by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

Jane Austen's Afterlife

Posted 30 June 2008 in by Catriona

What is it about Jane Austen that prompts so many people to take her world as the basis for their own works?

(Admittedly, that’s largely a rhetorical question. I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know if there is a single answer to that question; I doubt there is.)

But it fascinates me. What is is about that England that Austen created—an England hovering somewhere in the thirty years that made up the late eighteenth century and the Regency, an England that, excepting some encamped soldiers and Anne Wentworth’s vague fears for her husband’s future, seems so isolated from the Napoleonic Wars—that so fascinates authors seeking a world in which to place their own characters?

Make no mistake: I revere Austen, but not without some reservations.

Pride and Prejudice I will say nothing against: I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book, and it delights me every time. I see no flaw in it. (Excepting, perhaps, John Sutherland’s apt question in one of his books of Victorian literary puzzles: who does betray Elizabeth Bennett? Who tells Lady Catherine of the likelihood of her marrying Darcy? But that’s a small question.)

When Nick and I watched the recent BBC adaptation—I’d seen it before; Nick had not—I thought at first it would be a failure; the first installment failed to draw Nick into the narrative. But when, at midnight, we got to the end of the third episode and I suggested we go to bed, he looked at me as though I’d suddenly gone insane: “But she’s just rejected Darcy’s proposal!” It took us until 3 a. m., but we watched it all. Apparently, Austen can even amuse a man who won’t buy a book that doesn’t have a spaceship on the cover.

Sense and Sensibility I re-read quite often, as well, despite the fact that Elinor is really too sensible and Marianne too much a victim of sensibility—and that the marriages are rather unsatisfactory.

Northanger Abbey is hilarious, and I’m partial to Persuasion, as well—it’s gentle and melancholic, but the heroine is delightful and the happy ending satisfying.

I’m less enthusiastic about Emma, although I’m aware that that’s rather an unpopular opinion. It just seems to me that Emma is less lively and intelligent than she is callous in her prosperity and actively cruel to the less fortunate. I find it difficult to re-read Emma without skipping over that final act of wanton unpleasantness to poor, dependent, scatter-brained Miss Bates.

The one that causes me real problems, though, is Mansfield Park—I can’t stop reading it, and yet it drives me mad. I feel as though there must be a key to it that I haven’t yet picked up; I can’t quite believe that the woman who created Elizabeth Bennett created weak, passive-aggressive Fanny Price and expected us to sympathise with her.

(Janet Todd’s Women’s Friendship in Literature—although almost thirty years old now—has a fascinating section on critics’ responses to Fanny, which she divides into “the hostile critics who find her distasteful or nauseating,” “the approving critics, who find Fanny the true embodiment of the ideals of the novel,” and “the ironic critics who consider Fanny fatally flawed, an ironic creation of Austen” (246-47 n.1). The debate, indeed, is analogous to that which raged around Pamela’s marriage to Squire B. in Richardson’s novel. While I can’t say that Fanny thought to make a small fortune through her face but now thinks to make a large one through her vartue—a paraphrase, since I can’t find my copy of Henry Fielding’s Shamela—I certainly think she plays her cards very cleverly. It’s what I’ve seen elsewhere called “the tyranny of the weak,” and it works—but how will Edmund stand living with a wife who becomes faint every time she’s faced with something she doesn’t fancy doing?)

But my interests aside, what is it that prompts so many authors to use Austen’s settings and characters for their own works?

I don’t even know how many have done so, but consider this—a certainly incomplete list gleaned from Amazon.com:

  • Skylar Hamilton Burris has written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice called Conviction, which focuses on the marital opportunities for Darcy’s sister—and I sincerely hope that it is only in the Amazon blurb, and not in the novel itself, that her name is mis-spelt as “Georgianna.”
  • Helen Halstead has written a sequel to Pride and Prejudice as Mr Darcy Presents His Bride.
  • both Pamela Aidan and Amanda Grange have “rewritten” the novel from Mr Darcy’s perspective, the former as a trilogy under the umbrella title Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman and the latter as Mr Darcy’s Diary.
  • in what to my mind is the most disturbing of these examples, Linda Berdoll has carried on the original novel in two sequels: Mr Darcy Takes a Wife and Darcy and Elizabeth: Days and Nights at Pemberley. Does that second title give anything away? Does it help if I mention that the first key term that Amazon lists under the title is “physical congress”? I’m sure I wish Darcy and Elizabeth all the happiness in the world—but I don’t want to read about it.

I’m quite sure that’s not a full list—and that’s only the Pride and Prejudice spin-offs.

I don’t imagine that Austen alone is subject to this type of response: I shudder to imagine how many times Wuthering Heights has been re-written from Heathcliff’s perspective or provided with a sequel.

But I do wonder why.

I’m not interested in these re-writings and sequels. I’m not entirely immune to the attractions of the world; I’ve read a completion of Sanditon that, while not Austen, was smooth and enjoyable; I wouldn’t be adverse to reading Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries; and I read and enjoyed the first in Carrie Bebris’s Mr and Mrs Darcy Mysteries, which is what prompted this post.

Is Bebris’s work Austen? Of course not.

Do I think Elizabeth Bennett would ever have said “it’s a really shiny stick” (46)? Probably not: that use of “really” is too colloquial, it seems to me, for the period.

Is the strong supernatural aspect to the mysteries in keeping with Austen’s world view? No: but, then, this isn’t Austen.

I have no real point to make here: just some confusion to express about the proliferation of works that adopt, manipulate, or radically rework Austen’s individual version of English society in the production of modern narratives.

Certainly, Austen is marvellous. But do people do this with Charles Dickens? And if not, why not?

Judging A Book By Its Cover

Posted 27 June 2008 in by Catriona

It never fails: I no sooner actually write a post about how I have nothing to post about than I think of fifteen different possibilities for entries.

In this case, though, I was sitting this afternoon desultorily flipping through the rats’ packs in Packrat—hoping a raincloud would pop up for me, but it never did—when I kept focusing on Judging A Book By Its Cover, a collection of essays edited by Nicole Matthews and Nickianne Moody that I recently reviewed for M/C Reviews.

I’m fascinated by reader-response work—though frequently horribly frustrated by it, as well—and it formed a key element of my thesis.

I’m also fascinated by the marketing of fiction, though not quite in the same way as the essays covered in Judging A Book By Its Cover, which focuses largely on twentieth-century publications: my nineteenth-century interests have more to do with advertising and networks of authorship than with graphic design.

But the book did make me realise that I have some books with truly hideous covers on my shelves.

(Of course, I also have a wide number of books with gorgeous covers; I may do a companion post once I’ve finished this one.)

These aren’t the worst, but they’re all fairly awful.

Of course, picking a 1970s reprint of an Agatha Christie novel is rather like shooting fish in a barrel; they’re all dreadful, really.

But this is one of the worst:

That poor owl.

I haven’t actually read this novel, I’m ashamed to admit (I only picked it up in May this year, judging by my inscription) so I have no idea whether a brutally murdered owl is central to the plot, but it’s certainly not something you want to look at on your bedside table as you’re dropping off to sleep.

Of course, I picked Endless Night over two others, which I think have much more revolting covers: Lord Edgeware Dies shows the back of a man’s head with a knife sticking out of the nape of his neck, while By The Pricking Of My Thumbs gives prime position to the broken, dirty head of a porcelain doll.

(That latter instance may not freak out other people as it does me, but creepy dolls are right up there with clowns in the terror factor, as far as I’m concerned.)

Either way, neither of them were images that I wanted on the blog.

If 1970s’ Agatha Christies are too easy a target, so are 1980s’ Rex Stouts. At least Endless Night probably never stood a chance. The image above is from a 1971 reprint, but the novel itself was published in 1967, and would almost certainly have always had a hideous cover.

But this cover of Some Buried Caesar is a 1982 reprint of one of the earliest Nero Wolfe mysteries, from 1938:

By all rights, this should have some lovely, elegant typography and minimalist artwork. Instead, we have a grimacing man about to be speared by a pitchfork (if it helps, he’s already dead. Spoiler!) and a fairly ugly font.

It doesn’t really seem fair, for one of the funniest and cleverest of the Wolfe mysteries.

But then, I revere Stout, so perhaps I’m taking up the cudgels on his behalf a little too readily.

But then, I also revere Sayers, and I’ve included this in the list:

This, like Stout, is a 1980s’ reprint of a 1930s’ novel: in this case, the 1988 edition of 1937’s Busman’s Honeymoon. They’re dreadful editions—the type of paperbacks where the glue shatters after a decade, so every time you read it subsequently there’s a constant gentle rain of yellowish fragments into your lap.

Really, it doesn’t look as bad as the preceding examples. The font is rather pretty and period appropriate, and I rather like the portrait of Wimsey, although I suspect it flatters him.

But it gives away vital information.

Sayers’s (or rather, Wimsey’s) technique comes down to this: when you know how, you know who. This cover, then, gives away the murderer, if you read it the right way. And that always irritates me. (My copy of Ngaio Marsh’s Grave Mistake does the same: it’s as though they were designed by people who went on to write programme promos for Channel 7. But then Marsh’s title is a dead giveaway, as well.)

Still on the crime theme, how about a late edition Trixie Belden? This one’s from 1984: there’s no evidence that it’s a reprint and it’s a late title in the series, so it looks as though someone deliberately marketed a new title with this cover.

I mentioned in my second post on Tunnels the widely popular belief that boys won’t read books with girl protagonists—I wonder if that’s behind the androgynous image of Trixie in the middle of the cover.

I mean, I know she’s a tomboy, but honestly. She looks like Jimmy Olsen.

She’s more feminine in the bottom picture, assuming that’s her in the bottom-left corner next to Honey Wheeler.

Still, I’ve saved the best for last. This, I suspect, is the worst cover on my entire bookshelf:

This is a reprint—undated, alas—in the Abbey Rewards series, a series of reprinted novels sharply divided on gender lines: the list of “Girls’ Fiction” on the back includes Rosamund Takes The Lead, Sidney Seeks Her Fortune, and Polly of Primrose Hill, while “Boys’ Fiction” encourages them to read Adrift in the Stratosphere, Wreckers’ Bay, and Berenger’s Toughest Case.

The book itself is an inoffensive if unoriginal school story, but the cover is nightmarish.

No—I’ve unwittingly told a lie.

What Katy Did Next (1886) is the third of Susan Coolidge’s five novels about the Carr children and their lives in New England in the 1860s.

What Katy Did Next, actually, shows Katy travelling to Europe and meeting a handsome naval lieutenant with whom she could live happily ever after.

Some time in the distant past, I bought a copy of What Katy Did Next from this Abbey Rewards series.

If I hadn’t subsequently removed it from the house on the grounds that the enormous eyes and hideously disproportionate heads scared me witless, that would certainly have been the gem of this list.

Lessons I Have Learned From Reading Girls' School Stories

Posted 25 June 2008 in by Catriona

I sometimes claim to collect girls’ school stories. But, deep down, I know “collect” is far too grand a term: it also implies some degree of discretion and selectivity. Really, I just buy whatever I come across and then read it.

But, collector or not, I do have an entire bookcase filled with girls’ school stories—only a small bookcase, but still—ranging from Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, Little Female Academy (1749: said, in the introduction to my 1968 Oxford reprint, to be the first full-length novel written explicitly for children and, therefore, the first girls’ school story as well) to a much more modern series in which the girls all have boyfriends from a local boys’ school (unthinkable, in the Enid Blyton model!) and in which the hockey team is rather unfortunately called the Trebizon Tramps.

(Apparently, the Trebizon books were published between 1978 and 1994, but the few volumes I have are all from the 1980s.)

One argument that could be made against girls’ school stories as a genre is that they have a tendency to be formulaic. The same argument is often levelled against detective fiction, and it can be countered in the same way: certainly, the banal ones are formulaic, but a clever author working in an established genre can do much to subvert the reader’s expectations.

But that’s not really the point. I just like reading them, much as I like reading stories about plucky girl detectives, and therefore own a scary quantity of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden novels.

And I have, over the years, culled a number of valuable life lessons from my reading of girls’ school stories, which will allow you to navigate life in a girls’ boarding school, should such a thing be necessary.

1. Midnight feasts must always include boiled eggs, sardines, biscuits, cake (preferably left over from somebody’s birthday, the celebration of which is the best reason for holding a midnight feast), boiled sweets, and tinned pineapple.

It may include bottled ginger beer, which allows a certain enjoyable hysteria to infiltrate the party through the fear that a mistress may hear the tops popping off and come to investigate. However, a midnight feast has more cachet if you manage to coax the cook into making fresh lemonade.

But a midnight feast should never, ever involve cooking sausages. This can only lead directly to disaster.

2. Midnight feasts should never be held anywhere near a swimming pool. This will also end in disaster. Plus, schoolgirls are hearty enough, without needing to hold swimming races at midnight.

3. If you develop a passionate friendship (or, more accurately, a “pash”) with another girl in the school, the object of your affections is significantly more likely than her schoolfellows to die in a freak cross-country skiing accident.

(Seriously. I wish I could remember the name of the book in which this was the main life lesson, but they all blur into each other after a few years.)

4. Mysterious men who hang around the school for no apparent reason are invariably either

a. planning to steal the school’s silver tennis trophies, in which case the school’s rebel should thwart his purpose and thus transform herself the school’s heroine, or

b. the long-lost and extremely wealthy relative of the girl who has just arrived at the school from somewhere in the Antipodes, and is busy not only shocking the school with the freedom of her colonial manners but also winning all their cricket matches through her mysterious power of “spin bowling.”

5. If an unusually tall and strong girl arrives at the school, another student will almost certainly fall over a cliff or be trapped in a burning building at some point during the coming term.

This outcome is inevitable if the unusually tall girl has a famous mountaineer for a father.

6. Unusually tall and strong girls also have problems with anger management. Why bad tempers are associated with physical strength is never explained in the books.

I suspect steroids.

7. School bullies are always motivated by jealousy of the other girls’ prettiness, because they themselves invariably have poor complexions and greasy hair. Their bullying can be stopped if you tell them firmly to stop eating chocolates and brush their hair one hundred times before bed every night.

8. If the school is divided into different houses for sporting events, one house will always be subject to the scorn of the others. This will stop when the members of the disdained house show an unusual talent for handicrafts, thus saving the school’s annual charity sale.

9. French mistresses are always either plump and cheerful or thin and cranky. In either case, they are the best subjects for practical jokes, because French mistresses are thoroughly credulous, and can be made to believe in anything from imaginary odours to self-propelled crockery.

If you have more than one French mistress, the two will usually be fierce enemies. You can use this to your advantage in practical jokes.

10. Most schools have girls who fall into the following categories: a skilled artist; a mathematical genius, who is often an excellent musician as well; a clever writer; a talented sportswoman; a practical joker; and a skilled needlewoman.

All of these will come in handy when you inevitably have to put on a pantomime in your fifth year.

If your school was founded by Enid Blyton, you stand a good chance of finding that one of your classmates used to ride bareback in a circus. She may also be of Spanish or gypsy ethnicity, and will therefore have a fiery and uncontrollable temper, even if she is not unusually tall.

11. Occasionally, a school will allow in a girl whose working-class father has made an enormous amount of money. She will not, of course, “fit into” the school, and may spend most of her time boasting about what her father can afford to buy.

If this is the case, it is in no way repellent for you to respond, “Really? Can he afford to buy himself a few hundred hs?

In fact, your classmates will ignore the egregious classism and applaud your quick wit.

Of course, the girl will almost certainly be expelled for bringing the school into disrepute—the headmistress will describe her as a “failed experiment”—so you need to make that remark early in the term.

12. If any of your classmates run away from school, there’s no need to be alarmed: they will certainly have forgotten to check on local public transport, and can easily be collected from the local train station.

13. One of your classmates will sleepwalk. This is usually a sign that they’re being pushed beyond their endurance by ambitious parents or ignored by parents who blame them for the death of a favoured sibling. These parents will be in no way affronted if you send them a letter pointing out the flaws in their parenting practices.

14. If your school has an unusual location, be aware that this is a sign that you may face certain challenges. Schoolgirls in Austria, for example, need to be prepared for everything from attending the Passion Play in Oberammergau to facing down Nazis. Schoolgirls who live in a former Cistercian abbey, on the other hand, face the threat of becoming entangled in the English folk-dancing revival.

I leave it to you to decide which is worse.

15. Finally, if your best friend is unusually beautiful and generally beloved, beware: she will almost certainly not “play the game,” and you will have to jeopardise your own place in the school to protect her from the consequences of her folly.

A Strange Excursion into Reader-Response Theory

Posted 17 June 2008 in by Catriona

For once, I haven’t doubled up any of books at the Lifeline Bookfest, not even The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as I initially feared.

And, as I alluded in my earlier post, buying Phineas Redux did complete my collection of the Pallister series; I’ve now found the other five—which were, naturally enough, stored far apart from one another, on completely different bookcases, and, in fact, in completely different rooms—so I can assert its completion confidently now.

Of course, they’re largely different editions, which is annoying in a series of books: half of them are Oxford paperbacks, but in two different versions, and another two are inexpensive Wordsworth reprints.

But the one I’m thinking of replacing is the Panther edition—a television tie-in edition from 1975—of the first novel, Can You Forgive Her?

But not because it’s a television tie-in; I don’t particularly like that, but it’s not sufficient cause to replace the book.

No, it’s because of the introduction by Simon Raven, who had a hand in the adaptation of the series for television.

More specifically, it’s because of this quote about Alice Vavasour, called in the blurb “one of the most striking heroines in Victorian fiction”:

Alice, though keen on sexy men, is terrified about what is going to happen on her wedding night, and keeps shuttling from George to Grey and back, not so much because one cheats and the other is a bore, but because she funks consummation with either. How the matter is resolved, I leave you to read for yourself; with this caveat, however, that while you will be interested you will not be wholly convinced, and that well before the end you will long for Alice to be hit on the head with a mallet and then raped (which is not, I hardly need to add, what happens). (xix)

Well, that should certainly cure the poor girl’s wedding-night jitters! So that’s a relief.

I suppose you do have to admire the confidence with which he inscribes that horrific desire to the entirety of his readership—and to think I wasted all that time pondering the complexities of various reader-response theories.

I have never read any of Simon Raven’s novels—although I understand, and the quote can be found here on the Wikipedia page, that his Shadows in the Grass was called “the filthiest cricket book ever written,” which, frankly, is quite an achievement.

In fact, the quotes on the Wikipedia page make both broad and specific use of the word “cad” in a density I haven’t seen since I last read T. H. White, while even his obituary claimed that his characters are “guaranteed to behave badly under pressure; most of them are vile without any pressure at all.”

Whether the quote about Alice is meant to be taken literally or ironically, I think the same can be said of Simon Raven as of his characters.

An Apposite Quotation

Posted 12 June 2008 in by Catriona

Since I’m marking the work of writing students for the next couple of weeks, this quotation leapt out at me during this evening’s leisure reading of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Clouds of Witness.

(Note that I’m careful to call it a quotation, since my supervisor once mentioned that when he read my chapter all he could hear in his head was the voice of an old school teacher saying, “Quotes are what plumbers give.”)

Wimsey looked with a new respect at the lady in the Russian blouse. Few books were capable of calling up a blush to his cheek, but he remembered that one of Miss Heath-Warburton’s had done it. The authoress was just saying impressively to her companion:

‘—ever know a sincere emotion express itself in a subordinate clause?’

‘Joyce has freed us from the superstition of syntax,’ agreed the curly man.

‘Scenes which make emotional history,’ said Miss Heath-Warburton, ‘should ideally be represented in a series of animal squeals.’

‘The D. H. Lawrence formula,’ said the other.

‘Or even Dada,’ said the authoress. (135)

As long as I never receive assessment written in a series of animal squeals, I should perhaps stop complaining about inability to accurately punctuate a subordinate clause.

It’s never occurred to me question the sincerity of whatever emotion it might contain. But then, as my students keep saying, that’s academic writing for you.

How to Cure a Hangover: Lifeline Bookfest

Posted 7 June 2008 in by Catriona

So today is one of the two greatest days on the Brisbane calendar: the Queen’s Birthday long weekend Lifeline Bookfest.

(The other greatest day is, of course, the Australia Day long weekend Lifeline Bookfest. And, yes, technically they take place over more than one day, but Nick is strangely resistant towards allowing me to go on more than one day, so as far as I’m concerned they’re one-day book sales.)

I love the Lifeline Bookfest.

The Lifeline Bookfest is, in fact, almost the sole reason why I will probably end up like that professor—I think he was Italian?—who spent a week trapped under one of his own bookcases while everyone assumed he was on sabbatical. Which I suppose he was, in a way.

As a book sale, though, it is variable; you won’t always find books that you absolutely have to buy (although, to be honest, I’ve never come away empty handed.)

But I’ve found some treasures: the Lifeline Bookfest yielded my lovely hardback facsimile reprints of a couple of Baum’s Oz books; a little copy of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; a fat little copy of Keats’s poems bound in puffy, disintegrating, orange suede; a tiny Victorian copy of Clara Reeve’s early Gothic novel The Old English Baron; and girls’ school story after girls’ school story, often with their original dust cover.

I wouldn’t miss the Bookfest for the world.

But this one was bad timing: with a Doctor Who night last night and a party tonight that involves dressing as vaguely Victorian sideshow freaks, we were always going to be a little pressed for time.

But then the Doctor Who night turned out to be unusually convivial, thanks to the need to open a bottle of champagne to toast success and then, obviously, having to drink the rest of the bottle so it didn’t go flat. So Nick and I dragged ourselves off the bed somewhere about 1 a. m., knowing the Bookfest opened at 8 a. m.

The night was slightly punctuated by snoring, but mostly by me waking up regularly to think, “My head really hurts, and I bet it will hurt worse by morning.”

Next thing I know, Nick’s shouting, “Get up, get up, the alarm didn’t go off!” and we’re rushing to shower and dress without the benefit of coffee or breakfast (but thanks to the magical power of Nurofen.)

Still, a successful morning of book shopping will cure even the worst hangover: and not only was this not a terrible hangover, but it was a great sale.

I don’t know whether someone had liquidated an entire, jealousy guarded collection of Victorian novels, but I found some lovely things: a copy of Margaret Oliphant’s ghost stories and her gothicky novel Salem Chapel; a pile of Anthony Trollopes, including the fabulously titled Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite and Phineas Redux, which I’m pretty sure completes my Pallister series (only I can’t remember where I put the others, so I can’t check); some Oscar Wilde short stories; Wilkie Collins’s Basil; and even a copy of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame De Paris (I checked: it is a translation, despite the misleading title.)

The latter led to me making the following disclaimer to Nick: “This really is an essential book. In fact, it’s so essential that I may already have a copy, but I’m pretty sure I don’t.”

I was also able to thoroughly indulge one of my other main hobbies, which is early crime fiction, thanks to a couple of Dover reprints of 1930s detective stories (one set in Oxford—the murder of an unpopular tutor in the Dean’s study! Horrors!—and one set on one of the Channel Islands), a collection of Edwardian stories of cosmopolitan crime called More Rivals to Sherlock Holmes (which leads me to hope that somewhere out there there’s a book called Rivals to Sherlock Holmes; I already have one called In the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes), and 1913’s The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu—how could I turn that down?

I didn’t just stick with books of at least seventy years’ vintage, either: I was going to cite Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop here, but of course that is exactly seventy years old. But I did buy Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, some Italo Calvino, and Umberto Eco’s Reflections on The Name of the Rose.

Even the children’s books were worth perusing this time; they’re often not, unless you’re looking to complete collections of Babysitters’ Club or Sweet Valley High books. But I dragged out a couple of later Wombles books, and two new (to me) Dana Girls Mysteries: the Dana Girls books—private-school girls who solve mysteries in their spare time—were written by “Carolyn Keene,” the “author” of the Nancy Drew Mysteries, and are essentially exactly the same books but with an additional detective.

But my crowning delight from this sale was a beautiful—still dust-jacketed!—copy of Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopaedia. I’ve said before that Benet’s is perhaps the only book that could challenge Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable as my go-to reference book, but now I don’t have to chose between them.

On the downside, I think my double-strength coffee and the Nurofen are wearing off simultaneously.

On the plus side, I have forty-five lovely new books to try and fit onto my shelves this afternoon.

Tunnels Redux: This Time I've Read the Book

Posted 3 June 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve literally just finished reading Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams’s Tunnels and, far from proclaiming this the new Harry Potter, I find myself rather frustrated by the experience.

That’s not to say it’s a bad novel; it’s not. Oh, there are some clanky moments, such as the following image of an underground cavern:

It dwarfed any of the Colony’s caverns with its scale, and brought to Will’s mind the image of a gargantuan heart, its chambers criss-crossed by huge, heartstring-like columns. (352)

This isn’t great writing; though it’s not necessarily representative of the book as a whole, I wasn’t convinced by the fairly awkward combination of the metaphor and simile (and perhaps another metaphorical term: is “chambers” referring to the chambers of the heart or literally to the chambers within an underground cavern?). Nor is this the only instance where the prose clanked a little for me.

Nevertheless, I can see small boys responding eagerly to the book, the sequel that it seems to be leading towards, and the movie that is apparently slated for release in 2010.

But that’s part of my problem; the book is intensely . . . boy-focused, for want of a better term.

I’ve heard the arguments that young girls will read books with male protagonists, but that young boys won’t read books about girls.

I don’t buy it for a minute.

Oh, certainly I imagine that the number of young men who bought and read Meg Cabot’s rather funny—in the early stages, anyway—series The Princess Diaries would be significantly outweighed by their female counterparts: those books were clearly marketed for a prepubescent female readership, whoever else read them.

But I don’t believe that Garth Nix’s lovely Abhorsen series, or Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, or many of Terry Pratchett’s recent books, including the Tiffany Aching series, weren’t read by boys because they had girl protagonists—or, going further back, that the same fate met fully half of Diana Wynne Jones’s oeuvre, or C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which Lucy Pevensie is the stand-out character.

So I don’t accept that as a reason.

It may be that Gordon and Williams deliberately aimed this at a specifically male readership, as I’ve suggested that Cabot did with young girls. There’s nothing wrong with that approach.

But the focus is unmistakeable.

The novel has three significant female characters: there are other women—two of whom are given names but are entirely ineffectual from a plot perspective and another who is named but never actually present in the text—but the three primary ones are the only ones given any significant space within the text.

Of these, one is psychopathic. Literally.

Another is drugged into a stupor by an addiction to television that is maintained by two constantly active video recorders: although she nominally occupies the positions of wife and mother, she abandons these with no argument and no justification. When she does break away from the television stupor, it is only to enter an alternative stupor created by pharmaceuticals.

The third does rise to a moment of pathos but is also stupefied; in her case, it’s a combination of cigarettes, cheap vodka, and council housing. I can certainly believe that the conditions of council-housing life in a rough suburb of London would generate a desire to slide into forgetfulness, but I’m less sympathetic towards this character when she’s part of a pattern of ineffectual female characters.

But, just in case this seems nothing more than the futile protestations of a feminist reader, it’s not the only concern that the book raised.

In Tunnels, there are two worlds: one above ground and one below. I’m not giving much away with this information: a cursory glance at the cover and the blurb in conjunction will tell you that.

The above-ground world is ours, not an alternative Earth, so little needs to be said about that.

My other concern, then, is with the evocation of the below-ground world, which seems uneven.

I should perhaps state here that, as a reader, I’m rapidly turned off by a book if the world-building is inconsistent, implausible, or just plain silly.

None of those are the case here, but it is the case that the world-building is uneven.

We are given, for example, a great deal of information about the day-to-day life of the underground world, but no information at all on how it can operate as an economy, how such an authoritarian social structure can maintain itself—about, essentially, how this community can possibly be self-sustaining. In fact, we get hints that it’s not self-sustaining, which only add to the confusion.

The book also drops hints about how this community came about: once again, none of these points are addressed in the text, so the reader is left to wonder if the 260-year time frame we’re given is sufficient to create what we see.

I’m sure that some of these questions will be answered if the book runs to a sequel, or more than one sequel.

But they’re not presented in such a way in the text as to invite further thoughts about what the sequels might reveal. The questions that Tunnels raises are closed off; the reader simply isn’t encouraged to speculate, when the information presented is so scanty.

Since this novel has been talked about as “the new Harry Potter“, I feel justified in making the following point: even when Rowling withheld information, she made it quite clear that information was being withheld.

Whatever can be said about the quality of Rowling’s writing at the sentence level or about the tautness of her narratives—and I’m saying nothing about either point—she cleverly managed the blocking of future plot points, whether it was by the Agatha Christie method of “Hey, look what my other hand’s doing!” or by having a powerful character simply stop potential enquiries.

Tunnels doesn’t have the same feel of through-plotted development. It feels, rather, as though the authors themselves are slowly working their way forward.

It may be that the putative sequels, should they emerge, will make me rethink this position.

But for now, I’m sticking with my original point: this, ultimately, is a rather frustrating book.

Dorothy L. Sayers

Posted 1 June 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve already written a piece on my love of Agatha Christie novels, so I felt that this might make an appropriate companion piece.

I’ve been breaking my heart this weekend—again, fool that I am—over Busman’s Honeymoon, which never ceases to strike me as a tragedy, even with the later short stories about Lord Peter and Harriet’s married life, collected in Striding Folly.

It always seems a shame to me, after the events of Strong Poison, the underlying tension of Have His Carcase, and the partly frustrated yet oddly celebratory mood of Gaudy Night, that we should come to this: a honeymoon couple uncertain about whether the marriage can survive the exigencies of the very interests that brought the two of them together.

But then, I say that as a Sayers fan. I’ve always felt that the quality of her writing—but then, you have to stop there, don’t you? Because to say that “the quality of her writing is far higher than that of the average crime novel” leads into a morass of assumptions about what popular fiction is, where it fits on an entirely arbitrary scale of perceived literary value, and whether we can judge it against “proper novels.”

Take Julian Symons, for example. I understand him to be a leading exponent of British crime writing—according to the Wikipedia article to which I’ve just linked—but I’ve never read any of his books.

But, to go back to the Wikipedia article again, take this quote on Symons, which is apparently from the introduction to The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

He turned to crime writing in a light–hearted way before the war and soon afterwards established himself as a leading exponent of it, though his use of irony to show the violence behind the respectable masks of society place many of his books on the level of the orthodox novel.

Many of his books are on a level with the “orthodox novel,” eh? Because they’re ironic?

Fair enough.

But why that entirely arbitrary dichotomy between “crime fiction” and “orthodox fiction”? Yes, I know I used the term “popular” to describe Conan Doyle as a writer in this post, but I stand by it. Compared to say, Thomas Hardy, he was a “popular writer”; I’ve never heard that people in their thousands were in a state of hysteria and high distress when Hardy killed off Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

But then, why bring Julian Symons into this debate at all?

Because Symons didn’t like Sayers.

When he published Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel—A History (Penguin, 1974), he made a point of emphasising that “[it] is from a point of view very short of idolatry that they [Sayers’s novels] are discussed here” (112). And by “very short” he doesn’t mean that he’s close to the idolatry end of the scale.

But why? What on earth does Symons have against Sayers?

He starts by outlining the ways in which she is to be lauded:

  • she has a “clear and incisive” intellect and was widely read in crime fiction (112).
  • she was the first writer to include five Poe stories in the canon of early crime fiction, rather than the usual three (113).
  • similarly, she recognised Sheridan Le Fanu’s contribution to the development of the genre (113).
  • “it is impossible not to admire the careful craftsmanship with which they [her stories] have been made” (113).
  • she took great pains over the accuracy of her stories (113).

So why doesn’t he like her? Apparently—and there’s no padding here, no attempt to soften the verbiage—because “she was pompous and boring” (113).

Well, all right then. There’s not much I can say to that, is there? Especially since Symons emphasises that this is “the same evidence that admirers would cite in her favour” (113)—the style of her writing, as opposed the craftsmanship of her plotting.

And, oddly, it’s often the craftsmanship of her plots with which I take exception. I mentioned in a previous post that I tend not to re-read Have His Carcase, because it’s blatantly obvious to me that one of the primary characters was a haemophiliac, which knowledge spoils the slow development of the plot for me, and has since the first time I read the novel.

Similarly, the novel that Symons singles out, The Nine Tailors, is something of a dull murder mystery, because the nature of the victim, the cause of his death, and the identity of the perpetrator are quite obvious from relatively early on.

But, really, does one read The Nine Tailors solely for the murder mystery? Doesn’t much, perhaps the majority, of the joy that one obtains from that novel come from the evocation of a curiously English form of campanology: change ringing.

Consider, for example, the nine deep tolls that mark the passing of a man of the parish. Consider the twelve tolls at New Year’s midnight for the dead year.

And consider this:

The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. [. . .] Out over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping counties went the music of the bells — little Gaude, silver Sabaoth, strong John and Jericho, glad Jubilee, sweet Dimity, with great Tailor Paul bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them. (34)

Really, what does the ready identity of the murderer mean, compared to that passage?

Or, on a smaller note, consider Harriet Vane’s memories of her undergraduate days in Oxford in Gaudy Night, when she recalls climbing Magdalen Tower with a friend and feeling “it swing beneath them with the swing of the reeling bells” (3).

What does it matter if, as Symons says, Lord Peter Wimsey is unbearably affected—I myself struggle at times with both his and Harriet’s automatic assumption that servants, excluding Bunter, need to be treated in a certain way—when the author can produce lines that read like something out of a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem?

But, then, I am a fan, so according to Symons I have no choice but to eulogise Sayers’s writing style. From Symons’s approach to her novels, it seems that an appreciation for her prose prefigures an inability to critically appraise her work.

Perhaps that’s so—but I don’t think so.

I think, rather, that some of us don’t necessarily see “detective fiction” and “orthodox novels” as sharply divided categories in a “never the twain shall meet” sense.

Some of us just enjoy the prose, even while muttering “haemophiliac” under our breath.

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