Page Turners for the Run Up to Christmas: Review of ‘Dark Moon Fell’ by Mari Biella

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I finished this on Halloween – highly appropriately, as I don’t think it will be writing a spoiler to say that this is a real ghost story – and there is more than one ghost.
But, as ever, Mari Biella’s style is subtle. No crowd of phantoms jumping out of cupboards here – and as ever, the psychological and the psychic are expertly blended.
She has also done a fine job in creating a sympathetic heroine out of Angela Martin – a has been pop star of less than outstanding talent, who becoming a drunk and squandering the money and fame that has so easily come to her, is caught by alcoholic poisioning.
But, at least – unlike ‘reality celebrities’ – she has some talent; and she also has a redeeming sense of irony. This is what she thinks as she fades out of consciousness in her bathroom:
‘ The papers are going to go wild over this, the voice in my head continued, in its arch, you-silly-thing way. Another faded has-been going out with a whimper, drowning in booze. Never mind alcohol poisoning, you ought to die of sheer bloody embarrassment.’
She also speaks of the delusions of fame:
‘You suddenly find that you have no shortage of friends, all of whom appear to offer you unconditional loyalty and affection. They laugh at your feeble jokes and applaud even your smallest achievements. They put up with you when you behave like a jerk, which you frequently do, because nobody dares to challenge you. What you don’t realize is that, through it all, those same friends are quietly keeping score. And when the money and fame dry up, which they invariably do, so too does their devotion.’
I took to Angela after that.
During her period of unconsciousness, she is haunted by an odd dream which she remembers, of a substantial Victorian house, of being hunted, of being chased by an evil pursuer across a moor.
It might not seem surprising that Angela would have a nightmare about pursuit, as she has been stalked for some time by an obsessive fan, who at first inclined to worship her, is now disgusted with her. His letters have become abusive.
Angela is short of money, and options. Again showing her ability to view herself with detachment, she says to her former manager of her group:
‘All I know about is singing reasonably well, dancing a bit and having my photograph taken.’
He feels to some extent responsible for her emotional collapse, having plunged her thoughtlessly into the cut throat pop world as a young girl. Now he offers to help her get a job as a caretaker in one of the houses owned by the owner of her old recording company. Angie is eager to get away from London – especially the stalker.
After a cursory interview, Angie gets the job at Fell House in Northumberland, situated by a sinister moor, which is rumoured to be cursed.
But what worries Angela more is that this is literally the house of her dreams. This is the place she visited when in a coma.
From the start, she knows that someone else is in the house. The question is, is this person living or dead?
Yet, she feels that she cannot give up this opportunity. Besides, it is a lovely old house set in wonderful countryside,and she relishes this new existence.
…There is also another attraction. Ethan Haar, the architect who is designing some work on the house in line with the rules pertaining to a listed building. Angela is attracted to him at once. In fact, with him, she forgets to feel jaded.
As she begins to learn about the tragic history of Fell House, and to uncover the secret of Ethan Haar’s past, Angela finds herself increasingly drawn to solve its mystery, and to help him lay his own ghosts besides.
But there is more danger lurking about the house for Angela than a possible haunting…
Written with the smooth flow, striking word pictures and introducing the vivid characters we have come to expect from Mari Biella, this is an absorbing, sometimes spine chilling, read.
It also includes the extra pleasure of a tender love story.
As ever, I am hard put to it to narrow down my choice of quotes, but here are two:
‘I thought of the years in which we must both have lived in London, he and I, walking the same streets, falling asleep beneath the same grimy sky. We might have passed each other on a crowded pavement, or ridden in the same taxi, or gone to the same shops and bars, but we’d never met. Now we’d been brought together in this obscure little place, two travellers looking for a better tomorrow.’
‘I had the sudden sense that Fell House existed in its own time zone, quite separate from that of the rest of the world. It was a zone, perhaps, where past, present and future lost their meaning. Maybe that was why I’d dreamed of the place before I’d ever set eyes on it.’
‘Stray sheep, startled by my approach, darted away from the path. Pausing to tie my shoelace, I realized that I could hear nothing apart from their occasional, plaintive bleating, and birdsong, and the low whine of the breeze. A few clouds sailed across the sky, throwing fleeting shadows over the rough grass and bracken.’
You can here buy Dark Moon Fell at amazon.co.uk
and at amazon.com
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Review of ‘The Time Machine’ by H G Wells: the First Time Travel Novel

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Here, Weena is more as I imagined her than in the film versions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Amazonian Weena, while the Time Traveller is both young and lacking in his ‘oddly shaped braod head’.

 

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The less than fascinating original cover.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson’s Criticism of Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’ and the Problematic Nature of Dark Comedy

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‘To remark on the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbicility…’

That is not an attack of a piece of work by some hack writer churning out pot boilers. It is  part of a review of William Shakespeare’s ‘Cymbeline’.

It’s by Samuel Johnson, an opinionated writer by any standards. (I should know, being opinionated myself). Part of the problem, as I see it, is that he is applying the standards of the so-called Age of Reason – Johnson was writing in the eighteenth century UK, which prided itself on its ‘enlightenment’ – to a fairy story/dark comedy, which verges on the surreal.

But even taking Johnson’s view – that he represented The Age of Reason in his attack on the play  and its fantastic notions – there is something biased and absurd about a critic saying this of Shakespeare, when he had praised to the skies that  deeply flawed sentimental novel ‘Evelina’ by Fanny Burney. That is meant to be realistic, with believable characters. Any modern reader who has ploughed through it will have noted the absurd co-incidences in it, and also, the wholly unbelievable behaviour of the characters.

It is of course, possible that characters whose behaviour is plausible to one century might seem to have the strangest motivations to readers two centuries later; an intriguing thought.

Johnson, whose approach in literary criticism often seems unimaginative, approached a fantasy story looking for realism in the plot, and was bitterly disappointed.

The way I see it –  and there are many interpretations of ‘Cymbeline’ with critics arguing about what exactly Shakespeare was getting at – is that Shakespeare was experimenting with a new, darker form of comedy. He did this several times later in his career after the much simpler comedies such as ‘A Comedy of Errors’ and ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and most people believe that ‘A Winter’s Tale’ is a far superior play to ‘Cymebline’ which is, if our ideas about the timing of his plays is correct, one that followed his great tragedies.

Well, ‘King Lear’ is a pretty hard act to follow…

Anyway, this play seems to follow on from ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ in that it combines traditional fairy tale themes and stereotypical characters from such legends with a contrasting realism in their presentation, which can confuse the reader. The events in the stories are quite dark: however, I don’t believe they are meant to be taken wholly seriously.

In ‘All’s Well That Ends’ Well’ Helena, a ‘low born’ but admirable physician’s daughter cures the king of a supposedly incurable malady. Naturally, he asks her what she might want, as he’ll give it to her. What she wants is to marry her guardian’s son, the Count of Rossillion, and this is an interesting twist. In fairy stories, it is usually the enterprising miller’s son or some such who wins the hand of the king’s daughter, and she is assumed to find being given away as a prize quite acceptable.

By contrast, in ‘All’s Well That Ends  Well’ (which is based on a story by Boccaccio) the Count throws a tantrum, goes through with the marriage, but announces that he will never consummate it. He leaves her a note stating impossible conditions for her to fulfil in order for him to accept her as his wife, and runs off to join the army, egged on by a cowardly braggart toady called Parolles.

So, this brings a new, realistic twist to the fairy tale theme. Helena now has to fulfil these impossible conditions – that is of course, a fairy tale convention – and so bring about a happy ending.

‘Cymbeline’ is actually named after a king of Ancient Britain, whom we don’t see much. Unlike that other defective ruler, King Lear, this king is a shadowy presence in the play named for him. He has fallen under the evil counsel of his second wife, who is also a Wicked Witch and Evil Stepmother to the king’s daughter from his first marriage, Imogen, who has secretly married her comparatively low born childhood playmate Posthumus Leonatus. She is, unusually for these times, also the heir,  as his two sons were kidnapped by an estranged courtier (they all reappear at the end of the play). Accordingly, the king is furious with her for making such a marriage, and banishes Posthumus, and puts pressure on her to renounce him and marry the Wicked Queen’s son, who is a portrayed as a buffoon.

Meanwhile, Posthumus has gone about boasting about how Imogen would never be unfaithful to him, and even enters into a bet with an idle fellow called Iachmo, who insists that he could seduce any woman. He travels to the court to  hide in a trunk and have himself carried into Imogen’s bedroom, where emerges in the night, and leering at her naked, takes back the news to Posthumus that she has a mole on her breast.

Posthumus_and_Imogen

Instead of wondering if Iachmo has found this out through trickery, Posthumous immediately takes his word and having run off in a rage, returns to address the audience in a wild rant where he says that all women are sex obsessed, and incapable of fidelity: –

Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain’d,

And prayed me oft forbearance…O, all the devils!

This yellow Iachmo, in an hour, was’t not?

Or less; at first? Perhchance he spake not, but

Like a full acorn’d boar, a German one,

Cried ‘O’ and mounted…’

This is very ridiculous (I assume the said ‘German boar’ wouldn’t have said ‘O’ and the actor makes a  bestial grunting noise), and I found it grimly funny.However, it is worth noting that  when on the ‘Goodreads’  ‘Shakespeare Fans Group’ we discussed the play recently, a lot of people said they could see no humour in the play at all.

Later, however, Posthumus orders his servant to kill Imogen. Naturally, the man doesn’t, and Imogen and Posthumous are eventually reconciled. He does repent, even suggesting that being unfaithful to him was a comparatively small fault compared to his own enormous one in ordering her murder ( one wonders: why one earth did he think it fair to order his servant to do his dirty work?).

This, an unusual admission for the times, made me wonder if Shakespeare was here attacking the notion that a woman’s worth was equivalent to her so called chastity – the word ‘honour’ was used of both of women, though not of men. If so, he was well ahead of his time. More than two centuries later, the puritanical Samuel Richardson was writing in ‘Pamela’ as if physical virginity and mental virtue were the same for his heroines, and the astoundingly repressive view of women and sexuality being mutually exclusive so common in Victorian times is a commonplace.

That, however, is to wander off the topic, which I really meant to be, that experimenting in comedy was a tricky matter many centuries ago, and it remains as tricky a form of writing to do today. Humour is so individual a thing, even in individuals within a culture.

After all, sarcasm and irony, historically so much a part of the British character, aren’t invariably part of it. I have met Brits who wouldn’t know an ironic quip if they met it in the road, and these people aren’t in any way intellectually deficient. It is more that their brains seem to be connected in a different way to those who have a  keen sense of the absurd.  No doubt the same applied in Shakespeare’s time. Presumably, there were many in the audience at the Globe who would assume that Postumus, being the hero of the play, is expressing his creator’s own views, even if he is acting rather dramatically…

I have said before that the line between horror and the ridiculous is perilously thin. Sometimes, it seems easier to write unintentional comedy than it is to write it intentionally…

But for instance, one wonders about much of the melodrama in  various Victorian novels. ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example. The scene, for instance, where Cathy lies on the sofa ‘grinding her teeth as if she would turn them to splinters’. Is that meant to be as absurd as I find it? Or Heathcliffe’s hissed remark when Nelly rebukes him for his ill treatment of his bride:  ‘Let the worms writhe! I have no pity!’ seems to me so melodramatic as to be ludicrous.

And that is one of the good things about dark comedy. The two sides of that thin line between horror and humour, comedy and tragedy, meet and combine. I believe that was what Shakespeare, in his darker comedies, was exploring, in ‘Alls Well That End’s Well’ ‘Cymbeline’, ‘The Winter’s Tale’ and others.

Germinal: Émile Zola’s Masterpiece

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Germinal is Émile Zola’s masterpiece, and I am fairly typical in thinking (and I have only read it in translation) that it contains his most brilliant writing, with exceptionally evocative passages of lyrical strength, and brilliant word pictures. It depicts a miner’s strike – with unsparing realism and remarkable sympathy.

When  my daughter asked me to recommend some of the most strongly written books that I had read, this was one.

I wrote in my last post that Zola had a fear of the untrammelled power of the working people. In this novel, however, his sympathies are entirely with them.  With unsparing honesty, he depicts the starvation, despair, and resulting violence that follows from the miners’ attempts to gain a living wage.

Zola was always meticulous in carrying out research. For this novel he went to northern France in 1884, where he witnessed a miners’ strike in Anzin, while at Denain he went underground to view working conditions. He always defended his depiction as realistic, aganinst the attacks by indignant critics, who accused him of exaggerating the horrors of the pit workers’ conditions for dramatic effect.

Incredibly, the novel was written in only eight months. The title, incidentally, is taken from the eighth month of the revolutionary calendar, and is meant to evoke an image of germination, of budding new growth, and of hope for the future. This is, in fact, the note on which the book ends. For all the distressing scenes that are depicted, the story ends in the spring, on a note of regeneration.

Over to Wickipedia for an excellent concise summary of the plot: –

The novel’s central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L’Assommoir (1877), and originally to have been the central character in Zola’s “murder on the trains” thriller La Bête humaine (1890) before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise. The young migrant worker arrives at the forbidding coal mining town of Montsou in the bleak area of the far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior, Étienne befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.

Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola’s genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors’ traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne’s motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne’s simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).

While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu’s daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola’s later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners’ lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist’s best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army that repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola’s best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.

MV5BNzdiYjhjOGMtNjQ1Zi00NGViLThlN2UtOTllYjk3NDY2MTAzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzk4OTI2MjM@._V1_There are many vivid characters in this novel, and perhaps the one who overshadows them all is inanimate: Le Voreux, the dread consumer of huaman flesh, the pit  in which the local miners and cart pushers labour for their lives.

Perhaps the most  horrific scene – and one of the most grotesque in all of Zola’s novels, which include a great deal in the way of horror and of the grotesque – is depicted in the scene where the rioting and starving locals attack the local grocer’s shop. The grocer falls to his death trying to escape via the roof, and the women, whom he has sexually abused in exchange for credit, enact a terrible revenge on his corpse: –

‘And then, with her old, withered hands, La Brúlé parted his naked thighs and seized hold of his now defunct manhood. She grabbed the whole thing in one hand and pulled, her bony spine tense with the effort, her long arms cracking. When the flabby skin refused to give, she had to pull even harder, but finally it came away, a lump of bleeding, hairy flesh, which she proceeded to brandish in triumph…’

By contrast, one of the most moving – indeed, near transcedent – moments in the novel is  when the cynical engineer Paul Négrel, the nephew of the owner of the mine, who is quite happy to deceive his uncle by carrying on an affair with his aunt by marriage,  who has been the bitter enemy of the militant Étienne, comes together with him in huamnity. After the collapse of the pit, he labours tirelessly and devotedly, night and day to ensure that Étienne, Chaval and Catherine are rescued from their underground prison.

When at last he is rewarded by finding them: –

‘These two men who despised each other, the rebellious worker and the sceptical boss, threw their arms around each other and sobbed their hearts out, both of them shaken to the very core of their humanity. ..’

As I said in my last post, while readers generally may not be attracted to reading the twenty novels in the series of Les Rougon-Macquart  , to neglect reading Germinal is to miss out on a true work of genius.

I have to say that I found Étienne’s love interest Catherine, insipid. While it might be argued that this was after all typical of a Victorian novel, and that her background is such that it is impossible for her to have developed much independence of thought or as an older daughter who had both to work in the pit and to labour in the house, had the leisure even to have much individuality, she still comes across as dull compared to Zola’s other female characters from humble and hard working bacgrounds, ie, the heroine of La Terre.  

This does seem to me a weakness in the structure of the novel. I certainly take the point that Cahterine is intended to be a victim, seduced by Chaval before her delayed puberty has come about. But Étienne’s  fascination with her is unconvincing, and so the desperate hatred between himself and Chaval is too.

Compared to all the admirable features in this book, though, this, and a certain tendency at times, ever present in Zola, to overdramaticise, are hardly very important. Catherine, with her passive surrender to abuse from a man she does not really love in Chaval, is not a female lead that a modern female reader can find appealling., however truly pathetic she might find her.  But in such characters as Catherine’s own mother and  the independent minded Mochette,  there is a good deal of feminine indpendence depicted throughout the story.

Zola was rightly proud of  his achievement.  It caused a senasation on its appearance and remains widely read to this day, having inspired several films, and being regarded as one of the most signicicant of all French novels.

 

 

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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Historical Fiction: Celebrated Writers whose Names are Syonymous with the Fictional Depiction of an Age: Part I: Mary Renault and the Bronze Age.

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A horrible fight…

There are some writers of historical fiction on particular historical epochs who acquire such widespread  fame that they are often described as having ‘Made that era their own’.

One of these is Mary Renault, famed for her strong writing and thorough historical research.

Born in 1905 in a middle class home, strongly influenced by her father and suffering from an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother, Renault attended Oxford, became a nurse, and had a life long relationship with another woman with whom she emigrated to  South Africa in 1948. Although many of her novels deal with the theme of same sex love and sexuality, and she acquired a strong gay following, she did not define herself as a gay writer. However, she always saw herself a something of an ‘honourary man’.

Renault  tried various sorts of writing before concentrating on novels set in Ancient Greece. She wrote various novels about Alexander, and also a duo set in the Bronze Age, featuring the mythical hero Theseus, ‘The King Must Die’ (1958) and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ (1962).

In these novels, Renault depicts Theseus as the initiator of the overthrow of the ancient matriarchal societies by the new system of patriarchy.  Although Renault was influenced  by the writings of Robert Graves, author of ‘The White Goddess’ and other works on the ancient Goddess religion, Renault, in line with the conventional views of her era, depicted  their destruction as the inevitable result of historical progress, while Graves’ sympathies were all with female power.

In her introduction to the ‘The King Must Die’, Bethany Hughes comments:  ‘It is perhaps odd that  Renault should choose Theseus, a macho warrior with a bloody biography, as her favoured hero.  The myth cycles of antiquity declare Theseus to be a hero who tricked, bludgeoned and raped his way through life. There are lurid, ancient descriptions of his rape of the eight year old Helen…’

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‘Tanglewood Tales’ with its depiction of the Ancient Greek legends, was read to me when I was about five. I was so horrified by the Minotaur that I couldn’t put my fear into words, and talked instead of being scared of the dragon in the ‘dragon’s teeth’ myth. I was in awe of Theseus for being brave enough to go and fight such a terrible monster, and never having investigated the darker side of the myth, my feelings for him remained benign when I grew up.

This is certainly why, when I read ‘The King Must Die’ and its somehow fragmented sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ , I was startled to find that Theseus obnoxious. When I finished the book and looked over the reviews on the internet, I was dismayed to find  that these books are recommended enthusiastically by not only male readers, but by a fair amount of female readers too.

While I quite agree that an historical society must be depicted to the best of the author’s ability as it was – not sanitized according to modern sensibilities- there are still ways in which the author can use the narrative tone and plot devices to distance herself from the ugly attitudes of the age. This remains true, even if a first person voice is chosen, as it is in the Theseus series.  It seems to me that Renault, having failed to do this, leaves this reader at least with the uneasy impression that on the whole she  sympathized with Theseus  (and many male readers of this series) in thinking that a society that sacrificed one man a year is somehow more bloody and barbaric than one which brutalises countless women.

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I was dismayed by the internalised misogyny which Renault displays. This so detracted from my engagement with the stories, that the lively narration and vivid depiction seemed to me to be tainted by it.

Renault  tries to be fair, but given the attitude towards women in the era in which she is writing, this is difficult.  Though she was in a marriage type relationship with another woman, she seemed to illustrate her generally low view of her sex by her various dismissive quotes (ie, the one on the possibility of a female Shakespeare quoted by David Sweetman in his biography), and she saved her admiration for male figures.

This was probably typical of the women who identified as ‘masculine’  in the era when she was young. By the time feminism and gay liberation appeared, Renault was, in middle age, unable to identify with them.

In this series, only masculine woman  (like the Amazon Queen Hippoylata, who suffers from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome after her capture) are depicted as admirable. More conventionally ‘feminine’ women are seen as devious, motivated by vanity, and untrustworthy.  There is the extraordinary assumption that the Amazon Queen, though raised apart from men, is nevertheless boyish because she is athletic and courageous. That it is possible to be athletic and physically brave without being mannish was not an idea that seems to have occurred to Renault’s generation.

To be fair to Renault, she does depict some splendid matriarchal women,  such as the wonderful matriarchal Queen who is Theseus’ first wife (or rather, he is her last out of maybe a dozen Kings for a Year, bringing about her own death), and Theseus’ own mother.  I was less sympathetic towards the apostate Amazon Hippoylata.

The result of all these influences is that in ‘The King Must Die’  particularly, the reader is assumed  to b e quite happy in cheering  Theseus on in his onslaught on female power. While  its oddly inchoate sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ has been interpreted by critics as ‘The Goddess’s revenge’, this is incompletely depicted. Theseus in the end kills himself by jumping off a cliff, an anti climatic end. It is surely less drawn out and painful than that which he gives his errant wife Phaedra when he chokes her to death (I have always been puzzled why, as a supposedly brilliant wrestler, he didn’t use the strangle – cutting off the blood to the brain – rather than the clumsy choke – cutting off air to the lungs;  Renault, usually meticulous in research, fails there).

In fact, all of Theseus’ three wives (counting Hippoylata) die through his actions (or inactions) so that I have always felt that the title should be altered to, ‘The Queen Must Die’.

However, my reaction is that of a minority. Most readers of Renault are wholly admiring, or, if they find that internalised misogyny offensive, are able to ‘get past it’ better than I am. Today, sixty years after the date of its publication, ‘The King Must Die’ is still selling well – 30,533 in the Kindle Store at Amazon.co.uk.

Renault’s influence has been pervasive- to the point when her name is almost equated with the fictional depiction of that  period – despite the fact that her style is old fashioned, and that modern research to some extent disagrees with her interpretation. This poses a  problem for subsequent writers on the Bronze Age.

Such writers are invariably, because of Renault’s continuing influence, compared to Renault, and all too often, to the detriment of experimentation.

I have, since reading Renault’s series, come on a couple of excellent ones which take an opposing view of the destruction of the ancient female centred cultures, seeing this as the beginning of warlike cultures, typified by aggression, rape and brutality.

However, while I would find this portrayal sympathetic, it would not be enough for me to have a great admiration  for them, if they were not brilliantly written. For me, these books have all the advantages of Mary Renault’s scholarship, without incorporating that dismal internalized misogyny.

On this, I have just discovered that back in 1971 a male author – Poul Anderson – wrote a novel  ‘The Dancer from Atlantis’, which is actually based on Renault’s own. This is an inverted version, where Theseus is dipicted as the brutal destroyer of the civilisation of Ancient Crete. I would be interested to read this, and wonder it has received so little attention.

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Another story based on the Theseus legend is the brilliant, but eminently tragic, duo by June Rachuy Brindel,  ‘Ariadne’ and ‘Phaedra’, published respectively in 1980 and 1985.

Another saga set in the Bronze Age about the destruction of the ancient matriarchies – though not about Theseus – is Rebecca Lochlann’s excellent ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series of eight books, which is still ongoing, the first book having been published in 2011.

Frequenters of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of this writing. I  have been exasperated by the wearisome tendency of some reviewers – including some males clearly stung bythe unflattering portait of the patriarchy contained in it – to make those invidious comparisons with Renault of all works of fiction about Bronze Age Greece, including Brindel’s and Lochlann’s work.

Renault wrote an interesting, thoroughly researched and vividly portayed series – one which I personally found distasteful, but many will disagree. It was  based on the views of her time. Sixty years have gone by since then.  Surely it is time for readers to move on from interpreting Bronze Age Greece and the Greek legends through Renault’s specific lens, and to investigate new fictional explorations of Bronze Age Greece, ones which are fairer in their treatment of women and female power.

The view that any age or indeed, any aspect of writing is the domain of, or should be depicted using the same approach of, some celebrated author is surely ridiuclous and stifling.

Of course, there will always be a hardcore of admirers of some writers of yesteryear who simply don’t want to move on – who think that particular writing can never be surpassed. However, most readers are hopefully not of so rigid a mindset, and surely the same argument must apply even more to the rest of the publishing world, who are supposedly ever eager for new ideas or new approaches to familiar themes.

But this post is becoming too long: so more on these, in my next post.

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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:

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‘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

 

Some Thoughts on a Forgotten Classic: ‘This is the Schoolroom’ by Nicholas Monsarrat.

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Speaker in an impoverished UK street in the 1930’s.

I have just finished reading Nicholas Monsarrat’s ‘This is the Schoolroom.’  It’s just under 450 pages long in the version I read – no short read.

No guesses for where I first saw it – back as a teenager,  on my parents’ bookshelves – though this was a book deliberately bought, not one come by as a job lot at an auction, like the Charles Garvice books and so much of the other stuff.

I didn’t read it then, though. I resolved to read it at some point in the future.

Well, it’s taken me long enough.

While ‘The Cruel Sea’ is still read along with, I believe, ‘The Tribe That Lost its Head’ – which I gather has been attacked as displaying typical colonial attitudes – I don’t think many people these days have even heard of, ‘This is the Schoolroom’. Trust me to be awkward and read it, then.

This is a book set in the UK of the thirties, and so as a matter of course is to some extent about the rise of fascism and the Spanish Civil War, the role of British socialists on opposing the role of fascism, and all the rest of it.

‘“I was unusually drunk the night my father died”. So opens the story of Marcus Hendrycks, maturing in that turbulent decade – the 1930s. A man who had been playing with life for 21 years, while all around him were discordant voices, hunger and death. Discovering the poverty and filth of the slums, enduring the horrors of war-racked Spain, through politics and through love, his was a pilgrimage through a world teetering on the edge of disaster. .’

I was in two minds about it. There are parts of powerful writing, but I couldn’t take to the protagonist, though he was sincere, and changes soon enough from the spoilt rich kid at Cambridge we meet in the first chapter.

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Trinity College Cambridge in the 1930’s.

He does have inherent strength, with which he meets all disasters. He meets the family’s financial collapse and the inability or refusal of his wealthy, self indulgent uncle to do anything to help him in the way of getting a job with a ‘stiff upper lip’.

At first, he lives in a shabby genteel boarding house  – shades of The Rosamund Tea Rooms in Patrick Hamilton’s ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ .

During this time, what he regards as his love affair with a society girl whose rent he was paying comes to an end when he can no longer afford to spend £30 on weekends with her (a reasonable wage then was about £5 a week).

As his money runs out, and his career as a journalist fails to take off, he then moves in an unpleasant room infected at one point with some form of bug that lives behind the wallpaper. Here he helps a neighbourng woman giving birth until the arrival of the doctor  (I found the fact that none of the women rose to the occasion and helped her, leaving it to a man with no medical background, frankly incredible).

He hears another women being abused by a back street abortionist, and later discovers her dead body (the man has fled).

Later, a ‘show girl’ he knows , at first seemingly amused by his sordid surroundings, gets up to leave in disgust when the local pimp puts his head in at the door. The protagonist ‘Asks a question of extreme particularity without any preamble whatsoever. At all events, she said, “No, of course not,” with an air of finality which would have made Casanova blink.’

So far it is funny, but then – and this is one of the things that made me find the protagonist unsympathetic – he tries what seems to be borderline rape: –

‘An astonishingly crude wrangle ensued, on the lines of, “It’s a little late to back out now,” from me, and “It’s only your filthy mind,” from Helga, a wrangle followed by – well, lets call it ‘masterful persuasion’ and this in turn withered away before the cold and malignant fury with which she countered it, and degenerated into the blackest sulk I have ever wrapped myself in. The ‘starvation’ of the last few months probably had made me a little uncouth, but damn it, I thought, she had promised, she had been prophetically sweet all the evening, she had seemed as willing as I had been counting on…’

‘Finally, she raised one cool eyebrow. “Anything to say?”

‘Thus challenged, I evolved a priggish and not very effective sentence. “I leave you,” I said, “To derive what satisfaction you can from a lamentable exhibition. Good night.”’’

Hmmm. This so much follows the code of the times – that a woman did not go back to a man’s room unless she was willing for coitus and it was her fault if he got the wrong idea – that it is grimly laughable. I must remember that phrase, ‘masterful persuasion’ for future use in any stories of mine which might feature a would be rapist with a gift for euphemism.

What is disturbing for the modern reader, is that this is meant to be a sympathetic protagonist in a serious piece of literary writing, not some cardboard anti hero in escapist fiction. Obviously, if he failed with his ‘masterful persuasion’ it was because he was not violent enough to go through with it;  still the whole thing left me with a  distaste for Marcus Hendryks which his soul searing experiences as a volunteer  from the international corps in Spain couldn’t really eradicate.

Meanwhile, apart from suffering from malnutrition – which reduces his sexual frustration – he becomes politicised, and an uncritical socialist (why do these novels never portray a mature critical socialist rather than young, blinkered ones?  Not because there wen’t, or aren’t any: I suppose because there are less).

At first, in Spain, he drives a lorry of supplies – a dangerous enough job in an impossible vehicle – and gradually, he becomes drawn into the fighting and killing.

The author was, I gather, renowned as a pacifist, though also as a naval war hero during World War Two, commanding a frigate protecting supply ships in the Atlantic.  He was also mentioned in dispatches.

It seems he visited Spain just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and that this led to disillusion with his earlier rigid socialist ideas – which if they were anything like those of his protagonist, were fuelled too much by youthful idealism to be  able to survive the brutalities of war.

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Dead horses used as a barricade in the Spanish Civil War

Objectively, a war in support of democracy (the fascists had revolted to overthrow the democratically elected government) is not going to be any prettier than any other sort of war, although clearly it will never be as hideous as the sort of war of extermination that Hitler’s forces enacted on the Eastern front. Finally, though, it must be a brutalising experience.  Tragically, there are invariably atrocities in war and worst of all, innocents get maimed and killed; lives are ruined.

Injured and muddled, ‘”Half of me knows that we ought to take a crack at Fascism wherever the opportunity arises, and the other half has learnt, in Spain, that to join in that sort of struggle simply extends the chaos by one more man,”’ the protagonist returns to London with a wounded arm.

Then, dismally celebrating New Year in the London streets, he meets his future wife, a successful and comfortably off painter who doesn’t mind his shabby clothes, is willing to help him out financially and is eager to nurture him, wounded and traumatised as he is. She goes up to him – as the most melancholy person she has seen – and also, one suspects, as a man she finds attractive – and gives him a New Year’s kiss on the cheek, delighting him out of his melancholy.  I have to admit that I did find this scene sweet, for all my distaste over his earlier attempt on the showgirl Helga.

I did wonder what Anthea would have made of Hendryks’ ‘ behaviour with her, but perhaps she would think like a Nice Girl of the times, and say that Helga brought it on herself.  Certainly, there is no hint of ‘masterful persuasion’ with this woman, with whom he is besotted from the moment of the kiss, and who isn’t a showgirl in his room.

He makes it as a journalist with a little help from her, and the rest of the story is something of a damp squib after the strong chapters about poverty in the lodging house, the dark comedy of the horror of his former acquaintances over his metamorphases into a street orator, and  the terrible sights of the Spanish Civil War.

On the whole, this book is well worth reading and often strongly written, but the resolution after the climatic scene in the lorry in Spain – where Hendryks’ friend is killed and he in turn shoots dead the man who did it – goes on rather too long.  Well, that is always a temptation, and I suppose Monsarrat liked his hero rather more than I did and wanted to show him becoming a successful journalist, marrying and becoming a father.

The historical background is vivid (this was published in 1939).  It is not as informative on unemployment and poverty in the 1930’s UK as George Orwell’s journalism, of course, and not intended to be, but an interesting individual perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ edited by Robert Aiman – Wonderful Classic Tales of Terror

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I recently re-read ‘The Fontana Book of  Great Ghost Stories’ Edited by Robert Aikman, dated 1964.  I would still say that this is one of the best collections of tales of terror – not all of them are truly ghost stories – that I have ever read.

To some extent, I would say that for sheer spine tingling thrills, I have never found this collection to be beatable.

Of course, arguably some of it might be ‘learned response’ if that is the term. I did read it first at an impressionable age, and I was living in a notoriously haunted house at the time, the infamous and then isolated ‘Plas Isaf’.

My father, mother and sister were all in the house at the time; but they were corridors away as I foolishly sat up late, fnishing reading ‘The Wendigo’ by a dying fire, with the wind howling outside.

And yes, it did come from  – wait for it – those inexhuastable bookshelves in my family houses, like ‘The Outcast of the Family’  ‘Eve and the Law’ and so many others…

All the short stories in the anthology are written by renowned authors –the one by D H Lawrence, which naturally is largely psychologically based, came as a surprise.

There is also a very peculiar, and horrifying, tale which is more of a horror story, ‘The Travelling Grave’ written by L P Hartley, who of course wrote that wonderfully evocative tale of the Edwardian schoolboy in ‘The Go Between’.

The anthology contains some funny ghost stories. I still find ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen grotesquely hilarious, and there is an amusing tale about a landed pirate ship.

There are also ones on conventional lines – ‘The Old Nurses’ Tale’ by Elizabeth Gaskell is a wonderful example of the haunted house and threatened innocent variety. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’ by Sheridan le Fanu is of course, another wonderful example of the traditional ghost story.

The tales of terror, include  some perturbing ones by comparatively recent authors, such as that sinister one about deserted waterways which has always puzzled me by Elizabeth Jane Howard  ‘Three Miles Up’. There is also one by the editor Robert Aikman, ‘The Trains’.

This is an extraordinary story; it is partly psychological, partly a tale of terror with horribly plausible elements, and it has many unexplained elements. It is set in the 1950’s, when trains were in fact, still the predominate form of transport for most people in the UK, before the sorry onset of car culture.

I can date the age I was when I read it, because that was the day I made my first apple crumble at school, and the scent of apple and cinnamon was in the air when we were re-heating it and I began reading, ‘The Wendigo’.  In fact, ‘The Wendigo’ will always make me think of apple crumble, and vice versa.

Wendigo

I still find ‘The Wendigo’  a truly terrifying story, for all the florid language of Défago when he is taken by it is so improbably poetic: ‘Oh, these fiery heights, my burning feet of fire’ etc.

My own prosaic memories about apple crumble aside, the depiction of those huge, Canadian forests, the Northern Woods, struck me with awe then and does to this day:

‘And now he was about to plunge even beyond the fringe of wilderness where they were camped into the virgin heart of uninhibited regions as vast as Europe itself…The bleak splendours of these remote and lonely forests rather overwhelmed him with a sense of his own littleness. The stern quality of the tangled backwoods which can only be described as merciless and terrible, rose out of those far blue woods swimming on the horizon…’

It is an alarming story. Défego’s fate also seems to be unfair, in so far as he is not some casual tourist, viewing these secret regions for a thrill. On the contrary, he dreads the Wendigo as an apparition personifying the awe these forests should inspire:

‘”All the same, I shouldn’t laugh about it, if I was you,” Défego added, looking over Simpson’s shoulder into the shadows. “There’s places in there that nobody won’t ever see into. – Nobody knows what lives in there, either.”’

I must confess my ignorance as to whether that is still true today as it undoubtedly was in 1910, when this story was written,  before so much of the forest was destroyed. I assume it is, but I may well be wrong.

Algernon Blackwood, who of course, wrote the story, does seem to have changed the Native American legend, although I gather that there are many versions of the legend.

The Wickipedia entry states:

‘In Algonquian folklore, the wendigo or windigo is a cannibal monster or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada.[] The wendigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with cannibalism,, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviours.’

In these regions of harsh winters and traditional food shortages, to me that makes sense as the behaviour of the predatory Wendigo in Blackwood’s tale does not. It does not take its victims for food, but is described as a ‘moss easter’ and when the terribly damaged Défego returns from his sojourn with it, he reveals that he too has become ‘a damned moss eater’.

Therefore, the Wendigo does not take its victims to eat, and the sheer illogic of its bothering to take victims at all makes it the more horrible. I have heard that some of our relatives, the great apes, like humans, keep small orphaned baby animals as pets. Perhaps this is the explanation for the Wendigo’s behaviour?  Perhaps it doesn’t like people intruding on its domain.  Or – worse – perhaps its actions are meaningless to the human mind?

I thought one of the few weaknesses of the tale was the fact that it seems the Wendigo initially tries to pull the sleeping Défago from his tent.

That so powerful a monster should be temporarily defeated in this merely by Simpson’s wakening seem slightly absurd, though still horrible. The guide might even have been saved.

Another weakness is, of course, the racist assumptions about Native Americans of the era.  Inevitable though they may be for 1910, they are dismal to come across.

Overall, though, it is a powerfully written and wonderfully evocative story, and like all the stories in this anthology, it sums up images that you will never forget.

Perhaps one of the reasons that these stories are so good is that they come from an age when ‘short stories’ could begin at 3,000 words – ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ is this length – and go up to near novella length at approximately 14,000 words, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There was none of the modern pressure to write an extremely brief short story.

This post is too long for me to continue with accounts of the wonderfully comic, ‘The Crown Derby Plate’, or the puzzling and sinister story, ‘The Trains’. I will have to make that my next post.

 

 

The Delights of Good Bad Writing

 

Picture_of_Jeffery_FarnolI am run off my feet at the moment in real life with family responsibilities – as always happens during July and August – so I haven’t been able to keep up with writing at all these past few weeks.

That’s a good thing in a way; real life events should always take precedence over our imaginary worlds, as long as one has writing time over the year. Anyway,the last editing of my latest novel, that sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’’, must wait until the autumn. Still,  I do feel that I have been neglecting my blog for too long.

Apropos my last post, which commented on the similarities between the the poet and spokesman for the days of the British Empire, Rudyard Kipling, and the writer of historical romances and detective novels Georgette Heyer, I was reflecting that I must explore the writings of Jeffrey Farnol, who has something in common with either:

Here he is summed up by Wickpedia:

‘Jeffery Farnol (10 February 1878 – 9 August 1952) was a British writer from 1907 until his death, known for writing more than 40 romance novels, some formulaic and set in the Georgian Era or English Regency period, and swashbucklers. He, with Georgette Heyer, founded the Regency romantic genre.’

The synopsis of the plot for ‘ Martin Coninsby’s Vengeance’ made me laugh out loud. Here it is, in all its glory:

‘Jeffery Farnol brings back the pirate days of the Spanish Main in this stirring book with a company of picturesque characters. It is a full-blooded, wholesome novel that captivates the reader.
Martin Conisby, sour from his five years of slavery on the Spanish galleon Esmeralda, escapes during a sea fight on to an English ship and makes his way back to England. Seeking revenge on Richard Brandon, who was the cause of his father’s death and his own imprisonment. Broken both in body and spirit, he arrives home disguised as a tramp, just in time to save a beautiful girl from the hands of robber, Lady Jane Brandon, the daughter of the man whom he has sworn to punish.
In the tavern he meets an old friend, Adam Penfeather, who tells him the tale of Black Bartlemy, the infamous pirate, with his treasure buried on a desert island–treasure of magnificent value.’…

I see. I simply have to read that one. It sounds as if it must be a classic following the ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ blood and thunder So Bad Its Good type of reading.

The titles alone are a delight. Here are a few:

The Amateur Gentleman (1913)

The Jade of Destiny (1931)

John o’the Green (1935)

Adam Penfeather, Buccaneer (1940)

The Fool Beloved (1949)

Sorry about the uneven print size.

I have not yet explored the contents of any of Jefferey Farnol’s novels, but from those titles and that synopsis alone, I am willing to take a bet that regarding purple prose and stereotypical characters, they have something in common with the novels of Charles Garvice, writer of  best selling Victorian and Edwardian romantic melodramas.

I may be proved entirely wrong, of course, and they may contain brilliant writing along with the bad – many novels do.

Charles Garvice, to my mind, wrote the worst prose, and created the most cardboard characters, of any writer I have ever encountered. I must admit that Barbara Cartland may be a strong runner up. However, I could only endure reading two of hers. Both were terrible and full of unintentional comedy.

One was about a disguised courtier turned highwayman in the court of Charles II. The other was about an obese, drab haired girl who went into a coma for a year and emerged as a slender ash blonde creature who came over to the UK to work for her own estranged husband, with whom she had been forced into a marriage of convenience, and who didn’t recognise her.

These gave me a pretty good  idea about the value of her literary output. However, as I read these many years ago, and have been unable to track them down,  I don’t feel that I have recently read a fair enough sample of hers to claim to be properly informed.

Regulars of this blog will know of my fascination with Garvice’s works, and how Laura Sewell Mater’s article more or less summed up my own reaction, that she had only to read the few paragraphs on the pages of that Charles Garvice novel she found washed up on a beach on Iceland, to know that the writing was ‘incredibly, almost uniquely, bad’.

Many writers combine both good and bad writing – that is certainly true of Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters –  but they include too much excellent writing ever to come close to vying for the title of a Good Bad Writer, unlike Vulpius with his ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’, Kipling in much of his poetry, Georgette Heyer, and Charles Garvice.