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!

100_0245

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.”

footer

An award of sorts…

Greetings earthlings.

I appear to have won an award of sorts.  Or have been nominated for one.  Or something.

(Yes, yes, as usual, interaction with the rest of the human race is leaving me bemused and slightly dysfunctional…)

Anyway, the deal is this.  I display this logo-ey-thing and tell you some rivetingly interesting stuff about self.  (No, there will be no pictures, not of me anyway…) And then do some other bits and bobs.

very-inspiring-awardSo.  Here we go.  Award logo:

And now the list of things I must do:

1. Display the logo on your blog.  Check.

2. Link back to the person who nominated you.  That kind (and possibly delusional) soul is Anna Belfrage.  (I should add that she’s offered me cake, Red Velvet cake, so I’m kind of partial to her…I’m sure you can see that…)

3. State 7 things about yourself.

4. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award.

5. Notify your nominees.

So here’s the stating seven things about self.  (Are these meant to be intimate details, I ask myself?  Or things like, “I like broccoli”?  Hmn, tough decision.)

One–The greatest thing I’ve achieved is living and learning to walk again.  Two years ago, I was in hospital with a cornucopia of dread diseases and had no hope of survival.  By late March, I was back home and determined to live and walk again.  And I remember reading on FB people crowing about they’d written 200-million billion words that day, and I’d think, “Yes, but I took ten steps today.  By myself.”

Two–I subsequently learned to ride again.  Which was as hard or harder than the walking bit.  But I have the dearest most wonderful friends, who insisted that I could do this.  One got me on a dear and beloved horse I’ve known for years, and he walked me round and round the paddock.  I didn’t tell him–perhaps I didn’t need to–that my greatest fear was that I couldn’t dismount, having lost all the muscles in my back and shoulders.  It didn’t matter though, he lifted me off as though I weighed nothing and insisted I come again soon.  I owe him and that horse my life.  Without horses, I am nothing.

Other–so wonderful–friends insisted that I could and would hack out again.  So once I’d mastered the rising trot again (took a few months) and the dismounting issue, they took me out on the Downs.  And then there’s Tomtom, (he’s a horse, in case you hadn’t guessed.)  He has, throughout this fight back to life, been my brother, my friend, my greatest supporter, the one who’s said when my body says no, “It’s okay, I’ll carry you…we’ll get there.  Lean on me.”

Three–I don’t read German as well as I wish I did.

Four–I played the Pathetique Sonata by Beethoven when I was 13.

Five–I’m currently playing a lot of music by Einaudi.  It was his Una Mattina (on my iPod) that kept me dreaming, hoping, praying, breathing, and plotting during the months of being in hospital…it kept me praying that I would write another novel with Boy Tirrell in it; every time I hear it, he is conjured up.  So in so many ways, I owe Maestro Einaudi for, if not my life, then the return of my imagination and my literary ambitions.

Six–I really do like broccoli.  And carrots.  (Tomtom likes them more…)  And peas.  And cauliflower.  Love ’em. But I hate, hate, hate broad beans.  And hate more than anything asparagus!

Seven–Coming back to life is a very lonely place.  You lose lots of friends.  And the world you wake up to, the world you’ve fought like stink to be a part of again is rarely as you imagined it was.  But I have had the great gift, the great pleasure, the great kindness of those who have loved my books encouraging me, supporting me (though they didn’t know it) and cherishing me.  Thank you all so very, very much.  Bless you.

Item 4.  I don’t know 15 other bloggers.  Honestly.  But I’ll have a go listing those four I do know and admire–great friends and interesting authors.

Jonathan Hopkins.

Jenni James.

Terry Kroenung.

Piotr Mierzejewski.

5…I’ll just go do that now, shall I?

Slainte!

footer

The inimitable Georgette Heyer…

It would seem I’ve been procrastinating…but that’s not actually the case.

What is the case is that I’ve got so much on my plate that any multi-tasking capabilities I may have possessed have run for the proverbial hills, leaving me with about three half-written blogs, piles of reading on Russian foreign policy circa 1812, half a sonnet frollicking about in my head, and too many characters from the next books standing in the wings, tapping their feet, waiting for their cue to come on.

[And the answer to “Ha ha, how do you sleep well at night?” is “Not very well really…I wake up at about four and…”]

Anyway.

Recently, I was reminded by a friend’s complaints about the cheesiness of much of today’s literary marketing of a letter I received from a literary agent, a female of the species.  Which actually, in retrospect, amused me.

blokeI had sent this individual the opening chapters for my novel, Of Honest Fame, you see, along with the usual charming, banterful letter and a synopsis.

Then, after the obligatory wait of several months, said agent had returned the sample chapters along with a rejection letter in which she compared the work to the novels of Georgette Heyer–novels for which, she assured me, there was no market.

From this fatuous comparison, I deduced she had either been drinking…and/or was terminally stupid…and most assuredly had never read any of Heyer’s work.  [Even since her death in 1974, Heyer’s works have NEVER been out of print.]

Hence after my incredulous, “What?” you will understand that my uppermost emotion was relief at the lucky save!

[Exactly what about a boy setting a corpse alight and later getting the basting of a lifetime could possibly remind anyone of a novel by Georgette Heyer still eludes me.  But then, I fear I am too literal in my understanding of these things.

What I’m guessing this creature was dim-wittedly trying to say was that the novel was set in the early 19th century, quite possibly the Regency, and therefore something or other…And I confess, one longed to meet the dotty female and say, “Yes, dear, the novel is set in the early 19th century.  And so is War and Peace.  Or can you not spell that?”]

But lately, you know, I’ve been seeing Miss Heyer’s name splashed about a fair bit–usually on the cover of some allegedly Regency novel  [just like Georgette Heyer, the endorsement gushes] a term which was coined to describe some, though not all of her work–and this has actually made me want to spit teeth.

1812_greatcoatFor this comparison can only be based on the crudest and most simple-minded assessment of Heyer’s work–although, interestingly enough, in Heyer’s lifetime, critics of her work dismissed it with the words, “another Georgette Heyer.”

And perhaps this is the problem.  And it’s an ongoing one.

Because both of those statements about Heyer reveal how little the author/reviewer knows or understands of Heyer’s work, whilst at the same time committing  the absolute bimbonic folly of fancying that a novel’s quality can be deduced from what the characters are wearing and where/when the thing is set..

To imagine that a novel is nothing more than a plotline, a time period and a few stock characters–thus anyone who writes a thing set in the early 19th century must of necessity be writing like Miss Heyer–is to wholly underestimate and undervalue the extra-ordinary talent, apparently effortless prose style, and wit of this quintessentially British author.  It’s like saying all bars of soap are the same.

Or put another way, it is to be criminally stupid and terminally, intellectually myopic.  Ehem.

(Just as when I see contemporary authors comparing their own works to hers, I mark them down as delusional.)

Because Georgette Heyer is inimitable.

There is no one like her.

Just as no one is like P.G. Wodehouse.

Heyer was a one-off, an original, a woman of tremendous talent who backed up every book with oodles of hard work and endless research, at a time when the historical novel–light, dark or in-between–hardly existed.

She was a pioneer.

Both Wodehouse and Heyer were authors of a certain era, who because of the tremendous ease with which they created their fictional worlds, their prodigeous talent for making prose flow like rippling, streams of wit, dominated the literary scene for more than five decades of the 20th century, without equal.

Like Wodehouse, her sentence and paragraph construction are peerless.

Highgate Tunnel Mail coachAnd like Wodehouse and the world of Blandings Castle, Heyer created a parallel Regency London and initially Sussex (where she grew up)–one without politics, the nastiness of war or assassination or Napoleon, one where the West End and Mayfair were clean and bright and rarely raining [we wish!] and most people rubbed along tolerably well.  And it is against this delicious confection of a backdrop that she set her tales, many of which were plays on the traditional favourite, the Cinderella story.

You know the drill, poor female requires handsome rich prince to see through the tatters of her shyness and the ashes of her genteel poverty, her lower position in society, and recognising her true merit, her lovely laughter and wit, sweep her off to a happy, rich, life…Yadda yadda yadda…

And certainly given that during the early 19th century and indeed looking honestly at the career opportunities for women in the early 20th century, the Cinderella story is a fitting one–without a man, particularly a rich one to provide, life didn’t offer many choices, and even fewer bonuses.

Equally, unlike in real life, in Heyer’s world, the aristocracy and gentry were plentiful; the male of the species were witty, urbane, amused, well-dressed and loaded–all alpha males with a sublime sense of humour, great shoulders and a starched cravat.

But this, my friends and companions, is where Heyer gets interesting.  Because she is not writing the standard Cinderella story in as many permutations as she can manage.  Rather she is subverting the genre even as she is creating it.

Georgette Heyer was born in 1902, in Wimbledon.  She lived through and remembered all her life that period of turmoil when women got the vote, when at last they were allowed into universities like Oxford and Cambridge, when a certain equality with males appeared possible.  For women, the world in which Heyer grew up was one of new, untried and unexplored horizons.  And Heyer, rather than writing the same old same old took that standard formulaic romance, broke the mold and turned it upside down, bless her.

If, as the Arab saying has it, “stories teach people how to live”, then Heyer was writing the template for the new millenia’s women.

Indeed, from the outset, Heyer’s females were not the simpering, swooning simpletons beloved by her fellow pioneers of historical fiction, Baroness D’Orzy and Raphael Sabatini.  [Recall, Heyer’s first published work, The Black Moth, came out in 1921.]  Instead, she started as she meant to go on and in her works, it was all to play for.

tea on the lawn-sandbyThe Masqueraders, published in 1928, gave the female protagonist the lead male’s role and gave to her brother the role of pantomime princess, beautifully dressed and undetected in female garb.  And whilst this may have been a play on the history of the Scottish uprising of 1745 and the fact that Bonnie Prince Charlie escaped from Scotland dressed as a servant woman, and equally, the British stage has a long tradition of males in female roles, I cannot begin to imagine how this played in 1950’s America.  If it played at all.

The Corinthian, published in 1940, took the Cinderella lead and gave it to the rich hero.  Sir Richard Wyndham is rescued (he says it himself) from the onerous duties and ties of family and financial expectation by the young rebel, Pen Creed–the ashes of his wealth and the tatters of his fine clothes seen through by this rebel-child of a girl with decided opinions, a wicked sense of humour and wearing boy’s clothing, thus ensuring Richard’s future happiness.

The Grand Sophy (1950) takes matters even further.  Sophy isn’t just masterful, she masters the whole family–who admittedly need it.  But there is nothing shrinking or feeble or swooning about her.  She’s about as far from the Victorian virgin-ideal as one could hope to get.  And reading her, I have no doubt, empowered a whole generation of young women, engendering in them the belief that they could surmount any and all obstacles, even as it encouraged them to be amusing, wise and formidable, and still be lovable.

(Since girls of the 1950s were still being encouraged to laugh at a bloke’s jokes, even when they weren’t funny, to shut up and listen and hide their own intelligence, this is probably a great deal more subversive than we might today think.)

tomkinsVenetia (1958), Frederica (1965), A Lady of Quality [Annis Wychwood] (1972), all provide further proof of her talent for upending convention.  None of these main female characters are blushing debutantes.  They are all older, wiser, savvier, pragmatic, with good, sound heads on their shoulders, shouldering burdens that the men in their lives have shied from.  They are vibrant, confident, self-assured, the intellectual equal if not superior of their male counterparts, with a self-knowledge to rival that of a seasoned philosopher.

And none of them want rescuing.  Indeed, often it is they who are more likely to mount the white charger and ride to the aid of their men…

But while Heyer may be mounting a subterfuge of a campaign on behalf of capable women everywhere, she does so with such finesse, such charming irony and delicious wit, that what might be a provocative storyline of female empowerment is couched in a flow of easily digested, apparently innocuous delight.

And yet, what an ironic wit she had.  Her authorial voice was unique.  Delicate, graceful, laced with genial good-humour, and without the cruelty of some of Austen’s observations, Heyer poked fun without poking anyone in the eye.

Listen to this:  “Fashion was not kind to George…”  Or she will write of a lady “enjoying ill-health”–how much more tolerant than Austen’s descriptions of Lady Bertram?  That lightness of touch has more in common with Wodehouse, surely.

And she is, I will be honest, quite possibly greatest though when she writes of sisters, aunts and mothers.  She captured these relationships with all their  invisible, manipulative, endearing and powerful strings attached as no one before her or since.  She writes them all honestly, graciously, humorously, with her tongue firmly fixed in her right cheek…

Her prose is as smooth and effortlessly elegant as the unfurling of silk pennants in the breeze–like “drowning in honey, stingless”–and is unmatchable and unrivalled.

And behind of and in back of all this was the strength of her unending research, her notebooks filled with slang, with details of dress, of society, family, invention and history.

Interestingly too, unlike the current craze for implausible aristocratic titles that one may encounter between the pages of contemporary historical romances, as she grew older, Heyer came more and more to favour stories of the gentry and professional classes.  

Almacks CruikshankBlack Sheep, A Lady of Quality, Frederica, Charity Girl, The Nonesuch, Cotillion, Arabella, The Toll-gate…whether she was playing to the new ideal of meritocracy and equality in the 20th century or whether she was sidestepping the Labour-inspired class warfare issues, I cannot tell you.  But these novels are most assuredly not filled with scenes at Almack’s, tales of the ton, or tired witticisms allegedly spoken by George Brummell–the cliche-ridden world of so-called Regency romances.

If Heyer has a failing at all, it is in her male protagonists–too many of them read exactly the same and might be carbon copies of one another:  bored, well-dressed, sporty, self-indulgent.  And they become invariably soppy at the end–which I personally find sick-making.  But that’s just me.

Still…when I recounted the sorry tale of my rejection to a friend, an Oxford don (male), his reaction was as far from mine as could be.  “She compared you to Georgette Heyer?” he said.  “No one has ever paid me a compliment like that.  If they had, it would have been the greatest compliment of my life!  I would give anything to be compared to her…Wow!”

Which also makes me laugh.  For truth is, I know how hard she worked and I respect her too much to even dream of aspiring to be her equal…

A little Christmas treat

I know some of you were wondering what Boy Tirrell received for Christmas. Well, my dears, here is your answer:

100_1864On the first day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
A death threat in bad French.

On the second day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

On the third day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

On the fourth day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Four poison vials,
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

On the fifth day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Five guillotines,
Four poison vials,
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

On the sixth day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Six cannon booming,
Five guillotines,
Four poison vials,
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

On the seventh day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Seven sabres slashing,
Six cannon booming,
Five guillotines,
Four poison vials,
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

On the eighth day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Eight squads a-firing,
Seven sabres slashing,
Six cannon booming,
Five guillotines,
Four poison vials,
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

On the ninth day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Nine knives a-flying,
Eight squads a-firing,
Seven sabres slashing,
Six cannon booming,
Five guillotines,
Four poison vials,
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

On the tenth day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Ten thugs a-thumping,
Nine knives a-flying,
Eight squads a-firing,
Seven sabres slashing,
Six cannon booming,
Five guillotines,
Four poison vials,
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Eleven columns marching,
Ten thugs a-thumping,
Nine knives a-flying,
Eight squads a-firing,
Seven sabres slashing,
Six cannon booming,
Five guillotines,
Four poison vials,
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.

100_1871On the twelfth day of Christmas, Napoleon sent to me
Twelve hired assassins,
Eleven columns marching,
Ten thugs a-thumping,
Nine knives a-flying,
Eight squads a-firing,
Seven sabres slashing,
Six cannon booming,
Five guillotines,
Four poison vials,
Three French spies,
Two hand grenades
And a death threat in bad French.