Character Development: Some Classic Best Sellers Without Much of It…

 

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No giant insect visible….

A couple of years ago, the latest thing in discussing novels online  or leaving reviews seemed to be a lot of talk about ‘character development’. I haven’t heard so much about it of late- maybe I haven’t been looking – but back then it seemed as if you couldn’t read a single review without that dreaded ‘character development’ coming into it , and no, it didn’t mean the hero’s chest and waist measurement.

Authors got paranoid about it. ‘Does my character develop enough’ was becoming the greatest fear. I saw reviews from that time where bestselling authors were slated because their characters didn’t undergo an obvious change by chapter two.

In a way, all this seems the more unfair, when one considers how many classical authors wholly neglected this aspect of writing.

Well, Kafka at least would have been all right regarding an early depiction of character development in his 1915 novel ‘ Metamorphoses’, as Gregor Samsa undergoes a rather ‘life changing’ alteration in the first sentence. After that, though, he doesn’t seem to do a whole lot else except be ill treated and fed on rotten food for the rest of the novel.

Interestingly, and I’ve touched on this before – there are any number of classic books where the characters remain static. Dickens didn’t bother about it generally for his heroes and heroines. In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay at the end are just the same as they were at the beginning, only a bit older.

With regard to the secondary characters, Sidney Carton the inert cynic, falls passionately in love with Lucie, and remains hopelessly in love with her for about ten years, and it is that which leads him to replace Charles Darnay as he awaits execution at the end, but that is about all the changing he does. He starts off a hopeless drunken loser and remains one. Does Dr Manette undergo any particular changes during the novel? Not so you’d notice; he gets addicted to making shoes in his long stint in gaol, so perhaps that counts a bit.

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There are exceptions in Dickens, to be fair. There are those characters who undergo a massive moral reformation, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or less dramatically, Pip in ‘Great Expectations’. Still, overall, good old character development wasn’t Dickens’ forte, and his sales were never seemingly affected by the lack of it. Maybe readers of the mid Victorian era didn’t like it very much. In fact, a good many of Dicken’s minor character characters, traditionally celebrated as ‘great characters’ are in fact stereotypes.

Of course, the whole issue of how far secondary characters are to be depicted as changing in a novel, and how much attention is to be devoted to this, and how much space is to be devoted to them anyway, is all highly debatable to this day. More on that in my next post.

P G Wodehouse- of course – made a fortune in writing about stereoptypes and static characters. We leave Bertie Wooster and Jeeves (does anyone know his first name? Does he know it himself?) exactly as they were when we met them. Bingham Little gets married, of course, to the romance writer Rosie M Banks, but that doesn’t seem to change his lifestyle much.

I was about twelve when I first read those, and I hoped that Bertie Wooster would end up getting married himself, but no such thing. In fact, in one story, one of his friends or relatives remarks that Jeeves will never allow that, and I never enjoyed the stories so much after that: it made Jeeves seem positively sinister. Perhaps he is a control freak? A Freudian study of that relationship might prove most rewarding.

I have to say, I never noticed any particular alterations in the characters of the heroines or the heroes of the couple of the 1950’s Mary Stewart novels I read, either. I personally don’t enjoy her writing, but she is highly regarded as the inventor of romantic suspense and a fine writer besides.  Still, it was a long time ago that I did read them, and I may have missed something.

Going back a good bit, there’s the question of how much character development there is in Jane Austen. Obviously, her most famous novel, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is centred about  a couple who do change throughout the course of the novel, and we know which qualities they are going to change from the title, but how about the other characters?
They are wholly believable, but they all – Mr and Mrs Bennett, Jane, Bingley, Lydia, Wickham, Mr Collins and so on, seem to leave the novel pretty much as they entered it.

They were well drawn and convincing at the beginning, and they are well drawn and convincing at the end, but they seem to remain static. Well, come to think of it, maybe Mary and Kitty do develop a bit. Mary is happier, because we learn that she is no longer mortified by being compared to her prettiest sisters, while Kitty, we read, becomes ‘less insipid’.

Quite often in love stories, in fact, all the transformation that seems to be required of a character is for him or her to transfer his or her love from one character to another – that would appear to be all the change that Edmund Bertram undergoes in ‘Mansfield Park’. The heroine Fanny Bertram does develop; she changes from a shy girl into a poised and efficient parson’s wife for Edmund, but she remains, I am sorry to say, priggish and humourless from beginning to end of the story.

Marianne Dashwood in ‘Sense and Sensibility’, of course, does indeed have an alteration in character. I have often said that I found the subduing of her passionate and rebellious spirit one of the most depressing parts of Jane Austen’s writing.

To my shame, I must admit that I have only read two of Thackeray’s novels, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’. He troubled about this modern bugbear of character development not at all. The villainous Barry Lyndon’s luck may change, but he remains the same faithless, fickle scoundrel at the end of his memoirs, save he is now living (attended by his mother, and in a good deal of comfort) in a debtor’s prison.

The same is nearly as true of another con-artist in classical literature, Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’. This enduringly successful novel has very little in the way of changing characters, a bit of moral repentance from secondary characters aside, and Becky is too villainous to go into any of that.

She is shown as becoming more conniving, it is true. At the beginning of the story she is openly rebellious. When the carriage she shares with Amelia Sedley leaves the boarding school where she has been employed as a drudge she shouts, ‘Vive Boneparte.’
At first, her lying and scheming is a bit blatant – she makes the mistake of claiming to love children to Amelia Sedley, and even the often undiscerning Amelia could not fail to see how much she had disliked the small girls at school. Within a chapter or so, however, she becomes a consummate hypocrite, and an arch manipulator, and stays that way from then on.

The character of Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s husband and for years her dupe and partner in crime, does have a moral reformation, apparently caused by fatherhood, though we are not given any access to his mental processes. His admiration for his sister-in-law Lady Jane appears to play a part in this.

He is even shown as feeling some shame about having cheated George Osborne out of his inheritance at gambling – when he meets the old Mr Sedley and he mentions him, Thackeray says Rawdon ‘flushes up red’ – and ‘blackleg’ (ie, card cheat in Regency slang) and Becky’s dupe though he has been, he is outraged when he learns that he is viewed as a ‘complacent husband’. He knocks down Lord Steyne when he finds him alone with Becky, and wishes to challange him to a duel, but he aging libertine sneaks out of it.

Amelia Sedley doesn’t change, but is of those characters whose love is transferred from one character to another. She ceases to worship the memory of the late George Osborne, apparently believing all Becky’s harsh words about him – and begins to worship the dull but worthy Dobbin, giant feet and all.

So, we may well envy those earlier writers for the easy time they had regarding depiction of character.

Still,now there is a wealth of online advice for authors about how to pursue character development on line. Here, for instance, are just two of many excellent articles.
here
and

here

That is actually by the Reader’s Digest – not the sort of publication I like to recommend – but it is very good.
here

Perhaps, if Fanny Burney had read these, she might have thought, ‘Hmm. It might be better if in my novel, there is just one person who doesn’t admire or envy Evelina…’

Maybe Charles Dickens might even have thought: ‘I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to make Charles Darnay a little more interesting…’

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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…

 

‘Regency Hoax’ My New Article on the Popular Conception of the Regency Era Published by Public Books

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Here’s my new article on the highly static and frivolous popular view of the UK of the Regency era, as taken from the twentieth century writer of historical romance Georgette Heyer, and her successors.

This is a topic that has perturbed me for a while, and I brought my thoughts together as concisely as possible for this article.

It might seem odd – at a time when global politics are particularly fraught, to trouble myself about this issue of the depiction in light genre fiction of a particular historical era.

After all, only a section of readers read historical romances and Georgette Heyer in particular. Still, a surprising number of people are influenced by the light in which popular fiction depicts a particular age, and in the last decade or so, with the rise of internet publishing, Heyer’s popularity has had something of a revival, with talk of several of her Regency Romances being turned into a television series.

Why do I think this matters?

For the reason that I always think that a consensus bound, romanticised view of the past will give us a distorted view of the possibilities of shaping the future. For those with little knowledge of  the real history of an age, the ‘historical knowledge’ gleaned from such a depiction as Heyer’s  may well contribute to a similar apathetic approach towards present problems.

It isn’t that I think it is wrong to enjoy a bit of light escapism.  Still,  I certainly think it is wrong to confuse it with historical reality, and Heyer’s influence has been sufficiently strong for the whole of the Regency era to be dismissed as an era of frivolity and high jinks where the common people as a whole are strangely invisible.

Interestingly, the Victorian age isn’t seen in the same light, and it just so happens that the most famous writer on and of  the Victorian era, Charles Dickens, did not portray a light and frivolous portrait of the age. When we think of Dickens’ Victorian age, we tend to think of workhouses and the shocking differences between rich and poor.

I wish I could make that picture of the boatman and the woman as large and splendid as it is in the article on Public Books,  here . Sadly, it wouldn’t respond to my editing.

 

Georgette Heyer is one of the most beloved romance writers. She is also one of the most reactionary. Her impact on the genre of Regency romances is indisputable; Pamela Regis in A Natural History of the Romance Novel says that Heyer’s “influence is felt in every historical romance novel written since 1921.” That influence has pushed “Regencys”—that is, romance novels set in early 19th century England—toward a static vision of the past: one in which conservative hierarchies and gender roles are celebrated, and the inequities of Regency society are seen through a roseate lens.

Born into a middle-class family in England in 1902, Heyer wrote novels set in Jane Austen’s era, filled with details of upper class life, earls, and balls. Heyer’s evocation of an earlier time was deliberate; she bitterly resented the rise of democracy and the social safety net. “I am getting so tired of writing books for the benefit of the Treasury,” she complained typically, “and I can’t tell you how utterly I resent the squandering of my money on such fatuous things as Education and Making Life Easy and Luxurious for So-Called Workers.

Wishing to write serious historical novels, but obliged to keep writing her bestselling Regency romances to support the upper class life style to which she aspired, in her novels Heyer transforms the Regency era into an artificial Golden Age.

Heyer’s fans defend her works as “harmless escapism.” Yet is so pervasive and reactionary a version of a historical era harmless in its influence?

Heyer’s imaginary world may be amusing, even beguiling, but it little to do with the historical reality of that era of social turbulence and change—no more than has the world of Bertie Wooster and his friends in the Drones Club to that of the early 20th century. Hopefully, few people would confuse the world of Bertie Wooster with historical reality. However, because of her thorough research on the Regency’s current events, topography, literature and, especially, the lifestyle of the upper class, Heyer’s depiction of the Regency UK is frequently held up as a standard of accuracy to emulate.

The American Regency romance writer Maggie Mackeever, for example, admits that Heyer’s Regency world never existed, but urges novice writers to “Immerse yourself in Georgette Heyer … Lots of people have written about Regency England since, but no one has done it as well. Read until you have the era fixed clearly in your head. Then sit down and start to write your own story.”

Heyer’s Regency population consists of the aristocracy and gentry, their devoted retainers, some vulgar, socially aspiring merchants, a handful of comic rogues, and a backdrop of contented peasants. That is hardly representative of the United Kingdom in that era. Heyer’s readers are encouraged to imagine themselves to be one of the 1.5 percent of the population comprising the gentry; or even as a member of one of the families of the approximately 300 titled men out of a population of maybe 9,000,000.

Of course, historically aware readers distinguish between “Heyer’s Regency England” and historical reality. However, many others do appear to believe that they can learn about history through the Regency romances. This article is typical. The poster discusses Heyer’s description of the Battle of Waterloo in the least “fluffy” of her “Regencies,” An Infamous Army, oblivious to the fact that Heyer’s emphasis is almost entirely on the officer class.

This obsessive focus on this tiny upper class goes arm in arm, unsurprisingly, with a strong status quo bias. Heyer’s untamed heroines and wild heroes are all rebellious and wild within a very narrow range, before they are reincorporated into society.

Browse

Charlotte Brontë’s Anger

By Anna E. Clark

 

One example of this ‘conservative resolution’ is her 1959 novel The Unknown Ajax. Lord Darracott’s heirs have died suddenly and accidentally. His relatives are appalled to learn that as a result, his grandson through a misalliance with “a weaver’s daughter” is next in line to the title.

This grandson is Major Hugo Darracott, veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, a seemingly uncultured giant with a broad Yorkshire accent. He has no valet and dresses unfashionably. Lord Darracott wishes to civilize him and marry him to the heroine Anthea, who is appalled.

Hugo horrifies the family by reminiscing about being “transported” and living in a hovel with a mud floor—only to reveal that he is referring to his army experiences. Later, he admits that his mother was in fact the heiress to a wealthy mill owner, while he attended the prestigious Harrow School. He confesses to Anthea that he adopted that Yorkshire dialect to tease. He promises to show Anthea’s younger brother Richmond all of the manufacturing processes. In this era, mills employed children as young as five in appalling conditions, but the humane Hugo seems unperturbed by this detail.

Heyer here does a clever sleight of hand: Hugo appears to threaten the status quo, but his true attraction is that he does not trouble class hierarchy at all. When a blacksmith from a family with “subversive” ideas—depicted as wholly contemptible—forces his way into the mansion, in what is presumably meant to be a parody of revolutionary uprising, it is Hugo who throws out his “filthy carcase.” Anthea and all the family are finally won over when Hugo saves Richmond from the law when he is shot in a smuggling venture. Here, he is shown to have a greater respect for the law than his grandfather, who has turned a blind eye to local smuggling.

Heyer’s aristocratic bias, and that of many of the Regency romances written in emulation of her style, is thrown into sharp relief by Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn. A 2013 revisiting of Pride and Prejudice—from the point of view of the servants—Longbourn depicts the hard facts of their lives, the bedrock on which the gracious living of Austen’s characters depends.

Baker’s heroine, Sarah, like Hugo in The Unknown Ajax, comes from a “family of weavers.” That family’s fate is tellingly different from that of Hugo’s relatives. Beggared when their village is destroyed through enforced enclosure of the land, they have to put Sarah in the workhouse, later to be sent to work as a housemaid.

Heyer’s imaginary world may be amusing, even beguiling, but it little to do with the historical reality of that era of social turbulence and change.

The life of unrelenting toil of the servants is brilliantly depicted. Much of it is sordid drudgery. Unlike Heyer’s heroines—whom Heyer herself commented “Lived only from the waist up”1the females in Baker’s novel menstruate, entailing unsavory washing. The family’s chamber pots have to be emptied. In the daily round of unceasing labour, a few moments of stolen happiness are a delight.

In Heyer’s novels, the ugly aspects of life in the Regency UK—poverty, disease, filth and feces in the streets; public torture and death, massively high infant mortality and the low status of women—are ignored. With the exception of some ridiculous subversives, everyone is content with his or her lot. Injustice and misery are rarely portrayed, and when they are, they can be put right by some charitable works.

Heyer’s fans heatedly defend her works as “harmless escapism.” Yet is so pervasive and reactionary a version of a historical era harmless in its influence?

Heyer has for too long been viewed as Austen’s successor. Hopefully, novels like Longbourn will inspire talented writers to abandon the weary clichés of “Heyer’s daughters” in Regency romance, and to aspire to follow Jo Baker’s example in writing about the real Regency England—that of the working people. icon

  1. Quoted in Jane Aiken Hodge, The Private World of Georgette Heyer (Arrow 1984.), p. 204.
Featured image: Edmund Leighton, Courtship. Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Authors Basing Characters on Real People: Some Examples from Classic Novels

I don’t know how much most authors base their characters on people they have known. I would guess that most combine various characteristics taken from numerous people in real life with some from those they have encountered in fiction to create something original.

A writer observes on this website

https://litreactor.com/columns/keeping-it-real-a-rough-guide-to-using-real-people-as-fictional-characters

‘Fictional characters, especially main characters, almost never behave exactly like real people would.  They’re smarter, more persuasive, more appealing, more sensitive, better looking, stronger, more hot-headed, braver and at least twice as sensual as anyone we’re ever going to share office space or an apartment with. Make your characters too real and the reader will soon lose interest. Give them some real characteristics and they’ll jump out of the page and into your audience’s mind with a single bound.’

As a matter of fact, I don’t agree with all of that. Most people do meet larger than life characters, people who are outstanding in all sorts of ways. It is merely that they are vastly outnumbered by the greater number of smaller than life characters one meets …

It is however true that they probably don’t combine all these fascinating characteristics together.

For instance, perhaps my own best looking character is Reynaud Ravensdale in ‘Ravensdale’ (though some might prefer the looks of Harley Venn in ‘The Villainous Viscount Or the Curse of the Venns’).  Readers might imagine that I must have invented his appearance, or based it on some idealised portrait.

In fact, a man I knew looked exactly like that,  wide-set, heavy-lidded eyes, Grecian profile, waving chestnut hair and all. He was a petty villain I knew, who was a nice enough guy, but – to put it mildly –  rather stupid.

Reynaud Ravensdale is certainly more of a man of action than a studious type, and decidedly impulsive and given to theatrical gestures, but only stupid about his love object Isabella Murray and her predecessor Georgiana Toothill. Above anything, I wrote him as an ‘Ideal Type’  of the hero of the traditional robber novels like ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ and ‘Dubrovsky.

According to various books and websites, a fair number of writers of classic novels did base their main character roughly on someone they knew in real life, or sometimes, someone whom they knew only slightly. Or it could be, on someone the author had only glimpsed once.

For instance, it seems the appearance of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of d’Ubervilles’ is based on a farm girl Hardy saw, belabouring some unfortunate mount and swearing.

Various pieces of advice on writing such as the website above strongly advise aspiring authors not to make their characters recognisable as real people. Still,  I remember reading that Kingsley Amis deliberately made the ridiculous Professor Welch in his first novel ‘Lucky Jim’ a wounding portrayal of his first father-in-law.   I don’t know if the unlucky man recognised himself.

What is interesting, is that it is a witty portrayal. Many portrayals dictated by malice seem to read as savage rather than amusing.  Also in the same novel, I believe that the Jim character was based on Amis’s friend Philip Larkin.

It seems that Samuel Richardson said he based his character Robert Lovelace from ‘Clarissa’ on the conversation and attitudes of a man he encountered. I only read this in passing in some piece of literary criticism, and find it rather an astounding notion, given the puritanical notions of that author.

Did Richardson encourage this appalling conversation about the seduction and betrayal of a series of innocents?   Was the man possibly self-deluded, boasting of conquests and betrayals that never happened and persuading Richardson to believe his boastful anecdotes?

But, as the characters that authors create are after all a part of our  own psyches, surely a large part of Lovelace was  the dark part of the puritanical Samuel Richardson’s own unconscious mind?  That he managed to keep such a scheming, exuberant, emotionally abusive and finally rapist aspect to his psyche under control is, if so, evidence of what an astonishing job an effective conscience does.

As it was, all Richardson did was write novels which expressly designed to  oppress generations of women with false notions of purity…

I had wondered on whom Oscar Wilde based his infinitely corrupt Dorian Grey in his famous novel. It seems from this website:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/ten-famed-literary-figures-based-on-real-life-people-3537929

that his appearance at least was based on one John Grey, a minor member of his circle . If so, according to the website below,  the fate of this person was vastly different from that of Wilde’s character. John Grey later took holy orders.

Three inch high watercolour of Irishman Thomas Langlois Lefroy painted by leading English miniaturist George Engleheart in 1798

Critics are still undecided on who is the original of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy. Some think his appearance at least was based on the  Irish William Lefroy, who admitted in old age to having as a youth been in  love with Jane Austen.

Some authors seem to have shown naivety in believing that characters they had based on people important in their lives could not be recognised by readers as long as they changed a feature here or there…

For instance, when reading the  ‘Forstye Saga’ by John Galsworthy, I noted his besotted, partisan attitude towards the female lead Irene, whose physical and mental attributes seem to be admired by everyone.

I was unsurprised to find out later that the character of Irene, and her marital misfortunes, are based on Galsworthy’s wife (who was previously unhappily married to his cousin).  Galsworthy seems to have thought that if he changed her hair colour from dark to golden, nobody would draw any conclusions about her origin…

That Dreaded Manuscript in Your Drawer: join Jane Austen and Pushkin in having a Manuscript in That Drawer of Doom

Alex2LargeItaliano(2)First of all, I’d like to wish everyone Season’s Greetings.

Then I’d like to thank Robert Wingfield of INCA for designing for me such a wonderful new cover for ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’.  Here it is, above. You can get it on:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FDWD7BY?ref_=pe_2427780_160035660

http:/’www.amazon.com/Alex-Sagers-Demon-Pushkins-Nemesis-ebook/

or

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alex-Sagers-Demon-Pushkins-Nemesis-ebook

I wanted to write a skit for a Christmas post, perhaps something on the lines of ‘Christmas at Castle Dracula’ or even ‘Heathcliff meets Arthur Huntingdon for Christmas cheer at Wuthering Heights’ or  some such,  but what with one thing and another I have run out of time.  Typical bad time management from me.

So instead, I will write about The Dreaded Manuscript in the Drawer.

I was thinking that for me, 2015 was the ‘Manuscript in the Drawer’ year. I put two of ’em in there. One 50,000 words, one 22,000 words. How’s that for wasted effort? And all done first thing in the morning before a cup of tea.

I’ve also got the opening chapters of a dystopia in there.

I’m halfway through writing the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and I have re-written the beginnings of ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and of ‘Ravensdale’ and ‘Alex Sager’s Demon’, it’s true, so it hasn’t all been Writers’ Block and Consigning to Drawer of Doom for me. Still, I did write about a third each of two versions of the same Gothic story, and both led to prolonged writer’s block and finally were sucked into that Drawer of Doom, which is too often like a black hole for manuscripts.

Once through that good old event horizon and they are usually fated not to escape; too much heavy matter in there.

There was a purely comic and a darker version, and I think one of my resolutions for 2016 must be to draw one of them out, and bring it to completion.

This must be so common a fate for so many initially promising manuscripts. I’m sure many other authors have that manuscript in the drawer that they intend to get round to drawing out from the dustbin of history (perhaps these days, more take the form of abandoned files on the pc which are never printed out and don’t even get to the Shoved Into A Drawer’ stage. No doubt many are eventually deleted, accidentally on purpose).

It would be interesting if we all were to pull them out of drawers or locate those forsaken files in 2016, and see if we can overcome the problems that led us to abandon them.

I can’t help pleading on behalf of these unfortunate manuscripts, you know; after all, the problems that caused their creator to consign them to limbo may not have been insurmountable. Perhaps it was a case of that famous ‘wrong timing’ (Gets carried away) . Perhaps a little give and take,an acceptance that there were  faults on both sides (and other cliches) might be the best approach to adopt to resolve the conflict, and the best way to a creative solution? (Pulls herself together) What’s the matter with me? I’m talking about words, not people, even if those characters did seem vivid!

I’m always morbidly fascinated by the whole dismal matter of the Drawer of Doom. All  famous classic authors seem to have them; Pushkin relegated that unfinished robber novella ‘Dubrovsky’ to his, so that it was only published after his death, complete with the unabridged and convoluted legal document that comes in the middle.

I think it is a shame he abandoned it, as unlike some harsh critics, I loved it when I read it.  He was attempting to produce a work of literary merit which also had popular appeal, and that’s as laudable an aim as can be for an author; after all, it’s trying to emulate Shakespeare in a way. He wrote plays with an eye to popular success, though he just happened to be a genius.

Emily Bronte and Anne Bronte don’t have any unfinished manuscripts, for the simple reason that they urged their sister Charlotte to destroy their unpublished manuscripts after their deaths.

Jane Austen had three unfinished short novels, ‘Lady Susan’ ‘Sanditon’ and ‘The Watsons’. I am sure I am fairly typical of Jane Austen admirers in that I think that none of them deserved to go into that drawer, or anyway, to stay in it. I was particularly interested in ‘The Watsons’ when I read it, and wondered how the plot and sub plots would have worked out.

I am intrigued about some more deceased prolific authors, who were, shall we say, less perfectionist in their attitude to their work. For instance, Charles Garvice, who wrote 150 romantic novels during his writing career, or Barbara Cartland, who easily beat him with a total of 700 (but she did live until she was nearly ninety compared to his seventy).

Did they have their Manuscripts in the Drawer?

Perhaps, though, the Christmas and New Year round over, 2016 will be the year when through a strange process of synchronicity,writers all about the world will draw out those neglected manuscripts from drawers and open those long neglected files on the pic.  I will certainly try and do something with mine; that’s my writing New Year’s resolution. That, and finishing the sequel to ‘Scoundrel’.

Oh yes, and another one about time management.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Austen: Not a Writer of Romances

220px-Sense_and_Sensibility_Illustration_Chap_12snsbrockwc9In my last post on Jane Austen, I commented that: –

‘It is an irony that Jane Austen is seen as a writer of romances, when her own outlook on marriage, and the undesirability of marriage without a comfortable income, was highly practical and very much typical of the era, and the part of society from which she came. Mr Darcy without at least a competence should have been politely and regretfully dismissed by Elizabeth Bennett.’

Really, I should have expanded on this; the comment on it from stephrozitis sums up my own view tersely: –

‘I think seeing Austen as a writer of “romance” genre is more than ironic- it’s inaccurate and does the writer a huge disservice. As you know she is one of the reputable writers trotted out by romance apologists. I don’t think her agenda is “boy meets girl” it’s more social critique and showing the places of (relatively privileged) women. Marriage is a huge part of that because those women have few options available to them but the interactions and character flaws are what makes the books readable and rereadable …’

I agree with this. Sadly, I have to concede that the writers on romance today who are eager to secure an intellectual and literary respectability for the romance genre by claiming that classic writers of the past were in fact, writers of ‘romance’  – Pamela Regis is one – are frankly mistaken in Jane Austen’s case (I would argue that they are wrong about Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’, Charlotte Bronte in ‘Jane Eyre’, and various others too; but that is irrelevant here).Robert_Lovelace_Preparing_to_Abduct_Clarissa_Harlowe

As the poster comments, in assuming that because Jane Austen wrote about women finding marriage partners in the late Georgian and Regency era she was committed to modern notions of ‘romance’ , many modern proponents of the Jane Austen as writer of romance argument are underestimating the circumstances in which this most astute of social commentators wrote.

In her era, women from the upper middle class were obliged not to work except, as a last resort, as a governess or a companion. For them to work outside the home was seen as a disgrace on the male members of their family, who should in all honour support them if they did not find a marriage partner. If these women were not sufficiently blasé about social disgrace to become a form of prostitute, therefore, their only other option generally was marriage as the only respectable way to achieve some status in a household of their own.sensens2

Jane Austen’s stories, therefore, are not in my opinion romantic novels, but ones which give a social critique through telling a story of a young woman adapting to her environment and the compromises which she must make to function smoothly in it, of which a marriage which will be happy is part of the comedic outcome.

The story of Marianne, for instance, is in fact as strong a criticism of taking ‘romantic’ notions into marriage as I can imagine. This is, of course, a criticism of ‘the romantic’ in the terms in which it was understood in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which included the free and frank expression of the dramatic and the emotional in art and literature.snsbrockwc14

‘Romantic love’ was a component of this approach, but only a part of it; the modern concept of ‘romance’ is then, unfortunately, a sentimentalised version of a whole approach to life.

Marianne’s infatuation with Willoughy is only partly sentimentalized sexuality in the manner of current definitions of ‘the romantic’. It is also a striving to find another free and fiercely honest spirit in a world where she considers that almost everybody, including her beloved sister, is addicted to compromise in order for polite society to operate smoothly.

I have mentioned before that I do not particularly enjoy Jane Austen’s solution to Marianne’s disillusion with romanticism and her acceptance of the need for compromise in personal and social relations; her taking the sedate Colonel Brandon for a life partner was to me a disappointing ending to the story.

As I have said elsewhere, I would rather that Marianne had married a repentant (and partially reformed) Willoughby, and became, as she must, slowly disillusioned with him, though no doubt remaining attached to him. That sort of conditional happy-ever-after suits me perfectly for a dose of realism.

Jane Austen, however, clearly considered that such a match would have led to more unhappiness for Marianne than she would have experienced in a rather passionless match with the excellent Colonel. How anyone can regard that outcome as in any way romantic puzzles me. I found it frankly disturbing, because – surely unintentionally – Marianne Dashwood comes across as Jane Austen’s most potentially sexual secondary heroine.

In that, then, Jane Austen designs her plot in a way quite contrary to those of the typical romantic novel.https://i0.wp.com/www.mollands.net/etexts/images/snsillus/snsbrockwc9.jpg

Any regulars I might have might remember that this question also arises in ‘Mansfield Park’ where Jane Austen demonstrates Fanny Price obdurate against a charming and unprincipled Henry Crawford who finally disgraces himself, as does his sister, Mary, with whom Fanny’s true love and cousin is infatuated; Fanny then goes on to marry the steady rather than the beguiling man. And like Cassandra Austen, I was dissatisfied at the tameness of the particular happy ending that the writer chose.

Obviously, then, if these two examples are anything to go by, I am affected myself by current romantic notions in a way that Jane Austen clearly was not. However,  I would go for the ‘qualified happy ending’ rather than the supremely happy one of conventional romance.

Even in ‘Pride and Predjudice’, generally seen as the most romantic of Jane Austen’s novels, with Mr Darcy extolled as the most desirable of tall, dark, dashing heroes, it might be noted that the narrator remarks that the development of Elizabeth Bennett’s feelings for him are not the ones associated with romantic infatuation: –

‘If gratitude and esteem are good foundations for affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But otherwise, – if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable and unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged – nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill success might, authorize her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment’.

One of the many things that differentiates Jane Austen’s writing from the rigid requirements of romantic fiction is her interest in social relations; a good deal of the space in her works is taken up, not by dwelling on the developing passions of the main couple, but by engaging in satirical wit at the expense of snobs and fools. By contrast, sadly, when I last read the guidelines of Mills and Boon, it was emphasized that while a sub plot is permitted some space, the main emphasis must always be on the primary relationship between heroine and hero.

It is ironic that with so many opportunities open to women which were not remotely possible in Jane Austen’s day, the most popular form of fiction amongst women today is one that concentrates mainly on finding life partners.

The question is why; men also  – at least past a certain age – want life partners, but only a tiny minority of them are interested in reading novels about it.  What makes for this difference in favoured reading?

 

‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen: Some Thoughts on the Main Characters

On the characters in ‘Sense  https://i2.wp.com/www.mollands.net/etexts/images/snsillus/snsbrockwc8.jpg and Sensibility’, I have already commented on my liking for both the primary heroine, Elinor and the secondary one, Marianne.

In some ways I prefer Elinor to ‘Pride and Prejudice’s’ Elizabeth Bennett, as she seems less taken over by Edward than Elizabeth is by Mr Darcy. For instance, towards the end of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Elizabeth has to remind herself that Mr Darcy ‘has yet to learn to laugh at himself’ and while I have no doubt that Elizabeth does to some extent teach him, it sounds, given his stately airs, something of an uphill task; I always feared that she would lose some of her liveliness in being too dutiful.

Edward Ferrars is a far less overwhelming personality than the imperious Mr Darcy, and is anything but proud; when he escapes the determined clutch of the terrible Lucy Steele, he castigates himself heartily to Elinor for his foolishness in ever becoming engaged to her: – ‘I had nothing in the world to do, but to fancy myself in love; and as my mother did not make my home in every respect comfortable…it was not unnatural for me to be very often at Longstaple, where I always felt myself at home, and was sure of a welcome…Lucy seemed to me then everything that was amiable and obliging. She was pretty, too –at least, I thought so then…’

Edward is a likable enough hero, but sadly, as he had to compete with the witty and showy Willoughby for the reader’s attention, doesn’t shine in comparison. However, I like his blunt remarks, which the more urbane Colonel Brandon would avoid, as when he is responding to Marianne’s enthusiasm over the view of Barton Valley: –

‘Amongst the rest of the objects I see before me, I see a very dirty lane.’

It has sometimes been observed by literary critics that it is difficult to write a character who is good and interesting, but I think Edward Ferrars is an excellent example of how this can be done; his faults of diffidence and shyness, his weakness in continuing to see Elinor, though he knows that he is falling for her and has to honour his engagement to Lucy Steele, make him very human; he is undoubtedly a good character of whom I always wished we had seen more in the story.

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Elinor’s quite sense and detached humourous observation (in effect, Jane Austen’s own) are highly admirable, but even given that she is meant to be unusual, she is too mature outlook for nineteen.

Marianne’s opposite qualities, her passionate commitment to emotional honesty and her determined espousal of the romantic in paining, literature and real life are equally appealing, but disgusted by equivocation as she is, she can be unfeeling and even rude ( by the standards of the genteel of the time; compared to our own, she has advanced social skills). The task of placating and listening to people Marianne considers beneath her notice in one way or another usually falls to Elinor. For instance, when Edwaard’s disagreeable mother and sister are making inividious comparisons between Elinor’s art work and that of an heiress they hope he will court, she exclaims: –

‘This is admiration of a very particular kind!! What is Miss Morton to us? Who knows and who cares for her? It is Elinor of whom we think and speak’.

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Marianne at the end of the novel has become too saddened, too sedate as a consequence of her heartbreak by Willoughby for the reader not to feel a sense of loss. As one famous critic has mentioned, even her speech patterns change to the harmonious. It is true that the account of her accepting Colonel Brandon is given indirectly, which, as I have never been able to take to the worthy Colonel, I found a relief.

Everything is cleared up fairly quickly: – ‘Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate; she was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!…whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married, — and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat!’

At thirty-five plus, Colonel Brandon would be too old for Marianne even if he was a far livelier character and that flannel waistcoat always just about finishes him as an appealing partner for such a girl for me.

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As I have said in a previous post, I consider the ending to the story highly disappointing, as I did with ‘Mansfield Park’. Whether Jane Austen’s sister and confidante Cassandra (who expressed the view of myself and countless others before me, two centuries earlier over the desirability of Fanny Price marrying Henry Crawford, not Edmund Bertram) wished Marianne and a chastened Willoughby in the end to be brought together, I don’t know; but Jane Austen was nothing if not severe about rascals and took the view that they could cause only misery as husbands, not possibly, qualified happiness.

Jane Austen condemns Willoughby to resignation in an unhappy marriage with a bad tempered wife he doesn’t even like; he’s already confessed that he finds the idea of Marianne marrying Brandon torment: ‘His punishment was soon afterwards complete in the voluntary forgiveness of Mrs Smith, who, by stating his marriage with a woman of character, as the source of her clemency, gave him reason for believing, that had he behaved with honour towards Marianne, he might at once have been happy and rich.’

Jane Austen, with her incomparable irony, suggests as a sop that: ‘his wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable’. In other words, this was the case more often than not.

It is an irony that Jane Austen is seen as a writer of romances, when her own outlook on marriage, and the undesirability of marriage without a comfortable income, was highly practical and very much typical of the era, and the part of society, from which she came. Mr Darcy without at least a competence should have been politely and regretfully dismissed by Elizabeth Bennett.

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