, he rescues his father and another workmate from a blazing mill. It is typical of him that he should oppose women working, but one has to remember that his mother’s experience of work has left her disabled as a result of an accident with unguarded machinery.

Mary Barton, very pretty, well meaning and often wilfully opposed to her own best interests, is a good characterisation of a young girl of sense with some silly notions. Her realisation that she loves Jem, only after she has turned down his proposal, is vividly recounted.

John Barton, demoted from his place as protagonist as he may have been,  is the character who makes the greatest impression on the reader. His personal tragedies – he has lost a son through poverty and loses his wife in childbirth – a death he blames on the shock she sustains when her sister runs off with an army officer – embitter him. Still,  he never loses his devotion to the working people and his determination to relieve their suffring.  In the scene described above, where he helps the Davenport family, he sells his last possessions of value to buy them food and medicine.  When the petition on the condition of the workers he delivers to parliament is contemptuously rejected and the recession worsens and want increases, he becomes desperate. Unemployed and black listed as a trade unionist, he turns to violent methods to change the minds of the masters.

John  Barton, then, is a believable flawed tragic hero, and the ending when the older Carson is able to forgive him makes a moving conclusion to the story.

Mary’s fight to prove Jem’s innocence is well told. Her admitting in court that she loves Jem would have been astoundingly indpendent behaviour in a Victorian heroine. Many critics disagree with Raymond Williams objection, that the story’s change in theme from the political to the domestic entails a weakening of its theme.

It is worth noting that in this first novel, the character of the sailor as a dashing racounteur is depicted in Will Wilson, Jem’s cousin. This character, no doubt partly based on fond memories of her own lost brother,  was a type Elizabeth Gaskell was to develop in Frederick Hale in ‘North and South’ and Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvi’a’s Lovers’.

Will Wilson is a straightforward version, a touching combination of the boastful and the modest, who falls  in love with the dowdy and virtuous Margaret Leigh when  he heards her sing.  He lacks either the sophistication of Frederick Hale, or the moral dubiousness of Charley Kinraid.

Jem, for his part, is depicted as – despite his aversion to women working – a wholly more attractive rival to the dashing Harry Carson than the melancholy Philip Hepburn is to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvias Lovers’ . ‘Mary Barton’ is a novel which ends  happily for the two sets of young lovers, Mary and Jem, Will and Margaret, in complete opposition to the tragic conclusion to that later novel.

The ending is a good deal less happy for John Barton, of course, who must face the consequences of his crime. As a matter of fact, parents usually fare badly in Gaskell’s novels. ..

That this happy ending for the young people has to take place in Canada, not the UK, is in itself  a dismal comment on the prospects for workers in what was then the ‘workshop of the world’.

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Those Necessary Sympathetic, Rounded Characters: A Classic Novel Without Them

220px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaIn my last two posts, I discussed the dismal topic of getting really scathing reviews, and how a novice writer friend of mine had her confidence knocked through being on the receiving end of a particularly savage one.

On that, I’d like to add that perhaps that  is better than the lukewarm reaction over my latest I got from an associate the other day: – ‘I’ve been reading your book.  It’s all right; but nothing like as good as the first. Maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. I’m glad you’re doing something different with your next.’

I see.  Thanks for that.

Now, in a way, isn’t that indifference almost worse than having someone write a rant instead of a review of your book?

Anyway, I was wtiting about whether or not it is necessary to have sympathetic characters in order to like or become fascinated by a book, and how far this depends upon genre.

Then – wait for it, regular readers – I mentioned how in fact, I didn’t really care for any of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

I might as well add at once, that I found it hard to sympathize with the active whaling community depicted in the book. I tried, by doing that act of  historical distancing which allowed me to see that while they were decimating the whale population, they couldn’t see it, or that it was wrong. For all that, the descriptions of the battles which the Specksioneer (Chief Harpooner) Charley Kinraid and the heroine’s ex-whaler father have with the whales may have impressed Victorians as heroic, but struck me as downright barbaric and pitiful.

I have written before of how unsympathetic I find the two flawed heroes, the lovers (in the old fashioned sense) of the heroine Sylvia Robson: Charley Kinraid and Philip Hepburn.

The romantic interest, Charley Kinraid, ‘the boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’, is dark and handsome, hearty, fearless, a brilliant raconteur, able to drink endlessly without showing it, the life and soul of the party, irresistible to women and admired by men. In short, he is an early example of the  ‘Black Hole Marty Stu’ described by a blogger:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MartyStu

‘His gravity is so great, he draws all the attention and causes other characters (and, often, reality itself) to bend and contort in order to accommodate him and elevate him above all other characters. Characters don’t act naturally around him – guys wish to emulate him and all the girls flock to him regardless of circumstances. They serve as plot enablers for him to display his powers or abilities… He dominates every scene he is in, with most scenes without him serving only to give the characters a chance to “talk freely” about him…’

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This, basically, is why Charley Kinraid, though overwhelming, isn’t convincing. As Graham Handley observes, he ‘comes but fitfully to life’.  He is a walking macho stereotype. Such a man would never suffer form sea sickness, or fall flat on his face.

Philip Hepburn has the misfortune to be the polar opposite of a Black Hole Marty Stu. He is the indoors type with a sallow complexion, quiet, humourless,  and influenced by his grim quasi stepmother Alice Rose into the belief that any form of fun is sinful. Nobody admires him but Alice’s daughter. As an early critic observed, his whole personality seems to revolve around his obsession with Sylvia.

This might be interesting, for a short infatuation; but his drags on during years of indifference from Sylvia, who makes it painfully obvious that she worships his rival. This makes him a dismal character to read about.

Generally, then, to me, both flawed heroes seem curiously one dimensional and incomplete, as if they need to merge into each other to form one three dimensional character. As if in some bizarre way they are aware of this, they seem to be more interested in their rivalry towards each other than they do in the heroine Sylvia Robson.

At first I sympathised with Sylvia in her longing to have adventures at sea herself. However, as this is impossible for a respectable Victorian girl, she can only realise this wish by transforming it into a longing to have the man who personifies those adventures.

Unfortunately, then Sylvia Robson suffers the fate of any female character who falls for a Black Hole Marty Stu – she remains trapped forever in his event horizon, seemingly frozen in time and seemingly static, though she has in fact, vanished. In other words, she ceases to have an independent existence of her own.

Part of this dissolution of her personality is bound up in her tragic fate. She believes that Charley Kinraid is dead, but in fact, he has been taken by the press gang, and though Philip Hepburn knows, he keeps quiet about it so that he can marry her himself. Naturally, Kinraid returns, imagining that they are still troth plighted.  Sylvia swears never to forgive Hepburn. In the end, after Kinraid has humiliated her through an astonishingly speedy marriage to an heiress, and Hepburn has heroically saved both Kinraid and her daughter, she does.

Most of the time for the second two volumes, the once high spirited and rosy Sylvia is depicted as pale and suffering, mourning Kinraid’s loss almost obsessively. As the critic T J Winnifrith remarks, ‘Kinraid is finally shown to be a shallow character; but the depiction of him is always so superficial that this makes it difficult to understand the depths of Sylvia Robson’s love for him.’

The melodramatic tone and improbable co-incidences in the last part of this novel are notorious.  However, I thought that the problems started far earlier, in the strange interdependence of the characters. Just as Hepburn seems to have no passion in life except in being Sylvia’s lover, so Sylvia very soon comes to have none except in worshipping and then mourning the loss of, Charley Kinraid. This fate – far more usual in a female than in a male lead – finally makes them both dismal.

Of course, one of the things that Elizabeth Gaskell was attempting to explore in this novel was how wrong (in her eyes, blasphemous) it is to ‘make an idol’ out of any other human being. She was also, as her daughter had recently gone through the disillusioning experience of having to break off  an engagement to a charming man with a questionable past – one Captain Charles Hill –  exploring the painful consequences of ‘ill advised’ love.

In fact, when I came to sum up the novel in a sentence, here is what I came up with: –

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Charley Kinraid worships himself, and  finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

But, as I said, for all the unsatisfactory nature of the characters – for all that  they aren’t markedly sympathetic, I have been intrigued by this novel since I first read it in 2002.

True, I found Sylvia’s extended mourning of Kinraid tedious; I found Hepburn’s destructive pursuit of Sylvia frankly distasteful, and I found Kinraid to be about as rounded a character as a cardboard cut out. Also, I am disgusted by whaling and how we decimated the whale population in the Greenland Seas. Yet, still it remains one of my favourite novels.

It can’t be ‘comfort reading’ as there is scarcely any worldly comfort to be found in it, but clearly, there are elements in the depictions – perhaps, the vivid descriptions of life in the late eighteenth century sea faring community of Whitby (called Monkshaven in the novel), which have made me unable to dismiss it.

…And the same is true for me of ‘Vanity Fair’.  There, again, I don’t exactly like any of the characters – though I do feel sorry for Amelia – and yet, that is a novel I have read three times. True, it contains some unsurpassed passages on the battles of Quartre-Bras and Waterloo – but that is in the middle;  much of the later part is taken up with the society career of the vain, unfeeling Becky.  I suppose this book is also remarkable, in having in Becky Sharp what falls only a little short of a Black Hole villainess (a Mary Sue she most certainly is not).

Therefore, perhaps when advice to novice writers on how to draw in readers includes the invariable: ‘To draw readers in, you must create sympathetic, fully rounded, convincing,  developing characters’ – then the exceptions from classic novels which continue to be read but which have signally failed to do that just might noted?

Finally, for anyone interested, here is my link for my article on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ published a few years ago on the F Word website: here

 

The Difficulty in Portraying the Truly Good Hero and Heroine – Examples from Classic Novels

The literary critic Graham Handley writes of the difficulty of creating a character who is very good: ‘It is a strange but true fact that the truly good person is difficult to portray convincingly in fiction, and Hester Rose (a sort of secondary heroine in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’) may be compared with Diana Morris in ‘Adam Bede’ where there is a similar partial failure of imagination.’

Why this should be so is possibly a question of fashion. These days, we don’t want our protagonists to be too admirable, and the dread spectres of Mary Sue and Gary Stu hover near, whereas in the mid-eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson rose to fame (or infamy) through writing about two Mary Sues and one Gary Stu, namely, Pamela Andrews, Clarissa Harlow and Sir Charles Grandison.

These endless novels were best sellers in that era; people just couldn’t get enough of them. Of course, with ‘Pamela’ there is the issue of whether he drew in the reader with the lure of,  ‘Attempted Rape as Titillation Whilst Expressing Every Sort of Moral Abhorrence’ . I tend to agree with Coleridge that he did, possibly unconsciously.

The rape in Clarissa takes place offstage, and not until Volume Six, so a reader would have had to be as patient as s/he was purile to keep on reading that long just for that, even if people did have longer attention spans in previous centuries. Probably the fascination  of that saga was the villain Lovelace as much as the heroine, and the depiction of his evil if far fetched machinations.

Clarissa is of course, a far more sophisticated creation than Pamela, who to most modern readers comes across as a prize opportunist hypocrite. I can’t answer for Sir Charles Grandison. I have heard that the character is unbearable, and it is worth reading just for that. I have also heard that in it, a woman actually apologises for preferring God to Sir Charles.

Still, having in recent years ploughed my way through ‘Pamela’, ‘Clarissa’ and ‘Pamela in Her Exulted Condition’ (it seriously is called that!) I don’t think I can stand reading any more of Richardson’s self-serving Puritan morality for a long while.

Both the eponymous heroine of ‘Evelina’ and the hero Lord Orville are extremely virtuous and outstandingly dull. I felt like going to sleep whenever Lord Orville spoke.  Fortunately, he does that only occasionally, usually to show a high minded understanding of whatever situation it is in which he is involved.

By contrast, the villain Sir Clement Willoughby (did Jane Austen borrow his name?) provides a great deal of amusement. He spends much of his time, when not involved in rascally plots, in insisting on his deep love for the heroine. Still, never – the cad -does he  so much as hint at marriage. At the end he informs Lord Orville that she is not well born enough for him to consider for anything but as a mistress.  Lord Orville proposes believing her to be ‘low born’ – but then, he is a hero.

It was left to the genius of Jane Austen to create a hero who insults both the heroine’s face and her family origins.

Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette in Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ are another virtuous and dull hero and heroine in a classic novel. Someone has commented somewhere (I have managed to lose the link) that Darnay is just like an android programmed to do good things – he seems to possess no mental life at all, and whenever he opens his mouth, virtuous platitudes come forth. Lucie Manette is an embodiment of a Domestic Angel.

I have to admit that I dislike that novel, because of the influence it has had in portraying the French Revolution in an entirely negative light, in particular shaping the popular misconception about the number of victims of the Terror.

As George Orwell says: ‘ Though he (Dickens) quotes no figures, he gives the impression of a frenzied massacre lasting for years, whereas in reality the whole of the Terror, so far as the number of deaths goes, was a joke compared with one of Napoleon’s battles. But the bloody knives and the tumbrils rolling to and fro create in (the reader’s) mind a special sinister vision which he has succeeded in passing on to generations of readers. To this day, to the average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads. ’

That however, is off topic…

Intriguingly, Charles Darnay does come to life – twice – when he is in danger of death. Both when he is being tried for treason in the UK, and later when he is tried for it in France, he is suddenly there, real and believable.

In fact, I found the scene where Lucie Manette (who doesn’t yet know him) sheds tears because she is forced to give evidence against him, and they gaze at each other through the courtroom and obviously start to fall in love, both evocative and gripping.

Generally, then, I find it hard to think of a truly noble hero or heroine in a classic novel who is both interesting and believable.  Readers may have been more fortunate; if so, I’d love to hear of it.

‘Ravensdale’ by Lucinda Elliot – Just Awarded the B.R.A.G. medallion for Outstanding Self-Published Fiction

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I’m celebrating on two accounts.

One, I have won a second award.

I’ve just heard I’ve won a B.R.A.G medallion for ‘Outstanding Self-Published Fiction’ for my historical romance spoof ‘Ravensdale’.

That was a lovely Easter present.

Here’s the B.R.A.G award website, for those writers wishing to enter their own work, but even more for those readers, who are always wanted to review books objectively according to the guidelines of the site.

https://www.bragmedallion.com/about

To have your work bonoured – particularly if it’s regarded as ‘too cross genre’ to attract agents and publishers –gives you a sense that it’s all worthwhile after all.

Goodness knows we self-published authors who strive to write to our best standards, often wonder if it is. There’s nothing like a one star review – or two, or yet more, to make you feel that you’re banging your head against a brick wall.

Here’s the link to amazon for ‘Ravensdale’.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JSPXQV8

A couple of awards put matters into perspective.

The second reason I have to be cheerful is that I’m now up to the final part of the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ – which I think I will call ‘Where Worlds Meet’ (I was thinking of ‘Villains and Vampires’ but that is too close to the title of my last spoof, ‘The Villainous Viscount’ and people might confuse the two).

I expect I am typical, in that I love writing this bit best of all, with home in sight. Writing the end of a full length novel is like running the end of a long distance race – I used to love cross country running at school (that was before I filled out fore and aft and it became a lot less comfortable) – where the lungs are heaving and the legs like jelly, but you know you’ll make it.

I don’t know if I’m typical in this, but I suspect I am –  I don’t particularly enjoy writing the middle of a book.  I suspect that it is where you are likely to give up if at all. The biggest effort seems to be required. You have to develop character, maintain reader interest, build conflict, create obstacles, all that sort of thing, and you are no longer fired with that initial enthusiasm.

I did a post on this a few weeks ago.

here

I believe it is known sometimes as ‘The sagging middle syndrome’ and they aren’t referring to the need for a few workouts.

Then, the middle-coming-up-to-the-end is a bit of a killer, too. There you have to do the above, only higher key.

That was the bit where I decided about six weeks back, looking over my work, ‘No point in kidding yourself, thickhead: you’ve gone in the wrong direction’ (and oh yes, I was known to do that in cross country running, too). So I had to backtrack. I thought I’d have to jettison 15,000 words, and some of it I was really pleased with, but there was too weak a series of links, and insufficient conflict, leading to too fast a denouement.

In fact, I found that I could use some of those paragraphs after all, as the writing was appropriate to later on in the story, but not to where I had put it.

All this is horribly familiar to all writers; just when you think you’re near the home run, there’s a home delay.

12618f13And that is one of the good things about being a self-published writer. You don’t have a publisher breathing down your neck with ‘When will it be ready?’ That, of course, was what happened to Elizabeth Gaskell in the third volume of ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’. She had already been writing it for three and a half years and was being harassed by her publishers. That is why she falls into the easy trap of melodrama and co-incidence (fine in a spoof, not in a work that is intended to be serious).

This is a shame, as it weakens the ending; however, despite those drawbacks, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is still one of my favourite novels.

Well, there’s still a long way to go, because this is only the first draft for me. You may be sure that my Beta readers will have many painful suggestions, involving extensive rewrites.

…And that can be like running a long distance race in slow motion, or perhaps, backwards.

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…

Those Dreaded Discrepancies: A Writer’s Bane

1001004005712376Firstly, I want to apologise to Susan Hill by mentioning her work in the same post as that late Victorian and Edwardian writer of best selling twaddle, Charles Garvice…

Mari Biella’s recent intriguing recent post on anachronisms
https://maribiella.wordpress.com/
set me thinking recently about general discrepancies in stories. Then, in a fine piece of synchrnonicity, I came across at least two when reading George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’.

This in turn brought to mind several I’ve come across in recent years, from a whole spectrum of writers, from the brilliant Susan Hill to that churner out of Victorian best selling romantic melodrama Charles Garvice.

That so polished a writer as Susan Hill could make a mistake of this type is guaranteed to make any writer wonder, with a shudder, if there is something she has overlooked in turn in her own stories; some howler, which makes the plot impossible, or at least, in need of revision.

Or –nearly as bad – but, our egotism being what it is, not quite so bad – have we let down the friends for whom we have done Beta reads, and left one in? Maybe an anachronism of the sort mentioned by Mari Biella, for instance, potato stew served in the UK of the Middle Ages.

On anachronisms –  in true geek fashion – I want to say something irrelevant here.  I was dismayed to learn that people who write children’s novels set in the Middle Ages are often advised to fudge the issue that for approximately three hundred years after the Norman Conquest, the upper class spoke Norman French, while the ordinary people spoke Anglo Saxon. Talk about re-writing history!

All writers surely go in dread of such mishaps as publishing a book with discrepancies. They are so easy to do, particularly in historical novels. It is so easy to get those wretched travelling times wrong, through a lack of information about which roads there were; so easy to make the post more efficient than it was, so that a letter arrives too early.

The Susan Hill discrepancy – and I hasten to add, this is the only one I have ever come across in all her books, all of which I greatly admire – is to do with the decade in which the otherwise brilliant (and terrifying) story ‘The Man in the Picture’ is set.

It seems to originate in a few sentences overlooked in the editing, which possibly relate to an earlier version (and don’t we all have so many earlier versions of our stories, where we hadn’t developed this or that theme).

The story begins with a man visiting his old friend, an academic at  Cambridge, where ‘there were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by the servant in huge brass scuttles.’ Some years later, again in Cambridge, the porter has ‘a fire in the grate’ and there is ‘a solitary policeman on his beat’. This policeman is seen ‘trying the doors of the shops to see that they were secure’.

All this seems redolent of the 1930’s. Yet, only a few months pass, and suddenly, we are in the age of mobile phones, the narrator marries a female barrister and they fly to Venice for their honeymoon.

This inconsistency, by the way, didn’t at all detract from my pleasure in the story, and so far as I know, only a couple of reviewers have picked up on it; so good is the tale, with the  atmosphere so wonderfully done, that it’s hard to put down, and is nearly as good a sinister read as ‘The Woman in Black’.

The discrepancies in George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ come much later in the story, and revolve around the fact that while the fact that while Adam guesses who fathered Hetty Sorrel’s poor baby, and confides in the vicar Mr Irwine, these two, who wish to talk of the matter as little as possible, are the only ones who do know the details. Despite this, shortly afterwards, by some strange process of clairvoyance, all the servants in the hall know that it is Arthur , and this detracts from their enthusiasm when they welcome him home as the new master.

A smaller error concerns a minor character, Bessy, who is described as married to Wiry Ben in the beginning, with two children. At the fete where he dances, they suddenly both become single again, the children disappear, and he hints that he wants to marry her. A time warp has clearly been in operation…

Thackeray went one better. Dobbin, his dull hero in that ‘novel without a hero’ ‘Vanity Fair’, appears in England when the reader has been told that he is serving in the army in India; a clear case of teleportation, and typically, his astral self does nothing but the sort of dull but worthy stuff he always does. Apart from Amelia’s mother changing her name from Betsy to Mary, though, mistakes in a very long novel which I believe was first published in serial format are very few.

Elizabeth Gaskell rarely edited her works, so that the standard of writing is all the more impressive; still, in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, as Graham Handley has pointed out, the timing doesn’t make sense if the reader accepts the action as starting in 1795, the date she gives; the timetable is out of kilter unless the action starts in 1793.

There are other discrepancies; Philip Hepburn’s age, and Charley Kinraid’s financial position are but two, but overall, the degree of consistency in the plot in a writer who rarely re-read her work is quite astonishing.

220px-Charles_Garvice_-_The_MarquisFinally, to Charles Garvice. I am sure the modern readers of ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ can be counted on one hand, so almost certainly nobody will have any idea what I am talking about here. But what I have to say is instructive, because it shows, if nothing else, how sloppily his editor performed.

Because this novel is so bad, I have remained fascinated with it (perhaps I would have been equally fascinated by whichever Charles Garvice novel I first  read, as Laura Sewell Mater was intrigued by ‘Verdict of the Heart’ , the first Garvice novel she sampled, for more or less the same reasons). Therefore, I’ll give some background to it.

220px-Charles_Garvice_-_Lord_of_HimselfThe hero of that melodrama, Lord Fayne, is a bad man who turns into a good man because an innocent young girl tells him he should (he also goes busking in the country among the ‘simple country folk’, and that finished the process). He’s a viscount, but goes round dressed as a coster monger, and getting into fights in music halls. He does this primarily to annoy his relatives, as his politics are anything but radical.

During one such fight in a music hall, he is hit on the head by a decanter and only comes to himself with a bleeding head some time towards dawn. No mention is made of a headache or such sissy symptoms of concussion as nausea.

Charles_Garvice_-_She_Loved_HimHe goes on to run into a homeless girl who just happens to have been seduced by the villain of the story, gives her his golden cuff links and buys her some food at a stall, giving over his watch as security. His friends are still drinking in his house when he arrives home at some time in the morning. Having shown some anti Semitism by threatening to throw a Jewish moneylender out of the window for requesting his bill, gives his friends a brilliant performance by singing and playing the piano and violin, and then kicks the lot of them out with his ‘air of indefinable command’ and falls asleep with his head among the dirty glasses.

When next we see him, he is asleep outside the gates of his parents mansion. The heroine mistakes him for a tramp and adjusts his cap over his injured head (this isn’t portrayed humorously, unfortunately). He tells her he has walked from London and goes on to sleep some more a bit further off, where he sees her pony bolting and through a desperate sprint, saves her from a terrible death in a disused copper mine.

He remains incognito throughout, but her father has read of the brawl in the music hall in his paper, and mentions that Lord Fayne appeared ‘in a police court’ and was fined £5.00 (a hefty fine in 1894).

There appear to be all sorts of weird discrepancies in the time frame here. When did Lord Fayne appear in court? How long did it take the papers to report it, and how come it only seems to take even the athletic Lord Fayne a day or so to walk from London to what appears, from the topography, to be Devonshire, particularly if he is suffering from concussion? Perhaps he (horrors!) lies to the heroine, and he took a train. Certainly, though, when she demands to see how much money he has in his pockets, he only has some silver.

But from someone who is concussed, he gives a sprint worthy of a gold medal. Presumably he has come to apologise to his parents, but after being conveniently by to save the heroine’s life, he seemingly wanders off again to menace the locals in a local tavern (the fresh country air doesn’t have a reforming affect on his character in this bit). When next we see him, it is in London, where he seems once more to be in funds…

Garvice’s novels are no doubt peppered with such contradictions, and it is only because of my interest in the history of the development of the romantic novel that I have have read this twice. I am sure almost nobody else could endure such entertainment twice over, and most people would say, and rightly, that such twaddle is unworthy of any analysis whatsoever, and Garvice only made the roughest attempts to provide some sort of basic coherence to his plots.

Still, he had, supposedly, an excellent secretary, and I am surprised she didn’t pick up on these contradictions; maybe it was more than her job was worth to pick holes in the novels her pipe puffing, complacent employer dictated. Perhaps his editor could not bear to read his stories through…

However that may be, such discrepancies as the ones above are one of the banes of a writer’s life.

Writers’ Terror of Writing a Derivative Novel: Comparing George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’

220px-John_Collier_-_Hetty_SorrelI’ve always meant to read ‘Adam Bede’; I don’t know why really, except that I’ve seen it described in various places as one of George Eliot’s best novels, and while I was a little disappointed in ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘The Mill on the Floss’, I’ve always admired her as a woman who defied conventional morality in mid Victorian times. That took some courage indeed.

I’m about three quarters of the way through reading it now. It’s a very interesting book, and the historical detail is intriguing; but I can’t take to the rather shadowy heroine, Dinah Shore, at all. She is intended to be the next thing to a saint; I know it is notoriously hard to write about an interesting thoroughly good and unselfish person, and George Eliot deserves credit for trying; this particularly as she is depicting a devoutly religious person, while she herself was agnostic. But I have to say this conventional spirituality is another sticking point for me; oblique references are made to damnation, and the idea of a Creator who is capable of meting out that fate raises my hackles.

Unfortunately, too, the same is true of the eponymous hero; I find his Protestant Ethic type of morality unappealing, even rebarbative; I daresay he is the sole of virtue and totally admirable, but if I find anyone sympathetic in the story, it is the pretty, silly Hetty Sorrel, so tragically deceived by her own hopes regarding the enduring nature of the charming but vain and selfish Arthur Donnithorne’s love for her.

I suspect that this reaction may be fairly typical; I haven’t read any literary criticism of the book yet. Still, it isn’t of this that I wanted to write, but about the influence that this novel so obviously had on Elizabeth Gaskell, and in her writing of a novel about which I have so often bored the reader – that’s right, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ again!

I was startled when I came across some of the similarities in the character types and also, in incident in the two novels. This in turn led me to think about the modern obsession with avoiding at all costs, writing something ‘derivative’, the dread that so many writers have of being accused of copying some theme or idea.

Elizabeth Gaskell, according to the biography of her by Winifred Gerin, read ‘Adam Bede’ sometime in 1857, and her admiration was complete. She wrote of it: ‘I think I have a feeling that it is not worth while trying to write, while there are such books as Adam Bede’ (I had the same sort of feeling myself after rereading ‘Bodily Harm’ by Margaret Attwood).300px-Whaling-dangers_of_the_whale_fishery

Eighteen-fifty-seven was the year in which Elizabeth Gaskell visited Whitby (Yorkshire, UK, for non UK readers of this blog) and decided to write a story about the whaling community there during the French Revolutionary Wars, and the activities of the press gang on a whaling community at that time. ‘Adam Bede’ is also set during the French Revolutionary Wars, and in partly in Yorkshire, but it is focused on in an inland farming community. However, in other ways the influence of George Elliot’s novel on Elizabeth Gaskell is very obvious, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel is also partly about the local farming community.

Both novels deal with a rather foolish, very pretty, poorly educated young girl from a farming background who often works as dairymaid and who is loved by a steady admirer whose love she spurs in favour of the love of an unreliable, charming, dashing but superficial one with military connections.

In ‘Adam Bede’ these characters are respectively Hetty Sorrel, Adam Bede and Arthur Donnithorne, and in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ they are Sylvia Robson, Philip Hepburn and Charley Kinraid.

It is true that ‘Adam Bede’ deals with the then highly popular theme of the innocent girl seduced by the ‘gentleman’ and left pregnant, while ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ deals with the then equally popular story of the ‘returned sailor’ who comes back from years at sea to find he has seemingly been betrayed, his sweetheart having married someone else.

However, in both, besides the threesome of flighty, heedless girl and her two contrasting rival lovers, there is another main female character, a spiritual and deeply religious young woman who comes to love the steady, hard working man.

In ‘Adam Bede’ this is the lay preacher Dinah Shore (who is also very good looking, but indifferent to this and its affect on men) and in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ this role is fulfilled by plain Hester Rose, a Quaker who routinely does good works, and Hepburn’s fellow worker in the haberdashery shop.

I haven’t read to the end of ‘Adam Bede’ yet, but I know that Dinah Shore and Adam Bede finally come together in marital happiness, whereas Hester Rose’s love for Hepburn remains unrequited. Both novels contain comedic elements but an underlying tragic theme.

Both also focus much attention on the views of dissenters and various religious debates in the late eighteenth century; both have human and ineffective vicars.

All sorts of incidental details in Elizabeth Gaskell’s story illustrate the continuing influence of ‘Adam Bede’. For instance, Hetty Sorrel comes from a farming family; so does Sylvia Robson; Hetty often works as dairymaid, and is courted by Arthur Donnithorne in the dairy; the same is true of Sylvia Robson, courted by Charley Kinraid in hers. The intensity of the relationship between Hetty and Arthur is increased when they come together at a party celebrating his twenty-first birthday; Sylvia and Kinraid’s relationship takes a serious turn when they meet again at the Corney’s New Year’s party.

Adam Bede comes to suspect that Hetty has an unknown lover when he sees that she has a locket with someone’s hair in it; Philip Hepburn sees that Sylvia comes out of the room where she has been kissing Kinraid wearing a new ribbon he has given her.12618f13

Both women are confronted by their steady and jealous admirers about the unreliability of their preferred lovers; Hetty says to Adam Bede, ‘How durst you say so?’ and Sylvia says to Philip Hepburn, ‘How dare you come here wi’ yo’r backbiting tales?’

In ‘Adam Bede’ a culminating moment of the general merrymaking at Arthur’s coming of age party is the absurd hornpipe danced by Wiry Ben. In ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ the New Year’s party is concluded by Charley Kinraid dancing a hornpipe amongst the platters on the floor.

And so on, even down to the similar use of unusual phrases; for instance, in ‘Adam Bede’ the author writes of Adam’s love for Hetty ‘Tender and deep as his love for Hetty had been, so deep that the roots of it would never be torn away…’ and then we have in ‘Sylvia’s Loves’ of Sylvia’s love for Kinraid, ‘She had torn up her love for him by the roots, but she felt she could never forget that it had been…’

Of course, there are even more dissimilarities between the two novels besides the obvious one of the one being set inland, the other being set in a whaling community; Sylvia Robson may be initially vain and headstrong, but she is not a superficial character, while Hetty Sorrel is; Philip Hepburn gives in to his jealousy and overprotective feelings for Sylvia and acts against his sense of honour, while Adam Bede resists the temptation and so on.

There are, however, numerous other similarities of phrase, incident and character in the novels, and I think I have made the point that two novels can have certain strong similarities without this necessarily being a disgrace. It has often been pointed out that there are only so many plots (in an earlier post, I listed these) and so many types of character (it would be interesting to try and break these down into basic types, and list those).

Just as I said then, I think that modern authors should not allow themselves to become too paranoid about writing something that has certain similarities to something already written, or even to be afraid to explore a different treatment of an idea they come across in any already published book; still, I must admit I have fallen into that error myself.

A couple of years ago, I was fascinated by the idea of writing a dystopia which involved a bad fair warrior, a good dark warrior, a female Amazon type, a society shattered by a series of earthquakes, and various other features. When I came to read Rebecca Lochlann’s brilliant ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series, I found all these features there; in dismay, I broke off from writing any more of the said dystopia (fortunately I had only written about 10,000 words), imagining my cringing embarrassment if readers assumed I had copied the ideas.13076894

I now think that was a mistaken decision, and one of these days I ought to return to the idea (though I make no claims that my series would be as good as ‘Child of the Erinyes); different treatments using partly similar elements in a plot make for vastly different novels; the classics George Elliot’s ‘Adam Bede’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ are encouraging evidence of that.

It is certainly true that some of the contemporary critics did see a similarity between some of the themes in ‘Adam Bede’ and those in ‘Sylvia’s Loves’ ; though I haven’t read any literary criticism of Adam Bede, I have read a fair amount for Gaskell’s novel, and came across some comparisons there.

For instance, a review in ‘the Reader’ of 1863 states of Gaskell’s character Philip Hepburn: ‘the conception is feeble, and the execution indistinct. Philip Hepburn is Sylvia’s lover and nothing more…we cannot help comparing him with Adam Bede, and the difference between the two impressions of character is the difference between one character written in loose sand, and one engraved on a gem…there is a superficial resemblance to George Elliot’s Hetty in the heroine, which is quite lost sight of as we advance.’

Perhaps, in light of such reviews, Elizabeth Gaskell was wise never to read them. Probably, comparisons are inevitable for writers; it is a part of the way the human mind works, even if comparisons are notoriously invidious; but I think it would be unfortunate if writers were put off writing a book because they have come on one with a similar theme, or even, to hesitate in writing a book using a theme they have come across which they would like to treat with a different approach.