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:

‘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…’


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.

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.

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.

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

1st fontana

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.


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.




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.

‘Fame is the Spur’ by Howard Spring: A Fascinating Depiction of an Opportunist Protagonist

I’m reading ‘Fame is the Spur’ by Howard Spring, published in 1940.

This is, of course, an epic story recounting the rise of the labour movement in the UK in the late nineteenth century until the 1930.s, and of the fate of one labour politician in particular; this is in some ways a dismally familiar story – an account of how a  firebrand socialist politician is incorporated  into the capitalist status quo he once opposed .

This depiction makes absorbing reading.  It’s an epic novel with ambitious scope, written with flashes forward and backwards –  grinding poverty, ambition, love and class conflict are vividly portrayed.

I started reading it as background reading for my planned novella on the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.  I have been really drawn in. The writing style is uneven – some of it brilliant, other parts border on the sentimental, and some of the description is clumsily put – but overall, it is an impressive book and I shall certainly be reading more from this author.

I came across it when working in the libraries many years ago. Doing research for my own planned novella on the Peterloo Massacre, I remembered recently that the nickname, ‘Shawcross of Peterloo’ is given to the main character in the novel .

As a boy, he is literally handed a sword used on the crowd in that slaughter by ‘The Old Warrior’, his parents’  elderly lodger – his sweetheart was murdered that day.

That sword, standing as a symbol of support for the downtrodden, is a sort of leitmotif running through the story.

I gather the film – which I think I saw on television as a kid, but failed to understand– depicts Hamer Shawcross as a man who, coming from the dispossessed himself,  is a genuine firebrand who sells out.

The book is more complex. In it Hamer Shawcross is depicted as being disturbingly opportunist from the beginning; from childhood, using people comes easily to him. He is lucky, as his stepfather and his friend help build him a study bedroom – a thing unknown for a boy from his  background in the industrial Manchster at that time. He is always encouraged to study and broaden his mind.

His family cannot afford university for him, so he leaves school at fourteen to work for an older friend who runs a bookshop. With a single mindedness one can only admire he continues to study, including languages, and at the same time he works hard to develop an excellent physique.

He shows a less commendable singleness of purpose, when he leaves his widowed mother (who can’t afford to pay the rent to keep her home without him) to go travelling about the world for four years.

He returns, a charismatic man with an astounding capacity for making stirring speeches and sweeping people up in his enthusiasm.

While the reader cannot find this protagonist wholly sympathetic, what is interesting is that it is unclear whether or not he is fully unaware of his own lack of sincerity.

However, it is hard to say, for much of the time, we do not have access to Shawcrosses’ thoughts. We see only his acts, and we usually see him through the eyes of other people, ie, his humble widowed mother, then Ann, his besotted wife from a privileged background, and his Dull But Worthy friend Arnold Ryerson.

I have quoted before the late Elizabeth Gaskell critic, Graham Handley, on the issue of how intriguing it makes a character for the author to reveal only so much of the workings of his or her mind.  This is particularly the case where sh/e is in fact, shallow.

Graham Handley wrote this of Gaskell’s portrayal of the ‘romantic interest’ in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ the Specksioneer turned navy captain Charley Kinraid.

I have written before of that character’s shameless opportunism, and the clever way in which the author makes an essentially stereotypical character mysterious, by revealing so little of his point of view. The rumours about his fickleness are never entirely confirmed or denied, but left as background hints that he is charming but unreliable, above all, a man who always has an eye on the main chance.

The depiction of Hamer Shawcross is a little like that; though his betrayals and changes in allegiance are more solidly depicted, he is mostly ‘seen from the outside’.

Interestingly, for all the occasional lapses into sentimentality in the tone of the novel,  there is no hearts and flowers happy ever after for Shawcross and his wife. Ann retains her ideals if she does continue to love her manipulative and increasingly successful life partner. He has promised to support female suffrage as an MP, but later equivocates.

By then middle aged, she becomes a suffragette, demonstrating and regularly being hauled off to gaol. There follow bitter years of conflict between them, though the bond between them is so strong that they cannot separate.

That struck me as being a realistic love story, as distinct from a romantic portrayal, and I find this impressive.

A manipulative, opportunist protagonist is always a fascinating concept. I haven’t gone much into how many modern ones there are; I can call to mind a few from classic novels.

What will happen to Hamer Shawcross I don’t know; I suspect – as it is a realistic novel – that he will gain success, but find it essentially hollow.

With regard to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my dissatisfaction with the undeserved glowing fate Elizabeth Gaskell allowed him. I have remarked on Kinraid’s shameless self serving attitude before. As chief harpooner on a whaler, he opposes the press gang to the point of shooting dead two of its members. When he is later impressed into the royal navy, he accepts a promotion to Captain, where he must, to get enough crew, routinely send out press gangs himself. Returning to Sylvia to find her tricked into marriage, though he has declared that ‘I’ll marry you or no-one’  he marries a pretty and doting heiress  within six months.

That is probably realistic, too. But for his emotional betrayal in forgetting Sylvia in weeks, I thought he ought to suffer at least to experience a sense of disillusionment in his new life.  This, I predict, a sense of the hollowness of success, will be the lot of the male lead of ‘Fame is the Spur.’

Intriguingly, the writer of ‘Fame is the Spur, though writing eighty years later than Elizabeth Gaskell and decades after Freud,  lays less emphasis on the sexual side of life in Shawcrosses’ career than might be expected.

While in the Victorian ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ Charley Kinraid’s reputation as a philanderer is discussed by some sailors in an inn in  such a way as to disgust his listening rival Hepburn, little is said about any philandering on the part of Shawcross. One might almost expect so attractive and unscrupulous a man to  have worked as an unofficial gigolo, perhaps, but if he has, the author does not say. We are merely assured that he knew how to flatter women.

This is one of many novels which  I began to read merely for background information, only to find it really intriguing. I’ve ordered the film DVD, too.  The same was true of Mrs Linneus Banks 1873 novel, ‘The Mancheser Man’ , the robber novels ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ by Vulpius, the novella ‘Dubrovsky’ by Pushkin, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell and many more.

Criticism and Romantic Novels

I am a bit perturbed (I’m good at being perturbed, aren’t I?) at a New Age view which has infiltrated popular thinking.

A recent blog post by Mari Biella on free speech

Free Speech, Fake News and the Internet

inspired me to write this one.

This ‘New Age’  view that has to some extent infiltrated popular thinking is the  ‘No Negativity’ mindset that equates ‘criticism’ with something bad and unfair – in effect, with ‘negative criticism’.

This seems to me a worrying trend.  Criticism is surely equal to having an intelligent awareness of ones surroundings – towards having an active sense of discrimination. Without that we will have, surely, no intellectual life and also, no moral awareness.

Certainly, criticism can sometimes be harsh and unfair. Nobody exactly enjoys being on the receiving end of a scathing attack, however amusing it may be for others to read.

For instance, literary critics can be savage.

Then, with the rise of the internet, anyone can set buy a book and leave a review, even if it is of the ‘Boring – didn’t get past the third paragraph’ one star variety, up there on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble and so on.

For my own part, I avoid giving one star reviews unless the topic is really offensive – ie, a rapist or otherwise really abusive hero, say, and I avoid giving up on any book until I’ve read the first three chapters, while I never review a book unless I’ve read it through.

But that’s just me; a lot of readers take a different approach: that is their right .

And surely, the alternative of a non critical attitude, is far worse all round.

Unfortunately, this ‘New Age’ ‘All criticism is bad and unfair’ is an attitude prevalent amongst the ‘Romance Community’, and that does bother me.

What that amounts to, is to adopt the attitude of the cults – disseminating received information, the value and veracity of which it is an outrage to challenge – so that any critical response is attributed to supposed personal malice and psychological shortcomings, if not downright inspiration from evil spirits (glances uneasily about in search of said evil spirits).

There is a  sort of ‘keeping ranks’ attitude amongst writers and readers of romance – who often seem to know each other through blogs, etc – which adheres to unspoken rules, one of which seems to be that being under attack from outside means that they must not express any discontent between themselves. Any outspoken, hard hitting criticism is seen as being infra dig (Sarah Wendell has been to some extent an exception).  I recently came across a series of fulsome comments agreeing with a blogger who had objected to critical dismissal of the blogger’s idol’s literary ability. The blogger later described that series of agreements  as ‘a stimulating discussion’.  I didn’t quite see where the ‘discussion’ part came in? What was her view of a non-stimulating discussion?

Seriously, I truly did encounter this on a cosy little blog, the purpose of which seemed to be to give glowing reviews to historical romances,’intimate’ and sentimental biographies of monarchs, etc.

I can see how this approach has come about. Romantic novels have been traditionally derided as being unworthy of serious consideration as literature. While genre fiction generally is seen in this light, it is particularly true of romance, which has been especially targeted as absurd. Certainly, there is an element of sexism in this.

A lot of romance writers and readers point out, and with some justification, that male adventure stories and fantasy are just as far fetched;  it is merely that the unrealistic elements in those are different to those in romantic novels.

However, to take the attitude that it is permissible to write what is supposed to be literary criticism, in which a writer or student proffers no objective analysis of general weaknesses among examples the genre, and of particular weaknesses amongst the authors discussed, is surely not  literary criticism worthy of the name. Unfortunately, there are examples of so-called ‘literary criticism’ of romance as a genre which reflect this attitude.

I am sorry to say that this is true of a renowned book of literary criticism of the romance novel written by a Professor of English at McDaniel College in the US – often solemnly quoted as a brilliant defence of the genre in various articles about the web – ‘The Natural History of the Romance Novel’  by Pamela Regis.

This struck me as containing no criticism either of the genre, or of the authors’ work the author purports to analyse. Rather it was a glowing series of expositions of various novels.

At no point during the whole of the book does Regis admit that any of the novels she ‘discusses’ have weaknesses. It reads more like a panegyric on the various authors. She sets out a structure she has devised to which the ‘pure’ romantic novel is meant to a adhere, comprising eight points. She then goes on to define various classic novels as having these points and therefore, by definition, belonging to the category of romantic novels, ie, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (whether or not these last two are in fact romantic novels is, of course, highly debated; anyway, Regis is confident that according to her approach, they are).

When I came to the chapter ‘The Limits of Romance’ , I thought, ‘Ah; now we shall have some objective analyses worthy of the name’ but no such thing. The phrase merely means that certain novels which are, generally, regarded as belonging to the romance genre are excluded – ie, ‘Gone With the Wind’, which is excluded by not having the necessary HEA.

Where there is any criticism, even of highly contentious subjects – for instance, of Samuel Richardson’s making a happy ending between the heroine and the ridiculous but supposedly romantic would-be rapist hero Mr B in ‘Pamela’ – then rather than engage herself, the author quotes opinions by other critics, never stating her own opinions except in defence of the genre.

Discussion of varying points of view should indeed be used to extend the scope of an argument; but when it is used as a substitute for any real investigation of structural and stylistic weaknesses by the author herself, when she is supposedly an expert on literary criticism – that strikes me as extraordinary.

My own review of this book can be found here:

I found some of the comments on the book made by a journalist called Noah Berlatsky in this blog highly apposite:

‘Regis’ difficulty is that she wants to defend all romance. She is fighting for the honor of romance as a genre, or as a whole. She never, once, in the entire book, admits that any single romance, anywhere, might be formulaic, or badly written. ‘

…An impossible position to maintain, but somehow the author does it. But then she makes a truly astounding claim about the ‘first romantic novel’  ‘Pamela’, of which, it seems, for all its glaring faults, she as a defender of romantic novels is determined to admire as having a hidden feminist message.  She maintains that:  ‘The story can be called oppressive, I think, only if one believes that marriage is an institution so flawed that it cannot be good for a woman.’

I wrote an answer answer to that bizarre attempt at defence of the distasteful and sentimental outcome (as critics say, the obscenity of ‘Pamela’ lies in its sentimentality)  in my Goodreads review of her book. This would take us too far off topic here for me to quote…

So, to move back to the general…

I remarked in my own review of Regis’ work:

‘The author, in fact, puts herself in an impossible position; in arguing that there have been some romances written which are great literature, pointing to the ‘canonical’ texts of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, she never admits that comparison means just that. If there have been excellent romances written, then by definition there have to have been some far from excellent ones churned out. But as a defender of romance, who seems to make it a point of honour to eschew all criticism, this is an admission that she cannot make. All that she can do, is to maintain a deafening silence on the topic.

This ‘closing ranks’ out of defensiveness and equating all criticism with negative criticism is an attitude of the romance community which contradicts the desire of its members for their genre to be taken seriously. Criticism by definition cannot all be positive.’

If romance readers and writers want their favourite genre taken seriously as literature, then surely one of the first steps must be for romance writers to accept criticism without automatically maintaining the ‘defensive crouch’ that Noah Berlatsky analyses in his blog.

To move forward, surely the ‘romance community’ must also  be prepared to extend hard hitting analysis worthy of the  name about ‘classic romantic novels’ and others  – particularly in works of supposed literary criticism.  Free speech should operate here as elsewhere; for romance writers and critics to adopt the attitude that it is somehow unfair and not nice  makes them seem weak in a stereotypically ‘feminine’ way, and reinforce those sexist interpretations they so rightly resent.