Hazel McHaffie

Charles Dickens

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Mary Elizabeth Braddon wrote about secrets and lies; walking a tightrope in domestic life when things are not what they seem. She was the queen of ‘sensation fiction’ in the 1800s and early 1900s – a species of writing that, according to the satirists of Punch, was conceived for the purpose of ‘Harrowing the Mind, Making the Flesh Creep, Causing the Hair to Stand on End, Giving Shocks to the Nervous System, Destroying Conventional Moralities, and generally Unfitting the Public for the Prosaic Avocations of Life.

Most famous for Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Braddon was in fact a prolific writer, often working on several pieces of writing simultaneously – magazine serialisations as well as books – much like her contemporary, Charles Dickens.  Her work was ‘perfectly attuned to the spirit of the years in which it flourished‘ but seems to have fallen into a vacuum these days – very few booksellers I’ve spoken to have even heard of her, and it’s taken me years to track down more of her books in real bookshops. Then, just this month, I found two volumes in Wigtown in a newly opened bookshop, Well-Read Books, thanks to its knowledgeable owner, Ruth Anderson, QC.

The one I want to tell you about today is a slim volume, a composite of two of Braddon’s novellas. In brief, The Lawyer’s Secret tells of orphaned Ellinor Arden who is summonsed from Paris to London to hear her guardian read the will of her estranged uncle, Squire John Arden of Arden, a relation she never even met. She is amazed to learn that she’s named as his sole beneficiary … on one condition: she must marry his adopted son, Henry Dalton. Long ago John Arden had loved Henry’s mother, but she’d rejected him in favour of a younger humbler poorer man, a country surgeon. Henry was adopted by the Squire after the death of his parents, but brought up to stand on his own two feet, not to inherit the Arden fortune.

Against his own finer feelings, Ellinor’s rather dashing guardian, lawyer Horace Margrave, urges her to comply with the stipulation, but we know from the outset he is in possession of some deep dark secret. Naive, romantic Ellinor is quickly disillusioned when her new husband denies her access to the money and curbs even her philanthropic intentions. She appeals to her ex-guardian, but he insists his role is finished now she has a husband to protect and advise her. Ellinor engineers her own escape back to Paris, and only discovers the truth when she is summonsed to the bedside of a dying man who refuses to divulge his name.

The descriptions are somewhat overwrought by our standards today, the dialogue stilted by Victorian convention, nevertheless the suspense lies in not knowing whom to trust, who to believe. (Ruth, I couldn’t resist the legal allusions!!)

The second half of this little book is devoted to an even shorter novelette: The Mystery at Fernwood. After a brief six week acquaintance, Isabel Morley, orphan heiress of a wealthy Calcutta merchant, is engaged to be married to Mr Laurence Wendale, handsome, privileged, and vivacious son of ailing Mr Lewis Wendale, owner of the country mansion, Fernwood, ten miles from York. From page 2 we know that her life is heading for shipwreck; she tells us so herself. The ‘why’ creates the suspense.

Fernwood is a rather dreary isolated sprawling place, offering precious little diversion for a lively 19-year old girl, but Isabel is intrigued to find an invalid relation, ‘Mr William’, has been cared for in a suite of rooms in the west wing of the house for over twenty years. Laurence tells her he has never ever met William, and indeed shows remarkably little curiosity about the man, but his half-sister, Lucy Wendale, has been a devoted visitor. On the death of the invalid Lewis Wendale, knowing precious little of the family history, Isabel prepares to take over as mistress of Fernwood, enthused by her fiancé’s energetic plans to bring the ancient building into the modern era. When she finds Laurence trapped in a locked room, she turns the key, and inadvertently releases the most blood-chilling events which change the lives of everyone completely.

I confess I suspected what lay behind the mystery from early on, but the horror was still real and the detail still shocked.

Braddon is indeed an accomplished writer, and I’m placing her books with great reverence amongst my collection of classics. I’ll tell you about her full length novel, The Doctor’s Wife, in a separate post.

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An overlooked classic

My brain is throbbing with the intensity of creating characters and connecting plot lines for my current novel, so it’s doubly important to build in relaxation to maintain sanity and have the space to engage with real life. A lady called Mary Elizabeth Braddon has helped me wind down this week. Heard of her? Nor me till now – to my great shame. And that in spite of numerous TV, radio and stage adaptations of her work apparently!

Because Ms Braddon (1835-1915) published over ninety books and became a household name in the Victorian era, hugely admired and respected by other famous authors like Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray.

And this particular book, Lady Audley’s Secret, written when she was just 27 and a struggling actress, was the one that made her famous. It was serialised in the early 1860s at the same time as Dickens’ Great Expectations. Braddon quickly became the ‘Queen of the Sensational novel’, and to this day this book remains a classic Victorian spine-tingler. And there it was, amongst my own collection of not-yet-read classics! A hidden gem, but so good that I instantly want to buy all her other writings!

The back cover blurb says:
Miss Lucy Grantham is a newcomer to the parish of Audley. She may be an impoverished governess, but she is also kind and ineffably beautiful. When Sir Michael Audley sets eyes upon her he finds himself in the grip of ‘the terrible fever called love’. Their courtship raises eyebrows, but Sir Audley has set his heart on the sweet-natured girl, and before long they are married.

So, a light-hearted Georgette Heyer romance, huh?

No such thing. This is something much deeper and darker – shades of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, maybe? It’s a cleverly constructed mystery set in a grand country house and involving strange disappearances and duplicity on a grand scale. It’s Sir Michael’s nephew, Robert, who begins to suspect his new aunt is not all she seems to be, and his investigations lead him into a past full of inconsistencies, and very troubling secrets indeed, bigamy, blackmail, arson and murder among them.

Furthermore, below the surface, the tale is also an attack on the suppression of women in the Victorian era and the double standards set for the different classes as well as the different genders, with all their grave injustices and anomalies – hence perfectly timed. Lady Audley’s Secret called into question not only the role of women and the legal, economic and societal dominance of men, but also the insulting (to us) assumption at the time that women were inherently mentally unstable because of their hormonal fluctuations and therefore uniquely liable to insanity; a belief cleverly captured in the ruthless and manipulative Lady Audley’s own defence of insanity when exposed for the criminal she is: ‘the hidden taint I had sucked in with my mother’s milk.’

But the appeal of Lady Audley’s Secret has far outlasted the Victorian craze for melodramas, and goes beyond feminist politics. Why? Well, Professor Robert Giddings believes ‘the continuing fascination might be in the character of Lady Audley herself. Such a crafty, villainous woman is not portrayed in the traditions of the villainess, but as an irresistibly attractive, innocent-seeming Pre-Raphaelite beauty.‘  Her charm, her feathery mass of golden ringlets, her delicate features and her strange deep blue eyes, predispose us to like her; but the portrait Robert and his friend George Talboys see of her reveals the ‘beautiful fiend’ within.

The language is a little OTT and repetitious at times, the speeches run into several pages in places (including one by a dying man!), and I do dislike the frequent references in direct speech to what the characters thought, but for all that it’s a riveting read. I galloped through the almost 500 pages effortlessly and will definitely seek out more of this amazing writer’s work. And it’s all there – the richly interesting characters; the careful backstories; the perfectly calibrated shocks; the interwoven connections – all the things I’ve been working at with my own writing. Seemingly effortlessly woven together. What a find!

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Oh Dickens! It’s Christmas.

Chatsworth is a magnificent house at normal times; converted for Christmas it’s truly spectacular. This year the theme was Oh Dickens! It’s Christmas, with each room devoted to a different story or character – who could resist it?! – so we made the trip from Edinburgh especially to experience it … six and a half hours driving there; five back.

From the cut-out characters which greeted us on the way in, through the labyrinth of corridors and staircases,

to the stunning set pieces, the attention to detail and artistic flair was amazing. And what a setting! Priceless paintings gave way to garlands of baubles and foliage; glorious antiques stood cheek by jowl with fairy-lit Christmas trees.

And there, in the midst of all the fictional depictions of his works, in the real Cavendish family visitors book, Charles Dickens‘ actual signature highlighted!

Shop fronts, darkened alleys and famous quotes captured the authentic Dickens we know and love.

The imposing entrance was devoted to paper sculptures and there was a delicious irony in the midst of so much ‘tinder’ to find a real fire blazing in the hearth. Risk assessment? What risk assessment?!!

Cut out letters hung elegantly from floor to ceiling,

huge scrolling quotations festooned the pillars, really capturing the importance of words to the whole display.

Clad in Victorian dress, guides stood in the shadows, adding to the ambience but ever ready with information.

Oliver Twist’s famous rogue, Fagin, prowling around beneath the towering edifice that formed sleeping quarters for his pack of mini pickpockets, enchanted the children with his ‘conjuring’ tricks, and the adults with his smart repartee.

And, as if the sight of the magnificent dining room set for a wedding banquet for Miss Havisham in Great Expectations were not enough,

the lady herself paced from end to end declaiming the treacherous Meriwether Compeyson and revealing her own sweet revenge with adopted daughter Estelle.

Little Miss Dorrit‘s dimly-lit room included one of the countless huge Christmas trees, this time bedecked in lace baubles, reels of thread and button garlands – Amy’s valiant attempt to bring cheer into the debtors’ prison.

Oh, I could go on and on, but you’ll have got the general idea. Magnifique! Such proportions! Such vision! Such skill! Everything about the experience took my breath away. What an amazing literary inheritance we have. I’m so glad I went.

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Charles Dickens: The Gas-Light Boy

Last week I shared with you something of Dickens’ mastery of the written word. Seems appropriate in this week’s post to follow it with a dip into a book I’ve just finished reading. It’s the first of two volumes about the author’s own early life: Charles Dickens: The Gas-Light Boy by Michael and Mollie Hardwick, published back in 1976.

Written very much in the style of Dickens himself, it takes the form of a rags-to-riches novel and is eminently readable. I particularly love the use of dialect to convey so much about class and education and place. Here’s an exchange between the young Charles and an orphan servant girl:

She threw him a gap-toothed grin of admiration. ‘You do talk nice, Master Charles. But it’s all a lot of rot for all that, ‘cos we need bread today. We can’t feed the nippers on jam tomorrow, Master Charles.’
‘I take your point, Orfling dear …’
Suddenly she flared up. ‘Oh, drop it, Master Charles, drop it!’
He stared. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nuffin.’
‘Really, my dear Orfling …’
‘If you must know, Master Charles,’ she almost spat at him, ‘it don’t relish a person to be called Orfling all the time. Orfling, Orfling!’ She threw up her hands and jumped down from the sacking.
It had never occurred to him. Perhaps the Chatham Orfling has felt so. ‘I suppose not,’ he said slowly, climbing down. ‘I never thought about it.’
‘Well, fink about it, then.’
‘All right. What is your name?’ There was no answer.
‘What is it for, goodness sake? What shall I call you? Miss Crumbs? Henrietta Apple, Lady Bluenose? What?’
She jerked round to face him. ‘If you must know – I don’t ‘ave a bloody name.’
‘Exactly why we call you Orfling.’
She began to cry. ‘I may be an Orfling but I got me rights to ‘aving a proper name like uvver coves do.’

At the tender age of 12, Charles was pressured into taking a job much against his will – ‘My education isn’t finished. How will I succeed if I’m only half finished?’ – knowing even at that age and stage that all he really wanted to do was write. For six or seven shillings a week he got a book-keeping job in a stinking rat-infested waterside blacking factory where he was bullied relentlessly and felt most terribly alone.

No detail of this traumatic twelfth year of his life was ever to vanish from the mind of Charles Dickens.

But by the time he reached his late teens, the family fortunes were temporarily reversed by the death of a rich relative. He was given another stab at school, and became proficient in shorthand, leading to his employment as a law clerk and successful reporter. All these opportunities, plus hard work, determination and ingenuity – qualities he recognised as the hallmarks of ‘a true professional writer‘ – started to generate a decent income.

It was mixing with people across all strata of society that exposed Dickens to the reality of life in those times, giving him the extraordinary insights and empathy that we see in the rich authenticity of his characters. He knew at first hand what it felt like to live in penury, even in a debtors’ prison, because of his feckless father’s irresponsibility; but he also knew the comforts that came from success. He knew the pain of unfulfilled love, as well as the ups and downs of married life and fatherhood. Drawing heavily on his experiences, he produced lively articles and serialised stories; papers began to pay him, publishers to offer substantial advances.

Although he loved acting and the theatre, it was writing that turned him from a nobody into ‘Somebody‘. But despite his success and growing fame, working with publishers and illustrators was not without its own headaches, and the scene over the cover for Pickwick Papers will resonate with many an author still today. Chapman and Hall had seen fit to depict Mr Pickwick in a punt, dozing over a fishing line.

‘Mr Pickwick does not go fishing,’ declared his creator emphatically. ‘it is most unlikely that he will ever go fishing. I believe, indeed, that he absolutely detests fishing.’
By now Chapman and Hall were thoroughly intimidated by their fiery young protégé. They exchanged a nervous glance before Hall ventured, ‘I suppose he might go fishing – sometime – under protest. Might he not, Mr Dickens?’
‘Out of the question, Mr Hall.’
Chapman cleared his throat. ‘Look here, Dickens. I doubt if the readers will take Mr Pickwick up as a sort of religious matter, you know. They will be content enough to see him fishing in a good drawing on the cover and read of him doing something else in the text within.’
Hall backed him up. ‘I daresay Mr Chapman is right, you know.’
Charles gave them an acid smile. ‘I have no doubt that Mr Chapman is right. The point at issue, though, it seems to me, is something different. I believe my readers will expect my characters to have a consistency and a truth which will justify them in following their adventures with devoted application.’
…..
Chapman sighed. ‘It’s a question, then, of whether the artist is to follow the writer, or the writer the artist.’
‘The text comes first, Mr Chapman.’
‘In this case the plates came first. The initial idea was Mr Seymour’s, you know.’
‘Pickwick is mine!’ Charles cried passionately. ‘I will not allow him to be misrepresented by anyone.’
Dear me, said Chapman’s eye to Hall’s, this fellow is a confounded maniac.

And when Charles met the artist himself sparks flew. Dickens tried to soften Mr Seymour up with a fragrant tankard of grog and lavish compliments but met only supercilious disdain.

‘I have come, Mr Dickens, not to get your puerile advice on my career, but to give you a little advice about your own. It is this: a shorthand-writer may become a first class hack, but the best hack in the world will never, never be an artist.’
To which Dickens replies: ‘… let me tell you this, Mr Seymour: whether I am a shorthand-writer, a hack or an artist, I care not. I tell tales for money. But if you are to draw my tales, sir, you will draw them as I write them. Good night to you, sir.’

Rich considering who this particular ‘shorthand writer’ and ‘hack’ was, huh?

It came as no small shock to the self-dazzled Charles, still infatuated with his brain-child, to hear that on the night Seymour finished the new plate for The Dying Clown he had gone into the garden and blown his brains out.

His brother Fred tried to comfort him; Charles couldn’t have known the man was ill, he assured him.

‘He was ill!’ Charles shouted. ‘I am ill. Every artist, every writer is ill, Fred. The illness is loneliness, the impossibility of communicating with people other than those who live in our minds.’

And this obsession with his imaginary worlds became more and more pronounced as his fame grew.  His internal companions took him over completely, his real wife was neglected. The early death of his teenage sister-in-law, Mary, for whom he felt real love, immortalised her in his mind: ‘Mary would always be perfect, because she was dead.’ But his devastating grief spawned even more intense writing, further enhancing his appeal.

At twenty-six, he was a celebrity. Fashionable hostesses vied with each other to entertain him, and he maintained the same debonair ease at the table of the terrifying aristocrat Lady Holland as at that of the beautiful Countess of Blessington, queen of the demi-monde society at Gore House. The actor in him came out strong on these occasions, enabling him to conceal his lack of formal education and social background. He knew nothing of art or literature in the widest sense. He had never had a lesson on which forks and knives to use at a banquet, but he was learning fast, and it would be a sharp eye indeed that detected him in making a mistake. Almost incredibly, he was elected a member of the exclusive sought-after Athenaeum Club, on the grounds of being an Eminent Person.

At twenty-six!

But his success was to be always over-shadowed by his father’s irresponsibility and improvidence. John Dickens lurked ‘in his shabby lodgings, spider-like, ready to creep out at any fortuitous moment to snatch a few guineas from his son’s pockets‘. He even sank to stealing scraps of his son’s writing from his wastepaper basket or desk to sell to collectors, and to concocting a fraudulent scheme to obtain money from Charles’ insurers. As a result it fell to Dickens Junior to carry the burden of supporting the entire family:

‘… writing, ever writing, to support his ‘petticoats’, Catherine and Georgina, the ever-growing brood of children, the brothers who were turning out to have the streak of extravagant fecklessness in them which he would struggle so hard to discourage in his own sons, even his father-in-law, George Hogarth, now fallen on poor times. And, for another nine years after the flight from Alphington, there would be his chief pensioner, his father: ebullient, self-confident, shameless, treading the flowery path which his son had carved out for him, dipping into that son’s pocket as cheerfully as the growing cuckoo grabs food from its harassed foster-parents.

It was some small revenge perhaps that John Dickens became the model for Mr Macawber in the book that was most autobiographical: David Copperfield. Charles was thirty-nine and a very famous figure indeed when his father eventually died.

‘Whatever John Dickens had owed Charles throughout his life, it was fully repaid now, and would be, over and over again, in the sales of the book.’

Perfect poetic revenge, huh? But bought at a very high price.

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Learning from a master

Shutterstock image

In my occasional musings about authors who break stylistic rules and get away with it, I haven’t as yet mentioned our old friend Charles Dickens. We all know he’s lauded and revered for all sorts of reasons, not least his perspicacious commentary of social issues, but only recently did I see an article about his narrative audacity. It was in The Author, and by Professor John Mullan of University College London, who’s currently writing a book about the great man’s novels. I found it so fascinating I thought I’d share some of his comments with you.

Professor Mullan maintains that it was Dickens’ experimental approach to prose that set him apart from all previous novelists. The ‘fizz of his sentences’ redefined what constituted eloquent prose. He latched on to habits of spoken English normally scorned by writers – clichés, redundancies, common parlance, idiosyncrasies, exaggeration, repetition, lists – and used them to brilliant effect.

Specific examples best illustrate the point, I think.

First then, clichés. OK, all self-respecting writers are taught to wage war against clichés. And yet Dickens brought out ‘the energy lying dormant within‘ them. Example? The famous opening of A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Two common phrases – ‘to begin with’ and ‘dead as a door nail’ are used very cleverly here. ‘To begin with’ tells us that this is the first fact to state, but it also alerts us to the fact that Marley will be coming back to life as the story progresses. Neat, huh?

‘As dead as a door nail’ …? Dickens explains:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Can’t you just hear some famous thespian declaiming these lines as an aside and the audience appreciatively roaring with laughter? Dickens not only brings this popular adage to life but he plays to the doubts we may harbour ourselves about the finality of a death: certainly the ‘common way of asserting that a life is extinguished will not be enough to stop this dead man returning.‘ (my emphasis)

Or another example of a cliché used for amusement as well as depiction: Mr Pecksniff the pious hypocrite in Martin Chuzzlewitt is telling the old man from whom he hopes to win a legacy, that he despises money.

It would be no description of Mr Pecksniff’s gentleness of manner to adopt the common parlance, and say that he looked at this moment as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He rather looked as if any quantity of butter might have been made out of him, by churning the milk of human kindness, as it spouted upwards from his heart.

Figurative absurdity that conveys so much about the man.

Another literary no-no: exaggeration. Generally speaking, less is more. In Dickens’ hands, however, it arouses our sense of the ridiculous. Listen to this passage conveying Mr Dombey’s exultation on the birth of a son, ‘not quite noticing that his wife is near death‘, and his sense of self importance, in Dombey and Son.

The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre … A.D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombeii – and Son.

You can feel the thud on the floorboards as the pompous fellow struts up and down, chest puffed out, self-satisfaction written all over his face, can’t you?

Repetition is another no-no for writers normally, but Dickens uses it to great purpose – to convey obsession – in Our Mutual Friend.

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby …

Don’t you wish you’d thought of this?

Then there are lists. Mullan shares two superb examples from Dickens’ pen. The first is Pip’s disgust as he takes in the horror of having a convict’s money paying for his gentlemanly expectations in Great Expectations.

In all his [Convict Magwich] ways of sitting and standing, and eating and drinking, – of brooding about in a high-shouldered reluctant style, – of taking out his great hornhandled jackknife and wiping it on his legs and cutting his food, – of lifting light glasses and cups to his lips, as if they were clumsy pannikins, – of chopping a wedge off his bread, and soaking up with it the last fragments of gravy round and round his plate, as if to make the most of an allowance, and then drying his finger-ends on it, and then swallowing it, – in these ways and a thousand other small nameless instances arising every minute in the day, there was Prisoner, Felon, Bondsman, plain as plain could be.

You can feel Pip’s eyes absorbing these habits with dawning horror, can’t you? All those small foibles amounting to a massive, eye-opening, most unwelcome realisation.

The second is also from Great Expectations (resonates with me particularly since I studied this book for O-level English lit back in the day). Pip is narrating his journey down the Thames estuary determined to intercept the packet boat to France so that his benefactor can escape.

For now the last of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed; and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child’s first rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and the little squat shoal-lighthouse on open piles stood crippled in the mud on stilts and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy stones stuck out of the mud, and red landmarks and tidemarks stuck out of the mud, and an old landing stage and an old roofless building slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.

Not one of us lesser spotted authors, I suspect, would dare a sentence this long, this repetitious, and yet, it works beautifully in the hands of Charles Dickens, doesn’t it?

I’m indebted to Professor Mullan for this illuminating new look into Dickens’ cleverness. Maybe, after all, the rule book for writers needs revision …? No, rather, I suspect that only the true expert knows when and how to bend those rules to such spectacular effect. And how many of us will ever aspire to Dickens’ giddy heights?

 

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Dickensian arguments

I imagine lots of authors dream of having their books turned into films. What better way to bring them to the attention of thousands? Get those sales figures sky rocketing. Reach a different kind of audience. Become famous. Get rich.

And yet adaptation is a topic that generates strong feelings in the other direction. Books are always deeper and somehow better … films rarely square with imagined characters … I’m always disappointed when I see the film; It never lives up to the book version … along those lines anyway.

I’d certainly fear the loss of essential elements in my own novels were Hollywood to come calling (less snorting on the back row). That’s not to say it’d be a big ‘No’, but we all have a keen sense of the ‘big idea’ (as they say in the advertising world) behind our stories. We know our characters inside out, we’ve lived with them, inside them even, for years, and we want filmmakers to be true to them. But there are no guarantees.

Allow me to illustrate. Years ago I read Jodi Picoult‘s book, My Sister’s Keeper, and enjoyed it. This time she was exploring my field of interest, raising awareness, doing superbly what I was trying to do in my own little corner. Then I saw the film and was terribly disappointed. The characters weren’t at all as I knew them. In particular the lawyer, Campbell Alexander, to whom the main character, Anna, turns for help in suing her parents for rights to her own body. Campbell’s a key figure in the book and we’re in suspense throughout wondering … why does he have an assistance dog? What is his problem? Why does he give every person who inquires a different answer? But his humour, his ingenuity, his vibrancy, is completely missing in the film. So for me that didn’t work.

However, for lots of people who only saw the film, it could well have been their first and only introduction to the challenges surrounding creating saviour siblings. That has to be good. Many will never know what literary pearls they’re missing. Those who subsequently read the book, will only find their awareness enriched.

I would argue that books and films are different art forms, trying to do different things, reach different audiences. There’s something special about immersing oneself in the written word, conjuring up scenes and characters in one’s imagination, feeling the emotions as they slowly, slowly unravel on the page. But stand – or should that be sit? – back and watch the skill of actors who do the hard work, the interpretation, for you – watch the effect of the brooding silences, the shy glances, the touch of hands – in seconds they can convey a world of feeling hard to describe in pages of words. And we’ve seen that par excellence in the current dramatisation of War and Peace on BBC One on Sunday evenings at the moment.

Now, I admit, I don’t know what I’m missing by watching Andrew Davies‘ TV adaptation of Tolstoy‘s epic tale; I’ve never got around to tackling the tome itself. But I like to think it has now become more accessible to me. If Davies has been sufficiently true to the original I’d have a better sense of the story lines, the context, the many interwoven characters. Maybe one day ….? But of course they will now look like their film counterparts from the outset!

I have read Dickens and Austen and Trollope, those classics which are trotted out and reinvented time and again. They may be regular features on the school curriculum reading lists but I for one never tire of them. So I was delighted to see a brand new take on our old favourite, Dickens, currently showing on BBC One too: Dickensian.

This is no rehash of the same story. It takes a bold leap and weaves together lots of his characters and story-lines. And sews them into a classic murky London setting with plenty of pea-soupers, dim lantern-light, Christmas snow and doubtful morals. Delicious.

So, for example, we all know Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day, forever wearing her bridal gown. In Dickensian we see a plausible back story; she’s being wooed by an unscrupulous scoundrel. We know it’ll all end badly, but we’re fascinated to watch the seduction, the power the seducer also wields over her weak homosexual brother, her struggle to be a businesswoman in a man’s world. She takes on extra dimensions in the process.

Other old favourites are exactly themselves as we know and love them. Sarah Gamp – a gin-swilling ‘medical person’, wheedling a tipple out of anyone who crosses her path. Ebenezer Scrooge – the quintessential miserly curmudgeon, but in this production, fleshed out, in action, antagonising all he comes into contact with. Bob Cratchit – absolutely true to the original with his huge heart and devotion to his family. Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Nancy, Bill Sikes, the motley band of child pick pockets – they’re all there, scurrying around in the nether regions of Victorian London, relying on their wits and criminal loyalties to avoid the noose and the inspector’s wrath. Mr and Mrs Bumble, Inspector Bucket, Jacob Marley … a cast of hundreds. Just like Dickens’ stories.

It’s compelling stuff. Some reviewers have questioned whether it’s worthy of 20 episodes; apparently audiences have tailed off significantly. But for me it has rekindled my love of Dickens, made me want to start all over again reading the books! So I’m not one to scoff at film adaptations. Hollywood, if you’re listening ….

 

 

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A dramatic start to 2012

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x91rBzNKvlc

A friend sent me this – beautiful photography, excellent sentiments – and I thought I’d share it with you in this first post of 2012. It says what I’d like to say so much better than I could say it (spelling mistakes excepted). A wish for world peace, wisdom, courage, happiness; what more could we ask for? And the idea of that spotless tract of snow that will show every mark we make, fairly strengthens the resolve to do better, doesn’t it?

As for me, well, it’s back to work with a vengeance this week. One of my tasks has been preparing a resumé of the dramatic appeal of my books ready for an approach to filmmakers. And because my mind has been running along that track I’ve been acutely conscious of the number of films from books shown on TV over the festive period.

Dickens’ Great Expectations made the biggest splash, of course, with its millions of viewers at prime time.

Now, I confess I studied Great Expectations at school for O-level English, but I’m hanged if I remembered much about it decades later. What I do know, though,  is that seeing this adaptation was a hundred times more enjoyable – and I’m a self-confessed book addict. From the moment when Magwitch emerges from the eerie slime, to the point where Miss Havisham dons her bridal veil and sets fire to her lover’s letters and herself, I was gripped. The only jarring bits for me were the good-looking stars. Surely Miss Havisham was more crumbly and wrinkled than Gillian Anderson made her; and Pip was certainly not as prettily perfect a screen idol as Douglas Booth  – eclipsing Estelle, in fact. But I could easily overlook those anomalies, and concede that they together probably brought in far more viewers than ordinary everyday faces would have done.

Also on offer were repeats of the oldies – Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Dorian Gray, Little Women, Heidi, Mansfield Park, Emma, The Chronicles of Narnia … to name but a few on the main channels.

Now, usually I’m averse to watching a film of a book I’ve read. I like to retain the characters of my imagination unsullied by the interpretations of others. But I’m increasingly coming round to thinking that drama can bring these remote tales of bygone times to life for far more people. Some of whom will then go to the book with a headstart in understanding the rather dreary 19th century prose. Why, just today I saw a shelf full of paperback versions of Great Expectations curiously labelled ‘Vintage Dickens’ – with scratchy black and white covers too, not even a photograph of the TV stars in the Christmas version! So there must be a market for the book now amongst the folk of 2012 who buy ready-made cakes and polyester clothes and giant plasma screen TVs. Besides which, you can download the classics on your Kindle absolutely free of charge.

So, all power to the elbow of those who labour to resurrect the classics for the 21st century, say I. Andrew Davies screenplay of Little Dorrit was for me a masterclass in bringing fusty prose to life. Davies, you’ll remember, was the genius who created a Mr Darcy who cooled his ardour in the pond and emerged with his wet shirt and breeches clinging to his manly form in front of his lady love in Pride and Prejudice. A brilliant screenwriter.

One day I’m hoping to persuade some playwright and film director somewhere to do something similar for me! That’s what’s galvanising me this week. I used to worry about my stories being distorted, but Dickens has been dragged into accessibility and modern times by clever adaptation, so why not me?

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Childhood haunts

Wow! It’s not every day your home is on TV described as having the capacity to become ‘an international treasure’. But mine was last Thursday.

Tamar ValleyI grew up in Cornwall on the Pentillie Estate with a grandstand view of the Tamar valley from the back of our house. At the time, a largish chunk of the county as well as Pentillie Castle was owned by the Coryton family – first ‘The Captain’, then young ‘Major Jeffrey’, as we knew them. It was a storybook setting. With its fair share of intriguing characters: the beloved heir to the estate killed in action in 1942; a baby who was neither fully male nor female; a lad with a glass eye (which he occasionally took out for our entertainment/terror); a chauffeur living secretly with a woman not his wife  … they all captured my imagination. But back then we children led a sheltered life, surrounded by loveliness and grandeur.

Some years later the castle underwent a major facelift. Sons joined the workforce alongside their fathers. Modern gadgets crept in slowly. And then in 1980 … the Major died. He was only 57. High drama ensued. His childless widow, Kit, closed the gates to the 400-year-old castle and forbade everyone, even closest relatives, from visiting. She became a complete recluse. Rumours and stories abounded; a veil of mystery hung over the family and the estate. The embargo against visitors remained in force for almost thirty years, and the estate slowly crumbled around ‘Mrs Jeffrey’. Like something out of Dickens, eh? Only this was all too real.

When Pentillie’s Miss Havisham eventually died, Jeffrey’s cousin, Ted Spencer, inherited it. A requirement of his inheriting was that he change his name to Coryton. He did, but as a consequence his father disowned him. (Shades of Georgette Heyer.)

The castle of my childhoodComing into possession of an historic castle and 2000 acres of prime Cornish land might sound like a fairytale, but in this case it came with an outstanding tax bill of £6 million, on top of the burden of the crippling funds needed to get it repaired and restored. The family locked themselves in the castle and seriously contemplated selling it. But somehow the spell of Pentillie was stronger than the emotional pain and financial burden.

They called in Ruth Watson of Country House Rescue fame to appraise and advise. She was typically scathing about many things, but to the camera she admitted: ‘Everything about this estate is magical.’ And watching the programme I realised perhaps more than I’d ever done, that indeed it was. Magical and beautiful and unique. And it was where I grew up; in the shadow of that great castle. Because my father was the head gardener on the estate in its heyday. But as children we took all that beauty and splendour rather for granted. The magnificent Lime Walk, the fragrant American Gardens, the sweeping views of the Tamar valley – they were our norm.

Best WalkThe gardens my father nurtured with such care and skill, in which we children worked in our school holidays, are in a sad state of neglect now, and it was painful enough to see them on film never mind in reality. But Ruth Watson could see their potential and she was bowled over. Yes, the castle could become ‘a national treasure’, she declared, but the gardens had the potential to be ‘an international treasure’, eclipsing even the Lost Gardens of Heligan further down in Cornwall. Wow again!

Watching her in action throughout the series, I wanted to dive in and rescue the Corytons, never mind the castle! OK, to the viewers she lauded the family as exuding warmth and enthusiasm and energy. But Ted’s wife, Sarah, was reduced to tears by her harsh criticism: she was too emotional, too parochial, too limited in outlook. Why shouldn’t the poor woman feel emotional responses to what was going on? Pentillie represented much personal anguish to her. Why shouldn’t she call on local expertise in refurbishing the bedrooms? Good things do come out of Cornwall!

In this week’s programme Ruth revisited Pentillie to see if they had taken her advice. I was on the edge of my seat. But she was impressed. Yes, actually impressed. The refurbished castle looked fabulous. Visiting figures were phenomenal. In just two days they had 5000 people visiting the gardens! My dad would have been incredulous. And horrified. In this state?

Actually I knew already how enterprising the Corytons have been. My Westcountry brothers have been involved in person. And I’m on the mailing list for the regular newsletter. They’ve even organised literary events there. But it was still heartening to see Ruth Watson admitting their decisions hadn’t been wrong even though they’d defied her advice. All power to them, say I.

Nevertheless it still feels weird to have my old home paraded for the nation. We rarely saw anyone on the mile-long drive from the main road. the entrance to the estateThe sign said PRIVATE; private it most certainly was. Sir James Tillie in his monument on Mount Ararat was our preserve. We weeded and trimmed and swept and harvested to please our father and The Captain; not hordes of strangers. But as Ted Coryton said, it would be selfish to keep all this magnificence just for the family; it should be enjoyed by everyone. And the generosity of spirit behind his tireless efforts to redress a great wrong are reaping their rewards.

One day I hope to return. Who knows, there might even be a story there somewhere for me.

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A laugh a minute

Lots of varied commitments this week, chopping up my days, so I’ve been dipping in and out of author-related reading – reducing the pile of journals, newspaper cuttings, etc. which tend to accumulate when I’m lost in writing during more creative phases.

I’m quite sure you wouldn’t be interested in most of it – gloomy news about declining advances, abuses related to electronic publishing, tax anomalies, and such like woeful developments guaranteed to send any mid-list-or-below career writer into a deep depression. Yawn, yawn. But you might just be amused by a few gems discovered in amongst the serious stuff, so here goes.

Recently the Society of Authors did a survey of its members asking about author appearances – at literary festivals, signing events, schools and conferences, that kind of thing. The report made interesting reading, but my favourite bit was the postscript:
‘There’s always someone in the audience who knows more than you, even when you’re talking about yourself.’
Just the thing to tattoo somewhere on the mind as reassurance for that nasty moment when someone flummoxes you with a totally unanswerable question.

Then there was Simon Blackburn writing in The Author. He quoted the late Bernard Williams’ lament that much philosophical prose seems to aspire
to resemble scientific reports badly translated from the Martian.
I know exactly what he means.

In a different edition of The Author I found an article commiserating with authors who get one star ratings on Amazon. Mercifully I haven’t suffered from that affliction thus far (says she, tempting fate very unwisely) but it must surely be demoralising. Not necessarily, says Nigel Wilcockson of Random House. Sometimes it’s a case of personal jealousy/vindictiveness against a writer. And that’s been the case from as early as the 19th century. Blake received this:
an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.
And Dickens got:
he can scarcely attract the attention of the more intelligent classes of the community.’
So lift up your hearts and sing, all you vilified writers; at least you’re in good company!

Even frankly abusive comments can be well-expressed. How about this invective against Croker from his rival Macaulay in 1831:
the merits of Mr Croker’s performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton on which Dr Johnson dined, while travelling from London to Oxford, and which he, with characteristic energy, pronounced to be “as bad as bad could be – ill fed, ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed”.
Ouch!

Or much more recently, Steven Fry’s dismissal of Baron Christian de Massy’s memoir as
that marriage of style and content we look for in all great writing. A shatteringly vulgar and worthless life captured in shatteringly vulgar and worthless prose.
Wonderful – as long as you aren’t on the receiving end.

One of my personal favourites came from the Letters Desk of the Daily Telegraph in response to a piece about school reports:
When the workers of the world unite it would be presumptuous of Dewhurst to include himself among their number.

Have a fun week!

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Posthumous acclaim

Whenever I prepare for a lot of travelling the thought of my death flashes across my brain. Not in a morbid way, you understand, but just as a possibility. As someone once told me in my teens, always make sure you’re wearing decent undies when you go out in case you end up in a hospital or a morgue. (Well, I did have a very sheltered upbringing!) Anyway, I’ve just returned from four days hurtling along the Scottish, Welsh and English roads, grateful to God, the elements, and other drivers for my survival.

But during this latest epic journey it also crossed my mind that I hadn’t left instructions as to the disposal of two and a half as-yet-unpublished novels. Goodness, what might I have missed out on if I’d ended my days crushed between an articulated Tesco lorry and a Skoda in a remote Welsh village with an unpronounceable name?

After all, many now-famous writers have had their works published ages after their deaths. Did you know, for example, that fewer than a dozen of Emily Dickinson’s 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime? Her younger sister discovered a treasure-trove of her work after Emily’s death; but it took another 50 years before the critics recognised her talent. That’s like dying today, and waiting till my grandchildren are my age to be acclaimed. And a collection of unpublished essays and stories by Mark Twain appeared almost a hundred years after his death. Makes my couple of years’ wait seem insignificant, doesn’t it? Add to them, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, JRR Tolkien, Sylvia Plath … well, it all goes to show you don’t need an all-singing, all-dancing live author appearing on the Book Festival circuit to create a bestseller.

Indeed, plenty of the best-known names have only achieved real recognition posthumously (Jane Austen and Franz Kafka to name two of the most famous). And in some cases this was without the consent of the author (Kafka, Mark Twain); other people valued their work more highly than their personal wish to have it destroyed. Other authors have received prestigious awards after their death (Siobhan Dowd won the Carnegie medal only last week).

So the moral of my tale?
1. Stop worrying about delays in publishing and take heart from other authors who seemed to write faster than their publishers could (or would?) publish. Ernest Hemingway left five manuscripts which were published after his death; Catherine Cookson who published almost a hundred novels anyway, left nine behind when she died.
2. Keep writing, but make sure those beneficiaries named in my will know the facts about posthumous publication. And my publisher.

In writing about death, I’ve quite cheered myself up!

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