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Germinal: Émile Zola’s Masterpiece

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

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

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

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

Incredibly, the novel was written in only eight months. The title, incidentally, is taken from the eighth month of the revolutionary calendar, and is meant to evoke an image of germination, of budding new growth, and of hope for the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When at last he is rewarded by finding them: –

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

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

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

 

 

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Émile Zola’s series on ‘Les Rougon-Macquart’: a Fascinating Exploration of Excess in France of the Second Empire.

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I remember I was nineteen when I began reading books by Émile Zola (1840-1902). Nana was the first, which I came on by accident.

My sister had a paperback copy from somewhere, and admiring the cover – a lovely nude by Renoir – I began reading the blurb, and then the novel. Nana (1880) is a lurid, and highly improbable, account of the career of the rise to fame, or anyway, notoriety, of a vulgar courtesan and talentless actress.

Reading in the forward that Nana is the daughter of the main couple in the earlier novel L’Assommoir and that this was just one of a whole series of Les RougonMacquart which Zola had written, and fascinated by its lurid account appeal, I read many more of the books.

I want to emphasize that while the titles are French – largely because they don’t translate well into English – my own French isn’t up to reading anything more than the simplest novel, and I read them all in the English translations.

Wickipedia puts Zola’s literary framework in creating this series so well that I’ll b e lazy and quote wholesale: –

More than half of Zola’s novels were part of a set of 20 collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Unlike Balzac, who in the midst of his literary career resynthesized his work into La Comédie Humaine, Zola from the start, at the age of 28, had thought of the complete layout of the series. Set in France’s Second Empire, the series traces the “environmental” influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The series examines two branches of a family—the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts—for five generations.

The series is not only an exploration of Zola’s ideas about how hereditary and environment interacted to shape an individual’s fate, but a condemnation of the empty decadence of the French Second Republic (1852-1870). Convinced that drunkenness and insanity were an hereditary taint which would go on for generations, he depicted his Macquarts as having their lives shaped by this as much as their environments.

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I was both fascinated and repelled by the books. They contain brilliantly strong writing, with vivid, inspired passages combined with frankly purple prose. There are often scenes of wonderfully bawdy humour which appalled Victorians.

They obviously lose a lot in translation; for instance, L’Assommoir is one of the novels written in the slangy French of the working people of Zola’s day, and English translations can read as stilted.

Among other criticisms, I disliked Zola’s attitude towards women (comparatively liberal towards women though it was for his age), and thought his view of ‘human nature’ warped. There is indeed, little balance in his depiction of characters. In his work, people are largely selfish opportunists, almost monstrous depictions of base passions,  fools, or selfless martyrs who might be dubbed lay  saints. There are few of the people who in most people’s experience form the majority of mankind in our current state – those in between these extremes.

For all his cynicism about human nature, Zola was politically to the left; while he took an alarmist and unfairly biased view against the uprising which led to the Paris Commune of 1871, his sympathies are generally with the exploited working people of his era.

However, unlike Dickens, his portrayal of the oppressed was never sentimental and asexual. Intriguingly for a pre-Freduian writer, he wholly acknowledged the massive power of both the sex drives and the death drives in the psyche.

In fact, when late Victorian Britons mentioned ‘French novels’ in tones of horror as to be kept from sheltered young maidens at all costs, I suppose they must have had Zola in mind. When in 1888, a publisher  Henry Richard Vizetelly, brought out La Terre in English, the sexual and violent themes led to his being charged with obscentiy.

At the time when I was reading these, the first novel of the series, La Fortune des Rougon, written in 1871, which starts off the cycle, was out of print. In fact, I can’t imagine why I didn’t try and get a copy from the British Library. I had to pick up the relations between the vast cast of characters as I went along. However, all of these novels can basically be read as ‘stand alone’ novels, being fairly self-contained in theme.

Zola deals with various aspects of the corrupt France of the era ending in the Franco Prussian war of 1870-1871, and its immediate aftermath. He travelled about and did exhaustive research.

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) is about high political skullduggery and the close associates of Napoleon III. The unscrupulous, cold Eugène Rougon, a son of the legitimate and ostensibly bourgeois and respectable branch of the family, is obsessed by obtaining high political power and was active in making Napoleon III Emperor in the coup of 1851. Temporarily out of favour with his master, his fall takes down his group of opportunist supporters.

Zola describes the ‘hereditary taint’ of addictive behaviours from his grandmother, which comes out in Rougon as a form of monomania, tellingly: –
‘With him it was love of power for sheer power’s sake, a love, what is more, untrammelled by any craving for personal glory or wealth or honours. Shockingly ignorant and terribly mediocre in all but the management of other men, it was only by his need to dominate others that he really rose to any height. He loved the mere effort of it, and worshipped his own ability.’

Rougon falls too for the voluptuous and attractive Clorinde Balbi, who helps him regain political influence. After the assassination attempt of 1858, he is made Minister of the Interior, with powers to maintain ‘peace and security’ at any cost. He rewards his long time supporters. Now, however, he refuses to marry Clorinde as a move not furthering his political ambitions. Instead, he arranges passionless marriages of convenience for both of them.

In a pivotal part of the plot, the generally icily controlled Rougon, overcome with lust, tries to force himself on her. She snatches a whip and keeps him off by cutting at him with it, maddening him further. In a romantic novel, this would be the turnaround part of the plot where the hero is won over by the heroine’s spirit, spurring him on finally to propose, but in this less romantic tale, Clorinde gives herself instead to the Emperor, who promotes her husband.

Meanwhile, Rougon has lost the support of his followers, who decide that he failed to reward them sufficiently for their support, though in fact, he granted their original requests, and is finally tricked into resigning from his all powerful post.

La Ventre de Paris (1873) deals with the area about the great Paris market Les Halles, and recounts with the fate of Florent, an escaped political prisoner mistakenly arrested in 1851, who comes to live with his brother Quenu and his unimaginative, status obsessed wife, Lisa – who is a sister of Jean Macquart from La Terre. He begins on an impractical and idealistic scheme to plan an uprising, much to the disapproval of his sister-in-law.

She eventually betrays him to the authorities, only to find out that half her neighbours have beaten her to it. One of her relatives, Claude Lantier, later to feature in the art world of the era in L’œuvre, provides an objective commentary on the actions of the characters. After Florent is arrested, he comments with disgust words to the effect of: ‘How abominable respectable people are!” I believe that was the last sentence in the novel.

L’Assommoir (1877) depicts the life of Gervaise Macquart, also a siser of Jean, who having run away from their native Provence with her heartless, handsome lover Lantier, now lives in Montmartre, then a poor area of Paris. Lantier abandons her with two small sons (one, Jacques, has been left in Provence). However, the roofer Coupeau falls in love with her, they marry and she is able to open her own laundry.

To bring about Gervaise’s downfall into alcoholism and living in a sordid threesome with Coupeau and the returned Lantier, Zola has to make the kind hearted and hard working Coupeau have a complete personality change after he breaks his leg falling from a roof. He becomes a layabout, takes to drink and when he hears of Lantier’s return to the area, is won over by him into accepting him as a ‘lodger’ who never pays his rent.

All this is improbable, given Coupeau’s original character as a open hearted working man, and while Gervaise is assumed by Zola to have an hereditary weakness for drunkenness – which is somehow supposed to be reflected in her having been born with a limp – Coupeau has no such hereditary.

Gervaise has to support both men and their daughter Nana, her three sons, Claude, Jacques and Étienne Lantier having now grown up (they are the subsequent protagonists of L’œuvre (1886), La Bête humaine (1890) and Germinal (1885) ).

Finally ,when Coupeau becomes abusive, her daughter Nana runs away to become a street walker and Lantier deserts Gervaise for a more prosperous rival , Gervaise takes to drink herself, and sinks into total degradation.

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La Terre (1887) deals with the peasants, who it seems were generally idealised by the French in this era. In Zola’s sensationalist account of the grasping nature of the residents of a singularly godless village in the Beauce, where the residents are too mean to keep a priest, this illusion was stripped away. Promiscuity, brutality, incest, rape and murder all feature.

One of the main components of the plot consists of the story of the old farmer Fuon, who through living too long when dependant on his offspring, suffers a peasant’s version of the fate of King Lear. The story features Zola’s most appalling villain, Butteau, and one of his nicest heroines, Françoise. The protagonist is in fact, a wholly reasonable, balanced and well meaning member of the Macquart’s, Jean, who seems to have inherited none of the ‘hereditary taint’ of mental imbalance which Zola depicts in the other family members.

La Bête humaine (1890) is a sort of psychological thriller based about the Le Havre to Paris railway. Jacques Lantier, an engine driver, has all his life had a sexual longing to murder women. He controls this, however, partly through his almost sexual relationship with his engine, La Lison. When by chance he catches a glimpse of the station master Roubaud murdering one of the railway directors (having discovered that he had previously been his wife’s lover), Lantier keeps quiet because Roubaud’s wife buys his silence by starting a love affair with him.

Because of her connection with a murder, Lantier finds that at first he can control his desire to kill a woman as part of the sexual act with Séverine, but later it comes back and he kills her. In the last scene, hostility between Lantier and his fireman flares into bloodlust and they fall off the engine in a deathly embrace. The driverless train hurtles on through the night, full of happy, singing, drunken recruits for the war with Prussia. It is a symbol of the fate of France.

These are just a few of the novels from this series which I read, the ones which interested me most. Germinal, Zola’s masterpiece, deserves a separate blog post.

The one which I thoroughly disliked is Le Docteur Pascal. This depicts the work of the eponymous doctor, the grandson of the original source of all the family malaise, Adelaide Forque, through her Rougon marriage. He has invented a serum that he hopes will cure mental and hereditary diseases. He has kept a chart of the lives of the thirty descendants of Adelaide Forque, and made a lifelong study of hereditary and madness. He lives with his mother and niece, Clothilde.

Gradually, he wins his niece over to his views and also to his atheism (Zola was a passionate atheist). Finally, and this is the bit that will probably disgust many people as much as it did me – the sixty-year-old uncle becomes his young niece’s lover. No mention was made of incest in the novel, and I was startled to learn that a relationship between an uncle and a niece was not regarded as incest in France.

Eventually, the couple conceive a baby, but Pascal dies of a heart attack before the birth. His mother destroys his documentary evidence of genetic mental illness as exemplified in his family history records, and Clothilde is left nursing the baby, the hope of the future for the family, as are Jean Macquart’s children by his second marriage.

This is the last of the novels in the series. Zola had now taken a younger mistress, who had two children by him. His depiction of the downright creepy relationship between the aging doctor and his nubile niece is permeated by Zola’s own atttitude towards his relationship with this very young woman.  One also supposes he felt a need to justify his actions, to himself, at least. He also seems to have believed in some way that the birth of two children regularised it.  His wife maintained, when she found out, that she could have given him children herself. If he refused to let her have any, only to have a family with a younger woman, then that was callous indeed. No wonder she was outraged.

It is impossible to do justice to this complex and varying series in one blog post, but certainly, Zola was an original and exceptionally talented writer who often rose to greatness. If the modern reader only feels that she has time to read one of his novels, I would urge her to make that one Germinal – his epic depiction of the conditions in the mining community in the mid nineteenth century, and the terrible consequences of a failed strike by the miners.

But more on that, in my next post…

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’: A Fascinating Depiction of Poverty in the Early Industrial Revolution.

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I have recently been re-reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Mary Barton’. I thought I had long since written a review of it; it seems not.

This is, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, published in 1847. It established her reputation as a writer who sympathized with the poor and oppressed, the workers in industrial Lancashire who were voiceless in the government of the country, and who suffered hideously during the times of economic depression.

In this, she resembled Charles Dickens. He was in fact her later publisher when she wrote for his magazine ‘All The Year Round’. Like him, too, she had a great dread of the rampant mob, and shares the almost morbid fear of trade unions which he showed in ‘Hard Times’. In the novel Gaskell depicts trade unionists with unintentional comedy, as having a conspiratorial aspect almost akin to a lot of Gunpower Plotters.

This, no doubt, was partly due to the fact that she was writing the novel in the era of  the Chartist protests, which co-incided with the outbreak of revolution throughout much of Europe.  The Chartist leadership was strongly divided over those who espoused peaceful methods and those who considered that they must win power by ‘Reason if we may,  by force if we must’.  Elizabeth Gaskell was a devout Christian who recoiled from violence and was shocked by the mutual antagonism of the mill owners and their nameless ‘hands’ who comprised their workforce.

The original protagonist of the novel was not Mary Barton, but her father John Barton, and this probably explains why he in fact comes across as a more fully realised character than his daughter’s love interest, Jem Wilson. Jem is accused of the murder that John himself has committed of the mill owner’s son, the caddish and handsome Harry Carson.

He has been angling to make Mary his mistress, though in her naivety, she thinks that he is interested in marriage. Eventually, in fact, when he realises that she won’t become his mistress he does make her an offer of marriage, which she scornfully rejects (no doubt Richardson’s Pamela would be astonished by that). By then, she realises her folly in rejecting Jem, who following his own failed proposal, is assiduously keeping away from her.

Jem is warned about Mary’s danger from Harry Carson by Mary’s Aunt Esther, who subsequently deserted by her lover, had taken to prostituion to support their child, and after her death, become a drunkard.  She has been keeping a covert watch on the Barton household, and wishes at all costs to keep Mary from suffering the same fate as herself.

Jem confronts Harry Carson, and they come to blows, but a policeman separates them. When he is later murdered, Jem is the natural suspect.

Now Mary resolves to save him from the gallows…

There are some harrowing descriptions of poverty and misery in the book, and the author leaves the reader in no doubt of her moral outrage that such conditions should be allowed: –

‘Never was the old Edinburgh description of gardez-l’eau more necessary than in this street. As they passed, women at the doors tossed out slops of every description into the gutter; they ran and overflowed into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated…our friends were not dainty, but they picked their way till they got to some steps leading down into a small area..You went down one step into the cellar…It was very dark inside. The window panes of many of them were broken and stuffed with rags…

…After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can  be surprised that on going into the cellar inhabited by Davenport, the smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down…They began to penetrate the thick darkness, and of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay, wet, floor…They clustered round Barton, and tore from him the food he had brought with him..’

In fact, the mill owners of Manchester were offended at what they saw as Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfair portrayal of their indifference to the sufferings of the mill workers. They were better pleased with her later novel, ‘North and South’ where their viewpoint is depicted more sympathetically.

In this novel, certainly, Mr Carson, whose son is ritually assassinated as a sort of ‘legitimate target’  in a piece of terrorism by John Barton – who despairs of anything short of this moving the obdurate mill owners – is a highly unappealing character, who only arouses the reader’s pity after the death of his prized son. His wife, though thinly skethed, is another. Once a mill worker herself, having produced upwards of four children, has taken to indulging her ill health and treats her servants as her natural inferiors.

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Harry Carson is also thinly sketched,  which as he is to some extent the antagonist, is a shame. Had he been given a sronger role, the extent of Jem’s victory, over both his own jealousy towards Carson, and Carson’s attractions as a rival  love object for Mary, would be more striking.

The trade union leader is depicted as a wily opportunist, rather on the lines of Plutard (I think that was his name; I’m being too lazy to look it up) in Zola’s ‘Germinal’.  Perhaps he is depicted that way as a counter to the unsympathetic bourgoise in the novel, but one gets the impression that Elizabeth Gaskell could  not credit that anyone could be a dedicated trade unionist and Chartist without being either fanatical or self seeking…

Jem Wilson is depicted as a wholly admirable working man, capable of selfless devotion, and handsome ‘save for the marks of smallpox’, with dark curling hair and a stalwart build. Outstandingly brave, he rescues his father and another workmate from a blazing mill. It is typical of him that he should oppose women working, but one has to remember that his mother’s experience of work has left her disabled as a result of an accident with unguarded machinery.

Mary Barton, very pretty, well meaning and often wilfully opposed to her own best interests, is a good characterisation of a young girl of sense with some silly notions. Her realisation that she loves Jem, only after she has turned down his proposal, is vividly recounted.

John Barton, demoted from his place as protagonist as he may have been,  is the character who makes the greatest impression on the reader. His personal tragedies – he has lost a son through poverty and loses his wife in childbirth – a death he blames on the shock she sustains when her sister runs off with an army officer – embitter him. Still,  he never loses his devotion to the working people and his determination to relieve their suffring.  In the scene described above, where he helps the Davenport family, he sells his last possessions of value to buy them food and medicine.  When the petition on the condition of the workers he delivers to parliament is contemptuously rejected and the recession worsens and want increases, he becomes desperate. Unemployed and black listed as a trade unionist, he turns to violent methods to change the minds of the masters.

John  Barton, then, is a believable flawed tragic hero, and the ending when the older Carson is able to forgive him makes a moving conclusion to the story.

Mary’s fight to prove Jem’s innocence is well told. Her admitting in court that she loves Jem would have been astoundingly indpendent behaviour in a Victorian heroine. Many critics disagree with Raymond Williams objection, that the story’s change in theme from the political to the domestic entails a weakening of its theme.

It is worth noting that in this first novel, the character of the sailor as a dashing racounteur is depicted in Will Wilson, Jem’s cousin. This character, no doubt partly based on fond memories of her own lost brother,  was a type Elizabeth Gaskell was to develop in Frederick Hale in ‘North and South’ and Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvi’a’s Lovers’.

Will Wilson is a straightforward version, a touching combination of the boastful and the modest, who falls  in love with the dowdy and virtuous Margaret Leigh when  he heards her sing.  He lacks either the sophistication of Frederick Hale, or the moral dubiousness of Charley Kinraid.

Jem, for his part, is depicted as – despite his aversion to women working – a wholly more attractive rival to the dashing Harry Carson than the melancholy Philip Hepburn is to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvias Lovers’ . ‘Mary Barton’ is a novel which ends  happily for the two sets of young lovers, Mary and Jem, Will and Margaret, in complete opposition to the tragic conclusion to that later novel.

The ending is a good deal less happy for John Barton, of course, who must face the consequences of his crime. As a matter of fact, parents usually fare badly in Gaskell’s novels. ..

That this happy ending for the young people has to take place in Canada, not the UK, is in itself  a dismal comment on the prospects for workers in what was then the ‘workshop of the world’.

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Characters’ First Names: How Do Authors Choose Them?

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The spirituality of Cordelia, and the earthy sensuality of Goneril and Regan, are wonderfuly depicted here.

I am a fully paid up, card holding name’s geek.

I have been, since my sister bought me a book on first names and their meanings  when I was thirteen (more years ago than I care to admit).  It was a little Collins’ Gem Dictionary,  with a red leather cover. I found it fascinating. I have more up to date names books – for instance, ‘The Oxford Dictionary of First Names’,  but this was my first.

I still have it, though the pages are falling out, I suppose from over use. I have a book on surnames too, though I am less fascinated by those, I suppose partly because of the patriarchal aspect. In general, you can’t get away from having a man’s second name in our society; even if you take your mother’s, that’s still your grandfather’s surname, and if you take your grandmother’s, well,that is her father’ s surname in turn, and so it goes on…

I know all  sorts of obscure things about names. For instance, on the name ‘Elsa’ (my daughter’s third name): people use it as a short form of Elizabeth, and that’s the way my modern names book interprets it, but the old Collins gem dictionary, which I think is in some ways better researched, has it down as from old German meaning ‘noble one’.

I always enjoy naming characters of my own, and examining the names other writers give to their characters.

I love Italian names.  The dash that added ‘o’ or ‘I’ or  ‘a’  or adds on to a name, otherwise quite prosaic. ‘Eduardo’ for instance. What a wonderfully over-the-top name ‘Lodovico’ is – whereas ‘Ludovic’ just rings pretentious to me as a ‘learned’ form of ‘Louis’…

‘Rinaldo Rindaldini’ wouldn’t be the same without that last letter to his name. Even the bad translation of the title, ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini: Captain of Bandetti’ can’t detract from the ring of that. Well, I’m assuming it’s a bad translation:  I don’t know more than a few words in Italian. Wouldn’t ‘Robber Chief’ or ‘Chief of Brigands’ be better?  ‘Captain’ makes it sound  bathetic as a title,  like an Angela Brazil type story about  ‘Hilary Smith: Captain of the First Eleven’ or some such.

To English speakers, a foreign name somehow adds an element of the out of the ordinary, the mysterious. For instance, ‘A Day in the Life of John Dennison’ doesn’t quite have the ring of ‘A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch’.

I love Scandinavian names too: ‘Gustav’ and ‘Erland’  ‘Sigmund’ , ‘Ingvar’, ‘Ulf’ ‘Eyof’ and ‘Olaf’ are names I am definitely going to use at some point.  Likewise,  Marna, Gudrun (as in ‘Women in Love’), Sigrid,  Marta and others (well, I’ve already used ‘Marta’ once).  I also have a liking for Germanic names, some of which were of course, used by Anglo Saxon s – ‘Reinwald’,  Lothar’,  ‘Brigitta’, ‘Liesel’ among others.

And then there are so many French and Welsh names I like, and Irish, and…But this list is getting too long.

One of the problems about writing historical fiction is that you must use the names in use in that period, and subsequent to the twentieth century, this was quite limited, which I assume is why Jane Austen, for instance, uses such a limited stock of names. Elizabeth, Anne, Jane, Mary and so on are constantly distributed among heroines and less attractive characters (come to think of it, unless I’m being forgetful, she showed a very human streak in that I don’t think she gave ‘Jane’ to a baddy).  Of course, very few people would impose the name of the heroine of ‘Mansfield Park’ ,‘Fanny’ on a female protagonist these days; coarse in the US, it is obscene in the UK. Hmm – how about a broad beamed male philanderer, though, as a nickname?

Samuel Richardson, among others, got round this limited supply of names by using ones that were then very unusual for his heroines – ‘Pamela’ ( that is from Sir Philip Sidney, I think; and before the twentieth century the emphasis was on the second syllable) and ‘Clarissa’ – a mediaeval name.  Well, for some reason he used the down- to- earth ‘Harriet’ for the heroine of ‘Sir Charles Grandison’.  His male characters have less fanciful ones. I don’t remember the first name of ‘Squire B’  – I don’t think it was ever given, though I may be wrong – but the villain and main male character of ‘Clarissa’ is called Robert, known affectionately as ‘Cousin Bobby’ by those naïve female cousins who haven’t aroused his bizarre Machiavellian sexual urges.

Shakespeare, naturally, besides inventing words, made various names up, ie, Cordelia in King Lear. Well, he changed that from an earlier, far inferior play with a heroine called  Cordeilla, and that was originally a Cornish or Welsh name,  Cordula. The legend of ‘King Leir’ is an ancient legend, of course…

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Polonius snooping again, and about to get his from Halmet, through the arras…

Then there is the rather incongruously called Ophelia in the Danish court in Hamlet. Perhaps Polonius went in for Classical names, with her brother being named Laertes. Polonius  being a pedantic, self-consciously learned sort of fellow, that might fit.  But what of his own name? I have never gone into that before.

The ever useful Wickipedia says: –

‘The first quarto of Hamlet, Polonius is named “Corambis“. It has been suggested that this derives from “crambe” or “crambo”, derived from a Latin phrase meaning “reheated cabbage”, implying “a boring old man” who spouts trite rehashed ideas.

However, before the 20th century, Polonius was played differently, more as an opportunist courtier with Machiavellian propensities than as a spouting fool; after all, he instructs his servant to spy on his own son Laertes.

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A lovely depiction of the deranged Ophelia’s end.

Another Shakespearean name that I love is ‘Perdita’- from ‘The Winter’s Tale’ taken from the Latin for ‘lost’ .

Then, there are the names taken from the opposite end of the literary spectrum. For instance, Charles Garvice.

He tends to give his heroines quite  simple names, ones fashionable in late Victorian and Edwardian times – Eva, Edna,  Nora, Esther, Una,  Stella,  Constance and so on, occasionally branching out into the more exotic – Maida, Kyra and Esmerelda. His heroes tend to be called surnames, like Tempest or Heriot or Blair. Sometimes, they are called down-to-earth names like Jack. One thing is certain; we know the villains from their names: Stannard Marshbank, the slippery name of the Conniving  Cousin villain of ‘The Outcast of the Family’ is a typical one.

Why writers choose particular names for their characters has always intrigued me. I know that Magaret Mitchell was going to call her heroine Pansy O’Hara. In those politically incorrect times, the editors objected, not, naturally, to the appalling racism in the book,  but  to that being the pejorative name for ‘effeminate men’ during  that time. Thus, the author had to use one of the heroine’s family names, her heroine’s Irish grandmother being called Katie Scarlett.

Rhett and Ashley were of course, surnames. Any number of the names that were used in that massively successful book have since become fairly popular.

I was interested to read that Ian Fleming called the hero of his male fantasy nonsense  James Bond because he thought that was the most boring name that he could possibly imagine. It seemed at the time he intended to make him a colourless character ‘to whom things happen’.  The women, when not being described as ‘the girl’ are called things like Vesper and Honeychile and Domino.

Yet, the Countess Theresa, who truly steals Bond’s heart, though, is known by the wholly prosaic name of Tracy.

On the names of women in the 007 stories, we must never forget, of course, the lesbian whom Bond makes straight, the unforgettably dubbed ‘Pussy Galore’ (word fail me!) .

Incidentally, the author gives Bond’s explanation for what he sees as the increase in lesbianism since the Second World War as the shocking habit of women in taking to wearing trousers.

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The problem with films, as a critic commented, is that after seeing them, you can’t imagine a character looking any other way. Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara.

Hmm.  By inverting the same argument, it is a shame, then, that Bond, who is after all meant to be a Scotsman, didn’t take to wearing a kilt.  Then Fleming could have started a Gay Spy genre back in the 1950’s.

Elizabeth Gaskell not only called her female protagonist a dull name – Mary Barton – but made this the name of her novel. Well, it isn’t quite as dull as ‘Tom Jones’.

Should anyone be intersted, when it comes to naming my own characters, as most of my own novels have been set in the late eighteenth century (with one in the Regency proper and only one modern one) that has limited the choice. Still, having French characters – or ones of French descent, has widened it a bit.

Émile was originally the villain of an earlier version of the story – and in naming him, I just thought lazily, ‘What French name shall I use? Let me see – what was Zola’s first name? Ah yes…’

Intriguingly, the second name I gave him, which he uses in his persona as an outlaw,  ‘Monsieur Gilles’ has got strong connections with Provence, as has his third, ‘Gaston’ .   I certainly didn’t consciously know this when I chose them off the top of my head. Very likely, though, as a true names geek, I had read that before and it was still at the back of my mind.

As for the name of his true love, Sophie, I have always liked it, and knew it was popular in the eighteenth century. The same with Isabella.   Besides, there’s the play on Rousseau’s use of those two names together.

Hi cousin, the male lead of ‘Ravensdale’, Reynaud Ravensdale’s name is a pun on ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’’s own name, ‘Reynaud’  having the same root.  ‘Ravensdale’ was partly written as a spoof of the traditional robber novels, such as this and Pushkin’s ‘Dubrovsky’, besides the clichés of historical romances featuring highwaymen.

‘Clarinda’ I used for my female lead in ‘The Villainous Viscount’ because I came across it in Elizabeth Gaskell, and took to it. It seemed fun to give that wholly practical and unornamental female lead a fancy name.

I don’t know how many other writers are names geeks. I have to say, if I really dislike a protagonist’s name, it actually detracts from the pleasure of the story for me. That is a bit extreme, but for instance, among others, I can’t stand  the names Wendy (that, by the way, comes from a little girl calling James Barrie ‘Friendy Wendy’)  and Tammy (though not Tamara or Tamsin), Max, and Peter (though not Pierre, Pedro, or Pyotr). I hope nobody reading this blog is called one of those.

That brings back a ludicrous memory to me. I remember as a kid disliking a serial in a girl’s comic where the goody-goody heroine, the form captain, whose name I have forgotten, though I don’t think it was Wendy, was plagued by ‘The jealous vice captain’ (who had my real name) and her toady, who was called Doris (my mother’s name, and for decades past a favourite for generally unattractive characters, though back in the late nineteenth century  Garvice used it for some of his heroines).  Well, the character with my real name at least made malicious witticisms: Doris had no wit, and only tittered at them…

 

Celebrated Writers Whose Names Have Become Synonymous with the Fictional Depiction of an Age: Part Two: Georgette Heyer’s Depiction of the Regency UK and ‘Life in London’ by Pierce Egan: ‘Corinthian Tom’ and his ‘Coz Jerry’ as the Original Source of Heyer’s Regency World and Sporting Heroes

 

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In my last post, I wrote about the influence of Mary Renault, whose fictional interpretation of Ancient Greece has become so famous.  I commented on how the writer’s particular treatment of Bronze Age Greece and of the rise of patriarchy, which necessarily reflected the views of her own age, sixty years ago, have been incorporated into popular understanding of that era.

However novel and stimulating Renault’s depiction may have been to the publishing world and to readers in the late 1950’s, it is now an almost stultifying influence. As I commented last week, it has reached the point where it is impossible for any author to write anything about Bronze Age Greece, the ancient matriarchies or the Theseus legend, without being compared – usually invidiously – with Renault.

The same is true of the depiction of the UK of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by Georgette Heyer.

I am not comparing the literary value of these authors.  Renault is surely by  far the better writer. In fact, apart from being  writers of historical novels with a passion for detailed research, who were in real life fairly mannish women who integrated a fair amount of internalised misogyny in their psyches, they have little in common but their names becoming synonymous with an historical era.

The point I want to make here is not to assert that they were writers of the same calibre, but that they have in common a massive influence on popular understanding of the age about which they choose to write.  Heyer is seen as ‘having made the Regency era her own’.

I have touched on this previously in an article published on Public Books last December. here However, as the articles on this site have to be under 1,500 words, I had to write a terse one, concentrating mainly on how Heyer’s highly consensus and upper class based, High Tory view of the UK’s history has had the effect of making an  ‘Artificial Golden Age’ out of an era which was in fact one of violent social change and upheaval, and my dismay that a fair number of readers seem to confuse that fantasy verson with the historical reality of that time.

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Certainly, it has had the effect of trivialising it.  This fact was made by the late writer and historian M M Bennets, so brilliantly in this article here,  that I am going to quote large parts of it wholesale:

‘ I rate her (Georgette Heyer’s) work alongside that of P.G. Wodehouse in that they both created a bright comedic fictional world entirely of their own. However, I also feel that Heyer’s work has done an immense disservice to our understanding of the early nineteenth century.  Because by calling that world the Regency, this period of extra-ordinary political and social change and international upheaval of the most catastrophic nature has been trivialised, ‘frivolised’ and demoted to ‘unworthy of consideration by serious writers and thinkers’.

‘(Curiously, no one ever mistakes Wodehouse’s fictional world of Blandings Castle and the Drones Club for reality.)

‘…With the exception of An Infamous Army, the whole of her work is one-faceted and is set firmly within the boundaries of this fictional romantic comedy world she created.  Thus, what a shock to realise that Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, for example, is set at the same period and included much talk of the terrible harvests, the effect of that on the countryside and the introduction of the Corn Laws.’

M M Bennett’s goes on, in  the comments section, to remark: –

‘I’ve not stopped thinking about this question since I raised it a few days ago, in some effort to pin down what it is about Heyer I find most maddening. Tolstoy includes many party scenes, many domestic issues, in War and Peace, yet no one would accuse him of frivolity or trivialising history, I think.

‘Perhaps it’s Heyer’s relentless emphasis on female clothing and her stereotypical males which frequently are little better than caricatures? I know she based a lot of her work about young men and their pursuits on the Cruikshank “Tom and Jerry” cartoons of the 1820s. Equally, it must be said that with few exceptions, there are few mentions of soldiers, officers or naval officers in her works–yet Britain was most certainly a country at war, from 1792-1815, with only the briefest peace between 1802-3. (We’d think a book set in 1943 in London very peculiar if there were no soldiers to be seen, wouldn’t we?)

‘Perhaps it’s not her work that I find maddening, it’s the subsequent assumption that the Regency was as she presented it, and that her work is used as a kind of yardstick for anything written about the period. Which is perhaps just my way of saying, yes, that was popular literary taste then (when she was writing); this is now–can we not move on from there? Please?’

This  concisely sums up my own attitude.

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I was interested in this reference to these ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons of the 1820’s. I followed it up, tracing it to Pierce Egan’s 1821  ‘Life in London Or the Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq, And His Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom in Their Rambles and Sprees Through the Metropolis’ (they liked a long title in those days).

Then Someone Lovely bought me a copy last Christmas.

I only had to read a page to realise three things.

One was that here was the author of ‘Boxiana’, a book on the history of prize fighting which I had read years since. It has the same florid, wordy style and excessive use of the sporting slang of the era.

The second was that Georgette Heyer did indeed rely massively on this book as a source on which she based her heroes and the fashionable world of Regency London, the venues, sights, sporting activities, slang, you name it.

The third is the explanation as to why Heyer’s males are generally such puzzlingly cardboard characters, lacking in all emotional depth. This is because they were literally borrowed from a series of cartoon sketches.  In fact, Pierce Egan’s macho cartoon heroes are less ’emotionally constipated’ (to borrow a wonderful phrase from a critic of the Restoration playwrite Etheridge) than Heyer’s; though libertines, they are quite tender about their mistresses. Corinthian Tom writes romantic doggerel to ‘Corinthian Kate’s‘ eyes: Jerry Hawthorn is besotted with two of his mistresses in quick succession, ‘Lady Wanton’ and Kate’s friend Sue.

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‘Corinthian Tom’ is depicted as a leader of fashion, but ‘handy with his dives’, having taken boxing lessons from the prize fighting champion himself, and ‘no dandy’ (ie, effete). He is handsome, cynical, blasé, a fine pugilist and swordsman, a famed ‘whip’  in his Sunday drives in the park,  wears a greatcoat with many cloaks and top boots,  has an acquiine profile, and has a roving eye for female beauty – whether it is paying compliments to the women of the elite at Almacks, or treating the ‘barques of frailty’ at the Opera to gin, or chucking the pretty chin of the beggar chit Polly in her rags in a ‘boozing ken’ full of  women like ‘Leaky Sal’.  His ‘Dear Coz’ Jerry is less clever, but full of mischief and ‘game till he’s floored’, with a physical presence that draws the eye of many women.

In fact, I am puzzled how few Georgette Heyer fans seem even to know of this book. They constantly discuss Austen as her inspiration.  I have only seen about three references to ‘Life in London’ as one of Heyer’s sources online, besides that by the late M M Bennetts. I don’t know if M M Bennetts had got round to reading it before her sadly early death, though she was clearly an avid researcher on the early nineteenth century.

So far as I can judge, only a couple of these writers on Georgette Heyer have actually read ‘Life in London’ (this is only for the brave; the turgid prose makes for heavy going; but  – coughs modestly – I was not to be deterred from my research. After all, I was able to plough through all of Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’, through ‘Pamela’ and ‘Pamela in Her Exalted Condition’, ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘War and Peace’ ).

Of course, I am not accusing Heyer of plagiarism in borrowing so heavily from this book; you can’t plagiarise an idea. What I am saying, is that I think that Heyer, having relied on ‘Life in London’ so massively for her depiction of the Regency era and her sporting heroes in particular, should have publicly acknowledged it as a main source, rather than emphasizing Austen with its smokescreen of Mr Darcy.

It was a brilliant stroke of Heyer’s to create characters appealing to a female readership out of a book intended for a male one, and her comic world has its escapist allure for many. But I share in MM Bennetts’ wish that the whole Regency era should not be seen as the domain of one comic writer whose emphasis was generally on the ‘fashionable world’ of the upper class.

Georgette Heyer has been praised excessively for her original creation, so I was astonished to find that the origins of her sporting heroes and much of their Regency world, complete with sporting slang, can be traced to the pages of ‘Life in London’.

To be fair, the origin of her heroines cannot be found in Pierce Egan: there are no ‘respectable’ women depicted in any but the most superficial detail in ‘Life in London’. There, Jane Austen did indeed influence Heyer. Her heroines are updated, highly secular versions of Austen’s,  with a large part of the Bright Young Things of Heyer’s own youth thrown in.

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

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A horrible fight…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wilbur Smith’s ‘Shout at the Devil’: A Book Where Comedy Turns to Tragedy

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I have been getting cold feet (very appropriate given the recent icy weather) about my short novel based round the 1819 Peterloo Massacre .  Of course, mine will be only one obscure publication out  of many books, articles, plays or whatever that will surely be released to mark the bicentenary  – I know there’s a film coming out. Still, that’s not the point; I feel I owe it to those who were slaughtered and the hundreds who were maimed or injured on that terrible day in Manchester’s history to make that novel as good as I possibly can.

If you’re just writing for fun, then it’s different. If the general response is: ‘Must Try Harder’ – Well, that smarts, but you haven’t let anyone’ s memory down.

Oddly enough, I found out how I should best write this piece by a piece of serendipity or synchronicity (now I’ve used up my quota of long words for the day). So, this post isn’t really about my latest project, but a novel I read a long time ago, Wilbur Smith’s novel ‘Shout at the Devil’.

I woke up the other day, with a strong memory of one of the first adult books I had read in my mind.

That was a story of two freebooting adventurers in German East Africa just before World War I, an outrageously unscrupulous older Irish American and his none-too-bright diffident English upper class young partner – and the love affair between the callow young man and the first character’s daughter.

I was twelve at the time, and my family were doing up those rambling old country houses in which I spent most of my childhood. I remember coming on this book in the room we used to call ‘the little sitting room’ – in those days when  great old houses were cheap and  unfashionable, that room was approximately the size of a ten million pound flat in central London these days. My father had taken the book out of the library –and seeing it on the side tablet by his favourite armchair, and bored with sampling the historical romances my mother took out, I sat down and  began to read this male adventure story.

I was drawn into the fast moving action. I laughed at the ridiculous letter which the rascally larger-than-life freebooter had written as a supposed reference from Kaiser Wilhelm II,  ‘Kaiser Bill’ himself.  He solemnly shows this to his prospective partner in order to persuade him to become, as a British citizen –  for this was, of course, in the days when the sun never set on the British Empire – the leader of the expedition.

Even then I knew that the slaughter of elephants for ivory was wrong. I didn’t like that aspect at all, and thought it to some extent contained racial stereotypes.  Also, the murder of the young couple’s baby was a very horrible part of the plot.  However, I  found myself oddly touched by the love story which forms part of the plot in this adventure story.

My recollection is that it only briefly sketched in, but after those romantic novels, I found that ‘less is more’.  I wanted at least twice as much, just as you do with jam in a trifle if someone’s skimped on it, whereas with too much of it, you find it clogs the appetite (well, I do, anyway).

I remembered that the callow partner goes down with malaria, and that the two renegades turn up at the senior freebooter’s house, where the daughter nurses him. That is, of course, the archetypical circumstance in which a man falls in love with a woman – but I remember it as working brilliantly here. I remembered the mention of the young man’s eyes being ‘Misty grey, and as unfocused as those of a newborn puppy’ and  looking into them, the heroine ‘felt something squirm in her stomach.’

My recollection is, that after that, the details of their courtship weren’t given much, though I also recall that the daughter is depicted as very determined, and the upper class youth turned bandit as shy, and that she made most of the running.

I also remembered that while the first part of the story is full of comedy verging on slapstick, soon launching into high adventure, it later becomes extremely violent and tragic. I was really upset by the ending.

Anyway, on the strength of these details, and the fact that I remembered that I knew it had been turned into a film decades since with Roger Moore in it,  despite having managed to forget the title and the author, I was able to track it down.  I was quite proud of that.

It is odd how the unconscious works. I realised that the structure of this novel is the one I must use, in writing my own: ‘What begins as a comic escapade gives way to chilling horror’. I wonder if my unconscious knew that, when it prompted me to think of it?

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I am also, of course, and despite this deluge of research I must do, going to re-read this novel. I have often wondered if, when we re-read a story that touched us when we were young, it retains some of its magic for us, because it revives for us the feelings that we had when we were part of our family of origin, with all the world before us, and our feelings still new and untried. I suspect that is often so. Yet, when I re-read this, I think I will find that murder of the baby even more awful now.