Meet a Main Character

When I first became enamoured of early 19th century Britain, I had only one novel in mind.  Who can think beyond that, honestly?

And then I had this cunning plan for four novels with each focusing on one of the four friends introduced in May 1812, and through each of them addressing one or another aspect of the period.  

However, I quickly found myself immersed in the historical quicksands of the period, finding first the terrible consequences of the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval, and then being drawn further into the war that nobody was mentioning, the war raging across the Continent, war which tainted the lives of every single Briton of the period.

Hence May 1812 became my ‘home front’ novel…

Then, Of Honest Fame came along.  And strayed.  It had its own ideas about what it wanted to be.  The one-plot about one-aspect novel plan went, er, to be fish bait, and Of Honest Fame expanded into a skein of many colours and characters, plots and places…it was about war.  How could it be otherwise?   (Or perhaps I read too much Dickens?)

So–to me–unexpectedly (those fish really did dine off the initial idea and of that there is now little trace…) the next novel is an historical follow-on of Of Honest Fame, featuring some but not all of those characters, plus a raft of those you haven’t yet met.  But today may I introduce  or reintroduce you to…

Raeburn redcoat1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person? As in my previous novel, Of Honest Fame, there are a plethora of central characters, both historic and fictional.  But the one I’ve chosen to talk about today is Sir George Shuster, otherwise known as Captain Shuster or Georgie.

2) When and where is the story set? Well, it’s A Tale of Two Cities set slightly later and gone hideously panoramic, with the action and manifold plotlines extending from London to Hamburg to Berlin to what was then Saxony or what is now Germany…so to Dresden and finally to Leipzig and from thence into France.  I’m trying to keep it contained, do you see?

3) What should we know about him? Georgie stepped from the shadows in the first of my novels, May 1812.  He was a spy, with a cheeky younger brother, a delicious sense of humour, and in that novel, he experienced a cataclysmic loss which truly marked him.  He was a soldier.  He had been a soldier under Wellington in Spain, so he had seen too much, experienced too much as they all had, but seeing it happen to others is different from such events happening to oneself.

Tea or coffee, sir?Then he took up his post again in Of Honest Fame, investigating a series of leaks, escaped POW’s and murders connected with the British Foreign Office.  But he was home in Great Britain where there were clean shirts and clean water and no one shooting at him, and after all the trauma of war he’d experienced, he was more than eager to put down re-establish himself there, to settle back in and leave the past and its nightmares behind.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his life? The war against Napoleon which is reaching its nadir.  The Prussians and Russians are now allied against Napoleon and are determined to boot him from power at long last, and Britain is funding the Allied armies with everything from rockets to uniforms to muskets to spies to specie.  Georgie’d like to stay home.  But he’s s soldier.  And when his orders come, he follows them, however torn between duty to his King and the desire to melt from his former life, but he will do his duty.  They all did.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

Foremost with Georgie is always to stay alive amidst the battles, the backstabbing, the vicissitudes and devilry of war and espionage and still to do his duty, to follow orders regardless of where they take him.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The title is Or Fear of Peace, which comes directly from a letter from a diplomat of the period in which he is describing the worries besetting Allied command. Too delicious, don’t you think?

leipzig2As for reading about it, well, much of my research for this next book has had to be from Russian and Prussian sources, which might make reading about a little tricky…that’s why you have me, isn’t it?   But as things unfold, I shall keep everyone alerted to my…er…trials, tribulations, (expletives) and transmogrifications…

7) When can we expect the book to be published? As soon as one can manage it.  But I will say this…the novel does have this bijou extravagance-ette of five different armies swanning and swarming about the European countryside, (they have generals too and posh uniforms) so sometimes all these fellows get a bit unruly…and they just don’t listen, do they?  And they won’t stay where they’re put.  So rude…

(A bit of the musical landscape for you from Helen Jane Long’s Porcelein… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mj446lUR-js )

There are other authors who will be following along in this blog hop, beginning with the fascinating and knowledgeable

Sue Millard.

Judith Arnopp ~ the 15th April.

Helen Hollick ~ the 15th April 

Linda Root ~ the 15th April.

May 1812 (an Authonomy Gold Medal winner) and Of Honest Fame are available from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com

Literary Credo…

Sometime ago, I attended a rather fascinating exhibition on the work of J.M.W Turner, called Turner and the Masters at the Tate Gallery in London.

Of course, I loved it.  Yes, I admit it, I’m a Turner-holic.  What can I say?

turnerBut there was this rather insightful comment about Turner’s study included in the programme notes, which encapsulated my own thinking about writing, but also set for me a new and ever-rising bar against which I must measure my work, and it was this–that he believed “the all-important lesson that artists were meant to aspire  to greatness by copying and trying to rival those masters who had come before…”

And it is in the spirit of that, that I bring this credo before you…I wrote it some time ago, yes, but to me today it seems truer than ever…It is a celebration of and a homage to the power of language.

Or, put another way–I believe poetry can teach you everything you need to know about writing.

We live in an age where there is this relentless drive to reduce everything to what is seen as its lean, mean, no-frills, efficient essence.  And everything else is viewed as non-essential.  Whether it’s extra letters in texting (why write ‘you’ when ‘u’ is so much quicker, easier and cheaper?) or the literary fondness for throwing out every adjective and adverb with the insistence that one only needs nouns and verbs, a few articles and the occasional pronoun.

Many people credit Ernest Hemingway with this stripped down literary approach, but I rather think Albert Camus is the true font of this school of writing.  Still, today, we find novels which are little more than extended screenplays–though without the skill and talent of the fine actors to breathe life and emotional depth into them.  These, I dare say, are meant to go with our minimalist kitchens, houses and gardens.

But, for me, at least in language, this minimalism ignores and discounts the many diamond facets of language’s impact.  Because language isn’t just about a word’s definition.

Every single word in our glorious English language is so more than that.  Every single word has sound, it has the length of its vowels and hence it has rhythm.  It carries with it centuries of connotation too.  And history.  It even has appearance on the page.  And all of these aspects, but particularly those first, are aspects which hit a reader viscerally, hence they are utterly vital to understand and employ.  Though, of course, all of these aspects are essential and should not ever be discounted.  But it’s these qualities combined that mean that ‘u’ is not a true substitute for ‘you’.  ‘Look’ is not the same, will never be the same, as ‘ogle’.

turner1

Think about it.  Words have drive.  Or they can convey lassitude.  They have assonance and dissonance.  They can be combined alliteratively so that the reader is quite simply swept away and, like the indrawing of Scylla and Charybdis, one cannot resist the strength and powerful motion of them.  And when we go to write our prose, we need to be aware of these various aspects of language, we need to engage with them, cherish them, love them, use them. And let them use us.

Now regardless of one’s view on Puritanism, on John Milton’s politics, religious views and piety, his views on women, or his even taste in clothes, this fellow could write.  He had a sense of assonance and alliteration which few have ever rivalled.  And with those tools, he gives his poetry such a sense of action and motion, that there’s no keeping up with him.  He takes what we might simplistically call the action verbs and he turns them into superheroes.  To be sure, my favourite is the famous:

“…Him, the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.”

Just listen to that.  You can’t help but feel it.  You can’t help but respond.  He takes that already strong verb, hurl, and through combining it alliteratively with Him, headlong, th’ethereal, and hideous, through the assonance of those vowels he creates a thunderbolt of language.

You can’t help but be driven along with it.  And that is the power of the English language.  This is the bar against which we should be measuring ourselves.

Though if you prefer, you can have Camus’ version:  “God threw him out.  Today.  Perhaps yesterday.  I don’t know.”

Another fellow who had it right is obviously William Shakespeare.  And here, let me turn your attention to his ability to convey everything about a character through that individual’s speech.  Take Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I.  Now as we know, Shakespeare often delineated class by using prose for the lesser mortals, and blank verse for the aristos–which is a fairly straightforward device.

But when he gets to Hotspur, he excels himself.  Because Henry Percy is a hot-blooded, hot-headed man of action.  So Shakespeare writes him thus.  When the others, the courtiers, are dithering and considering and pondering and soliloquising (all Latinate roots on those words, please notice) over the plot to take the throne from Henry IV, note how Shakespeare writes Hotspur as basically bursting out of his doublet with vim and swashbuckling strength of purpose:

“…Say you so, say you so? I say
unto you again, you are a shallow cowardly hind, and
you lie. What a lack-brain is this! By the Lord,
our plot is a good plot as ever was laid; our
friends true and constant: a good plot, good
friends, and full of expectation; an excellent plot,
very good friends…”

Out of the fifty-eight words in that passage, all but nine are monosyllables.

Not only that, but in this passage Shakespeare restricts his vocabulary almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon derivations, which to an Anglo-Saxon audience, are words that are understood without a thought process–these words are learned from infancy.  We know what they mean and they hit us–literally punch us–in the gut.

(Winston Churchill was aware of this and used it to great effect when he wrote such lines as “blood, sweat, toil and tears…”)

And really, the above passage has so much drive with the staccato rhythm, so much emphasis, that it becomes nigh impossible to speak these lines without speeding up, without having those words tumbling out of the mouth.  Try it.  And in that, you now have Constable cloudsHotspur’s character–he speaks as his name is.  And in him, Shakespeare demonstrates just how great a master of language he is.

But Shakespeare also had another great knack which may be worth mentioning, and that was using the same word in its various shades of meaning, using one word, often as noun and verb, mirroring itself within the lines of his sonnets.  So he’s playing with sound and meaning all at once.  And always to astonishingly good effect, though perhaps never to such extent as in Sonnet 43:

“Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!”

And I always do think that if one can learn to write a sonnet, and write one well, then one can write anything.  And well.  For the sonnet form, with its demanding scheme of iambic pentameter and fourteen lines, demands such a disciplined skill, such a learning of the inherent rhythm of the language, such a mastery of the tools and craft of writing, that if you can say what you need to say in that format, well, then…you will have learned to listen and to write and to control your art.  And in turn be controlled by it.

And with that, may I turn your attention to another dear friend, and a contemporary of Shakespeare, John Donne–not just a great philosopher, not just a great lover and dean of St. Paul’s, all in one lifetime, but also a great, great poet.  When I think of him, and what I might say about him, frankly, my mind becomes blank.  Because he is, quite simply, great.  And I remain, though I read him often, in a state of awe.  And there is only one reason why he is not included on every syllabus of English literature, and that is that we have become afraid of true greatness.  Or perhaps of our own diminution in the face of it.

Because if you have any wish to ever write about love, the kind that is all-consuming or that which is platonic, lust, something between all of the above, you must look to him.  For no one else in any language has ever had the courage or honesty or genius to write about it so.  To write so close to the bone, that one can feel the ebbing of his blood.

Whether he is writing of grief:  “Language thou art too narrow, and too weak/To ease us now; great sorrow cannot speak…Sad hearts, the less they seem, the more they are…”

Or love:

“I scarce believe my love to be so pure
As I had thought it was,
Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass ;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make it more.”

Or the physical embrace of love:  “Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below…”

Or his most perfect, most sesqui-superlative, The Sunne Rising:

BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, “All here in one bed lay.”

“She’s all states, and all princes I ;
Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.”

Imagine that.  “Nothing else is.”  Those words conjure up a love so transcendent that one almost shudders and fears for its beauty, strength and power.  They reduce all things to mere dust before this so vital and consuming a force.  And it is by contrasting the somewhat flowery language of all that has gone before–the lassitudinous complaint of being woken from after-love–with this stark pronouncement that the emphasis is doubly given to these words:  ”Nothing else is.”

You wish to write of love, read John Donne, he will teach you how.  He will teach you what to feel, how to listen to it and how to wield the knife of your pen so close to your own heart that you will write greatly.

For always, always his poetry demands that we listen, feel the heartbeat of it, of him, rest our cheek against the beauty of his language, his thought, his effervescent love of language and rhythm and sound and let them seep, osmosis-like into our emotional bloodstream and transform us.  He engages our minds and our hearts so that we will never, as writers, shy away from that embrace of passion.

So, I believe, we must begin with poetry.

We must begin the journey the ancient Greeks knew through the hypnotising power of Homer’s formulaic poetry of war and nostalgia.  We must listen.  Lean our faces close against the warmth and power and grace of the words.  Or feel their cruel thrusts of pain.

Take them into our mouths, test them, try them as wine, hold them upon the tongue.  Taste and see, they are good.  Rejoice in them.  Embrace and use them well and let them embrace us and use us for their part.  And let the poets who used this, our great and glorious English language, who understood just how powerful and intimate and utterly beautiful it could be, guide the way.

Slainte!

DJ

This isn’t usual for self…

But I shall try it anyway.

The thing is, in the last few days I’ve done an interview, which if I’m honest I actually truly enjoyed!  And I kind of wished to share that.

And not only but also, I’ve done another thing on the state of the country–at war– during that era we’d like to think was uber-friv, parties, pretty dresses, aristos in high cravats and Beau Brummell–the early 19th century.  And I kind of wanted to put that out here too.

So, do you mind if I just give you two charming links to these bits and say, Thanks jolly much for reading…?

A glimpse of Austen’s England. 

Bennetts and that little white pony, a salutary tale for authors.  Or parents.

Slainte!

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Whinge-bucketing

dragoon2Hallo Lovelies, this is a whinge.  It’s about research. And about asking for others to do one’s research for one.

It may or it may not amaze you to know that I get asked all sorts of questions about all sorts of historical subjects all the blooming time.

I am, after all, in the eyes of the public a walking encyclopaedia.  So I can, can’t I, just open a crack in my brain and let some of those years’ worth of research just pour out, right?  I mean, it doesn’t cost the would-be novelist anything, not like an investment of time or study for understanding…and it’s just easy for me, right?  And I’ve got nothing else on my plate, right?

Or, often and often, I shall be reading the responses to a question of research and I’ll find that many say they were reading such and such a well-researched tome full of the details of the fabric of daily life, but it didn’t help their story, it wasn’t a priority, so they ditched it.

And now the whinge.  Sorry, folks, that’s not good enough!

You want to know why I know so much, on so many subjects covering the breadth of politics, the military, trade, exploration, the Navy, the daily life customs, the scandals, the interlaced relationships between families across the country, it’s because I read.  I read everything.  And I don’t put it down just because it might not be germane to some diddly plot point I want for a novel.

Yes, sometimes it’s a hard slog.  Some books much sloggier than others, I can assure you.

But you never know–on page 254, there might be some footnote or some paragraph which entirely throws open your understanding of secret societies and their history in Prussia in 1812,which are going to play into the next novel.  And nobody but me knows about these, because no one else has stuck it all the way through the current tome on Napoleon and Berlin.  (Not sure I blame them entirely.)

I know all this stuff because I have sat for days and weeks in research libraries, reading whole volumes of newspapers and magazines from the early 19th century.  And pretty boring many of them were too.  But because of this, you may believe me when I tell you that popular serialised fiction in Austen’s period was every bit as gagging and twee as pop fiction we could produce today. The only difference is the vocabulary.  It’s just as badly-written, improbable, and silly, otherwise.

If I want to know what they wore, I pore over portraits of the period, in museums.  I study their maps.  Their etchings.

This is how it works:  I do the work, I get the pay-off.

Because here’s the deal.  When you trouble your sorry-self to read a whole biography, an entire history, you’re going to be learning heaps more than just what did the leather dying process smell like in 18th century London, or why did Castlereagh shoot Canning in the thigh, or some such small detail.  You’re going to gain the very weft and warp of another world’s existence.

You’re going to pick up a narrative about how they spent their evenings, where people from one part of town liked to congregate, printshopwindow1what kind of fabric came in cheap that year, why did red and pink dyes suddenly become affordable after 1805, what the public opinion on the state of the king’s health was, who was cousins with whom, whether the weather was bad or brilliant and how that affected the crops and were there bread riots.  You’re going to begin to get it.  To gain some broader understanding of another era, another epoch’s choices and lives–the very fabric of their lives.  What they had for brekkies, and when.  Everything!  And then you’ll know.

And when you go to write it, therefore, all that wider context, that breadth and depth of knowledge is going to show.  It’s going to be there, quietly, in understated details and comprehension of mores and attitudes and will spare many a reader the agonies of emotional and real anachronisms which are the bane of so much history and historical fiction.

So, to put it bluntly.  Do your own work.  You want to write a good historical novel and receive the plaudits for it? Put in the work. Do it.  And don’t look for it to be handed you on a platter.  No, the internet isn’t the brilliant research tool they promised, but lots of university libraries now have their collections on line, as do museums and the British Library.

You want to fill your  head with the gems of past lives?  Do it.  No excuses.  For through that doing, you shall build a palace of wisdom to the heavens.  But you have to earn it and there are no shortie-cuts.

Whinge over.

Slainte.

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A Progress Report…

You know that part of a project when you’ve got about a billion different elements clanging about in your head demanding recognition and attention and to be top dog and you know all of them are probably important or essential but you can’t for the life of you sort out how to make anything other than goulash out of the whole mess–maybe a bit more paprika will help?  Well, it’s rather like that.

europe1815A break-through occurred on a day-trip with my rather ingenious and maths-minded daughter a bit ago, when I put forward my difficulty with all the research (no, I am not going to tell you how many tomes or how many languages…) and asked if she could see her way to organising it all for me.  She, being very whizzy at these sorts of problems, had three different solutions in about 30 seconds.  All of which were excellent.  (I hate that.  It’s so breathtakingly easy and she makes it all seem so obvious…)

So we spent several days together with me downloading the contents of my brain and the many books and journals into her magic notebook, which she then turned into a frighteningly efficient thing for cross-referencing as well as a series of maps and other such intellectual delights…we still have several volumes to go.

But it was at this point, when she looked at the pages and pages of notes she’d made, the outsize cast of historical personages (I hadn’t even mentioned the fictional additions…) that she observed, “No wonder you’ve had problems.  This is like a game of chess with twenty players!

“For heaven’s sake, you’ve got five separate armies on the move…”

And that pretty much sums it up.  (Okay, yah, there are a great many generals and staff officers with Russian and Prussian surnames, I admit that…)

But since then, since then–and even with the delicious manifold diversions offered by the Christmas season–progress has not only seemed possible, but has got underway.  Of course, no one is more astonished at this than self.  But there it is.

NPG 891,Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (Lord Castlereagh),by Sir Thomas LawrenceA new opening chapter has presented itself which makes brilliant sense of all sorts of things and which just popped out of the too many notebooks of research notes and I find myself in the unusual position of being quite positive, hopeful and even feeling a bit of the old Bennetts wit returning to the page…

So that’s me.  Yes, a trifle overwhelmed by the too much that I know, but with help gaining some sense of control over it all…and you know what that means, don’t you?  That means a book will dribble itself out of my thoughts onto the page and into your hands eventually.

So thanks for all the support, cheer, and encouragement.  It’s meant more than you’ll ever know…

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

[do follow me on Twitter: @mmbennetts ]

My Journey with Jane Austen…

Over the last little while, I have got to know a rather splendid person, one I’ve come to admire immensely.  Her name is Sue Pomeroy and she’s the director of a film-to-be about Jane Austen…

You know, there’s so much hype and chatter and all sorts about Austen’s work these days, but so often, at least to me, she seems to have got lost in it all.  Forgotten.  And perhaps it was that which made me warm so much to Sue and her ideas.  Because she puts Jane herself back into the picture.  And I love that.  I just love it.  And I thought you would too.

Ovecoming Pride & Prejudice coverSo without further ado, please welcome Sue Pomeroy talking about her Journey with Jane Austen

“My first encounter with Jane Austen was on a school trip to a stage production of – I think it must have been Emma.

“All I remember was an old fashioned ‘box set’ and actors wandering about with cups of tea in tights and carpet slippers, speaking very archly.  It was a total turn off and it put me off Jane Austen for years.  If that was the best Jane Austen could offer I wanted nothing more to do with her.

“The highlight of the evening was when one of the students dropped a box of Maltesers in the back row and they all bounced down under the staggered seats for ages.  That at least made us laugh.

“How wrong first impressions can sometimes be!  As the plot of her novel of that name reveals, sometimes first impressions prove to be the exact opposite of the truth.

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

Carl Davis & Jean Boht

“When I turned back to Jane Austen some years later to read Pride and Prejudice I realised how wrong I had been in my estimation of her.  I had reacted to the creaky theatre production and not to her at all.  So, somewhat humbled, I started afresh with a rediscovery of this rather brilliant novelist.

“The other major factor in my re-assessment of Jane Austen was my stay in East Berlin.  Strange, but true.

“I was thrilled to be awarded an arts bursary to work behind the Berlin Wall with the world famous Berliner Ensemble.  What an amazing experience that was.

“One of the things I saw at very close quarters were the tactics employed by writers and playwrights to step around the censorship of the communist regime, and get their ideas across.  For instance there were no less than three productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare in East Berlin during one season, which bemused me – until I realised they were using ‘the Wall’ in the Pyramus and Thisbe story, acted out by the rude mechanicals as a comment on the ‘die Mauer’, the Berlin wall.

“The more productions I saw in East Berlin the clearer it became – writers were using symbolism, humour and comedy as well as adaptations of classical work, to communicate their ideas. The audience knew this and were looking out for all the clues to the author’s real views.  In a repressive regime you have to employ all sorts of inventive ways to step around the political restrictions.

“That opened my eyes when I got back to reading Jane Austen.  It was her delicious wit and mischievous sense of humour that allowed her to find her own unique voice and deal with issues that would not have been considered palatable for a woman to voice openly in Regency England!

20130609_151400“She exposes hypocrisy within the church, the obsequious behaviour of the landed gentry to anyone of title, the blind obsession among the upper classes with breeding, the limited opportunity for intelligent women when a good marriage offered their best, and only, chance of happiness.

“In the period in which she was writing, novels were dealing with fantasy, great adventures, romantic extremism and epic subjects.  Jane on the other hand created novels which reflected the real world which she observed in great detail.  She had strong opinions and her characters played out her views on the world she lived in.  I am sure she got away with it through her wit and comedy.

“By the time I was working on an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I was smitten.  The more I worked on the adaptation, the more Jane Austen’s novel resembled a beautifully crafted cut jewel, shimmering as you hold it up to the light.

JA1“We took the production on an extensive UK tour of No 1 theatres at the same time as the BBC series was broadcast, and enjoyed the same rapturous reception.  It was fascinating to see the audience response to the characters and the twists and turns of the plot.  They picked up all the nuances of the hidden barb, the ‘off the cuff’ witticism, the send up satire. As readers would have done when first reading the novel, published during Jane’s own lifetime.

“Over the years, I feel I have become closer and closer to Jane Austen.  I feel I have got to know her as a person.  And my feelings toward her are of the greatest admiration, and an almost sisterly pride in her achievements.  I also feel a little protective of her.  To watch the public enthusiasm for her work grow to such proportions is breath taking.  And I sometimes wonder when I hear the experts pronouncing on her work, see the opulent screen adaptations and observe the universal delight in dressing up in frocks and breeches, what would Jane have made of it all?

JA2“I see her in her modest cottage in Chawton, writing away quietly, leaving the squeaky door so she could hide her papers when someone came in and I wonder if we have forgotten her individual journey to bring those novels to fruition and then to publication. Hers was not an easy life, as a poor country parson’s daughter, and it became less easy after her father died and she and her mother and sister had to rely on the generosity of others to get by.

“Her sense of humour, her love of family and her deep faith must have sustained her through some of the difficult times, but I do feel for her.  My heart goes out to her. This single woman, writing, keeping the flame of hope and love alive.

“That has been the catalyst for wanting to make this film. The growing love and enthusiasm for her work across the world is wonderful, but amid all the adulation and admiration and commercialisation I see a woman at her desk, in a small English village, having the tenacity and courage to keep on writing, to keep on hoping, to keep on loving.  I want to celebrate the events of this 200th Anniversary year, and the people we have met on our journey to film them.

“But before we all get carried away with the delight and the fun of it all, I want to bring the focus back to Jane herself and remind ourselves of her story.  To look at what it must have taken to write six brilliant novels as a woman at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and how Jane overcame the pride and prejudice of her own life and times to become a published author.  That’s what my film will be exploring.

***

Sue Pomeroy is currently making a new film about Jane Austen’s life and work.

Fuschia Films logoTo find out more about this new film, and to help make it happen please visit http://www.fuschiafilms.com/jane-austen-film-products-and-events/.

For more on Fuchsia Films see http://www.fuschiafilms.com

For regular updates follow the project on twitter @JaneAustenFilm and @FuschiaFilmsLtd

and www.facebook.com/JaneAustenOvercomingPrideAndPrejudice

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Castles, Customs, and Kings…

I may have the reputation of being a walking encyclopaedia, but I can assure you, there are shed-loads of things about which I know nothing.

Quantum physics for example.  Well, I can spell it.  But that’s about it.  And alchemy at the court of James VI and I.  I don’t know anything about that — and in the main I don’t wish to find out.  Not a fan of old James, me.  The fellow gives me the creeps.  I mean, think about it, all that drool…Blech.

But I do know about a lot of other stuff — otherwise refered to by my nearest and dearest as ‘little known facts of doubtful value…’

The only thing is…well, allegedly the detritus which litters my tiny grey cells does in fact have a value.  (I know!  Whoever would have thought it?)

But it’s true.  For this condition which has over the years been the source of much amusement, has now apparently made me the ideal choice as an editor for the soon-to-be published compendium, Castles, Customs, and Kings – which is a ‘best of’ collection of the first year’s worth of blogs on the increasingly popular English Historical Fiction Authors blog, a website on which, each day, an historical novelist (Barbara Kyle, Sandra Byrd, Nancy Bilyeau, and Judith Arnopp among them…) writes a bit about some of their research or historical events and people which interest them.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.inddIt hits the shelves on the 23rd September 2013, this tome does, courtesy of Madison Street Publishing.

And I’ll tell you an interesting thing.  I’ve genuinely enjoyed editing it.  I’ve truly enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with the various periods of English and British history which are not my specialisms and with which I had sort of lost touch.

I’ve loved reading about mediaeval bathing and banqueting.  I’ve loved learning about different unknown to the world places in England and Wales.  I’ve been fascinated by the various individuals who have peopled this English stage over the centuries and I’ve loved how the authors have brought them to life for me.

(And yes, I am a contributing author of several essays as well as editor…)

Anyway.

The sections range from Roman Britain all the way up to World War II…yes, there are gaps, I suppose.

But whether your eye is fixed on the rival queens of Wars of the Roses or Jane Austen’s London or the languid Lady Mary of Downton Abbey — whether you just enjoy history or revel in historical fiction, this book, well…what I would hope is that readers would enjoy dipping in and out of the various periods of history by means of these essays, as much as I have.

Because these many authors have written engaging looks at the periods and places and people which drew them into the web of writing historical fiction in the first place, and they bring to their work a love and an enthusiasm which is just infectious and winning…and it’s all just made me appreciate more than I ever could have imagined this wonderful country in which I live, “this sceptre’d Isle, this England…”

Below is one of the first reviews we’ve received on Goodreads for the Advance Review Copy, and I can’t tell you how chuffed I am that our collective work has been so well received.

“Full disclosure: I received an advance copy and am writing this about 2/3 of the way through (I will update when I finish the book). I am also not a fan of historical fiction. I rarely read anything on the fiction shelf and even less of books that do not relate to royalty and the daily lives of their subjects across all eras and continents.

“I opened the book expecting to find something akin to a conference proceedings without “trained” experts. Instead I found a new appreciation for the meticulous research and knowledge of the genre’s authors.

“The book is divided into diverse subjects or historical periods. Each author has taken a topic and in a few pages given a succinct, well sourced overview. I find myself adding books to my wish list with every chapter. 

“The book itself first appears daunting in length. The short topic ‘chapters’ make it eady for on-the-go readers to read in small portions or even skip topics. The editors did a great job with transitions and order for each topic. Despite the length, there is no encyclopedia feel and each author’s voice is well preserved.

CastlesCustomsKings_cover.indd“This book is a scholarly treasure trove with a wide appeal. It covers everything from the first English word to the food (and recipes) served at a Tudor feast. If you are interested in nonfiction works on England, history, and/or royalty you will find a book that you will return to. Fans of historical fiction and England will find the book rich in supplemental information to complement their reading with an introduction to authors of works they might enjoy.”

So, the short and the long — I hope you’ll have a look at the new book, and I hope very much that you’ll enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together for you.

So there you go.  Looking for something to read?  This may just be the book for you.  Castles, Customs, and Kings…

Slainte!

In Praise of Editors…

Over the last few months, I’ve been engaged in an activity which I had always in the past held at arm’s length:  editing.  That is to say I’ve been editing a book of essays, the majority of which are not my own work.

(Obviously, I’ve had a fair old whack at editing myself over the years, but that turns out to be hardly the same thing…)

Anyway, I/we are on the final edit of this book of essays now, scrutinising the text line by line–with a blank post card underneath each line as I go.

And I just want to say that with each subsequent edit of this vast-ish tome (it runs to over 500 pages) I have grown more and more grateful to and in awe of those superb individuals, the very embodiment of patience, diligence, erudition, tenacity, grammatical wisdom and literary nous, editors.  The proper ones.

Because as I am coming to understand and appreciate, the best editors aren’t just checking for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re reading your mind.  They’re knowing what that turn of phrase is that you’re trying to remember, but can’t.  They’re spotting the plot-holes, the weak characters, the sloppy prose, the omissions.  They’re understanding what you mean to say even when you yourself aren’t exactly clear what that is.  And they’re evaluating whether you’re achieving your aim in every sentence and paragraph and chapter, even when you yourself are having difficulties articulating precisely what that should be.

I was reminded of this when reading a review of a new biography (if that’s the correct word) detailing the collaborative work between the poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, which author and critic Allan Massie sums up thusly: “…Professor Newlyn convincingly demonstrates how much William owed to Dorothy, and the extent to which his work derived from their collaboration. Dorothy was not only his beloved sister, but his muse, first reader, first critic and editor…” ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10263389/To-be-a-great-writer-get-a-great-critic.html )

And as I have reflected on this, I have realised just how astonishingly fortunate I have been with my first and foremost editor, who by coincidence also happens to be my husband.  And I want to put it down in print right here and now that without him, without his insight and patience and breathtaking intellect…well, I don’t even want to contemplate the alternative.  Frankly, it’s too hideous.

OHF coverFor example, he astonished me this morning–when we were discussing the essential role of an editor–by telling me some of what he had seen when he was editing Of Honest Fame.  He spoke affectionately of a couple of his favourite chapters–those featuring Boy on the run in central Europe and Jesuadon hunting an assassin through London, and he told me that it wasn’t just a matter of words, there was also the necessity of listening to the rhythm of the prose, the cadences…that it was more like editing poetry than prose, and one had to be aware of that.  He told me further that it was necessary, when editing me, to understand that I wrote through the prism of John Donne’s poetry and I couldn’t help it…

I was, I shall be honest, frankly astonished.  And humbled.  And overwhelmed with gratitude.  Because he’s right, of course, though I have not seen it before.  I do think of my work through the window of Donne’s poetry, though also a bit through the sonnets of Shakespeare and the driving verse of H.D.  But, you see, the absolute marvel of it is that I hadn’t even known that about myself and I would certainly never have had the wit to express it so kindly or so eloquently or accurately.

This is one of the passages about which he was speaking:

“All through the day, as the sun laboured to lift the weight of fog which hung grey as a pigeon’s breast over the housetops, shrouding the great dome of St. Paul’s and all church towers, Jesuadon, himself dull as a mouse’s back among them, half-walked, half-ran.  Ran with all his boys, their ceaseless footfalls swallowed up in the clanging, grinding noise of the city, through the labyrinths of the squalor and refuse of men, from Cat’s Hole to Pillory Lane, among the clapped-out, clapboard houses of St. Katharine’s Dock where the dwellings were as the nests of human rats.  Running, their faces a blur as they ran.  Running, their hundreds of eyes alert all, stalking, hunting, the man who had struck down…”

And as I’ve just read this passage again, I am once more filled with gratitude and wish I could grovel in humility (that would probably get cloying and boring, rather like too much exposure to Uriah Heep) before him and say, “Thank you” until the cows come home and go out again…Because without his gimlet eye, without his unerring inner poetic voice, without his incisive literary acumen, I would never have dared to attempt so much…

So to all those other fine, intuitive, wildly intelligent and utterly brilliant individuals who have over the centuries helped us to achieve our desire of writing the best we can–even or usually when we’re our own worst enemies–to those editors, I say “Thank you.  Thank you.  And thrice thank you.”

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Equine issues III (that’s the poncy title for it)

Recently I read a book.  (I know, shocker!)  A work of historical fiction, it was.

stubbs bayAnd in this book which was set at a time when horses were the only means of transportation, we had our hero, who was meant to be a tall lanky fellow over 6′ tall, riding a little mare who, according to the author, was just over 14 hands.  And our hero was so entranced by her that he hoped the dragoons wouldn’t steal her for their own.

Ehem.

Well, when I stopped laughing, I mentioned this to another horsey friend of mine…and when she stopped laughing like a drain, she said, “Obviously the bloke was wearing roller skates so his feet could run smoothly alongside…”

It was an image, I will confess, I had not thought of myself.

So let’s talk hands, shall we?  Because that’s how one measures a horse’s height.

For a start, a horse’s height is measured at the withers–think the tallest bit of his shoulder.  A hand is the linear measurement of a horse’s height which is equal to four inches.

dragoon1812So according to our aforementioned novelist, his 6′ hero was riding a horse which stood 4’10″ or so at the withers.  So in fact our hero was towering over this poor little pony is what he was actually doing.  And if you think that it would be good for a little ponio’s back to have a great lug of 6 foot on his back–no matter how lightly the chap rode–you should think again.

Now, yes, when one is talking about some of the  hardier breeds of pony–the New Forest ponies, here, or some of the Russian ponies that the Cossacks rode, for example…the Connemaras and those sure-footed little lads that go up and down the mountains in Spain, yes, they’re sturdy as all get out.   They’re hearty, they’re fast, they’re smart.  I love them to bits!  And I love riding them.  But I am NOT 6′ tall.  I’m nowhere near that.

Moreoever, dragoon regiments of the Napoleonic era all had height requirements.  Some of Napoleon’s were required to be no smaller than 6′ tall.  And they weren’t shrinky dinks on the British side either.  Not to mention the weight of their kit…which would mean they weren’t looking for neat little ponies–no matter how clever or quick–they were looking for the big lads of 16, 17 or even 18 hands.  (That’s 5’4″, 5’8″ or 6′ tall at the withers…)

And finally, whinnying.  A word of advice to those who haven’t met a horse–do not get your information from cowboy movies.  For in this very charming novel to which I referred earlier, every time the author mentioned horses, he had them whinnying.

dragoon2Now, whinnying is a bit of an individual thing with horses.  Some do.  Others almost never do.  But for the most part, they don’t do it much.  They’re actually very quiet animals.  They don’t draw attention to themselves for the benefit of prey animals by saying, “Hey Lion-face, here I am…aren’t you hungry?”

They may do it occasionally/rarely to say to another horse, “Oi!  Here I am, matey.  Boy, this grass looks good.  Pity you’re not here…”  And sometimes when their friends are missing–as in the other horses from their herd are off doing stuff and they’re left at home–they whinny.  But they’re not talkative toddlers.

As for whickering?  I’ve only heard it once in my entire life–and that was when a mare was in season and her boyfriend du jour was getting a little resty at not being as up close and personal as he would have liked (I was on his back, so this wasn’t possible…)  So don’t even use the phrase.  Please, oh, please, don’t use it.

They do snort.  A lot.  And I know a few horses who have this nifty little trick of wheezing heavily when they’re on the uphill, so that the novice on their back thinks they’re about to croak and doesn’t make them canter.  Clever, very clever.

Also, they do this shakey thing, rather like a Labrador just out of the river, shaking off the water–and when you’re on their back, this jiggles you something chronic.

But finally, if you have questions when you’re writing, if you must write about horses without having any experience of them, for heaven’s sake have an editor or beta reader who is horsey read over your glib and golden phrases…otherwise you end up looking like a…like a…6’2″ chappie on a diddy little ponio…daft.  Completely daft.  (For more on writing horses, there’s here, here and here…)

DJ

That old chestnut?

The one about a picture being worth ten thousand words?

Well, I’ve been thinking about it a great deal over the last several days, and I’m bound to say, I think it’s rubbish.

Take la Joconde for example.  Or the Mona Lisa if you prefer.

We’ve got the picture, all right.  The image.  But how many words have been expended on the subject of that smile of hers?  Or is it a smile?  Is it not perhaps just a ‘pleasantly bored but not wanting to give offence by yawning’ expression?  How many words?

Ten thousand?  Ten million?  Who knows?

Maybe it’s just the way her mouth is shaped?

And then there are all the thousands of words that have been expended telling us what her smile may mean.  But here’s the thing:  We don’t know.  Because we’ve only got the picture.

We haven’t got the words, not her words, not her husband’s words, not the artist’s words.

We don’t know what she’s thinking about to produce that dreamy expression, and will never will.  Because we’ve only got the picture–which in this case is not worth ten thousand words.  It’s only worth three:  “I don’t know.”

Which brings me to a recent trend in film-making–the filmic extension of this picture being worth ten thousand words–the paring down of scripts to their barest minimum with a palimpsest of plot remaining whilst giving the cinematographers free rein to show us scene after scene of gorgeousness, but…well without the words there, they don’t connect to mean much of anything really.

I recently saw the newest remake of Jane Eyre with Michael Fassbender.  It was beautiful–visually lush.  Lots of scenes of the formal garden, its box hedges whited with hoare frost and all that.  Beautiful.  Breath-taking.  But what did it add to our understanding of the developing relationship between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester?

I thi-ink it may have been intended to indicate a passage of time.

In which case, it failed, because they seem to have got the seasons out of sync, with frost followed by non-frosty scene, followed by more frost.  And if the development of their relationship over the winter is meant to parallel an inner thawing of Rochester’s perception of life and a springtide of hope, then that was altogether lost by the disenfranchised scenes of frost and thaw and frost again.

Or maybe it was just there to tell me that it’s really cold in winter up in Yorkshire.  (Here’s a clue, lads: I already knew that…)

bronteAnd thus, although we’d had a delicious montage of beautifully set-up shots–every one deserving a place on a wall in an exhibition of fine photography–and there was lots of ‘big music’ telling us that there were significant emotions swirling about and this was an important scene, a turning point, at the end, we were left with only questions.  The biggest of which was, “Where’s the last line?” or “Is that it?”  [Spoken with voice raised in incredulity.]

Obviously, we were also left stumped by the cluelessness by means of which this greatest of literary love stories with characters who become so united in spirit that she can “hear” him in his hour of desperate need got turned into a travelog for the Yorkshire Tourist Board.

Anyway, as we launch into a new season or even era of costume dramas–some of which are based on novels of significant stature–perhaps it would be well for film and television series makers to remember one vital thing–without a script, you’ve got nothing…so, learn to linger on the words, to love those, the taste those in your mouth and find them good…and you’ll find your audience.

As for me, I think I may reread Jane Eyre, just to remind myself…and after that, A Tale of Two Cities…and maybe after that…some John Donne, or Gerard Manley Hopkins, as in this first verse of his poem, Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Because words?  They are paintbrush and a rainbow palette of colours, hue and shade, with which to wash the page altogether…