Hazel McHaffie

Jane Austen

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, 300 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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Why do we do it?

Writing’s a strange occupation. Like no other.

I’ve been catching up on the literary magazines, prompting various ruminations-from-the-recovery-couch this week which I thought I’d share with you, but, please, don’t read this as a disgruntled gripe. It’s a calm reflective autumnal sharing from one who’s in the privileged position of not seeking fame, not needing to pay the bills from royalties, not under outside pressure to produce the goods. I’m a compulsive writer, I thrive on simple feedback from satisfied readers, sharing an evening with a group of avid readers over wine and one of my novels, debating serious issues with those challenged by one of my opinion pieces. However, I am acutely mindful of others trying to carve a career in the perilous world of words; I care about the impact of anomalies and injustices on them. So here goes – a few reflections on the occupation of writing fiction.

There are no real goal posts, precious few rules, and even those committed to textbooks/how-to-books are rather unofficial and fluid and subject to modification, changing depending on the hands wielding the red pen or waving the chequebook. An indefinable mysterious ‘something’ separates out the brilliant from the excellent, the good from the mediocre. Style? Brio? Panache? Whatever. Every single new effort launches itself into this unknown abyss in hope, but with no guarantees – not even for the well established household-name author. And with thousands upon thousands of books being published every year the chances of standing out in a crowd are diminishingly rare.

And yet, despite this reality, the world and his live-in-lover and long-lost great-uncle’s mother-in-law seem to think they can be authoritative about a piece of work that someone else has slaved over for years. With no qualifications, no pedigree, no authority whatever, they think nothing of assigning one or two stars, printing a scathing review, and generally rubbishing a carefully-constructed work of fiction, merely on the grounds that it doesn’t appeal to them. And the author is usually frowned on if he/she goes on the defensive.

We writers all have our peccadillos and habits, and outside scrutiny can help to eliminate the most annoying ones. For example, editors will helpfully point out words that an author is rather too fond of, and I’ve done the same thing myself for serious scribblers who’ve asked me to critique their raw work. But should I have done so? Ben Blatt, an American journalist, has subjected a wide range of published fiction to some seriously ruthless data-crunching and he reckons that this is common; every writer uses one or more relatively rare words disproportionately often.
A few illustrations from published works:
Jane Austencivility
Zadie Smithevil eye
Dan Brownfull circle
Donna Tartttoo good to be true
It’s a bit like a fingerprint. Hmmm, I might need to re-think this one.

I confess I sigh heavily when I see celebrity after celebrity adding ‘writer’ to their list of occupations. Yeah, right! Knowing as I do the skill, hard slog and endless work that goes into even a modest-sized work of fiction, and cringing as I do at the ungrammatical prose of many a famous name at interview, I seriously doubt the authenticity of many of these claims. And I fear it simply feeds into a common perception that ‘anyone’ can write a book. I still have to grit my teeth when ordinary average people tell me they would be writers too if they weren’t busy saving the planet in some other more worthy and important way.

And yet celebrities command top positions with their publishers, landing lucrative contracts, often ousting the real best-selling writers, bagging the front seats in bookshop displays, the key position on the TV couch. How frustrating for master craftsmen to be overtaken by far less competent and deserving competition, to see their own publicity/marketing budgets (hello? do they still exist for ordinary mortals?) diverted to feather the downy nests of the rich and famous. Plenty of well-known established authors have gone public about this injustice/disloyalty, even jumping ship to continue in other more faithful publishing vessels.

Then there’s the whole business of valuing books – and those who create them. Readers want to pay the lowest price possible (mea culpa!). Ninety-nine pence for a work that should cost £8.99? – that’ll do nicely thank you. Absolutely nothing goes to the author who has no salary, no security, no say. Will you come and speak at my bookgroup/ library/evening salon/literary festival? Of course! And after the event … payment? Hello? Nothing/a bunch of flowers/a bottle of wine/a hasty meal/not even expenses. Commonplace.

And yet. And yet. And yet. We continue to write. Because we must. Because we are compelled to do so by some internal driving force. Because there is nothing to beat the exhilaration of stepping into the shoes and minds of protagonists of our own creation, realising our imaginings, hearing readers talk about our characters as if they are real people in their lives – a reward (in my opinion and circumstances) worth so much more than mere pounds and pence.

I love what I do! And as long as other people enjoy my writing, I’m more than happy to share the product of those months of isolation and hard work.

 

 

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Exotic island or private library?

Some writers fly off to exotic islands or remote mountains; some hide away in huts miles from any internet connections or distractions; some spend six months trawling through microfiches and dusty archives. All in the name of authenticity and accuracy. To get in the zone.

Me, I’m knee deep in books which might inform the two stories I’m currently working on. Trips to special locations remain somewhere in the hazy future.

The hypocrisy and mores and prejudices of the upper classes? Julian FellowesSnobs or Past Imperfect will do nicely, thank you.

A bit of terror and psychological trauma? Harlan Coben or Robert Goddard are my go-to choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A blend of ethical dilemmas and fiction? Diane Chamberlain, Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf will keep me out of mischief.

Everyday life in bygone eras? Biographies about Dickens, Jane Austen, et al are guiding me nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can pick up and put down, browse or flick, all while I weave in and out of domestic responsibilities and grandparental excursions during the summer season. All without roaming further than my study/library door. No jet lag, no tummy upsets, no grappling with weird currencies and incomprehensible languages and dodgy local mores. And I’m still free to whip into town for Festival performances and assorted exhibitions. Perfect.

 

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More Jane Austen … why not!

It’s that time of year again – Festival time. As someone once famously said to all actors/performers/dramatists: ‘If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead.’ And we are fortunate enough to live here.

Chez nous we have a stack of tickets for a whole range of shows still to come but this week’s star performance goes to a one-woman show featuring the brilliant actor Rebecca Vaughn with Austen’s Women. I loved her faultless eloquence and brilliant stagecraft with Jane Eyre last year, so she was a must-go-to this time.

And she didn’t disappoint. She took on the characters and mannerisms of fourteen different women from nine of Austen’s novels and linked them all with wise statements about life through the all-seeing eyes of the ubiquitous Austen narrator, all without pausing even while she donned her next costume. She segued from twittering Miss Bates, to a petulant Mary Musgrove, to simpering Harriet Smith, to snooty Mrs Elton to vivacious Lizzy Bennet with consummate skill. And the entire 70 minutes was in Jane Austen’s own words, a patchwork of commentary from her whole canon. Put together by Rebecca Vaughn herself. Amazing skill and an enviable memory!

Though I’ve read all the Austen novels and watched several films of these classics, it seemed fitting to prepare for this particular event by reading Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin to understand better the author’s influences and backstory. Sobering to think Jane herself was so little acknowledged in her lifetime, but critical literature about her now ‘runs to thousands of volumes and tens of thousands of articles’  and that ‘between 1952 and 1972 alone there were 551 books, essays and articles published, not to mention 85 doctoral dissertations‘ written about her … although it has to be said, that many of us who love her work would probably prefer to protect this quietly unassuming young woman from this relentless scrutiny and critical dissection and just enjoy her writing.

In telling Austen’s life story Tomalin has done her best to preserve the intimacy and spirit of her subject. I particularly liked her assessment of those now-famous Austen fictional women and how time influenced their development and sometimes contributed to little inconsistencies in the final published versions – time while Jane waited … and waited … and waited for others to appreciate her writing.

When she first drafted Pride and Prejudice she was 20. By the time it was published in 1813 she was 37. Imagine! Seventeen years between composing it and seeing it in print! Sense and Sensibility took sixteen years to achieve the same goal. Northanger Abbey only found a publisher after twenty years by which time the author was dead. How sad is that? A sobering lesson for the rest of us who’re frustrated by a couple of years delay while agents or publishers do their stuff. And her edits and revisions weren’t simple cut-and-paste jobs either!

Two hundred years on, we accept her ‘exquisite touch’ and ‘vitality of voice‘ but even once she was published, Jane had to endure some pretty vitriolic criticism and quite unjust treatment. Only over time and posthumously did she gain the recognition she so richly deserved.

Then there were the periods of writers’ block. Displacement, bereavement and depression in real life stilled her pen for ten years between the ages of 25 and 35. Without familiar and predictable routines – ‘the same views from the same windows; the same household routines and daily walks in the garden or to the church or the village; the same sounds and silences’ – and bogged down with the relentless care of other people’s children and relatives, she was bereft of the secure and peaceful environment in which her imagination could take flight. Adrift without anchors. She had lost father, home, any prospect of marriage, and all hope of getting anything published. Penniless, she was dependent on her brothers, obliged to accept whatever living arrangements were chosen for her, feeling very much like an awkward parcel.

More than enough vicissitudes to make a writer give up for good, you’d think. How much more should we value the resilience and determination that brought her amazing and enduring work to us.

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Celebrating Jane Austen

I promised you a short and easy post this week after the long serious one last week. So relax!

As I’m sure you’re aware, 2017 marks the bicentenary of the death of one of this country’s greatest writers: Jane Austen. You’ve probably seen references to some of the special tributes and events marking this date. A number of papers and magazines have invited celebrities to chose their favourite Austen books or characters, and since the Telegraph didn’t come calling chez nous, I contented myself with revisiting my own collection and rereading Persuasion (not my favourite, but I have a lot of sympathy for Anne Elliott).

What a phenomenally successful author this unassuming daughter of the manse was; wise, humorous, astute, despite a very limited and sheltered 41 years of life. And yet only really revered after her death. What would she have made of her image being used on the forthcoming new polymer £10 note, I wonder? It won’t be in circulation until September but last week it was unveiled to the public in Winchester Cathedral, the very place when Jane was buried precisely 200 years before.

Her words and perspicacity endure; we still love her stories, quote her best aphorisms. She’s still deemed worthy of translation into films and TV series. Who doesn’t know about Mr Darcy’s dip in the lake, or Mrs Bennett’s campaign to marry off her daughters to rich young men, or Emma’s incompetent matchmaking, or … (insert your own favourite excerpts). Long may she be respected and loved.

Can’t wait to get stuck into this little treasure.

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2017 reading plan

This week a research report by the insurer Aviva revealed that around one in 10 people do not own a single book. And if you home in on the 18-24 age bracket, that number rises to one in five! A fifth of young adults! Can you imagine a house with no books? I would feel totally bereft. But presumably these are households dominated by electronic gadgetry and they wouldn’t understand my love/hate relationship with technology. Hey ho.

Added to that, of course, so many good books have been adapted for stage and screen, so it’s possible to know what a book is about, and even what its underlying message is, and discuss it with others, without ever touching a paper copy. I was an avid fan of Thomas Hardy in my teens and read all his novels. I studied one of them – Under the Greenwood Tree – for English Lit O-level at school. I loved his stories, and nothing in my view can really compare to losing oneself in the written form …imagining …feeling …being, but I can well understand why many people would be quite content with the film version, unaware of what they’re missing. I myself  was given the DVD of Far from the Madding Crowd this Christmas and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The sad fact is that most people remain oblivious to the original source of these films. Do you, for instance know who wrote the book behind the new series, Apple Tree Yard, currently airing at prime-time on the BBC One channel? It’s being much hyped as a ‘provocative thriller’ and is being widely discussed on review pages, but precious little is said of the book behind it. I happen to be aware of the author’s name and credentials because Louise Doughty ran writing courses in the Telegraph a few years ago and I followed them. Otherwise her name would not be on my lips either, I’m ashamed to say; I too would home in on the merits or otherwise of actress Emily Watson‘s performance as the scientist Dr Yvonne Carmichael who is on trial for a crime we don’t yet know about.

But in my case films are not ‘instead of’ reading. Indeed, our house is home to thousands of real hold-in-your-hands books, two rows deep on each shelf in my study – currently seriously in need of cataloguing and re-shelving to create some order, it must be admitted. Last week I was dismayed to find I couldn’t lay my hand on We Need to Talk about Kevin, and to discover two copies of one of the fattest Harry Potter books. So I need to do something about it. But preferably something more than moving X from A to B.

As Jane Austen said: If a book is well-written, I always find it too short, and that thought has led to my creating a 2017 reading plan. First, home in on writers whose style I know I enjoy, whose books I shall gallop through, wallow in, find too short. And hopefully the sheer exuberance of reading will aid my own writing. Transferring the volumes from the tbr section to the hbr will clear some space, both physical and mental. Then I can tackle the row of worthy but denser volumes which I know I should read, but which don’t have the same immediate appeal.

Happy hours ahead! And hopefully order out of chaos.

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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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Festival brilliance

Well, that’s the Festival over for another year. 50,000 Fringe events; 800 free events. 2.3 million tickets issued, bringing in £3.8 million. Huge and spectacular. But as the last explosion of fireworks lit up the night sky on Monday watched by 250,000 people, my own reflections were good. I’ve enjoyed more variety this year and seen parts of the city’s underbelly I haven’t explored before, as well as the old familiar haunts of the Book Festival and main Fringe venues. And I’ve marvelled at the amazing talent gathered here in one small city.

I’ve tried this month to capture a flavour of each week for you. So, in that spirit, I’ll give you a glimpse into two events this week that were especially commendable in my view.

Blackwells Bookshop EdinburghEvery Thursday evening in August, Blackwell’s Bookshop put on an event – Writers at the Fringe – with 4/5 writers introducing their work. Unfortunately I was only free for the last one, but what a feast it was. All five speakers were witty, entertaining and interesting; all stuck to their 15 minutes; all gave tempting tasters of their writing; all were friendly and available afterwards. We had the full gamut from two debut authors to a Booker nominee!  In order of appearance: Michael Cannon (reading a short story about being belted as a child), Malachy Tallack (introducing his travel book about places on the same latitude as the Shetland Islands), Carol Fox (reading from her Memoirs of a Feminist Mother – she’s a lawyer and deliberately single mother), John Mackay (talking about his writing as both journalist and novelist), Andrew O’Hagan (reading from his latest book about an elderly lady with dementia and secrets). Hats off to Blackwells for a great line-up.

Austentatious characters Then on Friday I went to a show called Austentatious where six young actors performed a Jane Austen-lookalike comedy billed as completely improvised. As we queued we were asked to write down a fictitious name for an Austen novel; then one was picked out of a top hat on stage. The cast were accomplished actors and so funny. I presume they cooked up a rough outine for a plot beforehand, but what skill and quick-wittedness to ad lib as they did. And it was obvious the actors themselves were hugely entertained by the play they were creating. Not surprisingly they were a sell-out.

So that’s it for another year. But how fortunate am I to live on the doorstep of this cultural Mecca. As they say in the world of entertainment: If you aren’t in Edinburgh in August you might as well be dead!

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Festival time

Chair in Chatlotte SquareSo far we’ve had a humorous take on Shakespeare (a World War II version of the classic play, All’s Well that Ends Well); an intriguing and delightful performance around the Tudor queens (by an American troupe!); a clever skit where Sherlock Holmes and his associate Watson, vie with each other to solve a crime in which Holmes himself is the supposed killer; an exploration of the issues of entrapment and abuse through a dark re-imagining of the infamous Grimm’s fairytale Rapunzel. Our teenage granddaughters, with their own cascades of beautiful hair, proving themselves observant, insightful critics and excellent company. Still to come: a wartime tear-jerker, a drama (paying homage to CS Lewis) exploring life and death decisions, a contemporary musical storytelling about the life of John the apostle viewed from his prison, a costumed Austentatious, and an adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress. Good times.

But for me personally the highlight of my week was a special session at the Book Festival under the banner: Staying Well,  which incidentally also explored the concept of entrapment. Male suicide has increased significantly over the last twenty years and statistics for self harm in the UK are the highest in Europe. My current novel revolves around mental health issues, so this one: Stepping Away from the Edge, was a definite must.

Two of the three speakers have themselves suffered from severe depression. Debi Gliori is a writer-illustrator of children’s books and she has created a wonderful collection of pictures which portray how she feels while depressed – feelings which can’t be captured in words, she says. Her talk was illustrated with these magical drawings. Author Matt Haig has captured the horrors of severe mental illness in words. His book, Reasons to Stay Alive, is receiving widespread acclaim. In the Garden Theatre Tent, he also relied on words and his own palpable emotion to speak about his suicidal experiences. The third speaker was psychologist Rory O’Connor who heads a team at Glasgow University specialising in suicide, and his talk gave the stark statistics and facts and latest thinking about both self harm and suicide.

It was fantastic to see the importance given to mental illness at this international book event – an excellent line-up of speakers from both sides of the couch; an extra long slot (90 minutes instead of the usual 60); a large audience listening sympathetically and contributing sensitively; a team of specialists available afterwards in the Imagination Lab for anyone with specific issues or questions (a steady stream of people headed in that direction in spite of the late hour).

Festival city at night

As I stood admiring the magnificence of Edinburgh at night I couldn’t help but be glad that it was this city that had been the setting for another step towards equality between physical and mental illness.

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Austen revisited

I’m intrigued. The name Val McDermid doesn’t conjure up pictures of muslin dresses and mincing men and gentle romance, does it? Far from it. But here she is re-writing Jane Austen – well, not the whole bang shoot; Northanger Abbey to be precise.

It’s part of the Austen project: six contemporary authors were asked to rework these famous classics in whatever way they choose. Not surprisingly there have been a fair few swift intakes of breath at the sheer audacity of such an exercise. I mean, Jane Austen? THE Jane Austen? Come on! Quite understandably some reviewers have been prejudiced against it from the outset.

Northanger AbbeyI confess I’m a convinced Austenite myself, and I personally didn’t want anyone to ruin her work for me either. That’s possibly why I turned to Northanger Abbey revisited first – my least favourite, and the least well-known, of her novels – well, that and because I was given it for Christmas.

The modern story is cleverly set in Edinburgh at the time of the Book Festival – I’m instantly totally at home! It moves to the abbeys in the Borders – familiar territory again. Both chosen by McDermid to reflect the essential characteristics of the original settings and thereby sustain the plot.

In brief … Cat Morland is a naive, home-schooled 17 year old from a sheltered background who lives life through fiction. So much so indeed that she believes novels to be source books for real life. When she meets the rich, handsome, well educated Henry Tilney she is captivated. By the time she arrives at his ancestral pile, she has woven deep dark secrets into the mysterious Northanger Abbey, convinced that it will reveal unimaginable horrors. And indeed the magnificent abbey becomes the personification of all her fantasies rolled into one. Secret compartments, forbidden corridors, locked rooms, bullet holes in a family Bible, a beautiful but deceased mother who mustn’t be mentioned, a Jekyll-and-Hyde patriarch, sudden departures … all fuel her imagination.

Reading Val’s own explanation for her choices – voice, setting, characters, plot – gives me additional respect for her skill, her versatility, and the seriousness with which she approached this commission. She has indeed been sensitive to the original. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two versions is the way the authors handle the suspense. We know from hindsight that boy gets girl – no cliff hanger there then. Austen also gave away the mystery early on, choosing to let the will-they/won’t-they element in the romance alone carry the reader through. McDermid – as befits a crack crimewriter – keeps the reader wondering ‘why’ right to the end … although the denouement when it came seemed ridiculously tame to me compared with the build up. But that really wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point is that Austen knew what makes people tick; her books are a reflection of real life. And McDermid has echoed the emotional intimacies of teenage girls, the obsessions of rank and heritage, the arrogance of handsome buccaneers, the blindness and ambitions of parenthood, the hypocrisy and humour of polite society. She has simply brought them up to the present day. In my back yard!

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