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.’
It is nice to tell a spooky tale on Hallowe’en, and it is all the more enjoyable to relate one which hints at an afterlife. One that contains a love story is the more intriguing.
This is one of the stories from Lord Halifax’s collection of supposedly true anecdotes, and took place in the eighteenth century.
One morning, Lady Beresford, the daughter of the Earl of Tyrone, surprised her husband Sir Tristram Marcus Beresford by coming down to breakfast wearing a black velvet ribbon about her wrist. She was pale and seemed distraught, and asked him not to ask her about why she wore the ribbon, as it was not a secret that affected him as her husband. She seemed on edge to read the post and said she expected to hear that her brother Lord Tyrone had died last Tuesday at four o’ clock.
When the post arrived, Lady Beresford did receive a letter with that news. She then told him that she knew that she was expecting the son and heir for which he wished. This also proved to be true.
Four years later, Sir Marcus himself died. After that, Lady Beresford lived an almost solitary life, only visiting one family, a clergyman and his wife, who had one son, still only a youth at the time that Lady Beresford started to visit them. Some years later, she astonished society by marrying this young man, who was far younger than she and considered by far her social inferior.
‘He treated her with contempt and cruelty, his conduct being that of an abandoned libertine, destitute of every virtue and human feeling. After bearing him two daughters, Lady Beresford was so estranged by his profligate conduct that she insisted on a separation. They had been parted for several years, when on his expressing deep contrition for his former conduct, she consented to pardon him and once more to reside with him. After some time she bore him a son.’
Lady Beresford had given birth just before the age of forty-eight. At least, she thought that she was forty-eight; but when, a month later, a lifelong friend, the clergyman who had entered her birth came to visit, he told her that a mistake had been made about her age, and she was in fact, forty-seven. Instead of being pleased at proving to be a year younger, Lady Beresford said, ‘You have signed my death warrant.’
She then called her son by Sir Marcus into the room besides a close friend as witness, and told him the story of how she had come always to wear the black velvet ribbon.
She said that she and her brother Lord Tyrone had often discussed their belief in Deism, and had made an agreement that whichever of them should die first, should come back and tell the other whether their religious convictions were true.
On the night before the one where she heard of Lord Tyrone’s death, she awakened to see him standing by her bedside. He told her of his death, and assured her that she would hear of his death the next day, that in seven months she would bear Sir Marcus a sons, and that he would die a few years later. That she would then go on to marry a man who would cause her much unhappiness, and die as a result of childbirth at forty-seven.
He also warned her against ‘infidelity’ but smiled acknowledgement when she asked if he was happy in the afterlife (I do wonder if this warning – not about adultary, but about hetrodox religious views, was added later on to the tale by someone, as it does rather go against the grain of most information given by spirits or gained in NDE’s) .
She asked if she could prevent her unhappy fate, and the brother said yes, but her passions were stronger than she at present knew, and would prove hard to resist.
To prove the reality of his visit, which his sister might otherwise come to think to be a dream, the apparition touched her wrist with fingers cold as ice. The muscles in the wrist instantly withered. He then vanished.
Lady Beresford had tried to avoid her fate by keeping from society as a widow. She never expected to fall in love with the young man who was the son to the only couple she visited, but she had. She long resisted it, but when on the day he was due to join the army, he came and confessed to strong feelings for her, she gave in. The marriage had subsequently proved to be as unhappy as her late brother had predicted.
She had thought herself safe to go back to her husband, being now forty-eight, but as in fact, she was forty-seven, she now expected to die within hours.
She then asked her son and friend to leave her to rest, and when they ran up at a violent ringing of the bell, one of the servants was exclaiming that Lady Beresford was dead. When her son undid the ribbon on her wrist, he found that it was indeed withered as she said.
What happened to her widower is not revealed in the story, nor, sadly, whether the motherless baby thrived.
This was the story that Lord Halifax had from a descendant of Lady Beresford. A later edition corrects a couple of details, concerning her age (she was in fact forty-nine, believing herself to be fifty) and that it was the brother-in-law of the couple she visited with whom she fell in love, and not their son.
It is certainly an intriguing story and I thought, very suitable for Hallowe’en.
I wrote this tale primarily as a love story – in fact, it can be categorised as a romance – largely because I thought that with the grim background story, some pleasant diversion and a bit of humour was really needed.
I hope readers like Joan Wright and Seàn McGilroy as much as they – generally – liked Sophie de Courcy and Émile Dubois, Natalie NIcholson and Alex Sager, Isabella Murray and Reynaud Ravensdale and Clarinda Greendale and Harley Venn.
Their love story is set against a background of poverty and injustice, and some of the background research I had to do for this was pretty distressing. Sometimes, the injustice of the treatment of victims, the dishonesty of the cover up, made me outraged. But, the working people of the UK won the right to vote and to protest in the end., and the story ends on a note of optimism. I also enjoyed putting touches of humour in it.
Here’s an extract:
There was a jeering laugh from behind them. Seán McGilroy, himself stood at the edge of the plot, glowering at Timothy. His blue eyes were flashing, and with his arrogant stance, and his black ringlets, Joan thought he looked like as fierce as a picture of a pirate she had seen in a chap book, minus the cutlass, of course.
“I heard that, Yorke. It seems to me, you and I need a little talk. Doesn’t do to dispute before t’lasses, and all that, so if you’d care to come along.” He nodded to the lane by the distant plots abutting the meadow. Then he turned a warm smile on Joan. “I hope you’ll wait on me, Miss Joan.”
Timothy looked ready to explode. “They say eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves, and least of all a ne’er do well. You’re for a mill, McGilroy, but I don’t hold with such loutish ways.”
“I’m only for a brawl if you’re up for it.” McGilroy’s looked so fierce Joan skipped in between them.
“Don’t go into it now. Do as folks say, and wait on it for a day. You’re both acting daft, and like to harm each other. That’s no good now, when we must all stand together.”
McGilroy said, “What I’ve got to say can’t be heard by any but Yorke himself, till I find out the truth of it.”
Timothy’s face was too highly coloured for his face to redden, but he scowled and breathed hard. “You’ve heard some mean gossip from those who hold it against our family that we’re not in rags and starving, and who make up wild stories out of envy. And I’ll say outright in front of Joan: I see you’ve an eye for her, among others. A girl like Joan is too good for a roving good-for-nothing who’s got a name as a light o’ love besides to come and trifle with. How your Ridley cousins behave is their parents’ affair.”
Now McGilroy’s dark face was flushed with anger and it showed as it didn’t on Timothy’s. “Some of the tattle you’ve been hearkening to is in the right of it. I have lived wild and reckless, and got myself into a deal of trouble and all, and never could settle since coming back from the wars. Maybe I could change if I found something to keep me rooted, but I’m not talking on that before you, or aught else that matters.”
An aloof bit of Joan’s mind noted his use of ‘rooted’ as wholly fitting, when they were standing in a vegetable patch, and she had earth on her hands and teasing grit under her nails.
“You’re an insolent ruffian.” On the other side of Joan, Timothy Yorke drew back from McGilroy, as from a filthy dog ready to spring on him.
Joan broke in. “I don’t like lads scrapping over who is to talk to me like dogs over a bone, just as if I’ve no ideas of my own.”
She put on a haughty air, and again this was like one of Nancy’s books, though those heroines did it in grand drawing rooms. “If either of you has owt to say to me, you can say it another time.”
McGilroy smiled at her, as if delighted. “You’re in the right of it, Miss Joan. Let me do the digging for you.” He took the wobbly spade from her grasp with a gentle twitch.
Timothy looked ready to burst with fury. “Yes, you’re in the right there, Joan, and if this fellow leaves quietly, so shall I.”
McGilroy didn’t take kindly to being called, ‘that fellow’. He clenched his fists, his eyes glinting. Joan saw no way of stopping a fight, and from what she’d heard of McGilroy going in for fighting at fairs and so, Timothy must certainly lose. She didn’t want him hurt, trying though he was.
Suddenly, Tmothy’s younger brother, Jem, was with them. A weedy youth of maybe sixteen, he seemed as ill at ease in the world as Timothy was sure of his rights in it. His nervous look scanned Timothy to Seán McGilroy, to Joan and back again. “You’re wanted at home.”
Something about his nervous look seemed to decide Timothy at once. “I’m coming.” Ignoring McGilroy, he turned to Joan. “If you’re done here, walk along of us.”
“I’ve found nothing yet,” Joan said indignantly. What does he think I wanted in the vegetable plot—him?
Timothy stood staring, but his young brother jerked out, more insistently, “Mam needs you.” Timothy had no choice but to go with the boy. Then, as they turned onto the footpath, he said loudly, “It’s fitting that Irish fellow is set to scrabble after potatoes as eager as a terrier after rats. That’s all they live on, after all, and they bed down with their pigs.”
McGilroy shouted after him, “Rats, eh? I could talk about rats, I’m thinking, such as your tale bearing friends.”
Timothy jerked, as if hit by a pebble, but he walked on with his brother. Joan heard them muttering to each other as they moved off, and now she thought she caught distant sounds of raised voices. Some dispute was going on nearby, with a number of people at it.
As it is near All Hallow’s Eve, and thoughtful bloggers are producing ghost stories all about, it is up to me to come up with something. I meant to produce another ghost story or ‘tale of terror’ but the prosaic demands of getting my novel centred about the Peterloo Massacre out have put paid to that- so I must do the next best thing and recount an old one.
There is the story about ‘The Ghosts of Versailles’. I have always liked that one. In it, two intellectual late Victorian women visited Versailles and the Grand Trianon, and on their way to Marie Antoinette’s notorious retreat the Petit Trianon, they saw inexplicable sights and heard equally incongruous noises.
The two women ran St. Hughes college in Oxford, a ‘ladies college’ together. Anne Moberly was the daughter of the Bishop of Salisbury, and the principal. Eleanor Jourdain was the daughter of the Vicar of Ashbourne. They were both, then, from indisputably orthodox religious backgrounds.
Before Eleanor Jourdain took up her post as vice-principal of the college, it was proposed that the two women get to know each other better. They stayed together in Paris, took a trip to Versailles on 10 August 1902, and had a strange encounter with a series of seemingly ghostly figures and surroundings.
They were disappointed at Versailles, and so set out for the Petit Trianon, but became lost after coming on the Grand Trianon, which was closed to the public. They went along a lane, passing the Petit Trianon without realising it. Moberley noticed a woman shaking a cloth out of a window, and Jourdain noticed an old farmhouse with an antiquated plough outside.
They were overcome by a feeling of oppression. They came on some dignified looking men in three cornered hats and long greyish green coats. They assumed they were officials, and asked the way and were told to go straight on.
Jourdain noticed a cottage with a girl and woman standing in the doorway. They appeared to be unnaturally still, the woman holding out a jug to the girl.
According to Wickipedia:
Jourdain described it as a “tableau vivant“, a living picture, much like Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Moberly did not observe the cottage, but felt the atmosphere change. She wrote: “Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees. ” They reached the edge of a wood, close to the Temple de L’amour and came across a man seated beside a garden kiosk, wearing a cloak and large shady hat. According to Moberly, his appearance was “most repulsive… its expression odious. His complexion was dark and rough.” Jourdain noted “The man slowly turned his face, which was marked bysmallpox. His complexion was very dark. The expression was evil and yet unseeing, and though I did not feel that he was looking particularly at us, I felt a repugnance to going past him.A man later described as “tall… with large dark eyes, and crisp curling black hair under a large sombrero hat” came up to them, and showed them the way to the Petit Trianon.
‘After crossing a bridge, they reached the gardens in front of the palace, and Moberly noticed a lady sketching on the grass who looked at them. She later described what she saw in great detail: the lady was wearing a light summer dress, on her head was a shady white hat, and she had lots of fair hair. Moberly thought she was a tourist at first, but the dress appeared to be old-fashioned. Moberly came to believe that the lady was Marie Antoinette. Jourdain, however, did not see the lady.
After this, they were directed round to the entrance and joined a party of other visitors. After touring the house, they had tea at the Hotel des Reservoirs before returning to Jourdain’s apartment.’
Other events happened, including a figure dressed as a footman appearing at a gateway and calling a warning to the sketching woman.
They did not speak of their experience for some days, but then compared notes and decided to write up separate accounts. It was then that they found that on 10 August 1792 with the besieging of the Tuelleries Palace in Paris, the events unfolded that led to the overthrow of the monarchy six weeks later.
They were subsequently to publish their experiences in a book called ‘An Adventure’ (1911). Unfortunately, the genuine nature of these experiences were queried in a review by a representative of The Society for Psychical Research.
Later, the writer Phillipe Julien in his biography of the decadent Robert de Montesquiou commented that he often used to throw parties in the grounds of Versailles where the guests, often cross dressers, would wear period costume and re-enact just such tableaux as witnessed by the women.
The story of what became of the two women professionally after their experience is long and complicated. It ends on a dying fall, with Jourdain, who had succeeded as the college principal, dying when undergoing an investigation into her fitness for the academic post.
For my own part, I would wonder why a sort of time slip should be sparked by the events in Paris of 10 August 1792 rather than, say, the events of 5 October 1789 at Versailles itself. On this day, the market women of Paris raised a crowd of thousands to march on Versailles (about seventeen miles; people were far more accustomed to walking long distances in those days, particularly when driven by hunger and desperation) and forced the monarchy to accompany them back to the capital.
In fact, when I saw the television film version of the story back in 1981, the later date was used, and it seems that the women later came to think that the events that they believed that they had witnessed probably happened at the time of the march on Versailles.
The story is now considered to be disproved. I wonder if this is not a little glib. Can it all be explained away as a masque, the antique buildings and plough included? The women were accused of subsequently embroidering what they saw.
However, I have a footnote of sorts, though even more inconclusive.
When I went with my daughter to Paris, and to Versailles, just over three years ago, it was also a hot day in August, though in fact, round the end of the month (I have forgotten the exact date and would have to check on my passport).
We also wished to escape the crowds at the main palace, set out to find the Petit Trianon, and depsite our map, also lost our way.
It was very hot and still. I suddenly became aware of a feeling of heightened awareness, a strange sort of nervousness, and I had that highly prosaic symptom of mild nausea which I always have, when about to have what is known as ‘a psychic experience’ (I am glad to say that I don’t have them very often).
Remembering the details of the story of the ‘Ghosts of Versailles’ I muttered, ‘It’s here…It’s happening…’
My daughter (who previously has shared strange experiences with me, particularly at the old house in Denbighshire where my family once lived before it was demolished) was unaffected. She said briskly, “What?”
Then the sensation went. I saw nothing exceptional, and that is all I have to report.
A sceptic might say that I created those sensations myself, through some need to believe in the story. Yet, I do not subscribe to the conventional, sentimentalised view of the role of Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution, and I have no romantic illusions about the surface glamour of Versailles. When I went it was as a visitor with a detached disapproval of the monstrous injustice of the Ancien Regime as symbolised by the cut off, luxurious lifestyle of the inhabitants of Versailles.
Taking in account all the rational explanations, I would still say that some element of the mysterious, where times may well occasionally merge, lingers in the grounds between the Grand and the Petit Trianon…
I have written before on this blog about the terrible allure of bad writing, both good bad writing, that is, writing that is so bad it’s good – like ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’ and frankly terrible writing.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading another late Victorian best seller by that writer of melodramatic romances, Charles Garvice. The very title reveals how bad the subject matter is going to be: ‘Leslie’s Loyalty: Or His Love So True’.
Dreadful stuff; and horribly compelling.
I would like to add that this isn’t the only reading material I have been getting through in these last couple of weeks. I have also reading a science fiction novel by an indie author which is fascinating, but heavy going, intellectually. In fact, to appreciate it, I find that I can only read about five per cent at a time. I am also getting to the end of E P Thompson’s wonderfully insightful masterpiece on the suppressed history of working class radical organisation in the UK from the 1790’s on ‘The Making of the English Working Class’.
But to ask what might seem a glaringly obvious question: why is it so easy to read escapist nonsense– whereas challenging novels are not by definition an easy read? Of course, it is partly that the latter may be introducing unfamiliar concepts, or a whole new way of looking at the world, which can be stimulating but tiring to read about. But it goes beyond that, and beyond the fairly simple sentence structure and vocabulary that usually go with light reading –though these are important.
I suppose it is also that in formulaic, escapist writing no demands are made on the imagination either – because the reader knows with these stories where things are going. We know that there is going to be a happy ending, however improbable it may be. The hero may have fallen off a cliff (this does in fact happen to the hero in one of his within the first two chapters) or been seemingly shot dead in front of the heroine’s eyes, but all will be well.
In her article on Charles Garvice, Laura Sewell Matter puts the lure of Garvice’s novels succinctly: ‘I had found something amazingly, almost unbelievably, bad…This was melodrama..The outcome was never in doubt… The characters were caricatures…the plot…was ludicrously improbable. I wanted confirmation that I had correctly inferred what would happen…I wanted both the expected outcome and surprise.’
She, of course, came across Garvice’s writing in a singular way, thorough picking up some water drenched pages on a beach in Iceland. It became to her a challenge to discover from what book of yesteryear this incredibly bad piece of writing came (she eventually was able to track it to the Iclandic translation of ‘The Verdict of the Heart’).
She sums up there the appeal of all formulaic writers who make a huge success of writing recognisably the same story over and again. The appeal of this sort of writer is that the reader knows where s/he is.
Garvice’s stories are always about young, wild, aristocratic young men. The extent of this wildness varies between novels and according to the requirements of the plot. The hero of ‘Only One Love Or Who Was the Heir’ is still welcome in society despite his brawling and gambling proclivities, but the male lead of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , through drinking before breakfast, fighting in music halls and dressing as a costermonger has made himself an outcast from society as well as the family in question (I borrowed these and other qualities for my anti-hero in ‘The Villainous Viscount Or the Curse of the Venns’).
Often these young men have gambled away a fortune. They have usually have, or recently had, ‘a disreputable connection’ with one or more dancers or music hall singers, but they are immediately ashamed of these the minute they find true love with the innocent flower of a heroine and break things off.
Quite often another women is in love with the handsome hero, but he cannot return her passion, although she is a desired by all other men and has a fortune.
Very often a Conniving Cousin is introduced into the mix. He also falls in love with the heroine and/or covets the hero’s title or his being heir to a title, or has some other motive for conspiring against the hero getting together with heroine. Sometimes, he conspires with the scorned ex-mistress, though not inevitably. Sometimes, he conspires with both she and the love stricken society belle.
The hero is framed for various wrongdoings ranging from faithlessness to seduction of innocents to bigamy and fraud and occasionally murder, and the heroine is broken hearted. However, after a few months or weeks, a series of co-incidences result in the villains and villainesses being unmasked (sometimes they have committed suicide or been killed off even before that). Then all ends happily, with the hero and heroine brought together.
Interestingly, when I began to read ‘Leslie’s Loyalty: Or His Love So True’ it didn’t seem to compare in badness to ‘The Outcast of the Family’ , ‘The Marquis, ‘A Life’s Mistake’ or other favourites of mine. The writing style was mediocre rather than appalling. There were even an astute couple of remarks, and there were also some flashes of the humour ususally singularly lacking in Garvice’s books, in the description of the dreadful art work done by the heroine’s father, who considers himself a neglected genius (as I also wrote about a similarly deluded individual in ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’ I appreciated this).
I need not have worried; this was a glitch. Very soon the purple prose, the stereotypical behaviour and the hectoring authorial style reasserted themselves; wildly improbable co-incidences were happening; faces became taut with passion; plots were hatched between baddies, and it all turned into a typical Charles Garvice novel.
Laura Sewell Matter comments: ‘It is hard to imagine how a writer could be so prolific and widely read less than a hundred years ago, and totally forgotten today…The critics who found his work so risible that they would rather rend the pages from the spine and toss them into the drink have had their way in the end.’
I do find that one Charles Garvice style novel every few months is enough for me.
Even if I had the good fortune to be apolitical, and therefore could read such works without thinking about the ‘reactionary function’ which they must have played with regard to social class and women’s role, they are anyway rather like ready meals; it might be possible to get by on them, but it must be highly unsatisfactory. There is something intolerably bland about them; there’s nothing to get your teeth into.
So, it’s back to that science fiction novel for me…
But I will leave the last words to Laura Sewell Matter:
‘The formula that Garvice so successfully exploited – virtuous heroine overcoming numerous obstacles to attain happiness – is a predictable one, which any author might employ. His readers are now dead, and their Garvices – if they exist at all – moulder in the attics of the Western world where books like them, by authors who have learnt the same lessons and applied the same patterns to their fiction, are being read on the beach today.’
I couldn’t resist posting that new cover from EBook Launch for ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’. I think the former one was too cartoon like. Some might say that there is a difficulty with this one in it being too romantic. That all fits in with the end of this post. I do like it, though. I think the artist did a brilliant job. Sadly, Émile’s freckles are missing…
One of the problems with writing humour is that everyone’s sense of humour must be slightly different. Of course, there is mainstream comedy, and there is dark comedy, and there are satires and spoofs. What one person finds hilarious leaves another cold.
And that is the problem with comedy. If you don’t amuse, you can annoy. Comedy, or books with a strongly comic undertone, must surely be amongst the most difficult of genres to write.
For instance, I usually enjoy the writing of that writer of the mid-twentieth century Monica Dickens. The regular reader of this blog won’t be surprised to find that I came across a copy of the first book I read by her, ‘One Pair of Hands’ at the age of twelve on one of those invaluable and innumerable bookshelves my mother had stocked with books bought by lot in furniture auctions. It was a 1930’s edition, and even had the postscript left out of modern editions, the discussion on ‘the servant problem’ at the end.
To digress a bit: Monica Dickens was the great-grand-daughter of Charles Dickens, a debutante who went to work as a ‘cook general’, an amazingly eccentric move in the UK of the 1930’s. This led her to write this book of her experiences with various employers in the London of the Great Depression.
Work may have been scarce, but ‘good servants’ were equally so just before the outbreak of World War Two, as people came to regard the long hours, poor wages and necessary subservience of ‘service’ as demeaning. In Victorian times, any lower middle class household would have had its ‘Mary-Ann’ who had to do just about everything for her employers; in the 1930’s things had changed, while many employer’s attitudes had not, and Ms Dickens’ book was about just that, and written with sharp observation and humour.
I found some other books of hers on the shelves, including, ‘Man Overboard’. This, an account of the misadventures of a British naval officer axed by a reduction in the navy circa 1955, I found so dull that I nearly stopped reading it, save then – as now – a stupidly stubborn streak usually kept me reading a book I didn’t enjoy as ‘I’ve put this much effort into it; I might as well go on to the end.’
Most of it hardly raised a smile from me. That was, until I got to the climatic bit, which is is fact, the protagonist’s coming to a sense of proportion through the death of his father. At twelve, I was shocked to find that Monica Dickens had written a humorous depiction of a funeral. I had thought myself irreverent! That was black comedy indeed, and I was full of admiration that back in the conventional 1950’s she had dared to write it.
She did not in any way ridicule the grief of the mourners, but she did send up the foolish emptiness of many of the rituals, and much hypocrisy on the part of various distant relatives to a family loss. I was fascinated at how a humorous attitude towards life’s tragedies can in fact be a great bulwark, and I think I learnt a lot about dark comedy.
I read various other books of hers that I did consider funny (and tragic, for this author often combined the two). ‘Kate and Emma’ was one, ‘The Heart of London’ was another, and ‘The Listeners’ was another ( and no, that isn’t about the day-to-day ups and downs of the hard working people who do surveillance; it is about the author’s experience as a member of The Samaritans).
But I am unable to say why it was exactly that I found some of this author’s work hilarious, and other parts only raised from me a weary smile. It might have been that ‘Man Overboard’ was told from the point of view of the male protagonist, whereas her books are usually either told from the point of view of a female one, or have multiple points of view.
Another aside: How I wish that style of writing would come back into fashion…
It could just be that every comic situation depicted in that book left me cold until the end.
And that is one of the perils of writing comedy. When it falls flat, it’s about as acceptable to the reader as a heavy cold pancake, without any sugar, lemon, syrup, etc.
When it fails, it often frankly grates. Far more so than, for instance, pathos which misses the mark and turns into bathos, which after all, does make you smile at least.
I found this a couple of years ago, when I read some of a comic series by a female author. The books were well written. I enjoyed the first. In it, the heroine allowed herself to be beguiled by a charming wastrel, who subsequently let her down and wandered off with a regretful wave.
On beginning the second, I realised with dismay that the scenario was much the same as in the first. The protagonist had learnt nothing from being so badly let down by the first anti -hero. She met another one here, a supposedly different character, but in fact, virtually identical to the unreliable lover in the first. He looked the same, and his character flaws were identical. The heroine allowed herself to be drawn in by him in exactly the same way as she had with the first, and he let her down in just the same way . So indecisive was he, that he didn’t even finish things properly; he wandered off exactly like the first, possibly to return in some future volume.
I looked at the third. Here that same anti-hero was again, hardly changed at all, though with a different name and a slightly different hair colour, being unreliable and winning the heroine’s heart and letting her down all over again…
This was obviously the case of a protagonist who learnt nothing and remained static. She was depicted as being supposedly sophisticated and in her late thirties. The author obviously found her guillable nature adorable, but for myself, I only find a naïve and ridiculously romantic female protagonist charming if she is young and inexperienced. If my own twenty-one-year-old Sophie de Courcy had led a less sheltered life, then her romantic silliness over the eponymous Scoundrel Émile would have been less exusable…
The protagonist of the series I mentioned seemed to have had many love affairs, but in the ones the reader is shown she was a sort of romantic recidivist, falling for the same sort of man, and being exploited in exactly the same way, again and again and never learning anything. In subsequent volumes, the former exploiters had a habit of returning with a weak apology, and the starry eyed heroine would admit them to her bed all over again before they strayed off again…
It was certainly realistic about a certain sort of woman. I found these constant re-runs of the first story not hilarious, as it is clear from the reviews that many did, but irritating.
There are in fact, ways in which an author can allow her protagonist to make the same mistake about one character, a love object, without depicting her as a static character incapable of learning. Magic is one, hypnosis is another, and a theme involving re-incarnation is a third.
In fact, in one of my favourite fantasy series, ‘Child of the Erinyes’ by R A Lochlann, a combination of these magical and reincarnation explanation is used to great effect. The heroine has no memory of the anti-hero’s abuse of her in previous incarnations, and so we do not become frustrated with her.
I suppose the author of the series about the non-developing woman had looked at some of the characters in classic comedy – ie, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, and seen that they were essentially static, but this in no way detracted from people’s enjoyment of the stories.
And the odd thing is, that I enjoy those stories, myself.
She may have been right in her assessment. In all fairness, only a minority of reviewers reacted as I did. The majority seemed to enjoy the female protagonist, and to root for her without respecting her, chuckling indulgently as she made the same mistake about men all over again.
Which comes back to my point; writing comedy is so hazardous precisely because readers’ tastes and sense of the ridiculous differ so greatly.
A reader of one of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ wrote to me, ‘I found it read more as a straight paranormal romance. I couldn’t find any spoof elements.’
I read something the other day that made me think (unaccustomed exercise: new pathways created, and all that).
It was actually in an intriguing book about how useful the novel (excuse that Freudian slip) approach of ‘writing a book from the middle’ is, in giving a clear, effortless structure. This is, in fact, a book full of a good advice on structure for every sort of writer. It can be applied by those who begin writing with only the vaguest plan –(I am one of those, in good company with Stephen King) – for those who plan their novels like a military campaign, and for those who are in between.
In fact, I would recommend this book, which explains how if you have the strong core at the centre of a book (a bit like Pilates for wordsmiths, I suppose) then the rest of it can hold up.
It’s ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ by James Scott Bell Compendium Press (2014).
The author quotes various massively successful novels which have, for all their superficially rambling, epic nature, that ‘Magical Midpoint Moment’ that gives structure and coherence to the whole. This, he suggests, applies to films as well as novels of all genres. He quotes ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘Casablanca’ as two perennially successful examples of stories with a watertight core. He quotes ‘The Hunger Games’ as another example (I am still meaning to read that, though I have seen the film).
This intrigued me. I was interested enough to pick up some of my favourite novels – Margaret Attwood’s ‘Bodily Harm’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ were two – and in fact, the conflict that lies at the base of both plots is indeed at the centre of the novels.
I have gone into both in depth elsewhere, so no need to repeat myself in detail about that conflict here. But briefly: –
In ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ there is a discussion between the heroine’s parents about the rumoured fickleness of her preferred, stimulating, but supposedly dead lover and the dogged devotion of her still living cousin, whom she finds dull. This really, is the core of the novel. Which one will bring her long term happiness (if either)?
In ‘Bodily Harm’ we have this: ‘Paul smiles: a kindly, threatening smile. “I like you,” he says. “I guess I’m trying to tell you not to get too mixed up in local politics.”’ And there it is, the core:r Rennie is a journalist who writes superficial ‘lifestyle’ magazine articles, who, after some devastating real life experiences, decides to ‘escape from it all’ on a working holiday in a little known Carribean island; here she gets drawn into local politics willy nilly.
I couldn’t resist looking at one of my own novels, my first, ‘That Scoundrel Ėmile Dubois’ to check the middle. Sure enough, there at about the centre, we have the anti hero taking his bride Sophie to their newly rented house after the wedding ceremony.
There, waiting to greet her, along with other staff members, are their new butler and housekeeper Mr and Mrs Kit. It just so happens that they are former associates of his in his old career as the highwayman Monsieur Giles. Ėmile is an incorrigible scoundrel yet – in fact, potentially a far worse one, for he has been possibly infected with the vampire virus – and Sophie sees that she will live in a household (with the exception of Agnes, her maid) run by his former disreputable cronies whose first loyalties are to him. She is uneasy about that, without knowing why…
…But, she doesn’t run off. She’s too besotted; besides, she knows underneath that she is going to stay and fight to bring out the best in the rascal.
I was – of course – pleased to find the story has a strong core, in fact, done unconsciously. Perhaps, the unconscious sometimes tidies up those issues which the conscious neglects?
I am not saying that novel doesn’t arguably have other faults in its composition. Some find the plot too complex, for instance.
Anyway, that was a novel I particularly loved writing. I have loved the actual writing part of all my novels (I have whinged often enough about how I hate the editing), but that one – it was, to quote a silly pop song, ‘like flying without wings’. It was a joy ride in the best sense.
And that brings me on to a point the author of ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ makes: ‘When an author is joyous in the telling, it pulses through the words…Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. and that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.’
And isn’t a distinctive voice what makes a novel stand out?
Now, I would love to write like Margaret Attwood. I am going to repeat that: I would love to write like Margaret Attwood! But I never will write like Margaret Attwood. I can only write as the best Lucinda Elliot possible, and the only way to do that is to write what I love.
What happens to people who write what they don’t love is illustrated all too clearly in the case of the writer Patrick Hamilton.
The contrast between the wonderful vigour of his early works, such as the trilogy ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’ and the tragic comic grandeur of his vision in his masterpieces, ‘Hangover Square’ and ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ and the sour impression left by last work, ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’ is painfully obvious.
Hamilton had lost, not only his faith in people and the progress of history, had not only descended into alcoholism and bouts of depression, but also his joy in writing.
It is not that he wrote about some very unpleasant people in ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’; becasue he always wrote about mainly unpleasant people. However, before his last novels, he portrayed their absurdities, snobberies, bigotories and impossible behaviour so humorously that one was left with a sense of being uplifted. Not only that: in his earlier books, there is always what he called ‘the country dance’ where the reader is truly inspired, and sees – along with the admirable character who is always there at the core of the novel – that life has its joyful side.
In his later novels, the portrayal of that decent person is weaker and weaker, and finally, in ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’ it is actually lacking. He had forgotten that the normal reader wishes to be left with a feeling of having been ‘brought out of himself or herself’ as well as bieng wryly amused.
Had he, with his massive talent, only somehow kept in touch with that joy, he could have avoided that dying fall.
We must remember to write with joy. And that, by the way, is my true answer to a blog post I wrote maybe a year ago, about a novice writer friend of mine who was devastated by her first one star review (and I am still proud I did not say in reply ‘How nice to have only one of those: would you care to count how many I have?’ ).
One should ignore unfair criticism (just criticism with some basis for it is a different matter; we should take a lot of notice of that) and go on in revelling in the joy of writing. There will always be detractors, and anything that stands out must come under fire, but the best way to treat that is to keep on having joy in what you create.