Hazel McHaffie

Jane Austen

Boosting brain power

What are you reading at the moment? Nothing trashy I hope! As if!

Pride and PrejudiceMaybe it’s a spot of Jane Austen, as this week we’re celebrating 200 years since she published Pride and Prejudice, surely one of the best loved classics of all time. And certainly a great favourite with me.

But hey, did you know that perusing classical writing such as Shakespeare, TS Eliot and Wordsworth (the unabridged genuine article, I mean, none of your noddy versions) can give your grey cells a rocket-boost? Research has shown it’s so. And remember … in these dark days of economic austerity, somebody somewhere forked out good money – lots of it – to fund this study. (No sniffing on the back row.) Anyway, academics at Liverpool University with yards of degrees used up-to-the-minute technology with MRI brain scanners to study this phenomenon, so who am I to argue? The beneficial effect apparently comes when the reader happens upon unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structures. Bits of the brain light up, and the brain shifts into a higher gear which primes the mind to attend more closely and encourages further reading and self-reflection.

Try reading one of the test passages from King Lear yourself:King Lear

‘A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded.’  Did you light up?

Now substitute a modern word: ‘A father and a gracious aged man: him have you enraged’. Feel the difference?

Apparently the former is better for you. Roll on enlightenment, huh?

D’you reckon that’s why 7,000 copies of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey were left behind in Travelodges last year? Not enough brain-buzz?

Has anyone seen my copy of Notes upon some of the obscure Passages in Shakespeare’s Plays; with Remarks upon the Explanations and Amendments of the Commentators in the Editions of 1785, 1790, 1793? If you were the guilty party wot borrowed it, please return it forthwith.

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A dramatic start to 2012


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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Honour killing

If you are of a sensitive disposition and a member of the female persuasion you might choose to look away NOW – you can come in again at the asterisk below.

Ahah! Did you think I was going to talk about the BBC documentary on assisted suicide? Sir Terry Pratchett investigating the experience of the Dignitas option in Switzerland? Yes, I know it’s my kind of subject, but it seems to be being done to death (sorry!) elsewhere, so I’m not. Besides I feel too disturbed about what I saw to write about it at the moment.

No, today I’m turning my beady eye onto a different controversy. Women: their status,  their potential, and how they’re treated.

I didn’t go to the Hay Festival this year, but I did follow reports of it. So I heard about VS Naipaul (winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature)  insulting women big time. None of them, past or present,  could possibly be as great as he is, he declared. Full stop. (He even singled out Jane Austen as way beneath him. Jane Austen!!)

Of course, as you probably know, his history is littered with offended people. Why, his own philosophy includes: ‘If a writer doesn’t generate hostility, he is dead’.

But this time his boasting about his own achievements and his relegation of all women writers as doomed to inferiority by their ‘sentimental’ attitudes and ‘narrow view of life’, hit the raw nerves of way over half the population.  He even compounded his sweeping assertion with this partial explanation: ‘And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too‘. Hello?!!

OK, you might say, what would you expect from someone whose private life is a study in misogyny and discrimination? Well, I for one would prefer to see great talent and acclaim generating humility and gratitude and deference to the success of others. Not arrogance, unwholesome pride and cruelty. End of rant.

*(Those females of a sensitive disposition may re-enter the fray here.)

So I turned with relief to a story of the suppression of women which sets a context of triumph over evil and the power of love.

A Thousand Splendid Suns‘For almost three decades now, the Afghan refugee crisis has been one of the most severe around the globe. War, hunger, anarchy, and oppression forced millions of people to abandon their homes and flee Afghanistan to settle in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. At the height of the exodus, as many as eight million Afghans were living abroad as refugees.’ So says Khaled Hosseini in the afterword to his novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and became US goodwill envoy to the UN Refugee Agency, so he speaks with both knowledge and sincerity. That authenticity shines through the story of the illegitimate Mariam, the ill-fated childhood sweethearts Laila and Tariq, the troubled children, Aziza and Zalmai. As does the author’s empathy and humanity.

But it’s the quiet depiction of abject poverty, of domestic brutality and female suppression, of sacrificial marriage between young teenagers and much older men, that makes this book the moving and sensitive tale it is. We in the UK read of honour killing with horror in our hearts, but Hosseini conveys quite masterfully the essence of a culture that permits such acts. We see how it happens that wives submit to constant abuse, husbands lock their wives out of sight, fathers kill or reject their daughters, and laws condone such discrimination.

Hosseini’s understated prose is eloquent in its simplicity.

Laila marvels that ‘… every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet … people find a way to survive, to go on.’

Mariam’s mother warns her from infancy: ‘Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.’

One of the judges in the trial of Mariam years later says, ‘God has made us differently, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proved this. This is why we require only one male witness and two female ones.’

Naipaul would fit right in here, wouldn’t he?

As the cover says: ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns is an unforgettable portrait of a wounded country and a deeply moving story of family and friendship. It is a beautiful, heart-wrenching story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely bond and an indestructible love.’ Indeed it is.

And all the reader’s sympathies are with the downtrodden women. I salute Hosseini as a true master-storyteller.  As for self-acclaimed Naipaul, well, his ranting and posturing say much more about him than about women.

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Better to remain silent

I’m a subscriber to the old English proverb: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

And I love Ecclesiastes‘ lyrical ‘To everything there is season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven …’ which includes ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak …

But I suspect Harper Lee took this a bit too far. She was a literary sensation with her 1960 debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It became an immediate classic; she had the world at her feet. After winning the Pulitzer Prize no less, she talked of becoming the ‘Jane Austen of south Alabama.’ No pressure then.

But … there was no next novel. The author (who’s now 85) hasn’t agreed to an interview since 1964 at which time she was writing her second book, The Long Goodbye, and expressed a pious hope that she would do the best she could with the talent God had given her. She’s won numerous awards since but yet maintained her silence. Theories abound: fame killed off any subsequent masterpiece; she couldn’t face a loss of prestige; she had a serious case of writers’ block lasting decades; she hadn’t actually written Mockingbird; the manuscripts are stacked up not to be published till after her death … Who knows?

Now, apparently, she’s cooperated in a forthcoming biography of her life by journalist Marja Mills, so we could soon know the truth. But doesn’t this underline the truth of the proverb? Once she opens her mouth and explains the mystery we will know if she was indeed a fool. Until then there is still room for doubt.

As for me, I shall endeavour to remember the adage about keeping silence if/when I win the Man Booker. (Cue muffled snorting.)

No danger there, of course, but I must confess, I have no ambitions in that direction. The Man Booker titles rarely do anything for me – with a few notable exceptions. You’re too low-brow by half, I hear you cry. You’re right; I know I am. A literary philistine, a heretic – you name it, I am it. I do try to take an intelligent interest in what’s deemed good writing, returning to the lists with monotonous regularity.

The Finkler QuestionIndeed, I’ve just finished reading The Finkler Question, which according to the Guardian is ‘full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness.‘ And in the opinion of the Independent: ‘Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.

Hmmm. Let’s just say I struggled to stay attentive. I was sorely tempted to wander off and do other things like dusting or weeding or cleaning the shoes, by way of light relief. Every now and then I thought, Wow, beautiful writing, or What a penetrating insight. Several times I laughed out loud. But overall, it’s been something of a slog. Me, I like a book to hook me in and not let me go until the last page. How the judges trawl through a stack of these tomes one after the other is beyond my comprehension. Could this be a factor in the final decision, d’you think?

There, I’ve tolled my own death knell.

Like I said: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

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Reality or fantasy?

There’s been a real battle raging in my head and heart this week. All because of a wedding. No, not that wedding; my niece’s nuptials.

The event was near London, so we decided to take a leisurely route travelling down, and do a little exploring along the way. Fine in principle. There is still so much of this island we haven’t seen.

But what I didn’t bargain for was my brain seizing on ideas and galloping off into new creative realms, leaving me swithering between reality and fantasy and doing neither proper justice.blossom at AlnwickAfter wandering round the lovely grounds, As I listened to graphic tales of deadly plants in the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle Gardens, in Northumberland, (famous now as Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films) my mind raced with possibilities for a tale of a breathtakingly audacious murder. A little of this, a little of that, titrated into a rich aromatic curry …

IMG_1872 The water cascade Gazing at the changing patterns of the amazing water features in the ornamental gardens took me into Jane Austen/Jeffery Farnol territory and I was mentally scribbling formal dialogue between muslin-clad teenagers and fancy waistcoated dandies, wandering through the bamboo maze, sketching the turrets and towers, taking tea in the shade of these very same boughs.

Woolsthorpe ManorPeering into the gloom of Isaac Newton’s rudimentary study at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, standing inches away from the centuries-old rustic furniture of his home, the imagination conjured up rural scenes of yesteryear. A young man lost in philosophical realms, experimenting with prisms, pondering the skies, forgetting his farmland responsibilities, sitting under this famous tree being hit by the famous apple …Newton's TreeThe despair of his widowed mother … a landlord bending to extract the dog-eared account book from the drawer of the rent-chair … the bleary-eyed maid stirring the simmering pot of stew at 4am, staggering back to her truckle bed, forgetting to pull the ropes under her mattress tight … the young master finding her …

So many stories, lurking just beneath the surface; such a wealth of research material there for the picking. It was hard to keep dragging myself back to the real world, and adjusting to the everyday 21st century with its deadlines and digital cameras, its mobile phones and motorway traffic. I had to escape periodically, wander off on my own, scribble some notes, let the pictures fade, before I was ready for normal trivial conversation.

The morning of the wedding though, had to be uncomplicated. This was 16 April 2011 after all – a day we’d had on the calendar for ages. I was determined. Now was the time to focus on corsages and buttonholes, cufflinks and waistcoats, fascinators and seating plans, the hymns and order of service … But then my niece, the bride, appears on the arm of her father and she looks as if she’s stepped straight out of a bygone era …

Ah me, the imagination is a wonderful thing. It got me into all sorts of trouble when I was a child. The years have taught me how to harness it for good much of the time, but there are occasions when I am less in this world than I should be. Re-entry can be painful and confusing, but I wouldn’t trade my old-fashioned imaginator, a free gift from my parents, for any modern gizmo, no matter its price!

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A stately measure

I’m rather partial to stately homes and beautiful gardens. So a trip to the Borders to visit Mellerstain House, home to the 13th Earl and Countess of Haddington, was just what the doctor ordered in a rather fraught week.

It’s about thirty years since I last went, and it more than lived up to my memory of it. A fabulous castellated mansion (one of Robert and William Adam’s finest works) – exquisite ceilings and fireplaces, unusual woodwork (I’d never even heard of Manchineel wood), centuries-old damask wall coverings, countless portraits, stunning garden views. But with a lovely lived-in feel, and friendly people everywhere ready to inform and guide.Mellerstain House

It was originally built in 1725. And as ever, I stood lost in wonder at the vision and skill of architects who could create such loveliness. But I also went back in my imagination to the scenes created by contemporary authors 300 years ago.

We’re talking about the time of Queen Anne (her name always conjures up the nonsense poem I learned at school about Sir Smasham-up! Remember?
A chair-allow me, sir!…Great Scott!
That was a nasty smash! Eh, what?
Oh, not at all: the chair was old –
Queen Anne, or so we have been told.
We’ve got at least a dozen more:
Just leave the pieces on the floor
I digress. The time of Queen Anne and the first two King Georges. The age of enlightenment and reason.

With books increasingly easy to make and buy – as you sense in the library at Mellerstain too, with its hundreds of ancient tomes protected by grilles. Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift … it was their era.

But most especially I could easily picture Jane Austen’s immortal heroes and heroines mincing and languishing in the rooms and gardens of Mellerstain. (OK, OK, I know she wasn’t born until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, but she fits with the period of architecture, so allow me a little bit of latitude.)

Roses at MellerstainI envisaged demure maidens in want of a husband, playing the spinet, embroidering the samplers and bed curtains, gazing along the immaculate garden to the folly, engineering chance encounters under parasols with eligible young men in the shrubbery.

The LakeThere was even the lake for Mr Darcy to cool his ardour in – although he’d have been draped in duckweed if he’d come up out of these waters!

For a few hours it was easy to forget the hustle and bustle of twenty first century life, all the problems of an economic recession, and just enter that romantic age.

Romantic? Hello? As it says in the one rudimentary washroom at Mellerstain, complete with portable baths: it was unusual to find a bathroom in houses of the period. I shudder to think of the reality. But that’s the power of good fiction.

A perfect combination then: an afternoon dreaming amidst grandeur and history, reliving some of my favourite novels; an evening in all the luxury and convenience of the present day – my own modest home! My equilibrium was restored.

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A truth not universally acknowledged

This weekend I watched the film, Becoming Jane. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it depicts Jane Austen’s own ill-fated romance. The heroine is rather more feisty, and definitely more beautiful, than I always imagine her to be, but many of the other players in her personal story are instantly recognisable as prototypes for the characters that populate Austen’s famous novels.

Why do I draw attention to it? Because the dialogue is superb (wish I could write like that!) and there are several delicious moments that reminded me of how lucky we – especially women writers – are to be living in this generation rather than in the eighteenth century. Two tasters …

At one point in the film, an imperious woman of high social standing, Lady Gresham, (played to perfection by Maggie Smith) visits Jane at home, with the intention of inspecting the girl who has captured her nephew’s interest.

Lady Gresham: My nephew, Miss Austen, condescends far indeed in offering to the daughter of an obscure and impecunious clergyman.
Jane Austen: Impecunious? Your Ladyship is mistaken.
Lady Gresham: I am never mistaken.
Jane darts off to jot down her thoughts.
Mrs. Austen: JANE!
Lady Gresham: What is she doing?
Mr. Wisley: Writing.
Lady Gresham: Can anything be done about it?

Brilliant! Can it, indeed?

Later Jane meets another woman writer, Mrs Radcliffe, who has made something of a name for herself.

John Warren: And the famous Mrs. Radcliffe, is she as Gothic as her novels?
Jane Austen: Not in externals. But her internal landscape is, I suspect, quite picturesque.
Mrs Radcliffe herself tells Jane that where her experience is lacking, imagination must take over – a perilous notion in those days.
Mrs. Radcliffe: To have a wife who has a mind is considered not quite proper. To have a wife with a literary reputation, nothing short of scandalous.

It is a truth not universally acknowledged that our own present rights and freedoms have been built upon the courage and sacrifice of our predecessors.



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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