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

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

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

I see.  Thanks for that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

220px-BH_LMC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte; Structure and the Role of the Antagonist

When re-reading ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ I was struck by many things. I hope I don’t annoy the spirit of Anne Bronte by making a comparison with the structure of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a beginning, though this is not the invidious comparison of the sort that were until recently usually made between her work and that of both her sisters’.

What I want to say is that I had forgotten it was a story within a story. I remembered that it contains a story within a story, just like ‘Wuthering Heights’.

The tale starts with Gilbert Markham, a young man who is a gentleman farmer and wishes he was destined for a less earthy occupation, who is vain and infatuated with the even more vain coquette Eliza Millward, the local vicar’s daughter.

When the mysterious young widow Helen Graham comes to the area, he is at first repelled by her cold, discouraging manner and refusal to reveal much of her personal history.

She even flies into a temper when he discovers a portrait of a handsome, sensual looking young man, whose chestnut curls tumbling over his forehead lead Gilbert to conclude that ‘he thought more of his beauty than his intellect.’ The bright blue eyes show a glint of mischief.

Of course, the reader guesses who this must be long before Gilbert…

The story within a story is the tale that Gilbert reads in Helen’s journal, when after many misunderstandings she at last confides in him.

It recounts the tale of Helen’s disasterous marriage to the charming, lively and enticingly attractive Arthur Huntingdon. This match, based mainly on their mutual physical attraction, is, as Josephine Macdonaugh comments in my Oxford World Classics edition, is as doomed to unhappiness as would be Gilbert’s to Eliza, should he marry her.

Some readers and editors claim that the ‘epistolary method’ creates a distance between the narrator and the reader. I can’t say I have ever found that myself. I found the account of Helen’s disillusionment with Arthur and the failure of their marriage as he gives way to the temptations of alcohol and philandering, recounted as it is in occasional journal entries, tinged with a sense of tragic inevitability precisely because the reader already knows that it ended in Helen’s flight from the marital home.

The second feature that struck me most was a dissimilarity with ‘Wuthering Heights’ in the striking contrast between the appearance of their antagonists—Heathcliff and Arthur Huntingdon.

These are almost completely opposite. Heathcliff is, quite frankly, a miserable so-and-so, so self-pitying that I have always been completely at a loss as to how any reader can find him appealing or sympathetic (and that is leaving aside his unfortunate habit of bullying women and children). Although he has cheated the Earnshaws and the Lintons out of their inheritances, he can find no pleasure in the money he has come by. Instead of dining well, this miser takes porridge for dinner and begrudges offierng a cup of tea to visitors so that the young Cathy hesitates to offer a cup.

He is wholly anti social and we never hear that he drinks or indulges himself in any way; his existence is as Spartan and joyless as a doctrinaire puritan’s.

I’ve written just what I think about Heathcliff as a romantic hero before on this blog and discussed it on a Goodreads thread, and there’s no need for me to repeat myself here.

Here it is, for anybody reading this who might be interested:

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1019195

Here, I want to point out that Arthur Huntingdon is his complete polar opposite. He is the life and soul of the party, full of blithe mischief. He does much harm, but this is through carelessness, vanity, self-indulgence and a lack of moral values rather than through active malevolence of Heathcliff.

Arthur at ‘Wuthering Heights’ would be about as out of place as a doormat that played a jolly tune of welcome.

He betrays almost everyone he knows – Helen and his unfortunate friend Lord Loughborough, whose life he embitters through seducing his wife – more than anyone. Yet, as Marianne Thormalen comments in her intriguing article, ‘The Villain of Wildfell Hall; Aspects and Prospects of Arhtur Huntingdon’ the long term consequences of his destructive life, are, like those of Heathcliff, short lasting. Once these two antagonists have gone, peace and normality is soon restored.

While they are alive, they determine the action through force of character; but their lives are short and their reign of influence transitory.
Heathcliff corrupts by hatred and fear; Arthur through wicked charm and careless indifference to the moral consequences of his wrongdoing.

Anne Bronte was, of course, her sister’s chief confidante in their weaving of the fantasy world of Gondal. I think it very likely that they discussed, not only the fate of non repentant sinners – neither, clearly, believed in damnation – and the long term earthly consequences of their wrongdoing. Certainly, the poetry of each notoriously touches on these points, as does the text of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’(but more about Anne Bronte’s beliefs about Arthur Huntingdon’s final destination next week.)

Another thing that struck me was, yet again, how great a role unconscious influences play a role in our writing and in our creation of characters.

The characteristics of Arthur Huntingdon had largely slipped my mind in the years since I read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’. When I decided that I wanted to create in ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ not a brooding, savage vampire but a jolly, sociable one, I did not consciously think about Arthur Huntingdon, or draw on his characteristics; but the similarities are strongly marked, down to the ‘mischievous twinkle in the eyes’ and the habit of drinking to excess.

I am pleased by that; it’s a fine thing to be influenced by classic English Literature; however, I do have to say that there is a strong resemblance also, to Disney’s John Smith in ‘Pocohontas’. That swagger and gallows humour…Yes, well, we see our characters everywhere…

As Monsieur Gilles, Émile starts each day with ‘a good swill of red wine even before he chewed a piece of bread’ to make himself face each hateful day.

Like Arthur Huntingdon, the wicked and godless Émile Dubois wishes to marry a ‘good angel’ whom he hopes will convert him to good behaviour without too much effort for himself.

But Émile is far more cerebral than Arthur Huntingdon and has a serious-minded streak. His desire to reform is a little more serious, and his love for the innocent and devout girl he marries a good deal deeper than Arthur Huntingdon’s for his.

In the sequel I am s-l-o-w-l-y writing, I plan to return to this theme; apart from introducing some rubber monster men, Kenrick and his right hand man Arthur Williams return, and some more of Émile’s cousin Reynaud Ravensdale.

Complex Villains and Samuel Richardson’s Robert Lovelace from ‘Clarrissa’

imagesComplicated characters , whether heroes or villains (I’m applying the terms to both sexes) or a bit of both, are always fascinating.

As I see it, there’s only two problems with complex characters , good and bad: one is that they take so much work to envisage and the other is that, portaying them adequately will necessarily involve a bit more of a word count – and in this age of hurry where every minute is counted, that may be resented by readers.

To name only two examples from classic literature – Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony is intriguing, and so is Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Both combine admirable qualities with very inadmirable ones, a capacity for feeling, for magnanimity, mixed with an equal capacity for cold indifference.

I am particularly fascinated by the depiction of the wicked Robert Lovelace by Samuel Richardson. He is meant, of course, to be an arch-villain. I think, like some writers today, Richardson was dismayed, even shocked, when he found that too many readers – particularly women – found Lovelace so charming that they were prepared to fall over backwards and make excuses for the rape and even apportioned some of the blame to Clarissa herself.

I might not agree about many things with Richardson – as much an arch patriarch in his own way as the rakish Lovelace – but I do about this; there’s never any excuse for rape.

Still, I can see how the readership became fascinated by Lovelace. His letters do make fascinating reading; witty and debonair, his fiendish delight in his own machinations is often amusing. Sometimes the reader has to laugh along with him. He manipulates others as if they were, in his own words, ‘just so many puppets dancing on my wires’.

Robert_Lovelace_Preparing_to_Abduct_Clarissa_HarloweThis man is subtle and conniving; he’s got a flashy charm, and he’s clever enough to appear ingenuous; in fact, he’s always declaring how ingenuous he is and how he gets carried away by his natural ‘warmth of temper’ (or words to that effect). After a time, the astute and sharp-tongued Anna Howe begins to see through him; Clarissa, so honourable herself that she finds it hard to discern underhand, manipulative behaviour in others, takes longer. Without Ms Howe’s letters, she would soon be overwhelmed by Lovelace’s connivances and her own over fine moral scruples.

A lot of this is purely calculated; he has anger fits when he wishes to intimidate – he has something of the bully in him, as he can keep the said passions in check as well as anybody when he chooses to.

This is a point that ought to be bourne in mind in view of his later rape of the unlucky Clarissa, who has allowed herself to be drawn in by him and thrown into his protection, believing in his honour: if Lovelace has any honour, he has none towards women. They are to pay forever for his earlier betrayal by his first love. This is insane; Lovelace’s egotism and misogyny often border on the deranged.images

This calculating rogue, who defines himself as ‘as michevous as a monkey’ who ‘would have been a rogue, had I been a ploughboy’ loves bribery and corruption; he’s got a conniving tool in the hostile Harlowe’s manservant, his double agent Leman (wonderful name; I think it means ‘lover’ in old English) . He spins a complicated web to surround his victim, because he likes to make a woman fall into his trap, so he can look down at her and say: – ‘Aha, my charmer! How came you there?’ (Lovelace is often rather a stagey sort of villain: I believe he was based n the character Lothario in the play ‘The Fair Penitent’ and he often has the speech patterns and mannerisms of this stage villain).

This is the more fascinating, because the puritanical, diligent Samuel Richardson obviously had hidden depths in his psyche – we all have, of course, but rarely is there such a huge divide between the character depicted and the superficial personality of the writer. Richardson’s imagination must have been incredibly fertile, and I would love to hear what a post Freudian analysis of his psyche would make of his apparent sexual repressions.

Did Richardson’s model hero, Sir Charles Grandison, lock himself in his closet, concoct some noxious brew, and turn into Robert Lovelace on the sly? I wouldn’t put it past him at all. I never trust these too-good-to-be-true types.220px-Renoir23

Overall, the challenge of a creating a complex character, particularly a complex villain, or a complex anti-hero, is a tempting one for any writer. I’m tempted to delve further into it myself in due course.

My own Émile Dubois is a fairly complex character. He is apparently straightforward, and he doesn’t usually tell people lies (apart from the forces of law and order, that is) . His intentions towards Sophie are honourable and his courtship of her straightforward until he mistakenly believes that she is lying to him.

Still, neither does it always suit him to tell people quite the whole truth. He appears to be open-hearted – but he can outwit both the Committee of Public Safety over in Paris, living under an assumed identity for upwards of three years – and he is fully able to second guess the underhand machinations of Goronwy Kenrick. Bribing Kenrick’s servant comes as second nature to him, just as it does to Kenrick. This was all part of the eighteenth century aristocratic mentality, of course, particularly of those who had been connected with that hotbed of conspiracy Versailles.

This slightly tricky quality, demonstrated by his skill at chess, is lurking in readiness to come to the surface when he starts to turn into a monster. One part of him always remains as a tender lover, but another, the increasingly prominent monstrous side, revels in surrounding Sophie and driving into a corner just as he does in a chess game.

Émile, however, is – as his human self – generally a nice enough scoundrel despite this slight trickiness in his make up; he is extremely gallant to women generally, and has a sense of honour, being almost fanatically loyal to his friends. He is also shown – I’d like to emphasize here – as disgusted by the idea of rape.

Reading Clarissa has certainly tempted me to write about an out-and -out scoundrel without moral scruples – and just like Richardson, I won’t dream of letting him off; he’ll get the come uppance he deserves at the end.

Characters in John Galsworthy’s ‘The Forstye Saga’ and Simone de Beauvoir;s ‘The Blood of Others’.

grey outcast9379868Mari Biella in a fascinating post on her blog comments on the many variables that can lead to a novel’s finding lasting fame or joining ‘The Great Slush Pile of History?
http://maribiella.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/the-great-slush-pile-of-history
I commented on this post (with dreadful typing; new keyboard, sorry) on how uninspiring I found John Galsworthy’s ‘The Forsyte Saga’.

This series remains fairly popular to this day, and I note that it is doing well in a free promotion on Amazon at the moment, though under a rather strange category, ‘linguistics’ (is this some bizarre marketing ploy, giving greater visibility to a novel by having it in a non-fiction category?).

I mused about why I found it so dull that I had to ‘plough through it’ (I’d never be so nasty about a current, living writer’s work, only his or her category; but this being a sort of classic, and the author long dead – and if he is listening, now in such a higher state of consciousness that literary criticism will slide of his form like water – as with Charles Garvice, I feel that I can be fairly outspoken).

The answer is, of course, simple. Not only did I not find the characters sympathetic, but they didn’t come alive for me, and I’m one of those readers for whom the characters being vivid matters a lot in a novel of that sort; obviously there are many genres where it doesn’t matter very much at all.

Of course, in some novels, as Mari Biella commented on another post, you can have a couple of vivid characters – like Van Helsing  and the Count in ‘Dracula’ – who carry along a supporting cast of ‘lay figures’ and it doesn’t detract from the interest at all. But that tends to apply to extrovert adventure, not to novels of emotional or moral conflict.

It isn’t necessary, of course, for a writer to create characters who are likable, or even recognisably human or empathic, but they do have to be interesting (Richardson’s Lovelace is fascinating, though for his treatment of Clarissa alone it’s impossible to like him; Count Dracula is of course, an enigmatic monster and anything but dull). While many others would clearly disagree, I couldn’t find Galsworthy’s main characters much more stimulating than Dickens’ notoriously one dimensional heroes and heroines.

Irene is very unfortunate in having made a rash marriage to such an unattractive man as Soames. We are never told why she did so until very late on in the series, but it seems it was to escape an unhappy home background. Stuck with a husband she finds physically repellent, she succumbs to the temptation of a love affair with his architect Bossiney.

Bossiney, whose motives and individuality is never revealed, is engaged to her relative by marriage June. Irene doesn’t ever express any guilt over this blithe piece of poaching. While I wasn’t inclined to blame her for wishing for embraces more tempting than those of the rebarbative Soames, I did blame her for never expressing any remorse about the wrong she did to June.

But then Irene is treated by Galsworthy in such a partisan way that it is obvious that the character is based on his own wife, and his faith that nobody would recognise her because he had changed her hair colour rather touchingly naïve.

Of course, she is in the dreadful position of a trapped wife in the Victorian era, when marital rape wasn’t accepted as a crime. Soames subsequent door kicking down rape following her locking him out of her bedroom arouses the readers’ outraged sympathy (though this story being subject to the censorship of the times, none of the ugly details are given). However, it is only here that the character of Irene came at all to life for me.  Of course, Irene is perhaps meant by Galsworthy to be elusive; she is always presented externally (with a constant emphasis on her hair and eye colour).

Bossiney is a cardboard character; quite why Irene is so besotted with him, except as a welcome relief from Soames, is never explained. He refuses to respond to June’s desperate attempts to communicate with him about his emotional withdrawal. If he had, he could have disentangled himself from the unwanted engagement; perhaps he is protecting Irene’s reputation; if so, he fails to protect her in any other way. He leaves her living in her marital home, and takes no positive action at all after the rape, merely staggering about London in a state of shock, finally to fall under the wheels of a tram (it’s unclear whether in the pea souper this is meant to be an accident or a suicide).

Young Jolyon is a feeble rebel who later marries Irene himself, having already disgraced himself by marriage to his children’s former governess, who conveniently dies early.

The characters of the later generation, Jon, Fleur, Michael Mont and Jon’s wife Anne aren’t particularly interesting or rounded; Jon comes across to me as weak, but as we see him after an eight years’ absence working as a strikebreaker in the General Strike, with my political views, I’d hardly be likely to take to him. Fleur is depicted as selfish, but again is trapped in a loveless marriage, though her husband, for all his odd political views (he believes that the working class should, for its own good, be subject to mass deportation to the colonies) is quite a nice fellow. Altogether, I was nearly as relieved to finish the third volume as I was to reach the top of Snowdon (no, I didn’t attempt both simultaneously).

By contrast, I found the characters in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Blood of Others’ came startlingly to life for me, introspective and given to effortless discussion on Existentialist themes as they are.

There is an aspect of this novel that left my puzzled; why ever do the heroine Helene’s bourgoise parents allow her to be engaged to a working class, active communist like her dull but worthy fiance through whom she meets her beloved Jean Blomart? This improbability is never explained.  Overall, though, I found it a wonderful read; and what I love most of all is that at the end not only do the estranged heroine and hero at last discover reach other emotionally, but all the main characters realize their own worth through involvement in a cause greater than themselves – the French Resistance.

This novel is of course, an exploration of the issues of personal responsibility and the consequences of individual action and inaction in the context of the build up to World War II, the Nazi invasion, and the activities of the French Resistance.

These themes are depicted through the main characters, and in particular the relationship of Helene Betrand and Jean Blomart (I apologise for leaving out the French symbols – I still haven’t worked out how to do it on wordpress).

Jean is a man who seems emotionally frozen, and who finds any sort of action a cause of tortured self doubt. Similarly, though, he finds any inaction equally subject to moral scruples; all this leads to his cautious life of rebellion against his bourgeois upbringing . He works in a print shop and though a trade union activist, his actions are intended to be ‘non political’; he conducts a passionless love affair with a woman whom he admits he wouldn’t miss if she left his life, though he treats her with remarkable respect for a man of that era: – ‘I’ve never been capable of passion. I dither about between my guilty conscience and my scruples: my one and only aim is not to dirty my hands…’

This seems partly a consequence of Jean’s guilt feelings over the death of his friend Marcel’s younger brother, whom he encouraged to join in violent political action. He feels that he won’t be able to love the teenage Helene, who has become wildly infatuated with him, as he ought; he does all he can to avoid starting a love affair with her until he is trapped into it.

Helene, by contrast, is committed to her desires; she is summed up quite well by the remarks of a shocked critic in The Tatler:- ‘Helene, the little shop girl, wild as a hare with the morality of a pirate is…enchanting’. She is in fact an artist though she works sometimes in the family confectionary. When we first see her she is deciding to steal a bicycle she covets, and at first her feelings for Jean are of the same order (though emotionally repressed, his sexual attraction comes clearly through the text).

Coerced into a relationship through the horror of witnessing Helene’s abortion (where Jean shows that he is startlingly lacking in squeamishness – a sign of things to come, when he evolves into an excellent member of the Resistance) – he fears telling a lie in saying that he loves her as he doesn’t feel he is in love with her in the passionate way that she is with him.

In fact, given her wild charm, physical attractions and adoring attitude towards him, it would probably be quite hard for a man not to fall for her, and it seems obvious to me, if not to all readers, that he loves her all along.

Naturally, the themes of alienation, of ‘nothingness’ are unswervingly explored in this novel; in Simone de Beauvoir, nothing is ever simplistic; the problems of Helene and her friend Denise stem partly from their basing their happiness on a man’s love, but this is part of a larger problem of a lack of commitment to any moral stance of value.

There are wonderfully sensitive descriptions in the book; here Helene is looking forward to escaping through love making with Jean from thoughts of their friend Denise’s lapse into insanity (she lives with an eccentric but insensitive artist who would be guaranteed to drive any woman insane): –

‘During the whole day he had escaped her; in his past, in his thoughts, near his mother and Denise, scattered throughout the whole world. And now he was there, against her flesh, under her hands, under her mouth: to be with him, she let herself slip, without memories, hopes or thoughts, into the depths where time stopped…’

The war encroaches; Jean won’t accept Helene’s attempt to get him freed from military conscription; they part, and at one time Helene even does trade with the invaders; but finally, seeing the deportation of Jews to Germany stirs her outrage and she abandons selfish desires, joins the resistance, and finds true love with Jean after all.

I found this part of the book particularly moving. It was so fulfilling that they had at last found each other through the act of self abandonment to a higher cause: –

‘”You’ll be in danger and I shan’t be near you; I cannot bear that,’ he said.
“You’ll always be near me,” she said. “Distance doesn’t matter; you are always near me.”
He put his arm about her shoulders, and she laid her cheek against his.
“You’re right,” he said. “Now, nothing will separate us, ever.”
“You know,” said Helene, “I was frightened during the first trips. Now I’m so happy that I can’t be frightened any more.”’
“My dear love,” he said.’

I’m glad that it is apparent from the text that they have been working together some time, and have discovered this mutual love and been happy before this, Helene’s fatal trip. I wish de Beauvoir had given us a bit more of a description of this happiness, as she gave us a fairly detailed one of their emotional separation.

Years ago, as a youngster, I naively asked someone, ‘Why do bad things always happen to the characters in books who you care about?’
Well, this was obviously an oversimplification: bad stuff went down with Bossiney, and I didn’t care two straws about him. But you can be as sure that there‘s a happy ending n store for the emotionally scarred Duke of Wendover and his spirited miller’s daughter bride in ‘The Devilish Duke’s Dark Desires’ (part 12). (I just made that up: I hope there isn’t a book out there called that!).

“Depends on the genre,” said my informant, laconically (like one of the cowboys n a Zane Grey novel). “Light fiction equals happy endings; the good stuff is often surrounded by gloom and doom. Not escapism, you see.’

As a matter of fact, I don’t see why writers of light fiction shouldn’t work hard to create characters you care about, and Byronic heroes are only sympathetic when they drop the pose for a while. Finally, though, I see that whether we can care about the fate of characters in a story or not, whether it’s an existentialist novel or an ambitious series challenging the social order or a paranormal romance, depends on the little human touches they are given, the care with which they are portrayed, and that huge imponderable, the reader’s individual reactions to them.