Hazel McHaffie

Mastermind

Unseen unsung dedication

I was a teenager when I discovered Georgette Heyer, and by the age of 24, I had acquired most of her Regency novels from secondhand book shops  Рlighthearted romances set in a particular period of history. A shilling each, as I recall! Sadly, back then, I had no notion of the background research required to make a period novel flow effortlessly. Nor had I recognised that the author was only a lass of seventeen herself when she first began writing.

Best known for her Regency tales, she wrote forty-two romance and contemporary novels, as well as eleven detective stories, relying on her barrister husband to supply the plots for the latter.

I have just found a copy of the last novel this prolific author worked on, My Lord John, and learned that Heyer’s own favourite period in history was actually the Middle Ages: especially late 14th-early 15th Century. She planned to write a trilogy set in this time frame with John, Duke of Bedford, the younger brother of Henry V, as its central protagonist, calculating it would take her a period of five years to accomplish, but circumstances contrived to thwart her good intentions, and she only managed to complete a third of the whole project. In the published version an historical note has been added to round out the story and there has been some editing to present the unfinished tale in this form.

But what is most impressive is her husband’s account of the background work Georgette put into her writing.

Her research was enormous and meticulous. She was a perfectionist. She studied every aspect of the period – history, wars,social conditions, manners and customs, costume, armour, heraldry, falconry and the chase. She drew genealogies of all the noble families of England ( with their own armorial bearings painted on each) for she believed that the clues to events were to be found in their relationships. She had indexed files for every day of the year for the forty years she was covering with all noteworthy events duly entered on their dates. She learnt to read medieval English almost as easily as modern and amassed a large vocabulary. One summer we toured the Scottish-English borderlands, learning the country and visiting seventy-five castles and twenty-three abbeys (or their ruins). Her notes fill volumes.’

Wow! Now that’s dedication to one’s art if ever I heard it. And how many readers appreciate that unseen slog behind her entertaining books? Most like me, I’m sure, just love her feel-good tales as pure escapism.

‘Entertaining’ is not a word I’d use for this last book, however. In My Lord John the cast of characters (with their connections and titles) alone runs to 3 pages!

The language is of the period, the terms for clothes, furniture, food, customs, games, are unfamiliar – indeed, there’s a four-page glossary included. Titles, honours, dukedoms, even crowns, are lost and won on rumour, pique and expediency. Princelings are no older than my teenage grandson; brides are betrothed in the cradle, handed over to their husbands before they reach adolescence. Life, loyalty and allegiance are cheap. We hear today of our own Queen conferring titles, appointing knights to the Order of the Garter, granting folk castles and estates; in the 1500s these actions carried grave responsibilities, oaths were sworn, battles fought, rebellions were to be overcome.

Harsh times. Complex relationships with so many political and strategic as well as domestic alliances being forged. Heyer is to be commended for her diligence and mastery of the period, but given her legendary easy-reading style, I was rather disappointed by the lack of sparkle and pace in this one. It feels to me bogged down with scholarship. Definitely not an easy read; only my stubbornness made me persist to the bitter end. And even so I certainly wouldn’t fare well in the Mastermind black chair on the subject of Lord John of Bedford!

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Literary Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides book, Middlesex, is one of my top twenty favourites, so I naturally pounced on his third novel, The Marriage Plot, when I saw it in a bargain book shop for ¬£1. But … oh dear … it was only my Mastermind rule, (‘I’ve started so I’ll finish‘), that kept me reading. It’s very long (406 pages of tiny type), very dense, and for me not very satisfying. I try to be positive in recognition of the colossal amount of work that goes into writing a book, but this time I’m afraid I have to share more disappointment than praise.

Eugenides bookEssentially the story is of a love triangle set in Brown University in the 1980s with three idealistic young people in love with books and ideas. Leonard Bankhead is a clever scientist and charismatic loner. Madeleine Hanna is intensely attracted to him. But her old friend, theology student Mitchell Grammaticus is convinced Madeleine is destined to be with him. So far so standard. But this is no classic Victorian romance, and the book is literary rather than commercial fiction; I knew that, so why was I less than thrilled?

Eugenides is without doubt an accomplished author – he’s won prestigious prizes too – and he set the bar extremely high with his first novel, Middlesex. In The Marriage Plot his inclusion of wide-ranging and erudite detail – of place, literature, mental health, science, psychology, politics, history – is impressive. There was even an aspect of the story that was of particular interest to me: the unravelling of an illness, bipolar disorder, or as it was back then, manic depression, which he handles with enviable authenticity and sensitivity. I’ve seen the devastation this illness can cause, and Eugenides has captured its modus operandi without allowing it to override the central narrative thrust … goodness, I’ve adopted ponderous language myself now! Sorry.

There’s plenty of humour in the book too. At one point an eccentric elderly female scientist is interviewed following the announcement that she’s just won the Nobel prize:

‘Dr MacGregor, where were you when you heard the news?’

‘I was asleep. Just like I am right now.’

‘Could you tell us what your scientific work is all about?’

‘I could. But then you’d be asleep.’

‘What do you plan to do with the money?’

‘Spend it.’

And plenty of clever throw-away lines:

‘ … he didn’t so much run the class as observe it from behind the one-way mirror of his opaque personality.’

‘… moving in her hovercraft way owing to the long hem of her robe …’

‘Chaouen was painted light blue to blend in with the sky. Even the flies couldn’t find it.’

But as I ploughed laboriously through it I could identify increasingly with the heroine’s sentiments. Early on she attends a Semiotics class and gets bogged down in the abstruse use of language. She goes to the library to grab an ordinary comprehensible nineteenth century novel ‘to restore herself to sanity’. Ah, here was a story she could understand without effort, with people in it, something happening to them in a place resembling the world as she knew it. ‘How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative!’

At times with Eugenides’ book I felt myself drowning in the complexity of the allusions and profound thoughts. It just felt like too much hard work with too little reward. And I found it hard to care about the three central characters. Yes, I too wanted to escape into wickedly enjoyable narrative. How very low brow of me! But hey, come on, I did persevere to the bitter end. And the knitting for good causes grew apace.

As a reward to myself I bought a stack of more promising reading from another charity sale (it’s been a very busy week with special events for three charities I’m involved with). Goddard, Grisham and Coben are tried and tested favourite authors. Baldacci I’ve yet to sample. Joys in store … mmm.

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