Hazel McHaffie

The Crying Tree

Daniel Robbins has been on death row for nineteen years (half of his life) when the execution warrant arrives.

29 October 2004. One minute after midnight.

29 October is my birthday, so the date instantly hooked me in. When we’re young we count down the days – or sleeps! – to such dates; imagine counting down to your own death, or that of someone you love.

Robbins had a troubled upbringing, in and out of care, and there’s now no one in the outside world who’s in contact with him. But he remembers one thing his real mother taught him: Truth is not necessarily what people want to hear, and now he’s in prison because he failed to tell the truth – the truth about how, in 1985, he came to shoot dead 15-year-old Shep Stanley. Shep’s father is Deputy Sheriff Nathaniel Stanley (Nate), and it was he who found the fatally wounded boy. He cradled Shep while he bled to death, and his testimony helped put the 19-year-old shooter in the state penitentiary, and on death row.

Shep’s mother, Irene, is beside herself, depressed and suffocated by pain. Shep was the apple of her eye, her world. Even her daughter, Bliss, feels left out. Believing she couldn’t cope with hearing the truth about what really happened on the night of her son’s murder, Nate keeps the secret for nineteen years. Until, that is, he discovers his wife has been secretly writing to the condemned man for years … that she’s forgiven him. Incensed beyond control he blurts out the truth. The revelation catapults Irene into a frenzy of activity which takes her all the way to the window opposite her son’s killer.

The book, The Crying Tree ( a perfect title) is cleverly structured. The first section flips between the years leading up to the murder and its aftermath (1983-1990) – and the days immediately after the death warrant comes through (the first two days of October 2004). The second part picks up at 1995 and takes us up to 7 October 2004. The third and fourth sections inch us ominously through the remaining days of October 2004 as the condemned man counts down the rest of his mortal life.

I didn’t see the twist at the end of section 3 coming – always a thrill! – and Irene’s reaction to the truth Nate reveals is powerfully captured in some brilliant passages describing her whole life disintegrating (P247-8), beginning with ‘Irene drove south on Highway 3, speeding past river towns like Neunert and Grand Tower. Headlights made her squint, trains made her stop, and the words her husband had said made her shake with fury … she had no idea what to do with Nate’s confession.’

Alongside the story of the Stanleys’ life and tragedies, we walk beside the man responsible for masterminding the actual execution, Superintendent Tab Mason. He’s a damaged soul himself after years of terrible abuse. He feels the weight of his responsibility acutely – it’s not a job, it’s an ‘ordeal’ – and he has real issues with the notion of forgiveness. Execution is a rare occurrence in Oregon; the last one was seven years earlier, and this is Mason’s first case being ‘in the driving seat’. ‘We’re talking about a man’s life, and I won’t be tolerating any talk that may lead someone to believe we are in any way eager to take on this job.’  He’s determined that every man jack involved in any way, is prepared for this. ‘There are thresholds on the road to killing someone … everyone, from officer to cleanup crew, had to figure out whether or not he had it in him to cross over that line.’

But his careful planning and preparation is thrown into chaos when the murdered man’s mother writes to him … when she arrives seeking mercy … when her daughter supports her – a woman who is herself a criminal prosecutor who’s ‘probably put more men to death than he had sitting in his entire unit‘! It’s a ‘compellingly outrageous‘ situation to be in.

The author of this superb book, Naseem Rakha, an acclaimed journalist, doesn’t shirk the big questions either. The rightness of capital punishment. The Biblical understanding of Do Not Kill. Religion and homosexuality. The meaning and consequences of forgiveness. How grief affects people. Punishment and imprisonment. Nature versus nurture. Weighty questions all.

And her command of language is fabulous. I Iove the idea of
– a face ‘buttered with sympathy’ or ‘buffed of expression and the eyes drained of color’, of – a man running to ‘get as far away from himself as possible’.
 – the women in a backwater, ‘their long flannel shirts covering up what gravity had claimed’.
– the people in the tavern ‘strung out on a line waiting for life to turn better’.

Her masterly handling of suspense and conflict, particularly in the chambers where the deed will be/is done, chills the spine. I experienced a CT procedure recently which necessitated everyone else leaving the room leaving me alone in the tunnel with an IV infusion to automatically shoot dye into my veins and thence into my heart, while a robotic disembodied voice warned me it was coming, and my body reacted strangely to the substance. It felt weirdly isolating. And I could see parallels. Only, in my case, I lived to recall the experience!

The Crying Tree is no run-of-the-mill miscarriage of justice story, no who-really-done-it. This is a tale that gets deep inside the heart of a family torn apart by the murder of a beloved and talented son, an act that forever changes the meaning and cohesion of their lives and relationships. Some of the attitudes and language make us cringe today in the UK, but this was the US in the 2000s, and it’s a salutary reminder of how prejudice, ignorance and intolerance can ruin lives. Shep’s mother ends up realising she failed her son, but ‘We all make mistakes … Every one of us. And we all pay. One way or another, we all pay.’

A masterpiece from a hugely talented writer.

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On the shoulders of giants

Some time ago I listened to one of these programmes where people tell their stories of good triumphing over tragedy. In this case it was a woman called Zoe, who told of her experience losing 5 early pregnancies. The consultant, she alleged, had told her not to even start looking for support; there was nothing out there. In response she set up her own helpline: originally called Saying Goodbye, now the Mariposa Trust.

Actually, it’s not true there’s nothing out there. I worked in the field of parental loss for decades, and there are a number of organisations that reach out to grieving families in their need. As a researcher, I myself studied what bereaved parents want and need, and my findings were widely disseminated.

Which all brings me to today’s subject. It’s important not to forget that what we do builds on the shoulders of others; often of giants. And it’s the same in literature. We’ve all benefitted from reading other people’s work – volumes they’ve laboured over, struggled with, paid a heavy price for. Sometimes we aren’t even consciously aware that these writings are impinging on us, altering our way of thinking, touching us at some deep level.

I’ve had a weird sensation of deja vu this week. I’ve been reading One Life by Rebecca Frayn. It tells the story of Rose and Johnny, a young couple who unexpectedly discover a deep desire for parenthood. But unfortunately Johnny is sub-fertile, and Rose is unable to get pregnant even with medical help (IVF, ICSI).

I explored the scenario of infertility in two of my own early novels: Paternity and Double Trouble, so of course I was fascinated to see how Frayn tackled it. I’m not suggesting for one moment that this author has copied my work – her approach is quite different, and I don’t suppose she even knows of my existence! But we are neither of us entering virgin territory, we are both building on what has gone before, maybe our own experiences, certainly those of others who’ve delved into these sensitive areas before us, in factual accounts as well as in the world of make-believe.

And this is where fiction especially comes into its own, because it has a dual effect, touching the heart as well as the intellect. It allows and encourages us to get inside the skin of people like Rose and Johnny, to empathise with their emotions, and hopefully emerge more understanding, more open-minded, more supportive, more compassionate. My raison d’etre. I’m delighted to find another debut novelist entering into my world.

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I Saw a Man

Well, it just goes to show – reading is such a subjective experience.

I turned to I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers because it’s billed as ‘the most stylish thriller’ … ‘taut’ … ‘suspense almost physically frustrating’ … ‘exemplary thriller, clever, classy, slick’ … ‘extraordinarily tense and powerful’ …all the kinds of accolades we’d all like to receive about our writing, huh? And just the masterclass to help me make my own current writing more taut and unputdownable.

Or not.

What a let down. OK, the essential thread of suspense is there – a bereaved man, a writer, Michael Turner, walking into his neighbours’ house because he sees the back door open and worries that intruders have entered it. Once inside, he’s distracted by a sense of his late wife’s presence which lures him upstairs into hitherto unknown territory. Up there, he unwittingly causes and witnesses a terrible accident, but can’t do anything about it without revealing his own trespass. The knowledge haunts him. Meanwhile his neighbour is also harbouring a massive burden of guilt, lying about his activities. Who will do or say what? Whose secrets will come to light first? What will the repercussions be? And hovering in the background, is the man who pressed the button that resulted in the collateral death of Michael’s wife.

So far, so I-want-to-know-what-happened. But for me, it felt hollow. Far too much description and backstory slowing the pace. The characters spineless and selfish. The ‘crimes’ unworthy of so much weight. Some of the main threads going nowhere. I’m sure these criticisms are in large part a measure of how much I’m currently agonising over the balance in my own domestic thriller, but authors are always critical readers, and I make no apology.

Although I’d personally take issue with some of the simplistic sentence construction, there are, however, a number of beautifully lyrical passages, commensurate with Sheer’s reputation as a poet.

‘London was blistered under a heatwave. All along South Hill Drive windows hung open, the cars parked on either side hot to the touch, their seams ticking in the sun.’

‘Their flasks of coffee, two hours cold, stood on a shelf …’

 And he weaves in some occasional surprisingly insightful wisdom. Not surprising maybe in a book about how men cope with grief.

On the effect of sudden brutal loss:
‘Caroline was dead and he’d been left holding the shell of the truth, bereft not only of her, but also the man she’d been making him.’

On the symbiosis of reading and writing:
‘Is a story half-cooked,’ he asked her, ‘if it’s only been written but not read?’
‘Absolutely!’
He laughed, thinking she was joking, but then saw that she wasn’t.
‘Without the reader it’s just thoughts on a page,’ she said. ‘Imagination in ink. A printed tautology.’
‘Tautology? How?’
‘Well, a repetition, then. Of what was in the writer’s mind when they wrote it. But when it’s read …’
‘Yes?’
‘Well, then the words gather a new imagery, don’t they? The meaning gathers new association. It’s like a chemical reaction. It all depends on how they react with the reader, their life, their mind.’

And that’s where I part company from the gushing critics. My chemical reaction with this book fizzled rapidly like a damp squib. Sorry, Mr Sheers. Your credentials may put you way beyond my reach, but your idea of tension and suspense is vastly different from mine.

One of the things agents often say to writers is, “I didn’t love your story enough to fight for it.’ Would an agent have loved I Saw a Man enough if an unknown author had submitted it? Hmmm, I doubt it very much. But I’m not reading it as an agent, and it’s given me a different and helpful perspective and yardstick for my own book, so that’s a bonus. No reading is wasted on a writer.

Back to my own novel. And I am relishing the terrific help of my experts. A lead paediatrician in Child Protection, and two accountants, and one of my long-suffering literary critics, have all given me invaluable guidance and feedback. I’m galloping along surrounded by all this evidence of their support and friendship and life experience.

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Frozen in time

I’ve been to a very dark place – psychologically as well as physically – for the sake of my art this week. Mostly readers never know the agony and ecstasy behind a book, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse into what’s going on behind the scenes with Killing me Gently.

Come with me and let your imagination take over.

Imagine a distraught young woman careering along an unlit muddy path beside a fast-flowing river at 3am on a freezing February morning.

It’s inky black everywhere. Unseen branches reach out and tangle with her hair; ivy and exposed roots lie in wait at her feet. She slips and slides in the mud. Each heaving breath tears at her throat and lungs.

After a while the roar of the water cascading over rocks lures her closer, blocking out the echo of the relentless screaming that drove her to run away. She climbs onto the low stone wall and leans over, oblivion beckoning seductively. Will she …. won’t she …?

Now imagine an elderly woman scrambling through that same path, twilight enfolding her, sensation ebbing from her toes and fingers.

Her mind too is seething, watching the power of that relentless water … imagining the force … feeling the despair in that young woman’s heart. Picturing the growing horror of being disorientated, alone, lost … knowing not a single soul knows where she is.

That’s where you’d have found me on Tuesday evening this week. Consolidating the opening chapter of my current novel. Immersing myself in the horror. Feeling it killing me gently!

This is easily the scene’s tenth version, but I think …. I hope … I believe … it’s now almost there. Immediate. Setting a scene. Capturing key elements. Hinting sufficiently to draw the reader in. Making them ask … How desperate is this young woman? What is she running from? What has driven her beyond endurance? Will she slide into that abyss? Who has she left behind?

I’m not alone in revising and revisiting and re-editing my introduction endlessly. We all know the importance of the beginning of a story; no one more than an author who has to pitch to an agent/publisher! But once again the trick lies in deciding when it’s good enough. Going to the river, experiencing its reality, feeling spooked, has helped me towards that decision.

And for me, there’s a purpose as well as a limit to the psychological damage!

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Two Little Girls

Psyching myself back into my current novel after all the excitement and busyness of the festive season, required a game plan. First, read a new-release novel from my shelves about a woman struggling to love her baby: Two Little Girls by Kate Medina. Even the cover sent a chill down my spine: a pair of tiny red sandals full of sand, lapped by the edge of the waves; the text ‘Two little girls walked to their deaths and nobody noticed …’ interspersed with the bald title. Says it all. And indeed the story includes these macabre murders, so it felt oddly serendipitous that, on the very day I read it, the BBC showed a documentary about the murders of the so-called ‘babes in the wood’, 32 years ago. Listening to the parents decades later brought home the indescribable horror these families live with daily.

And because of this reality, I felt uncomfortable seeing the novel dedicated to the author’s own two young daughters. Hmmmm.

Kate Medina has had a lifelong interest in psychology but she uses it effectively. Her characters ring true; policemen hypothesise, psychologists analyse and theorise, ordinary people don’t turn their brains inside out! The setting too, feels authentic – I know people who have a holiday home in Wittering!

We’re aware from the first few chapters that …
Laura aka Carolynn Reynolds, is the mother of a little girl found dead in the sand dunes at West Wittering beach two years ago
… she suffers from major psychiatric problems
… she’s in hiding
… her life is a tissue of lies
… her husband Roger is in on some at least of the lies
… she was tried for the murder of Zoe, the daughter she found so difficult to love
… she was acquitted because of lack of evidence
… Detective Inspector  Bobby ‘Marilyn’ Simmonds  who worked on the case at the time,  still believes she was guilty
… Dr Jessie Flynn, the psychologist Carolynn has been seeing, struggles herself with layer upon layer of psychological damage
… and Carolynn was running alone on the beach when a second little girl was murdered.

Phew! Is she guilty? Is she not? Is anyone else in danger?

Which brings me nicely to how far would my own protagonist go when her baby drives her beyond reason? And I come back to the writing with a renewed sense of what constitutes a thriller. A preparatory day well spent.

 

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Xanadu

Phew! That’s it over for another year.

Thinking up a viable storyline, writing it (11,000 words plus), that’s the easy bit of the annual McHaffie Christmas story/play. Putting it into dramatic effect is a far harder task, and this year involved more hours pouring over the detail than ever before. Several weeks went into hand-drawing scenery representing Victorian streets to cover the walls of the hallway, stairs and landing alone!

With no single theatre stage to work with, no stagehands, furniture had to be moved around in six rooms to create Victorian shops, a banqueting hall and a rambling attic in a mansion house.

But the dim light of rows of lanterns and a liberal helping of ivy, saved the day, successfully muting imperfections sufficiently to achieve the desired atmosphere. (Photos have been lightened for this blog.)

The storyline itself involved three youngsters from vastly different backgrounds learning from each other and the experiences they encountered, how to value and respect difference.

Weird gadgets, special boxes, changes of costume, cryptic messages, all added challenge and laughter to the mix.

The three friends discovered a remarkable doll in the attic of the local mansion house, a doll that took them to a magical place called Xanadu,

and underwent a dramatic transformation when danger threatened.

There, with the help of four colourful characters loosely based on Mr Pickwick,

Rumpelstiltskin,

Little Dorrit,

and Rafiki from The Lion King,

they learned about transforming their own and others’ well-being by their attitudes and approach to life.

The four very different candle-lit shops offered paper/wood; gems and gold;

buttons and ribbons; and chocolates.

The names of the characters and their shops had to be worked out.

Only then were the premises thrown open to the time-travellers, allowing them to create ornaments of varying kinds,

with which they decorated all the trees in the town, bringing sparkle and joy to its dark streets.

I rather think it might take a few weeks for dodgy backs and creaking joints to recover from the contortions they’ve undergone, but it’s well worth all the effort to see – and hear! – the family’s enjoyment.

And this year I had the added delight of my eldest granddaughter helping with the behind-the-scenes production of the event to mark her milestone birthday as an adult.

It only remains for me to wish you all peace, joy and health for 2019. Thanks for visiting my blog!

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‘Perfection’? or ‘Good enough’?

A couple of weeks ago I happened to catch a bus into the town centre already crowded with students from a science faculty outside the city boundary. There was a healthy buzz of conversation everywhere but the voice of the girl behind me dominated because she was speaking loudly into her mobile (as people tend to do).

She appeared to be agonising over some end-of-term exams they were taking and suddenly said: ‘Why am I putting myself through all this stress? I could have been an artist! … No, I’m too much of a perfectionist to be an artist.’

Hello? You think creative people don’t suffer stress? Aren’t perfectionists? Why, only this week I was reading about an author, Madeline Miller, who took ten years to write her first novel, five of them spent writing and rewriting the first few chapters over 50 times! She describes herself as an ‘incorrigible perfectionist’.

It was Voltaire who allegedly first penned the famous aphorism: perfect is the enemy of the good, although other well known writers and philosophers have come to a similar conclusion.

We all have to achieve a balance between our ideals and our realities, don’t we? I first really absorbed the concept of ‘good enough’ when I was a researcher looking into parenting issues. I remember in 1988 quoting in my PhD thesis, the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who coined the phrase ‘good enough’ mothers way back in 1953.

And all through my academic life I had a post-it on my screen: Perfection is always one more draft away. Theses, journal articles, books, conference presentations – there came a point with everything, when I had to say, ‘Stop! It will do’. No merit in constantly striving for perfection and never letting anything try its luck in the real world.

It hadn’t occurred to me until that student’s conversation impinged on my brain in the bus, that here I am, right now, in my fictional world, worrying away once again at what constitutes good enough parenting.

My protagonist is a new mother, a perfectionist, a brilliant academic, stressed by the demands of a fretful baby who simply hasn’t read the manual! And when bad things start happening to the infant, the professionals responsible for safeguarding have to decide where the line can and should be drawn between the ideal and the realistic. Get it wrong and a baby’s life might be in jeopardy as well as a mother’s mental health. We’ve all seen the vilification of social workers and community health professionals when a child is horrendously abused and dies in real life; the press have a field day.

I’m also somewhat preoccupied with the point at which the current novel itself is good enough to publish; it’s far from that point at the moment. Indeed I’ve scribbled several possible new opening sentences just over Christmas – the brain doesn’t recognise official holidays! And I know it won’t ever be perfect; they never are. It just has to be good enough to satisfy the reader that it’s a tale well told and worth writing. And believe me, young-angst-ridden-student-scientist, artists most certainly are perfectionists too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Man who Invented Christmas

175 years ago yesterday Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Since then it’s been reinvented time after time until it’s become one of the most familiar and well-loved tales ever. In Dickens own day, the book changed the way people viewed the world, generating as it did, at once a feeling of love and of shame. Overnight charitable giving soared. And in the twenty-first century it remains a salutary reminder of the joy to be found in friendship, kindness and generosity.

The film, The Man who Invented Christmas, is based on the true story of how Dickens (played by Dan Stevens) wrote his masterpiece – you can click on the picture above to watch the official trailer. It beautifully captures the torture of writing, the agonising, the obsession, the exhilaration. Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchitt, Tiny Tim … they all come alive as they take shape in Charles’s imagination and indeed become more important to him than his own flesh and blood, as his long suffering wife laments. It felt totally believable; I too know that affinity with the people of my imagination, the difficulty of living in the real world when you’re totally immersed in the fictional one.

But what comes across powerfully in this dramatic representation is the sobering reality of Dickens’ actual life, which I knew already from books like Charles Dickens: The Gas-light Boy, reviewed in this blog post last year. He’s famous at a young age, yes, but constantly struggling to cope with the debts forced on him by his reckless and feckless father, a large and growing brood of children, and fickle publishers. Under enormous pressure to churn out book after book merely to stay afloat … thousands upon thousands of words written in dim light with a scratchy pen dipped in ink! Astonishing and humbling to view his genius against this context.

Here he is, weeks from Christmas, and struggling to find a viable idea for his work. The magical story-telling powers of a little orphan Irish girl trigger a thought … the name Scrooge brings Ebenezer into sharp relief … the vision of a happy ghost gives him one of the three spirits … the tears and entreaty of the Irish girl at the death of Tiny Tim spur him towards the perfect ending. The novella is completed with minutes to spare. And becomes his most famous and best-loved work.

I recommend this film to you: perfect viewing for the season. And I echo Tiny Tim’s Christmas wish to you all: ‘God bless us, everyone!

 

 

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A Spark of Light: Jodi Picoult

Among the stacks of files for possible novels-I-might-write-some-day is one labelled ABORTION – a hot potato and one with evolving ethical and legal and philosophical issues.

I’ve personally lived through major change as a clinician in this area of practice. When I was in my early twenties, deliberately terminating pregnancy was illegal, and we midwives saw at first hand the damage done by so-called backstreet procedures carried out by unskilled hands. Then in 1967 the law changed to allow abortions to be carried out by trained professionals in certain circumstances. And gradually, over the years, those strict criteria have been relaxed. Nowadays, social circumstances and personal preference can be used as reasons to proceed; the mother’s mental well-being is invoked. But somehow a novel on the subject has slipped farther and farther down my priority list.

It remains a much more controversial issue in the States. Girls/women procuring an abortion have been incarcerated in prison for murder/homicide; professionals have been killed by ardent pro-lifers; centers offering the procedure have been attacked. (Jodi Picoult lists some of the sobering statistics in an appendix to her book on the subject.)

So perhaps it’s better that an American author has picked up the gauntlet and run with it. And I’d have said, Jodi Picoult was a natural choice to do so. She’s one of the four authors closest to my own genre of writing, and I’ve read (and own) pretty much all her books.

In A Spark of Light – just published – she’s tackled many of the issues I planned to include. The scene is The Center – formerly The Centre for Women’s Reproductive Health – the last standing abortion clinic – in Mississipi. The building is a hideous orange scar on the cityscape, everything inside it is run down, shabby, used. It’s protected by a perimeter fence, a border patrolled by zealous vigilantes /activists demonstrating outside it and against it.

Into this centre of controversy strides a very angry man with a gun and a personal agenda. He cold-bloodedly shoots some of the women and a male doctor before taking others hostage. His murderous rampage is fuelled by rage, because it’s in this place that the life of his own potential grandchild was taken; all he can think of is exacting revenge on those who were responsible.

Police negotiator Hugh McElroy is drafted in, initially unaware that his own teenage daughter and his sister are inside The Center. The two men establish contact. When he discovers that Bex (his sister) has been shot and seriously wounded, and that his girl Wren is being held hostage, it all becomes horribly personal.

The story unravels backwards in hourly increments. Hmmmm.

Picoult explores profound questions. Just where does the right to life end and the right to choose take over? When does killing for a cause (war, unwanted pregnancy) become murder? How can black and white legislation deal with the multiplicity of greyness that is people’s lives and experiences and beliefs? So far, so appropriate.

But sad to say this book did little for me. Sorry, Jodi.
Stylistically it simply doesn’t work. It starts with the shooting and unravels back to the reason each person is in that building at that time. Had I cared about any of the characters I’d have been interested in their backstory; but they were either too unbelievable or two-dimensional. As it was, with each chapter giving snippets about each one, I struggled to hold their identities in my head.
I was more concerned with how far the shooter would go, but then, blow me, after all that effort to follow the threads, the ending falls very flat. Promising story lines are left in limbo.
The agenda glares through the narrative, both visible and contrived.
The cod psychology is both intrusive and pervasive.
Everyone philosophizes and juggles competing ideals and thoughts and wise reflections, makes profound statements, encapsulates deep existential ideas in succinct phrases – completely unbelievable … especially in a crisis like this!
So disappointing.

So why do I offer such a negative review? Because the experience reminds me of the burden on authors – myself included. My own next book has the potential to disappoint my readership. I’ve strayed outside my comfort zone with this story and just this week one of my critics has pointed out many flaws – even questioned the appropriateness of the genre!  It’s on hold at the moment, but in the new year I’m going to have to forensically dissect it and try to up my game.

Oh, and I dare to criticise Picoult on two counts. I’ve given her plenty of positive publicity in the past. And she’s rich and famous and confident enough not to be derailed by my humble opinion!!

 

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The Doctor’s Wife

As promised last week, a dip inside the second treasure discovered in Scotland’s National Book Town last month.

Isabel Gilbert is the naive and unworldly heroine of The Doctor’s Wife – a ‘frivolous sentimental creature, eminently adapted to make any man miserable.‘ She’s trapped in a marriage to a decent but plodding and hard-working country surgeon, with a generous heart but little ambition beyond being useful: George Gilbert, who sets ‘himself conscientiously to work to smooth her into the most ordinary semblance of everyday womanhood, by means of that moral flat-iron called common-sense.’

Content to trudge along in the furrows ploughed by his father and grandfather, unsentimental George is frankly incapable of understanding his wife’s addiction to fantasy; and she is indeed obsessive when it comes to fiction. She wills herself into the ‘phantasmal worlds‘ created by poets and romantic writers; she even longs to develop interesting diseases … starve on the wild cold moorland … be beaten and cast out … know tragedy … to have some kind of grievance … anything to add spice to her life!
‘She wanted her life to be like her books; she wanted to be a heroine,- unhappy perhaps, and dying early. She had an especial desire to die early, by consumption, with a hectic flush and an unnatural lustre in her eyes.’
But in reality
‘Poor Izzie’s life was altogether vulgar and commonplace, and she could not extract one ray of romance out of it, twist it as she would.’

Consumed as she is by a desire for beauty and powerful emotion, luxury, aesthetically pleasing objects, it’s small wonder that she’s attracted to fellow-book-lover and poet, Roland Landsell, the epitome of mystery and smouldering passion, clad in splendidly careless perfection; ‘a grand and beautiful creature, who possessed in his own person all the attributes of her favourite heroes.’ He is the incarnation of all her fantasies, the quintessential romantic hero of all her over-heated dreams, possessed of a fortune, lands and property, aristocratic pedigree, and literary aspirations, all wrapped up in a gloriously enigmatic visage. ‘It was such a love as this which Isabel imagined she had won for herself … the dearest desire of womankind,- a beautiful, useless, romantic devotion,- a wasted life of fond regretful worship.’

So far so very Jane Austen … But in reality, Roland is ‘a kind of failure and a disappointment … a beautiful, useless, purposeless creature; a mark for manoeuvering mothers; a hero for sentimental young ladies,- altogether a mockery, a delusion, and a snare … He had so much money and so much leisure, and so little knew what to do with himself.’

The real enigma is that this rich selfish man of the world should fall earnestly in love with a superficial, unlearned, vapid girl who is so far beyond his honour and class and social milieu, but he loves her ‘fatally, unaccountably, mysteriously, but eternally’, and try as he might, he’s utterly unable to rid himself of the enduring emotion – it’s ‘true metal’, ‘virgin gold’. Having fought against it in vain, he throws caution to the winds and offers her his whole heart and life.

But in fact, Isabel’s own infatuation goes no further than a kind of idealised spiritual unfaithfulness … she is ‘strictly punctilious with herself even in the matter of her thoughts … She only thought of what might have happened if Mr Lansdell had met her long ago before her marriage.‘ There is no sense of danger or disloyalty to her husband in her mind as she meets him clandestinely; she continues to give her duty and obedience to George Gilbert, whilst bestowing the poetry of her soul on Roland Lansdell – after all, why not? – that half of her nature is despised and rejected by her husband. So she is utterly bewildered by Roland’s sense of degradation and shame and humiliation and suffering. Perfect happiness has come to her; she is loved by the bright object of her own idolatry.

Idealised her love may be, but, sadly, her rose-tinted view of the master of Mordred and what he might offer, serves only to highlight ‘the utter hideousness and horror of her life.’  Her only escape is to imagine scenarios where ‘if only …’ had brought her within his orbit under other circumstances and they could have spent their days in idyllic splendour and artistic bliss, or she could even yet succumb to an early romantic death.

As long as Roland remains a remote might-have-been to her, she lives her dream, but when he demonstrates the seriousness of his real-life intentions by expecting her to abscond with him, Isobel is appalled. In desiring something outside the poetical parameters of her ideal, something carnal and earth-bound, he plummets from demigod to cruel villain, debasing something pure and sacred to vulgarity and depravity. She wouldn’t have hesitated to commit suicide and occupy a marble mausoleum with him for all eternity, but to betray her marriage vows, to spend her life in shame and disgrace? –  that would outrage the high ideals of her adoration. His feet are now occupying ordinary mundane ‘common ground’; he himself has become an ‘everyday creature‘. Her dreams are shattered.

But on the wings of that fragmented vision she loses her naive outlook, her childhood, the ‘sweet age of enchantment‘, for ever. Disappointment, followed quickly by tragedy and death, bring reality crashing into her life, mowing down her romantic silliness, and gradually a sadder, wiser, more mature and altruistic woman emerges from the ruins. I won’t spoil the book for you by spelling out what happens.

The Doctor’s Wife was first published in 1864, the eighth of more than 80 novels by author, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who’d already made her name with her (at that time) notoriously scandalous book, Lady Audley’s Secret. This one is not in the genre of sensation fiction for which she’s principally famous, but does include a character, Sigismund Smith, who writes such commercial productions and who debates the good and bad aspects of reading ‘penny-dreadful’ literature. (Speaking of his decision to change his first name from Sam to Sigismund, Mr Smith declares: ‘If a man’s evil destiny makes him a Smith, the least he can do is to take it out in his Christian name.’ – love it!)

The Doctor’s Wife was Mary Braddon’s deliberate attempt to please her more discerning critics with a literary work, borrowing the plot from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and littering the text with literary allusions to real fictional works, although I fear the majority would be lost on most readers (psst … some versions – including mine – add explanatory notes which go some way towards explaining the references for the uninitiated). And inasmuch as it’s all description and analysis and very little plot, it fulfils the requirement for ‘literary’. Those descriptions, however, are wonderfully evocative, wry humour marching alongside perceptive observation and psychological perspicacity, and even occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but the author takes whole chapters to recount the pecadilloes of her main characters, to animadvert on the folly of their behaviour, the sorrow they fall prey to – and I couldn’t help but picture any reputable agent/editor today scoring nine tenths of it out with a vicious red pen. Indeed, I estimate the whole book is almost 190,000 words; more than twice as long as the recommended length for a novel today, even though there were no computers, no cut-and-paste, 200 years ago! Likewise the adverbs, intrusive verbs, the surfeit of punctuation marks … all no-nos nowadays.

It feels strange to our modern understanding too, to have the all-seeing eye of the omniscient narrator taking us into the thinking and motivation and aspirations of all the characters. And every now and then the said narrator even pops her own head out from behind the screen to animadvert of some reminiscence or preference of her own. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the power of prose that carries you along at a pleasing gentle pace reminiscent of a leisurely stroll in the country lanes of Yorkshire.

Not the best kind of writing to tuck into when I’m seriously editing my own writing I suspect: I’d be adopting the ponderous precision of a bygone age without noticing it. But in between drafts, just what the doctor ordered! The length and style of this review is my personal homage to a lady whose writing should be more widely acclaimed than it is.

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