Tag Archives: characterisation

Why I love Victorian paintings

I grew up with this picture:

The Travelling Companions

On Saturday mornings, while my sister was at youth orchestra, my father and I would often have a quick scour round the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was the galleries devoted to Victorian painting that I always loved the best and I was lucky because Birmingham had one of the best collections in the world. For me it was magical.

I loved those big necked Rosetti women with their flaming hair and pouty lips, (and possibly thyroid problems.) I loved  ”Christ in the Carpenter’s shop in Nazareth” by Holman Hunt and I loved Ford Maddox Ford’s “Work”, where the figure of a man dressed in women’s clothes slinks down the side of the composition to hide from the police. I loved the “Death of Chatterton”, with the chalk -faced poet stretched out on the couch beneath his attic window, looking so beautiful and romantic in death and I loved “The Last of England”, with the baby’s hand reaching out from under the mother’s wraps as the parents look mournfully out, surrounded by cabbages for the long voyage to goodness knows where. A terrible, sad tale indeed, but I never tired of looking at it and wondering.

The Last of England

I realise now these pictures turned me into a storyteller. They are seared in my brain. I can recite their contents like poems learnt off by heart. And those two sisters in grey silk by Egg, one asleep, one with her book – how I wondered who they were and where they were going. Were they sisters? Did they mind being dressed the same? What is she reading? Of what is the other one dreaming? The same questions still throw themselves at me and I long to answer them. Maude and Florence? Lucy and Susan? Mary and Kate? Who are you and what is your story? Do you love the same man? Does your mother favour one of you over the other? Have you enough money to last you through the winter in Rome?

Now I look for the people in the stories I write in Victorian paintings. Sometimes I even find them.

May I introduce to you Felix Carswell, the young hero of The Butchered Man?  I found him staring out at me in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I hope he approves of my biography of him.

The Butchered Man – buy here on Kindle, Smashwords and now in paperback

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Jane Austen and the long gap

I could not resist beginning a post about Jane Austen with this wonderful early illustration from Pride and Prejudice, which shows Lizzy telling Mr Bennet how Mr Darcy had helped Lydia and Whickham.

File:Pickering - Greatbatch - Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice - She then told him what Mr. Darcy had voluntarily done for Lydia.jpg

Cleary in the 1830′s the idea of a contemporary novel being a thing that could only ever be rooted in the period it was written or published did not apply. Hollywood did not have this problem either which gives us Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson in a similar high romantic mode in the movie of 1940.

Given our period accuracy fetishism it is quite interesting to  consider whether period inaccuracy has something to be said for it. Certainly an author as resonant as Jane Austen can survive the dress shapes being wrong, the furniture being wrong and the hair even more wrong. In that she is like Shakespeare – the stories are big enough to be played out in any world at any time. Pride and Prejudice in space perhaps? Emma in austerity Britain? (I do like that idea actually.)

I digress. What I wanted to consider in this piece was the long gap in Jane Austen’s writing career when she seems to have written nothing. Her father retired as a parson and they moved to Bath, which according to one biographer provoked a deep depression in Austen at being exiled from the only home she had ever known. According to another the period was a long one of revision of existing manuscripts and private writing.  I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two – a mixture of block and mid career reflection.

By this stage Jane Austen knew what she was doing as a writer. She had mastered her craft. She knew she could write. She had also been very productive and may have been feeling a little burnt out. She may have needed the time to grow her new ideas. Is  this what was happening in this long period of apparent silence? We can bet her mind was not silent, nor without new ideas forming.

I think we in the writing world have become a little hung up on the idea of visible productivity. There is a lot of be said for writing everyday – it keeps that side of you alive and creates a habit, but for a writer already as skilled as Jane Austen, it may not have been necessary. She had the necessary focus through long previous practice and instead of writing feverishly, she could allow ideas to gestate. This is such an important part of the process. Writing fiction is not just about writing stuff down. It is about story development and world building and deep characterization. Now, you can write all that down, but you can also hold it in your head and your heart and work it over and over again there. For a woman like Jane Austen this would have been a very real possibility and perhaps a necessity. Although there is some evidence she was excused some household duties to allow her to write, there were still daily obligations to be met – a certain amount of sewing for example. She was also a diligent pianist. From my experience both these activities are perfect for ‘writing in the head’ as we might call it.

When the Austens did return to the country, to Chawton, Austen began to produce again in earnest. What she did produce was a succession of masterpieces. Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion rank as some of the finest novels ever written in English. So the long gap, which may have been painful for her and frustrating at times, was also fertile. Novels as perfect as Emma do not arrive fully formed. They have to grow and evolve in the mind of the writer. This is what I think must have happened with Jane Austen.

The comfort we can draw from this is we should not always be afraid that we have not filled the blank page with words. Sometimes the words are not ready to come. Sometimes we do not have the space or the time in our lives to let them come. But we always have our minds and we can write in our heads no matter where we are or what we are doing.  The long gap can be turned to our advantage.

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Sensitivity or sensationalism? The dilemmas of storytelling.

Storms have been brewing in the world of BBC serial drama over the festive period. Firstly to mark 60 years of rural radio 4 soap, The Archers, the decision was taken to have one of the show’s most popular characters fall off a roof to his death. The untimely demise of Nigel, an aimiable toff, and wife of Elizabeth Archer provoked a howl of protest from the Twittersphere to the broadsheets. Only this morning in the Telegraph Alison Pearson accused the show’s producers of political correctness in piece called Ambridge and its putsch of the posh while complaints and laments continue to pile up on the BBC website when the actor who plays Nigel, Graham Seed explained how and why the decision had been made for him to leave the series.

However this fades in comparison to the fuss about Eastenders, which celebrated Christmas day with two birth scenes and then proceeded with a plot line over the next few days to extinguish one baby in a case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and then send the bereaved mother to kidnap the other newborn child. This story has received at time of writing at least 6000 complaints from the BBC, not least from Anne Diamond, who lost a baby in the same tragic circumstances and has campained ever since for research and understanding of such deaths.

According to a piece in the Guardian she

branded the plot “tacky sensationalism”. “I think it’s crass what they’ve done,” she told ITV1′s Daybreak.”I find it amazing that a cot death isn’t awful enough for any drama.” That they’ve had to actually make the cot death mother go slightly mad and then do a baby swap, is frankly offensive.”

The Guardian continues,

The Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths (FSID), which worked with EastEnders ahead of the story, has also spoken out about the storyline, stressing its involvement “was limited to advice on SIDS risk factors, bereavement and the involvement of health professionals and the police”.

The charity added in a statement: “FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific ‘baby-swap’ plotline. The behaviour and actions of Ronnie Mitchell are in no way ‘endorsed’ by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent.””

The BBC have apparently now been forced to cut short the storyline due to these complaints.

For a writer and storyteller it has been interesting to observe the arguments and emotions that these two dramatic story lines have evoked. It is in fact a powerful and heartening reminder of the meaning and value that people attach to their stories. These programmes, which are fictions, are significant parts of their lives. They love and hate the characters that the writers and actors create. They are enthralled and involved by the events portrayed. They care about those fictional worlds and their inhabitants and draw solace, distraction and amusent from them. In the case of the death of Nigel Pargetter there is a real sense of loss and indignation that someone that they have allowed into their lives has been disposed of so callously by the powers that be. To many listeners it is a betrayal.

As a result, as storytellers, we have to remember that our task is a delicate one. A shocking storyline is always a great temptation. I have done horrible things to my own characters in my time and been berated by readers for it. There is always a danger of going too far and forgetting the impression that such events cause, or worse still, thinking gleefully “that’ll make ‘em cry.” Of course there must be drama, there must be heartache, there must be shock and awe, despair and triumph. We have to make things happen. We do not want anodyne fiction where tea cups clink together and passion is banished. But there are lines which we cross at our peril. The great trouble is that those lines are very often invisible.

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Nasty or nice?

I have just been reading a sample of Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” on my new Kindle (more on this later) and I have to confess now that I shall not persist with it.

Why not? It is not that it is not extremely well written. It is. It is full of acute social observation, detailing life amongst the middle class intelligensia. It is spot on in its satire, and crammed full of domestic detail. Usually this is the stuff I love – a rich- textured, lovingly rendered world. But I know I don’t want to read on because the characters just don’t work for me. Mostly I don’t like them. I wouldn’t want to have them as my neighbours, which is ironic since this is a book about a neighbourhood.

I have my doubts that this is a valid criticism on my part. In great literature, the thing to which Franzen, no doubt, aspires, is the likeability of the characters really the most important thing? He is aiming after veracity in his depiction of humanity and I am sure Freedom is full of that, and it will be very unpalatable, even if very well done. So I am sorry I shan’t read it.

This makes me feel like a coward in terms of literature. Perhaps I am, but I do want something for my trouble when I read a novel these days. I don’t want to spend time with people who leave me cold or whom I actively dislike. I want to be pulled into a world and care about what happens to those people. I wanted to care about the people in Franzen’s Ramsay Hill, but I couldn’t. They repelled rather than attracted me.

I think this is a big question that all writers have to deal with, because real people are often extremely unpleasant, and it is often such extreme people who cause all the conflict and chaos in life. They are subjects of fascination for anyone who is a student of human nature, and I would say that any fiction writer or storyteller is that. To what extent do we make our characters palatable to our readers? Is it an abnegation of our responsibility as writers to make at least some of the people in the story aimiable and sympathetic?

In popular fiction likeable characters are essential. The vast majority of the book-buying audience expects and desires it to be so. They want people they can emphasise with and root for. The rules of popular storytelling see no the point of putting an unlikable character in a life and death situation or giving them a heart breaking moral dilemma to deal with. The point of such stories is that you do care and by caring you feel the pain and the anxiety and misery along with the characters. But what about in Literature with a capital L. Surely that does not need to be made palatable for weak minded souls like me? That would be sugar-coating the pill and real art, great art does not compromise, surely?

I think the great novels are those where the subtlest balance is achieved between telling the truth about people and making us care; those novels where we can love the characters but also see that they are portrayed with blistering honesty. Take Middlemarch by George Eliot for example. She does not spare Dorothea or Lydgate the brutal exposure of their follies, yet we still fall for them. They are idealists who make silly mistakes. I supsect if Dorothea or Lydgate were co-workers you would go home and complain about them, but George Eliot makes us care, she makes us want to befriend them, to worry about them, to wince when they make those terrible mistakes. Who has not exclaimed with horror at Dorothea’s decision to marry Causabon?

For a slightly different approach we might look at Wuthering Heights. Here the central protagonists Heathcliffe and Cathy are a pair of pyschopaths. They are not people you would want to know socially and yet their appalling behaviour, their destructive yet inevitable passion is the absolute and memorable core of the novel. But Emily Bronte has a trick to make it bearable, to keep us on board. She presents them to us through her narrators, firstly the sophisticated and urbane Lockwood (who seems to have strayed from a novel by Jane Austen) and then Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, who witnesses much of the action first hand. Both Lockwood and Nelly are in their different ways extremely likeable. In this way, Emily Bronte gives us people to care about and to admire, while at the same time presenting an unflinching portrait of people behaving very badly indeed.

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The Servant Question

Update: Downton Abbey is now in Season 2, having picked up a clutch of awards, and is scheduled for a 2 hour Christmas special. Whatever one thinks about the actually quality of the writing, (and I have to say I am very underwhelmed by it) the popularity of the show, especially its glamorous look and feel, shows that the hunger for nostalgic escapism remains unabated.

Coming to ITV this Autumn. A major new drama production written and created by Julian Fellowes. Julian is best known for 'Gosford Park', 		  which won a plethora of awards, not least an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2001.

Lovers of period drama are in for a potential treat this coming autumn with the BBC and ITV going head to head with star studded slices of costumed loveliness, with the BBC reviving Upstairs Downstairs, with Jean Marsh as the housekeeper, and the ITV offering, pictured above.

How successful these two offering prove remains to be seen, but it reminded me I had reviewed a previous revival of this particular genre, which we might the period domestic soap opera. This was Servants, written by Lucy Gannon.. Servants, if you don’t remember it, was an attempt explore the life of domestic servant in the nineteenth century in a very radical way, and ran for only one series. My article below suggests some reasons for its failure. I shall be watching with interest to see how the two new autumn offerings deal with their subject. It was written in 2003, and there has been a lot more tv drama and living history that has flowed under the bridge since then, but I stand by many of my original observations. I am intending to cover some of the more recent attempts to deal with history on television in a future post. Continue reading

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