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.

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The Anti-Heroine

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I have often thought, on and off, what a shame it is how few anti-heroines there are in both traditionally published and self published fiction.

Anti -heroes suffer from overpopulation in the fiction world- particularly in romance – but their female equivalents seem thin on the ground.

This anyway, is my experience, but maybe I am looking in the wrong places (anxiously picks up some stones in the garden).

Maybe I haven’t come across them because I don’t read much fantasy and all its sub sections, and possibly that is the genre in which they are most often to be found, with all those katana waving, leather clad female warriors.  With all the newly published works on the internet, there must surely be many of these outrageous lead females I have missed. But if so, I keep on missing them, as with the 65 bus when I used to live in South Ealing.

There are, however, some excellent classic ones. I have to start off by saying that to my shame, I have yet to read ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ whom I believe count as anti-heroines.

However, I have read ‘Vanity Fair’ twice. The selfish, cold, manipulative  Becky Sharp is certainly an anti-heroine. I dislike her, because she has almost no warmth of feeling , and is prepared to destroy her only friend Amelia’s happiness and future security for her own gain. This also is  part of a mean spirited revenge she takes on Amelia’s fiancé George Osborn, who earlier has prevented her marriage to Amelia’s foolish half-brother Joss.

During the vain George’s honeymoon in Brighton with Amelia, she and  her now husband Rawdon Crawley turn up, and while Rawdon Crawley assiduously strives to relieve George of his small inheritance from his mother, Becky flirts with him and soon succeeds in making him infatuated with her, careless on how wretched this will make Amelia, who was the only person who championed her at school.

As, through George’s interference to prevent the Jos engagement, she is still free later to marry the baronet’s son Rawdon Crawley and aim higher up the social ladder, one might think that she would be philosophical about George’s earlier snobbish interference; but it seems that she is not.

In some ways she is carelessly drawn, I suppose as a result of WM Thackeray’s self –conscious masculine inability to see inside the heads of women. For instance, Becky at the beginning of the story is rebellious and resentful. She alarms Amelia by throwing away the dictionary given her by the school as a parting present, and shouts ‘Vive Bonoparte! Vive l’Empereur!’

I rather liked her for this frank defiance, but she soon changes into a sly flaterer. Within hours of going to stay with the Sedley family in Russell Square, she is suddenly expert at hiding her real feelings, and can draw in the fat and foolish Jos.

Vanity Fair is, of course, one of the greatest novels written about the Battle of Waterloo. That is the way in which it has lingered in my imagination, and not through any great interest in its two dimensional anti-heroine. However, Thackeray deserves all credit for creating one, however clumsily.

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I have to make another shamed confession here; I never finished reading Jane Austen’s ‘Lady Susan’. Jane Austen wrote it when she was very young, and not easily able to handle the subject matter, which is fascinating, being about a widow with a ‘dubious’ character scheming to marry one of a group of eligible young men. I think this is probably why I stopped reading.

I must read it through soon. In Jane Austen’s time, when a novel was abominated unless the author paraded its moral worth, an anti-heroine like the heartless Lady Susan was a theme only the boldest writer would attempt. Perhaps this is why she did not return to it, as she did to the early versions of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

Another anti-heroine is, of course, Cathy in ‘Wuthering Heights’. She dies ‘not with a bang but a whimper’ fading away after she finds that she cannot have both Edgar Linton and Healthcliff. However surprisngly tame the end of life in this world for Cathy is, she is a highly effective ghost.

Her relationship with the Heathcliff is certainly bizarre. Contrary to what so many readers seem to believe, I would argue that she does not appear to have romantic feelings feelings towards him, though they do seem to have some confusion of identiy.  It is difficult to work out what sort of feelings Heathcliff has for Cathy. From some of his comments, he seems to have less divided feelings about his passion for her than she has over hers for him.

In that era, it was, I believe, illegal for a person to marry a foster sibling (there was no formal adoption) whether there was any blood relationship or not, so I am puzzled about why Cathy even mentions marrying Heathcliff in her famous speech about degradation. There’s a good discussion of that, and the incest theme in ‘Wuthering Heights’ here 

Apart from her dependency relationship with Heathliff,  we really don’t know that much about Cathy. She is wilful and selfish and when in her early teens, loves running about on the moors in all weathers and soon develops a normal amount of teenage vanity.

In these characteristics, she does make a refreshing change from most mid Victorian heroines. However, she is not, for all her wild passions and temper tantrums, a fully realised character. For all her apparent ‘large ego’ if set aside from her torn feelings for both Edgar Linton and Heathcliff,  for all her undeniable egotism, she hardly seems to exist at all. Again, I found this disappointing.

I have more I want to write about anti-heroines, including the mid-twentieth century depictions of two in the Hélène in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Blood of Others’ and Scarlett O’Hara, but for now I had better finsih this post with the request  that I hope someone reading it can recommend a modern anti-heroine to me.

 

 

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Authors Basing Characters on Real People: Some Examples from Classic Novels

I don’t know how much most authors base their characters on people they have known. I would guess that most combine various characteristics taken from numerous people in real life with some from those they have encountered in fiction to create something original.

A writer observes on this website

https://litreactor.com/columns/keeping-it-real-a-rough-guide-to-using-real-people-as-fictional-characters

‘Fictional characters, especially main characters, almost never behave exactly like real people would.  They’re smarter, more persuasive, more appealing, more sensitive, better looking, stronger, more hot-headed, braver and at least twice as sensual as anyone we’re ever going to share office space or an apartment with. Make your characters too real and the reader will soon lose interest. Give them some real characteristics and they’ll jump out of the page and into your audience’s mind with a single bound.’

As a matter of fact, I don’t agree with all of that. Most people do meet larger than life characters, people who are outstanding in all sorts of ways. It is merely that they are vastly outnumbered by the greater number of smaller than life characters one meets …

It is however true that they probably don’t combine all these fascinating characteristics together.

For instance, perhaps my own best looking character is Reynaud Ravensdale in ‘Ravensdale’ (though some might prefer the looks of Harley Venn in ‘The Villainous Viscount Or the Curse of the Venns’).  Readers might imagine that I must have invented his appearance, or based it on some idealised portrait.

In fact, a man I knew looked exactly like that,  wide-set, heavy-lidded eyes, Grecian profile, waving chestnut hair and all. He was a petty villain I knew, who was a nice enough guy, but – to put it mildly –  rather stupid.

Reynaud Ravensdale is certainly more of a man of action than a studious type, and decidedly impulsive and given to theatrical gestures, but only stupid about his love object Isabella Murray and her predecessor Georgiana Toothill. Above anything, I wrote him as an ‘Ideal Type’  of the hero of the traditional robber novels like ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ and ‘Dubrovsky.

According to various books and websites, a fair number of writers of classic novels did base their main character roughly on someone they knew in real life, or sometimes, someone whom they knew only slightly. Or it could be, on someone the author had only glimpsed once.

For instance, it seems the appearance of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of d’Ubervilles’ is based on a farm girl Hardy saw, belabouring some unfortunate mount and swearing.

Various pieces of advice on writing such as the website above strongly advise aspiring authors not to make their characters recognisable as real people. Still,  I remember reading that Kingsley Amis deliberately made the ridiculous Professor Welch in his first novel ‘Lucky Jim’ a wounding portrayal of his first father-in-law.   I don’t know if the unlucky man recognised himself.

What is interesting, is that it is a witty portrayal. Many portrayals dictated by malice seem to read as savage rather than amusing.  Also in the same novel, I believe that the Jim character was based on Amis’s friend Philip Larkin.

It seems that Samuel Richardson said he based his character Robert Lovelace from ‘Clarissa’ on the conversation and attitudes of a man he encountered. I only read this in passing in some piece of literary criticism, and find it rather an astounding notion, given the puritanical notions of that author.

Did Richardson encourage this appalling conversation about the seduction and betrayal of a series of innocents?   Was the man possibly self-deluded, boasting of conquests and betrayals that never happened and persuading Richardson to believe his boastful anecdotes?

But, as the characters that authors create are after all a part of our  own psyches, surely a large part of Lovelace was  the dark part of the puritanical Samuel Richardson’s own unconscious mind?  That he managed to keep such a scheming, exuberant, emotionally abusive and finally rapist aspect to his psyche under control is, if so, evidence of what an astonishing job an effective conscience does.

As it was, all Richardson did was write novels which expressly designed to  oppress generations of women with false notions of purity…

I had wondered on whom Oscar Wilde based his infinitely corrupt Dorian Grey in his famous novel. It seems from this website:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/ten-famed-literary-figures-based-on-real-life-people-3537929

that his appearance at least was based on one John Grey, a minor member of his circle . If so, according to the website below,  the fate of this person was vastly different from that of Wilde’s character. John Grey later took holy orders.

Three inch high watercolour of Irishman Thomas Langlois Lefroy painted by leading English miniaturist George Engleheart in 1798

Critics are still undecided on who is the original of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy. Some think his appearance at least was based on the  Irish William Lefroy, who admitted in old age to having as a youth been in  love with Jane Austen.

Some authors seem to have shown naivety in believing that characters they had based on people important in their lives could not be recognised by readers as long as they changed a feature here or there…

For instance, when reading the  ‘Forstye Saga’ by John Galsworthy, I noted his besotted, partisan attitude towards the female lead Irene, whose physical and mental attributes seem to be admired by everyone.

I was unsurprised to find out later that the character of Irene, and her marital misfortunes, are based on Galsworthy’s wife (who was previously unhappily married to his cousin).  Galsworthy seems to have thought that if he changed her hair colour from dark to golden, nobody would draw any conclusions about her origin…

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.

That Dreaded Manuscript in Your Drawer: join Jane Austen and Pushkin in having a Manuscript in That Drawer of Doom

Alex2LargeItaliano(2)First of all, I’d like to wish everyone Season’s Greetings.

Then I’d like to thank Robert Wingfield of INCA for designing for me such a wonderful new cover for ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’.  Here it is, above. You can get it on:

http:/’www.amazon.com/Alex-Sagers-Demon-Pushkins-Nemesis-ebook/

or

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alex-Sagers-Demon-Pushkins-Nemesis-ebook

I wanted to write a skit for a Christmas post, perhaps something on the lines of ‘Christmas at Castle Dracula’ or even ‘Heathcliff meets Arthur Huntingdon for Christmas cheer at Wuthering Heights’ or  some such,  but what with one thing and another I have run out of time.  Typical bad time management from me.

So instead, I will write about The Dreaded Manuscript in the Drawer.

I was thinking that for me, 2015 was the ‘Manuscript in the Drawer’ year. I put two of ’em in there. One 50,000 words, one 22,000 words. How’s that for wasted effort? And all done first thing in the morning before a cup of tea.

I’ve also got the opening chapters of a dystopia in there.

I’m halfway through writing the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and I have re-written the beginnings of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and of ‘Ravensdale’ and ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’, it’s true, so it hasn’t all been Writers’ Block and Consigning to Drawer of Doom for me. Still, I did write about a third each of two versions of the same Gothic story, and both led to prolonged writer’s block and finally were sucked into that Drawer of Doom, which is too often like a black hole for manuscripts.

Once through that good old event horizon and they are usually fated not to escape; too much heavy matter in there.

There was a purely comic and a darker version, and I think one of my resolutions for 2016 must be to draw one of them out, and bring it to completion.

This must be so common a fate for so many initially promising manuscripts. I’m sure many other authors have that manuscript in the drawer that they intend to get round to drawing out from the dustbin of history (perhaps these days, more take the form of abandoned files on the pc which are never printed out and don’t even get to the Shoved Into A Drawer’ stage. No doubt many are eventually deleted, accidentally on purpose).

It would be interesting if we all were to pull them out of drawers or locate those forsaken files in 2016, and see if we can overcome the problems that led us to abandon them.

I can’t help pleading on behalf of these unfortunate manuscripts, you know; after all, the problems that caused their creator to consign them to limbo may not have been insurmountable. Perhaps it was a case of that famous ‘wrong timing’ (Gets carried away) . Perhaps a little give and take,an acceptance that there were  faults on both sides (and other cliches) might be the best approach to adopt to resolve the conflict, and the best way to a creative solution? (Pulls herself together) What’s the matter with me? I’m talking about words, not people, even if those characters did seem vivid!

I’m always morbidly fascinated by the whole dismal matter of the Drawer of Doom. All  famous classic authors seem to have them; Pushkin relegated that unfinished robber novella ‘Dubrovsky’ to his, so that it was only published after his death, complete with the unabridged and convoluted legal document that comes in the middle.

I think it is a shame he abandoned it, as unlike some harsh critics, I loved it when I read it.  He was attempting to produce a work of literary merit which also had popular appeal, and that’s as laudable an aim as can be for an author; after all, it’s trying to emulate Shakespeare in a way. He wrote plays with an eye to popular success, though he just happened to be a genius.

Emily Bronte and Anne Bronte don’t have any unfinished manuscripts, for the simple reason that they urged their sister Charlotte to destroy their unpublished manuscripts after their deaths.

Jane Austen had three unfinished short novels, ‘Lady Susan’ ‘Sanditon’ and ‘The Watsons’. I am sure I am fairly typical of Jane Austen admirers in that I think that none of them deserved to go into that drawer, or anyway, to stay in it. I was particularly interested in ‘The Watsons’ when I read it, and wondered how the plot and sub plots would have worked out.

I am intrigued about some more deceased prolific authors, who were, shall we say, less perfectionist in their attitude to their work. For instance, Charles Garvice, who wrote 150 romantic novels during his writing career, or Barbara Cartland, who easily beat him with a total of 700 (but she did live until she was nearly ninety compared to his seventy).

Did they have their Manuscripts in the Drawer?

Perhaps, though, the Christmas and New Year round over, 2016 will be the year when through a strange process of synchronicity,writers all about the world will draw out those neglected manuscripts from drawers and open those long neglected files on the pic.  I will certainly try and do something with mine; that’s my writing New Year’s resolution. That, and finishing the sequel to ‘Scoundrel’.

Oh yes, and another one about time management.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Austen: Not a Writer of Romances

220px-Sense_and_Sensibility_Illustration_Chap_12snsbrockwc9In my last post on Jane Austen, I commented that: –

‘It is an irony that Jane Austen is seen as a writer of romances, when her own outlook on marriage, and the undesirability of marriage without a comfortable income, was highly practical and very much typical of the era, and the part of society from which she came. Mr Darcy without at least a competence should have been politely and regretfully dismissed by Elizabeth Bennett.’

Really, I should have expanded on this; the comment on it from stephrozitis sums up my own view tersely: –

‘I think seeing Austen as a writer of “romance” genre is more than ironic- it’s inaccurate and does the writer a huge disservice. As you know she is one of the reputable writers trotted out by romance apologists. I don’t think her agenda is “boy meets girl” it’s more social critique and showing the places of (relatively privileged) women. Marriage is a huge part of that because those women have few options available to them but the interactions and character flaws are what makes the books readable and rereadable …’

I agree with this. Sadly, I have to concede that the writers on romance today who are eager to secure an intellectual and literary respectability for the romance genre by claiming that classic writers of the past were in fact, writers of ‘romance’  – Pamela Regis is one – are frankly mistaken in Jane Austen’s case (I would argue that they are wrong about Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’, Charlotte Bronte in ‘Jane Eyre’, and various others too; but that is irrelevant here).Robert_Lovelace_Preparing_to_Abduct_Clarissa_Harlowe

As the poster comments, in assuming that because Jane Austen wrote about women finding marriage partners in the late Georgian and Regency era she was committed to modern notions of ‘romance’ , many modern proponents of the Jane Austen as writer of romance argument are underestimating the circumstances in which this most astute of social commentators wrote.

In her era, women from the upper middle class were obliged not to work except, as a last resort, as a governess or a companion. For them to work outside the home was seen as a disgrace on the male members of their family, who should in all honour support them if they did not find a marriage partner. If these women were not sufficiently blasé about social disgrace to become a form of prostitute, therefore, their only other option generally was marriage as the only respectable way to achieve some status in a household of their own.sensens2

Jane Austen’s stories, therefore, are not in my opinion romantic novels, but ones which give a social critique through telling a story of a young woman adapting to her environment and the compromises which she must make to function smoothly in it, of which a marriage which will be happy is part of the comedic outcome.

The story of Marianne, for instance, is in fact as strong a criticism of taking ‘romantic’ notions into marriage as I can imagine. This is, of course, a criticism of ‘the romantic’ in the terms in which it was understood in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which included the free and frank expression of the dramatic and the emotional in art and literature.snsbrockwc14

‘Romantic love’ was a component of this approach, but only a part of it; the modern concept of ‘romance’ is then, unfortunately, a sentimentalised version of a whole approach to life.

Marianne’s infatuation with Willoughy is only partly sentimentalized sexuality in the manner of current definitions of ‘the romantic’. It is also a striving to find another free and fiercely honest spirit in a world where she considers that almost everybody, including her beloved sister, is addicted to compromise in order for polite society to operate smoothly.

I have mentioned before that I do not particularly enjoy Jane Austen’s solution to Marianne’s disillusion with romanticism and her acceptance of the need for compromise in personal and social relations; her taking the sedate Colonel Brandon for a life partner was to me a disappointing ending to the story.

As I have said elsewhere, I would rather that Marianne had married a repentant (and partially reformed) Willoughby, and became, as she must, slowly disillusioned with him, though no doubt remaining attached to him. That sort of conditional happy-ever-after suits me perfectly for a dose of realism.

Jane Austen, however, clearly considered that such a match would have led to more unhappiness for Marianne than she would have experienced in a rather passionless match with the excellent Colonel. How anyone can regard that outcome as in any way romantic puzzles me. I found it frankly disturbing, because – surely unintentionally – Marianne Dashwood comes across as Jane Austen’s most potentially sexual secondary heroine.

In that, then, Jane Austen designs her plot in a way quite contrary to those of the typical romantic novel.https://i0.wp.com/www.mollands.net/etexts/images/snsillus/snsbrockwc9.jpg

Any regulars I might have might remember that this question also arises in ‘Mansfield Park’ where Jane Austen demonstrates Fanny Price obdurate against a charming and unprincipled Henry Crawford who finally disgraces himself, as does his sister, Mary, with whom Fanny’s true love and cousin is infatuated; Fanny then goes on to marry the steady rather than the beguiling man. And like Cassandra Austen, I was dissatisfied at the tameness of the particular happy ending that the writer chose.

Obviously, then, if these two examples are anything to go by, I am affected myself by current romantic notions in a way that Jane Austen clearly was not. However,  I would go for the ‘qualified happy ending’ rather than the supremely happy one of conventional romance.

Even in ‘Pride and Predjudice’, generally seen as the most romantic of Jane Austen’s novels, with Mr Darcy extolled as the most desirable of tall, dark, dashing heroes, it might be noted that the narrator remarks that the development of Elizabeth Bennett’s feelings for him are not the ones associated with romantic infatuation: –

‘If gratitude and esteem are good foundations for affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But otherwise, – if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable and unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged – nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill success might, authorize her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment’.

One of the many things that differentiates Jane Austen’s writing from the rigid requirements of romantic fiction is her interest in social relations; a good deal of the space in her works is taken up, not by dwelling on the developing passions of the main couple, but by engaging in satirical wit at the expense of snobs and fools. By contrast, sadly, when I last read the guidelines of Mills and Boon, it was emphasized that while a sub plot is permitted some space, the main emphasis must always be on the primary relationship between heroine and hero.

It is ironic that with so many opportunities open to women which were not remotely possible in Jane Austen’s day, the most popular form of fiction amongst women today is one that concentrates mainly on finding life partners.

The question is why; men also  – at least past a certain age – want life partners, but only a tiny minority of them are interested in reading novels about it.  What makes for this difference in favoured reading?

 

‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen: Some Thoughts on the Main Characters

On the characters in ‘Sense  https://i2.wp.com/www.mollands.net/etexts/images/snsillus/snsbrockwc8.jpg and Sensibility’, I have already commented on my liking for both the primary heroine, Elinor and the secondary one, Marianne.

In some ways I prefer Elinor to ‘Pride and Prejudice’s’ Elizabeth Bennett, as she seems less taken over by Edward than Elizabeth is by Mr Darcy. For instance, towards the end of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Elizabeth has to remind herself that Mr Darcy ‘has yet to learn to laugh at himself’ and while I have no doubt that Elizabeth does to some extent teach him, it sounds, given his stately airs, something of an uphill task; I always feared that she would lose some of her liveliness in being too dutiful.

Edward Ferrars is a far less overwhelming personality than the imperious Mr Darcy, and is anything but proud; when he escapes the determined clutch of the terrible Lucy Steele, he castigates himself heartily to Elinor for his foolishness in ever becoming engaged to her: – ‘I had nothing in the world to do, but to fancy myself in love; and as my mother did not make my home in every respect comfortable…it was not unnatural for me to be very often at Longstaple, where I always felt myself at home, and was sure of a welcome…Lucy seemed to me then everything that was amiable and obliging. She was pretty, too –at least, I thought so then…’

Edward is a likable enough hero, but sadly, as he had to compete with the witty and showy Willoughby for the reader’s attention, doesn’t shine in comparison. However, I like his blunt remarks, which the more urbane Colonel Brandon would avoid, as when he is responding to Marianne’s enthusiasm over the view of Barton Valley: –

‘Amongst the rest of the objects I see before me, I see a very dirty lane.’

It has sometimes been observed by literary critics that it is difficult to write a character who is good and interesting, but I think Edward Ferrars is an excellent example of how this can be done; his faults of diffidence and shyness, his weakness in continuing to see Elinor, though he knows that he is falling for her and has to honour his engagement to Lucy Steele, make him very human; he is undoubtedly a good character of whom I always wished we had seen more in the story.

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Elinor’s quite sense and detached humourous observation (in effect, Jane Austen’s own) are highly admirable, but even given that she is meant to be unusual, she is too mature outlook for nineteen.

Marianne’s opposite qualities, her passionate commitment to emotional honesty and her determined espousal of the romantic in paining, literature and real life are equally appealing, but disgusted by equivocation as she is, she can be unfeeling and even rude ( by the standards of the genteel of the time; compared to our own, she has advanced social skills). The task of placating and listening to people Marianne considers beneath her notice in one way or another usually falls to Elinor. For instance, when Edwaard’s disagreeable mother and sister are making inividious comparisons between Elinor’s art work and that of an heiress they hope he will court, she exclaims: –

‘This is admiration of a very particular kind!! What is Miss Morton to us? Who knows and who cares for her? It is Elinor of whom we think and speak’.

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Marianne at the end of the novel has become too saddened, too sedate as a consequence of her heartbreak by Willoughby for the reader not to feel a sense of loss. As one famous critic has mentioned, even her speech patterns change to the harmonious. It is true that the account of her accepting Colonel Brandon is given indirectly, which, as I have never been able to take to the worthy Colonel, I found a relief.

Everything is cleared up fairly quickly: – ‘Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate; she was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!…whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married, — and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat!’

At thirty-five plus, Colonel Brandon would be too old for Marianne even if he was a far livelier character and that flannel waistcoat always just about finishes him as an appealing partner for such a girl for me.

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As I have said in a previous post, I consider the ending to the story highly disappointing, as I did with ‘Mansfield Park’. Whether Jane Austen’s sister and confidante Cassandra (who expressed the view of myself and countless others before me, two centuries earlier over the desirability of Fanny Price marrying Henry Crawford, not Edmund Bertram) wished Marianne and a chastened Willoughby in the end to be brought together, I don’t know; but Jane Austen was nothing if not severe about rascals and took the view that they could cause only misery as husbands, not possibly, qualified happiness.

Jane Austen condemns Willoughby to resignation in an unhappy marriage with a bad tempered wife he doesn’t even like; he’s already confessed that he finds the idea of Marianne marrying Brandon torment: ‘His punishment was soon afterwards complete in the voluntary forgiveness of Mrs Smith, who, by stating his marriage with a woman of character, as the source of her clemency, gave him reason for believing, that had he behaved with honour towards Marianne, he might at once have been happy and rich.’

Jane Austen, with her incomparable irony, suggests as a sop that: ‘his wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable’. In other words, this was the case more often than not.

It is an irony that Jane Austen is seen as a writer of romances, when her own outlook on marriage, and the undesirability of marriage without a comfortable income, was highly practical and very much typical of the era, and the part of society, from which she came. Mr Darcy without at least a competence should have been politely and regretfully dismissed by Elizabeth Bennett.

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Laughing Out Loud With Jane Austen; ‘Sense and Sensibility’ as Tragi-Comedy…

220px-Sense_and_Sensibility_Illustration_Chap_12Recently, I re-read ‘Sense and Sensibility’.

That is my favourite Jane Austen novel. The humour is brilliant; it made me laugh out loud a few times, and I can be hard to please.

‘Pride and Prejudice’ is equally funny, of course, and much lighter in overall tone; there is also the happy ending to the love affair of Jane and Bingley which is denied to Marianne and Willoughby. I loved the portrayals of vulgar relatives, the ‘pompous nothings’ of Mr Collins and his self-serving hypocrisy.

But in some ways, because I did ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for ‘A’ level, part of the fun was taken out of it on that first reading, seeing that you have to read with ‘an analytical eye’. You’ve got your notes to hand; look out for such-and-such. It was a wonderful piece of light relief after ‘Samson Agoniste’s’ (a poem I dislike to this day) and all the rest, though, and the first time I had read any Jane Austen.

My own delight in discovering her sense of the absurd, her penetrating exposure of hypocrisy – shared by so many readers over two centuries – was for me as for countless others, accompanied by the feeling that ‘Why didn’t people who recommended it tell me that this classic is so brilliantly funny? Saying, ‘It’s very good,’ means nothing.’

If I’d thought anything in my early teens about Jane Austen, I’d assumed that her novels must be primarily romantic, revolving around improbable love affairs, like those of some of her predecessors like Samuel Richardson, and many of her famous admirers.

And there’s the irony; I’m far from addicted to stories with misty happy endings  – conditional happy endings, however, are a different matter. As I have said in previous posts, maybe part of this is that stories with such endings so often are peopled by ‘lay figures’ – cardboard characters with whom it is hard to empathize. Unluckily, many writers who are capable of portraying realistic and sympathetic characters tend to write novels where a happy ending – even a qualified one – is not the necessary or even a likely outcome.

I am very unusual, it seems, in failing to see the appeal of Mr Darcy; still, I did like Elizabeth, and as she thought he was so wonderful, I was happy that she called him to heel.

Like countless others, I have always wished that a repentant (and unmarried) Willoughby came back to Marianne and that Henry Crawford returned likewise, glowing with new-found resolve of reform, to Fanny Price (who had started to soften towards him). I wouldn’t think it realistic that either couple should be any more than moderately happy for many years, though; the males aren’t sufficiently elevated to make sterling husbands; leave that to the Dull but Worthies…

Jane Austen’s characters are fully believable; they come from an age where terrible social injustice and the existence of servant drudges was necessarily taken for granted;  the sexual repression of the women of the time runs like an underground current of electricity throughout her novels; but the humour shines clear through all that. The sense of humour of Fanny Burney is crudely snobbish; that of Jane Austen begins to expose such assumptions.

Here we have a wonderful description of Sir John’s household at Barton Park: ‘Sir John was a sportsman; Lady Middleton was a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources. Lady Middleton had the advantage of being able to spoil her children all the year round, while Sir John’s independent employments were in existence only half the time. ‘

Here is Willoughby’s mode of courting Marianne: ‘If their evenings at the Park were concluded with cards, he cheated himself and all the rest of the party to get her a good hand. If dancing formed the amusement of the night, they were partners for half the time; and when obliged to separate for a couple of dances, were careful to stand together, and scarcely spoke to anybody else.’

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Here is Willoughby on Colonel Brandon: – ‘”Brandon is just the kind of man,’ Willoughby said, when they were talking of him one day, ‘Whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and none remember to talk to.”
“That is exactly what I think of him,” cried Marianne.
“Do not boast of it, however,” said Elinor, “for it is injustice in both of you. He is highly esteemed by all the family at the Park, and I never see him myself without taking care to converse with him.”
“That he is patronised by you,” replied Willoughby, “Is certainly in his favour; but as for the esteem of the others, it is a reproach in itself. Who would submit to the indignity of being approved by such women as Lady Middleton and Mrs Jennings, that could command the indifference of anybody else?”
“But perhaps the abuse of such people as yourself and Marianne will make amends for the regard of Lady Middleton and her mother. If their praise is censure, your censure may be praise; for they are not more undiscerning than you are prejudiced and unjust’.
“In defence of your protégé, you can even be saucy.”
“My protégé, as you call him, is a sensible man; and sense will always have attractions for me. Yes, Marianne, even in a man between thirty and forty.’

Elinor is a witty and independent minded heroine; not as lively as Elizabeth Bennet, but in some ways more discerning, so it is interesting that this book was the author’s first, initially written under the title of ‘Elinor and Marianne’ and edited and partly re-written in later years under its new title.

When the story moves towards the tragic – which happens all too soon – and Marianne’s inevitable disillusionment with her dashing, handsome admirer, the humour remains; but the tone is now tragic-comic:

There are the good-natured gossip Mrs Jennings attempts to console Marianne after she has learned of Willoughby’s engagement to the plain heiress Miss Grey: –
‘”My dear,” she said, “I have just recollected that I have some of the finest Constantia wine in the house that ever was tasted – so I have brought a glass of it for your sister. My poor husband! How fond he was of it! Whenever he had a touch of the cholicky gout, he said it did him more good than anything else in the world…”
‘Elinor, as she swallowed the chief of it, reflected that though its effects on cholicky gout were at present of little importance to her, its healing powers on a disappointed heart might be as reasonably tried on herself as on her sister…’

Elinor, of course, shares a mutual love with Edward Ferrars, who is being held to his engagement with the unprincipled and manipulative Lucy Steele. The smile that this episode gives us is a temporary respite from the stark tragedy of poor Marianne’s loss of her idol when Willoughby first reveals himself to be capable of acting as a vulgar fortune hunter.

More next time on the characters in ‘Sense and Sensibility’.