by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Reading”

Fictional Characters Whose Deaths Annoy Me

Posted 26 February 2009 in by Catriona

Warning: this is necessarily spoileriffic. I can’t help that, given the subject matter. But none of the books mentioned in here were published in the past ten years, and few in the past fifty years, so they’re spoilers of the most minimal nature.

‘Prince’ Charlie Campbell, Rose in Bloom, Louisa May Alcott (1876)

If there’s one thing that drives me nuts, it’s when a character is killed simply so that an author can have a moral to a story.

Generally, they’re the most interesting characters, too: they’re not just hanging around being saintly all the time. (When such a character dies, it always reminds me of Montgomery’s Anne of the Island, where Anne writes “Averil’s Atonement” and is not-so-secretly furious that everyone prefers the villain to the hero, because at least the villain isn’t always just mooning around.)

So Prince Charlie is the victim of Alcott’s lifelong passion for the Temperance Movement. Because Charlie, you see, likes a drink.

I don’t think that Alcott is seriously arguing that if you like a drink you’ll end up coming home from a party absolutely off your nut; either forget about the steep embankment, or fail to see it because the lantern has blown out, or have something spook your horse; fall down the embankment with your horse on top of you; lie there all night in the freezing cold with severe internal injuries (and with a horse on top of you); and eventually be dragged out to die slowly and painfully in front of all your grieving family.

But that’s what happens to Prince Charlie. And all because he liked a drink.

Of course, one of things that annoys me most about this death is the reaction of Charlie’s mother Clara, who consoles herself with the fact that her mourning is very becoming.

She wasn’t nearly as annoying, shallow, and implausible a character in the first book, Eight Cousins (1875). She was still daft and self-centred, but at least she originally loved her son.

Dan, Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott (1886)

Poor Dan. Another victim of an author’s need to kill people off in order to underscore a moral.

Dan turns up at Plumfield, the progressive school for boys (and two girls) run by Jo and Professor Bhaer, partway through the previous book, Little Men (1871). He’s brought by Nat Blake, who is one of the charity boys at the school (the school being a mixture of an expensive boarding school for the sons of gentlemen and a charity school to which poor boys can be admitted. The high fees paid by the former cover the cost of the latter, apparently—but we see few charity boys at Plumfield).

The charity boys are both failures, but Nat is a sympathetic and rather weak failure, so he’s allowed to marry one of the daughters of the house and to prosper.

But poor Dan.

We know nothing of Dan’s background, save that he’s been taking care of himself on the streets since an early age. He swears, he smokes, and he fights: his strengths are predominantly physical and he’s uncomfortable in the constrained atmosphere of the school. Eventually, he’s removed to a distant farm where difficult students are sometimes sent: he runs away from there and eventually makes his way back to Plumfield with a badly broken foot. The moment represents an awareness on both his and Jo’s parts of how much they care for one another.

In Jo’s Boys, then, Dan is one of the former students who regularly returns to Plumfield to seek the company and affection of Jo. He’s still physically imposing and impatient of restraint, but he’s intelligent and has a strong social conscience, particularly with regards to the mistreatment of the native American population.

Then he kills a man.

It’s an odd scene, because Dan, travelling out west, becomes aware that a very young and naive fellow traveller is being systematically fleeced by card sharps, and sets himself up as the boy’s guardian, standing and watching the games. When it becomes apparent that the men are cheating, he challenges them, one attacks him, and Dan, in reacting, knocks the man over, causing him to hit his head and die.

He’s charged with manslaughter, not murder, and serves one year.

But this is the unforgivable sin to the people at Plumfield. Never mind the accidental nature of the death, never mind the fact that Dan saves multiple lives through an act of extraordinary bravery shortly after his release from prison, never mind the fact that this is essentially a reprise of an incident with Amy and Jo in Little Women, except that Amy doesn’t die—Dan is cast out.

Oh, there’s weeping and wailing, and he compounds his sin by falling in love with a woman outside his social class—Laurie and Amy’s daughter, Bess—though he never tells her how he feels.

But, essentially, Dan is cast out from the only home he’s ever known.

Of course, Jo’s Boys is an odd book, anyway—with the deaths of Alcott’s mother (in 1877), youngest sister (in 1879), and brother-in-law, the autobiographical feel of the first books gives way in this to a kind of elegiac wish fulfillment, with all the family drawn together in a utopian compound of big houses and little, of schools and colleges, with even those who are dead memorialised in paint and marble and looking down over all.

And what’s poor Dan left with?

Dan never married, but lived, bravely and usefully, among his chosen people [native Americans] till he was shot defending them, and at last lay quietly asleep in the green wilderness he loved so well, with a lock of golden hair upon his breast, and a smile on his face which seemed to say that Aslauga’s Knight had fought his last fight and was at peace. (Children’s Press, p. 156)

Poor Dan.

Walter Blythe, Rilla of Ingleside, L. M. Montgomery (1921)

Just as Charlie and Dan are sacrificed to show the dangers of various vices or failings, Walter, I think, is sacrificed to show that war costs lives.

To be fair, none of the other members of the social circle to which the Blythes belong emerge unscathed, except perhaps youngest son Shirley—and Shirley is a strange non-entity in the books, never getting a chapter of his own in any of the later novels devoted to the Blythe children, never seemingly having any friends or sweethearts, never even being the focus of a paragraph that I can recall.

So why doesn’t Shirley die, instead of poor Walter? Walter, the poet. Walter, the scholar. Walter, the handsome child who doesn’t resemble any of his kin. Walter, the child gifted with a strange second sight that sits uncomfortably with the overall realism of the novels. Walter, the man who has to overcome a crippling terror of the horror and pain and despair of the Front to enlist and as a soldier, and who does so—only to die at Courcelette with a bullet through his heart.

If it had been Shirley, chances are no one would have noticed.

Balin, sometime before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien (1954)

Don’t ask me why Balin is my favourite dwarf in The Hobbit. He just is. And, yes, I know the dwarves are basically interchangeable, except for Thorin Oakenshield. But Balin is my favourite anyway.

So the point at which they find Balin’s tomb in Moria is the point at which I gave up The Lord of the Rings. (On my first reading, anyway. I have given up much earlier on subsequent readings, but I’ve never gone past Balin’s tomb.)

I am willing to admit that this might be the strangest thing that I have ever done.

Almost any character who dies in a David Eddings fantasy novel

But not for quite the same reasons. Dead characters in David Eddings’s fantasy novels are like dead babies in Victorian fiction: one is surprised not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.

No, wait: wrong quotation.

I mean that it seems as though the character is killed simply because it’s improbable that everyone should get through the adventures alive, so someone’s killed off in the later chapters, much as babies and children are killed off in Victorian fiction all the time not simply to reflect the real-life high infant mortality rate but also because, well, nothing’s quite as sad as a dead child, is it?

In The Belgariad (1982-1984), of course, the primary dead character is brought back to life almost immediately. In The Elenium (1990-1992), the dead character is the only working-class character in the book, which leaves me with an unpleasant sense that working class = expendable in Eddings’s universe. (Especially since in the trilogy that is the sequel to The Elenium, The Tamuli (1992-1995), there’s an undercurrent of “I know me place, young master” that seriously bothers me.) And in The Mallorean (1988-1992), there’s a prophecy that one of the questers will die, but when it happens, you’re left thinking, “Him? He was only mentioned in two paragraphs!”

It’s pathos by numbers.

And I Thought The 1970s' Editions of Georgette Heyer Were Bad . . .

Posted 25 February 2009 in by Catriona

Well, they were, of course.

But look at what happens when you buy a 1990s’ edition of a Louisa May Alcott novel:

There’s no way she’s a demure Victorian maiden!

The book was originally published in 1876, and this is what a well-to-do young lady looked like in 1876, albeit in a fancier dress.

But this woman? She looks like Victorian Barbie.

(Which, I admit, did give me a fun ten minutes while I imagined other nineteenth-century Barbies. Victorian Prostitute Barbie! Comes with three different outfits, reflecting her changes in fortune after successive run-ins with the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act! Victorian Demure Governess Barbie! Optional second wig reflecting her seduction by the wastrel younger son of the household! Victorian Superfluous Woman Barbie! Buy the furniture for her depressing bedsit in Chelsea separately! Victorian Suffragette Barbie! Comes with length of railing, handcuffs, and prison hunger strike!)

Actually, no: it’s worse than that.

She looks like Nancy Drew in the 1980s’ rejig of the series:

And when your Louisa May Alcott heroine is almost interchangeable with Nancy Drew as drawn in 1987, you have something of a problem.

Random Weirdness from the Bookshelf: The Gothic Edition

Posted 17 February 2009 in by Catriona

Guess which decade this edition of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis’s extravaganza of terror and anti-Catholic hysteria was published in:

My favourite bit of this cover is the expression on Matilda’s face; if I had to guess what she was thinking, it would be, “I’ve lost all control over my own right arm!”

I also love her idea of a suitable outfit to wear while masquerading as a man inside a monastery. Matilda, I think you might be giving people a couple of hints about your gender, there.

I showed this cover to my mother, and she said, “But can you imagine if they’d published an edition of Oliver Twist?—it would have had the tagline ‘And still he asked for more!’”

Quotes That Have Annoyed Me Today

Posted 16 February 2009 in by Catriona

My Gmail programme runs unobtrusive banner advertisements across the top of the page.

Sometimes, these frustrate me beyond measure, as when, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I was offered “fantastic” deals on “Impeach Obama” T-shirts. Clearly, my e-mail programme—which, if it were sentient, would know me as well as anyone, being privy to most of my everyday communication—doesn’t have the faintest idea about my political leanings. It probably doesn’t care, either.

Sometimes they bewilder me, as when they declared that’s “Word of the Day” was “obscure,” which really isn’t that (forgive me) obscure a word.

But today they’ve annoyed me. Not much, just a mild degree of annoyance.

Today, I have a quote of the day from Charles Kettering: “Thinking is one thing no one has ever been able to tax.”

Well, no. I’d say that’s probably true.

But, Charles Kettering, holder of over three hundred patents, man responsible for the development of Freon and the first practical coloured paints for mass-produced cars (to paraphrase Wikipedia), they do quite frequently tax the items that help us to think more broadly, more deeply, and more intensely.

Look, for example, at the fact that paperback books cost a small fortune now, compared to their prices before the introduction of the GST—after which they rose by considerably more than ten percent, I might add.

And it’s nothing new: think of the Taxes on Knowledge (not the best link, but good on dates), which increased the prices of papers carrying political content well beyond the reach of any but the well-to-do, and which existed for over one hundred years.

(So when you see an inexpensive Victorian journal telling you that it’s “A Weekly Journal of Science, Arts, and Literature,” it’s not telling you what is contains, it’s telling you what it doesn’t contain: no religion or politics, and therefore not taxable.)

So they may not be able to levy a tax explicitly on thought, though it wouldn’t surprise me if they tried.

But they can certainly levy taxes on those objects and institutions that facilitate, enrich, or inspire thoughts.

So stop being fatuous, Gmail’s Quote of the Day.

Using Contemporary Graphic Design To Slander Former Heads of State

Posted 11 February 2009 in by Catriona

Exhibit A:

This is a slightly wonky photograph of a late nineties edition of 1932’s Devil’s Cub, itself a sequel to 1926’s These Old Shades. (Well, not a direct sequel: it deals with the original protagonist’s son.)

Judging from the creases, I seem to have fallen asleep on this book at some point, which isn’t uncommon.

It’s not a bad read, provided that you like your heroes on the aggressive side, which I don’t, really. It’s fun, if not quite as funny as some of the others.

But take a closer look at the cover, in Exhibit B:

Yep, that’s William Lamb, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

He’s perhaps best known as the somewhat unfortunate husband of Lady Caroline Lamb, said to be slightly embarrassed by her affectionate portrait of him in her first novel, Glenarvon (1816) and even more so by her rather warm (to use the contemporary euphemism) description of their married life.

But he steadfastly refused to divorce his wife, although the novel itself would probably have given him grounds even if her affair with Lord Byron hadn’t been quite so public. He seems, too, to have given his wife advice towards her later novels, despite any embarrassment he might have felt about Glenarvon.

And he was Queen Victoria’s prime minister, after his wife’s early death and his own accession to the title of Lord Melbourne.

Okay, he was named by Caroline Norton’s husband as the subject of a criminal conversation trial that nearly destroyed the government. But there was no proof and he resisted Norton’s attempts at blackmail. And though this was a horrible situation for Caroline Norton, whose husband prevented from seeing her three sons and refused to grant her the divorce that might have allowed her to remarry, she did put the experience to good use: it was primarily due to her agitation that Parliament passed the Custody of Infants Act (1839) and the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857)—the latter allowed women to retain control over their own property after marriage and to take court action on their own behalf (which would in turn contribute to women being able to seek divorces themselves, instead of having to wait to be divorced).

(See also Caroline Norton’s Defense: English Laws for Women in the 19th Century, edited by Joan Huddleston, for more information on Norton. It’s out of print, unfortunately, but fascinating.)

Okay, so William Lamb didn’t actively take part in those campaigns.

But I still think that depicting him right above the red-inked slogan “Devil’s Cub” is going a little fair.

Fictional Dialogues With Detective Novelists: A Sampler

Posted 6 February 2009 in by Catriona

Disclaimer: None of the dialogue here is taken verbatim from the books, but I think it’s fairly accurate.

Agatha Christie 1
HERCULE POIROT: Ah, Hastings! Always you are helpful to me. Always you think of exactly the wrong thing.
ME: Wait, you say you’re addressing Hastings, but that was aimed at me, right?

Agatha Christie 2
AGATHA CHRISTIE: Don’t look at what I’m doing with my left hand. Look at the elaborate twirling movements of my right hand, instead.
ME: Wait, is the doctor left-handed? Did you mention that? Where? Is it relevant? Have I guessed who the murderer is? That counts as a guess, right? Even though you reveal his name in the next paragraph?

Rex Stout
NERO WOLFE: Well, if you can’t tell who the murderer is after all I’ve just told you, I’m certainly not going to give you any further assistance.
ME: Wolfe, you smug, smug man. I love you!

Kathy Reichs
TEMPE BRENNAN: I was sure I was right about [blank], though I could barely believe it myself.
ME: Wait, did you mention [blank] earlier? Did I skip a paragraph? Well, don’t mention it if you’re not going to tell me!

Randall Garrett
LORD DARCY: Clearly, this murder was committed by magic.
ME: Well, obviously. I like your Irish sorcerer, by the way.

Arthur Conan Doyle
SHERLOCK HOLMES: Well, surely, Watson, if you’d paid attention to the number of steps up to the second floor and the fingers on the murdered man’s right hand . . .
ME: You know, another murder would really liven this plot up.

P. D. James
ADAM DALGLIESH: I’m sure you must know what happened by now.
WHICHEVER SUBORDINATE OFFICER HE’S WORKING WITH IN THIS NOVEL: I think I see it, sir, but there’s one thing I don’t understand.
P.D. JAMES: He explained his theory carefully and Dalgliesh agreed with him.
ME: But you can’t do it like that! You can’t reveal the way in which the murder occurred in between paragraphs—that’s cheating! Agatha Christie would never have done that!
AGATHA CHRISTIE: Don’t look at what my left hand’s doing.

Do You Know The Problem With Buying 1970s' Editions of Georgette Heyer Novels?

Posted 4 February 2009 in by Catriona

You end up with covers like this:

(From the 1970 edition of Sylvester.)

Or this:

(From the 1972 edition of Charity Girl.)

Or this:

(From the 1971 edition of Faro’s Daughter. Yes, I do know why she has him tied to a chair. No, I’m not going to tell you.)

Or my personal favourite, this:

(From the 1973 edition of The Toll-Gate.)

I know Georgette Heyer is known as much for the minute historical detail with which she invests her plots as she is for the fact that the plots are, essentially, all identical.

If only her illustrators showed some of the same fascination with historical minutiae.

Or am I wrong in thinking that Regency England was not so much the era of the false eyelash?

Jane Austen. With Zombies.

Posted 3 February 2009 in by Catriona


Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Now, I may have come to this a little late. (As usual.) But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to read it.

I imagine there’ll be a little flurry of dissatisfaction online that someone would take such a dearly beloved book and add a zombie apocalypse.

But I’m not too fussed about that.

It seems I’ve reached either an age, or a degree of maturity, or a state of stubbornness—I’m not sure which, but feel free to take your pick—in which I don’t much care what happens to certain books.

Well, no: it’s not that I don’t care, it’s that it doesn’t seem to bother me the way it used to.

Take C. S. Lewis, for example. I only got around to watching the films of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian last weekend. And I thoroughly enjoyed the first: particularly the way in which it paid delicate homage to Pauline Baynes’s position as the illustrator of Narnia—much as Peter Jackson drew from Alan Lee and John Howe in creating Middle Earth on screen—so that for viewers like me, to whom Baynes is as important as Lewis, the whole movie felt and looked right.

But Prince Caspian—well, I warn you that the next paragraph is ranty and also contains spoilers if you haven’t seen the film.

That attack on Miraz’s castle was ridiculous. Peter was a warrior king: he not only won his kingdom, he and Edmund both, in battle, but he then spent the twenty-odd years of his rule fighting giants and taking part in tournaments in the Lone Islands and the like. Furthermore, Lewis insists that the Pevensie children, after a sort time in Narnia, become more like the kings and queens they were than the English schoolchildren they are. He states this explicitly before Edmund’s duel with Trumpkin, and shows it, too, in Edmund’s stance as he delivers Peter’s challenge to Miraz and in the duel itself. And the movie pays some degree of homage to that in Peter and Miraz’s duel, which only makes the attack on the castle more absurd. No warrior would ever attack a heavily defended castle with such a small body of warriors. And if the intention was to show the horror of the Old Narnians being cut down at the gate, well, that could have been shown elsewhere—Caspian and his troops had seen some hard fighting before Peter and the others showed up, little if any of which is shown in the film.


My point is that even though I found it ridiculous, there’s no way it could ever hurt my love for the books or the way in which I read them. I’ve loved them too long and read them too many times to be hurt by a silly adaptation.

And I’m thinking that Jane Austen with zombies will work the same way.

Plus—well, it’s just cool, you know?

(Don’t forget: live-blogging of “New Earth” tonight at 8:30pm, Brisbane time.)



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