Monday, October 25, 2021
Short story: The Pond
I'm sorry to have to announce that the publication date of In The Heart of Hidden Things has been moved from March to June 2022. This is nothing to do with the book or with Jo Fletcher Books; it's simply that Britain is facing shortages in pretty much everything at the moment, and for the publishing industry, that includes paper.
Well, I'll try to be amusing in the meantime. We play a game on my Facebook page
: people post pictures in the comments, and I write little sketches inspired by them. When I say 'inspired', I mean that in the loosest sense; I usually wander pretty far away from the original picture within a few sentences.
Some of these sketches are short, but sometimes they turn into little short stories too long for the Facebook format. When that happens, I'm going to post them here. That happened with this picture (source
), so here we go. Feel free to join in the game and post pictures on the Facebook!
One small note before we begin this one which might be helpful. In Hidden Things, the characters are 'fairy-smiths' - that is to say, blacksmiths who specialise in the kind of iron that repels fairies, also known as the Good Neighbours, the kind friends, and, most often in my world, the People. While writing, I noticed something immensely pleasing: if you can call a mill-worker a miller, you could call a fairy-worker a farrier, couldn't you? Farrier work is a real profession; these days it's a specialist in horses' feet, so something between a blacksmith and a vet. I just nicked the word because nobody stopped me. Hence, when I say, in some of these stories, 'farriography', don't upset yourself trying to find it on the Internet; it's just a silly word I made up to pretend that the study of fairy-smithing was a real academic discipline. Hidden Things doesn't take place in an academic world; this tale is one of several that involve imaginary modern scholars of an imaginary time and place long past.
And, with that, let's go!
From the Bath Institute of Farriography
We feel it's important to put to rest certain rumours that have been circulating of late: to wit, that the pond found in the ornamental gardens of Loathbury House is a sigil, and capable of philosophies.
We do not expect our members to accept a flat contradiction without question, so for the sake of ending the spate of vandalistic landscaping that has been taking place in recent weeks, we are prepared to disclose the following facts:
The layout does have a certain formality of design, and arithmychologists of recent years have spent a lot of time and ink analysings the proportions. Most notable among these has been Master Tommy Faber-Morris, late of the Cornwall Centre for Farriographical Preservation. No doubt members will all join us in sprinkling salt for his rapid recovery.
Members of his clan report that the problem was that he grew, over the years, increasingly preoccupied with numerology. This is a discipline the BIF does not advise the study of except under the supervision of an elder farrier of applied farriography, preferably one of at least two-score years and ten, and the fate of Master Tommy is a case in point. While it is not within our holdings to research or assign blame, it is evident that he was not adequately supervised. His researches took their own course, eventually resulting in the theory that the diameter of the human pupil, relative to the straightness of the eyelash, was a reliable predictor of the fate that awaited the soul after death.
It is not in the nature of farriographic institutes or working forges to discourage robust dispute, and we do not condemn Master Elizabeth Favre for her challenge to his views. The fact that she is not expected to emerge from her isolation until seven seasons have elapsed, beginning with the summer of this year, is an act of voluntary self-shunning, in order to express compuntion for any role she may have played in Master Faber-Morris's decline. We will welcome her back, and wish her fair fortune with her studies in the meantime.
What Master Favre did was only to point out, colleague to colleague, that while Master Faber-Morris's knowledge of numerology was unquestioned, his grasp on anatomy was a little shaky. This was, in fact, the case: in specific, he had failed to remember that the pupil of the eye varies in diameter moment to moment, depending not only on the amount of light - a fact Master Faber-Morris had acknowledged, and developed an elaborate system of sundials and sextants to adjust for - but also on the emotions of the eye's owner.
Master Faber-Morris, reluctant to abandon his theory, was heard to make many remarks on the connection between the eyes as windows of the soul, and the deadly sins, all of which, he argued, should be understood as emotional states rather than acts.
So much would have been mere theology, except that he became, over time, a subscriber to the defunct Kovalenkan heresy that the People should be considered, not a class of being exempt from common doctrine, but a form of physical-spiritual dislocation - that is, souls without bodies, or bodies without souls.
At first, Master Faber-Morris attempted to publisher papers conflating fairies with ghosts, but, finding these rejected from peer-reviewed journals, he eventually moved on to a still-more eccentric position. To wit, he contended that certain states of emotion were so deadly in their sinfulness that they caused the pupil of the eye to distend to what he called 'the sulphuric ratio' - in other words, a ratio between eye diameter and eyelash length so diabolical that it caused the soul to escape the body entirely and join the fey, leaving the body prone to shapeshifting without a soul to keep it in order, and the soul a creator of illusions, marshlights and other such disreputable antics.
Had Master Faber-Morris been at home when he came up with this theory, it is likely that his clan might have assisted him to a better state of mind, but unfortunately, he was cataloguing some recently-discovered relics in the estate of Loathbury House, discovered when a drunken docent got into an argument with a floorboard in the stable building, on the grounds that the knots in the wood were giving him disrespectful looks and attempting to 'upskirt' a certain young lady visitor of whom he had hopes, and kicked in the board, revealing a hidden cache of talismanic implements below, evidently of old Faber worksmanship and of great historical and practical interest.
Master Faber-Morris's work on cataloguing this find was diligent, although unfortunately not useable for practical purposes given his tendency to digress upon the subject of whether the look given by the 'eyes of the wood' (the knotholes to which the docent had taken such unnecessary exception) should be considered within the sulphuric ratio. The more preoccupied with this he became, the more unsettled he became in his spirits, but it was the kindly-meant remark of a groundskeeper (name withheld for the man's privacy), who remarked that Master Faber-Morris looked tired and must be 'reading his eyes square', that truly deranged his methods.
Master Faber-Morris was fond of swimming, and had for some time been dipping his feet in the formal pond on the Loathbury grounds by way of refreshment. It was unfortunate that the shape of the pond was a combination of rounded and quandrangular; while Master Faber-Morris does not note this as an influence, he was observed, for several days in a row, attempting to douse his head within its water.
A groundskeeper approached and reasoned with him pointing out that the practice was not hygienic. Master Faber-Morris replied that he was attempting to 'keep body and soul together', and that his feelings were so disordered of late that he could never be certain that his pupils and lashes were in proper alignment. This somewhat confused the groundskeeper, who was aware that the cosmeticians of the local village had been finding Master Faber-Morris something of a nuisance, but, intending to be helpful, said that you'd need to be a newt to see comfortably below those waters, and Master Faber-Morris should take care of his health.
At this, Master Faber-Morris was heard to exclaim, 'Eye of newt!', and dived into the pond - in which, it should be added, a colony of crested newts did reside.
The groundkeeper reports that Master Faber-Morris made a creditable effort to stuff the first newt he found into his own eye socket; unfortunately, however, the pond was only three feet deep, which is not a depth at which diving is advisable.
Master Faber-Morris's concussion did not prove fatal, and his clan report that he is recovering well. He was somewhat disoriented, and apparently under the impression that smell of the pondwater was a contradiction to his theories of the sulphuric ratio, on the academically shaky grounds that the pond smelled cold and damp, and sulphur smells hot and dry. However, since the groundskeeper's remarks on 'reading his eyes square' and 'eye of newt' seemed to have had so deranging an effect on him, he was fortunately referred to Master Jennet Mackem, whose reputation in diagnostic farriography needs no elaboration here.
Upon examination, Master Mackem was able to diagnose Master Faber-Morris with, among other disorders, a hypersensitivity to proverbs. She therefore counselled him that he no longer believed in his wild theories, for the pond had 'knocked some sense into him.'
Master Faber-Morris appears to have accepted this prescription and holds, for the moment, to entirely conventional views.
We are disclosing Master Faber-Morris's proverb sensitivity in the hopes that members of the community will make kindly accommodation when in his company, and also to put to rest any silly notions that the pond itself was responsible, either for the curing of disordered ideas, or the suppression of artistic temperament - both of which we have heard proposed in recent weeks, chosen apparently according to the preconceptions of the ranter.
These are unstable times, and should any members of your own clan appear to be succumbing to excessive preoccupation along these lines, Master Jennet Mackem requests me to say that she is open for appointments, which may be booked through the address below.
There is nothing further to add, except that we counsel all members of our community to touch iron, remember their common sense, and also to please spare the pond any further interference. It is, as mentioned, home to a colony of crested newts, which are declining in numbers within these isles, and do not benefit from farriers up to silliness in their breeding waters. Have some respect, we charge you.
Friday, October 15, 2021
(Available for pre-order here
Well, I promised you a hiatus, and boy did I deliver. What happened there?
Well, at the time I stopped blogging, there were two things going on:
I was dealing with an undiagnosed case of PTSD. It didn't get diagnosed
until later that year, by which time it had been going on for four
years, which is a lot of time I just didn't have it together to write,
and honestly only hazily remember at all. My mental health was pretty
much all to cock. It was postnatal PTSD; ironically enough, I got the
news that my last book had been shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award
the day before my son's induction was scheduled – and after that
induction, for a long time, there wasn’t enough left of me to do
anything about the career that seemed to be going pretty well. After I
got diagnosed, I got some treatment, and it was only after that I was
able to write anything, and for a long time it was just little bits of
stuff. Before that, the inside of my head wasn't a pretty sight.
the point at which I vanished from the Internet was the month my son’s
diagnosis of autism was confirmed. He was three years old, bright and
beautiful and full of joy, and everyone adored him. They still do; he’s
eleven now, and it was just before his eleventh birthday that he was
also diagnosed with ADHD. (It's not uncommon for these to go together;
along with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, epilepsy and all sorts of
other neurodivergences; they often crop up in the same people and/or the
So there I was, with a perfect son, but we were looking
at a double-black-diamond kind of perfect while most other parents were
coasting down the bunny slope. A lot needed to be sorted out to get him
supported, which meant wrestling with an education system not at all
set up to work well for kids with special needs, and dealing with an
outside world of prejudice and bureaucracy, as well as needing to learn a
whole ton of specialised parenting skills quick smart. Everything else
had to go on hold.
I wanted to be writing, but I was firefighting instead. And that went on for years.
I still have PTSD – I always will, trauma kicks open a door in your
head that never really closes – but I’m about as on top of it as I’m
going to get. And my lovely boy is thriving; there are always going to
be new fires to put out, but we know the drills now, and we’re about as
much on top of it as SEN parents ever really are. (Special Educational
Needs, that is. And the answer to how on top of it we ever get is,
‘About as much as any imperfect human being is ever on top of their
You live that life, though, and after a while it starts you thinking along different paths.
day I was watching CBeebies with my son – and by ‘watching’, I mean the
television was on, he was racketing around the room and occasionally
glancing at it, and I was hoping he might see something he liked, maybe add something to the short list of things he enjoyed. Something came on – an episode of Tweenies, I think – in
which a character visited a ruined church on the Isle of Man.
had started to build it, she said, but during the night, the fairies
ripped the roof off it. The builders had another go, but the next night,
the fairies weren’t having it: off came the roof again. They tried over
and over, day and night, build and destroy, and in the end, they gave
up. Now all that stands are the walls of a church the fairies wouldn’t
allow them to finish.
No one knows, she said, why the fairies didn't want a roof on the church, but clearly they didn’t.
do you mean no one knows?’ I thought. ‘Isn't it obvious? The first time
the fairies saw the church, it didn’t have a roof on it. So clearly it
wasn’t supposed to have a roof, because if it was meant to have a roof,
it would have had a roof. But it didn’t have a roof, so it shouldn’t
have a roof. What’s so hard to understand?’
from a mind honed upon many thundering dramas over such apocalyptic
issues as The Door Is Closed When It Should Be Open, You Took Off Your
Glasses And They’re Supposed To Go On Your Face, and The Toothpaste Is
On The Wrong Side Of The Sink, a certain . . . whim . . . started to
It took a long time. I’d forgotten how to write
novels; I began with scraps of stories about the same people, watching
them do this and that, playing with imaginary friends to cheer myself up
on the difficult days. The stories started to get longer; the work
started to hold me together.
I wasn’t writing any
literal depiction of neurodivergence; I don’t have ADHD and I don’t
think I’m autistic, so I can’t speak from the inside. Or not entirely; I
did have a neurodivergent baby, after all, and while he gets some of
that from his dad, I’m the one who fell in love with that dad. I a few traits that often go with autism - in particular, I have
sensory sensitivities and special interests. A neurodivergence coach once looked at a form I'd filled in for someone else and asked that someone, 'Have you considered you might have dyspraxia? I'm just looking at the handwriting . . .' And I'm
certainly clumsy, which goes with dyspraxia (and that does run in my family): put me at the top of a staircase with no rail, and
wander off; I’ll probably still be there when you come back. I probably have, as I like to put it, 'a little spice in my sauce.'
idea of feyness – not the Victorian frilly wings, but the old folk tales
of cold-weather, intransigent, flint-willed creatures of the land – had
thoroughly caught my attention.
The thing is,
neurodivergence and feyness have a long history together. Contemporary
ND people often relate to the myth of the changeling. And the old
stories of the changelings – some of which are horrible, horrible
accounts of child abuse – do sometimes describe children who nowadays
would be referred for a paediatric assessment. More than that, though,
there’s the simple fact of the fairies: they seem irrational, but they
aren’t lawless. Instead, they have rules of their own, which they hold
to implacably, but which a normal person may not understand at all –
until they cross them.
I was living in a home with more than one kind of person in it, living by more than one set of laws. I got that.
And we all play in our own ways. Finally, I felt like playing again.
book I wrote, In The Heart Of Hidden Things, is not meant to speak for
anyone except myself. It came from a place of learning to enjoy quirks,
of fighting through a world that truly doesn’t care if your beautiful
child is hurt and demeaned, of knowing what it is to worry about your
children, of having fiery energy that couldn’t be let out anywhere else,
of wanting to go home. A lot of my childhood was spent in the countryside,
and my son’s needs meant that for years we couldn’t leave London, and
like many books, I think it came from homesickness and needing to create
a place where I could go.
People talk about fantasy as being
‘escapist’, but I don’t think I believe that. What this book was, for
me, would be better called ‘respite-ist’: you go away and take a respite
break, and then you have to come back and deal with the things and
people that need caring for. I’m with Jeanette Winterson: ‘Fiction and
poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes
on the imagination.’ So I wrote to grow places in my imagination that
life had been breaking; I wrote to make myself laugh again. I’d been a
hidden thing for a long time, but I felt able, at least, to stop hiding
All of which are my own reasons, of course. I
could cheerfully suggest everyone read the book because it would please
me, but I don’t expect that would get me very far. What I would say is
that I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.
The title of the book is taken from a
wonderful poem by Charlotte Mew, herself no stranger to the worry that
goes with family members whose brains aren’t the way the world expects
them to be. I’ll finish quoting the part I used for an epigraph:
I wouldn’t speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world
whispering . . .
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Till further notice
...I'm afraid this blog is on pause. Apologies to anyone this disappoints; personal and family reasons have called for a complete change in my schedule, and this blog, which isn't as high a priority as my fiction and which doesn't generate money, has had to be moved down the list.
If you're looking for something to read in the archives, I'd recommend the Opening Line series; you can find a complete list of posts here
Have a nice day.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
There's been a hiatus...
...and will be for a bit longer, I'm afraid. Because of two interrelated factors:
1. Personal reasons.
2. The next book I plan to do is Moby-Dick
. I'd never read it before I decided that its famous first sentence was worth a look; now I am reading it, it staggers me that I wasted the last thirty-six years of my life failing to read that wild, warm, wonderful, bizarre and beautiful work. I don't know what was wrong with me. Happily, I am in the process of correcting that deplorable absence. The thing is, it's a long book. An extremely long book. And being as wonderful as it is, I'm not going to spoil this first read by rushing it. So unless I can scrape up the time or inspiration to do something else in the meantime - any suggestions, go ahead - it'll have to wait till I've finished it.
If you're short of reading material till then, I suggest you try Moby-Dick
. It is fantastic
Monday, September 09, 2013
Opening Line: The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist
This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of the Opening Line series can be found here.
Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII on April 5, 1768, and four years later he was executed.
Sounds like the beginning of a popular history book, doesn't it? But in fact, this is The Visit of the Royal Physician
, an historical novel by multi-award-winning Swedish author Per Olov Enquist
. If the setting sounds familiar, it's probably because of a surprise hit film last year, A Royal Affair
, directed by by Nikolaj Arcel and starring Mads Mikkelsen. Of course, it might also sound familiar because you have Danish connections; according to Mikkelsen
, 'It's part of our history, everybody knows about it, but how many details is very individual. Everybody knows about this guy, Struensee the doctor, the German doctor who took over the country, had an affair with the queen, got a baby, and he got beheaded. But details - that's very individual how much you know.' It's a story the more remarkable for being true: an ambitious doctor named Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed royal physician in Denmark to the then king, Christian VII. Christian was mentally ill, although exactly how remains a matter of speculation, and Struensee, an Enlightenment thinker in a country still based on serfdom, succeeded first in calming the king and then in gaining such influence over him that for a brief period, the German doctor became de facto ruler of Denmark. Struensee was prolific and remarkable in his reforms, which tended to be truly excellent ideas
, but he was also rash enough to fall into an affair with the queen, Caroline Mathilde, and he evidently lacked the political skill to protect himself with alliances. Early in 1772 he was arrested and imprisoned, and an executioner chopped off first his right hand and then his head. It's a remarkable moment in Danish history, and it's also significant on the international stage. When the French Revolution began in 1789 its Enlightenment thinkers had a severe example to consider. This is what happened to a man who tried to break aristocratic power by non-violent means. Our guillotine for them, or their axe for us.
So the story is an intriguing one, and it's gained international interest in recent years. A Royal Affair
is not, strictly speaking, based on The Visit of the Royal Physician;
its makers tried to buy the rights, but they'd already been sold elsewhere and the film credits another novel, Prinsesse af blodet
by Bodil Steensen-Leth, but Enquist's novel was influential enough that they had to double-check and do some rewrites on an earlier draft of the screenplay
. (You'll have to run that article through Google Translate unless you happen to speak Swedish.) Most significant are the changes the film makes to Caroline Mathilde's character, which Enquist writes as ... well, as one of those female characters who are very obviously written by a man, primarily defined by sexuality and her instinctive rule over men, and while she's a well-executed version of that, to this reader at least it's a weakness in the novel, and the film's portrayal of Caroline Mathilde as Enlightenment herself is, if a romantic view, at least more humanising. But that said, the novel is fascinating - and it's not just because of the story. It's also a truly unusual feat of style.
Now, analysing the style of a work in translation is always a provisional business. The translator in this case is Tiina Nunnally
, which puts us in pretty safe hands; she's another multi-award-winner, translator of another famous adapted work, Smilla's Sense of Snow
, and she's evidently highly regarded in Sweden: it's hard to say which is the bigger tribute, her 2009 award for 'the introduction of Swedish culture abroad' or the fact that in 2007 she got to do a new translation of the beloved classic Pippi Longstocking
. Any translation has an element of admixture - I'm sure the foreign editions of my books owe much to their respective translators, and I always remember the story of my friend's mother who first read Wordsworth through the translation of a famous Japanese poet and was deeply disappointed when she finally read the original - but while Nunnally had many choices to make about phrasing, the real feature of Enquist's style is one that survives translation. It's his use of flat, repetitive declaration.
The Visit of the Royal Physician
is a deadpan book. Enquist is quite capable of metaphor and poetry when he chooses - Struensee thinks of the long-abused, confounded Christian as having 'frostbite of the soul', for instance - but he makes that choice only rarely. Instead, as befits the Enlightenment theme, the tone is strongly rational, confining itself to dry statement of facts - yet at the same time, it's fraught with emotional tension. In The Spectator
, John de Falbe described the style thus:
Enquist writes in short, jerky sentences which often seem to repeat themselves. Although disconcerting at first, the technique works brilliantly. The atmosphere is suitably nervy, while the shifting ground beneath the apparent repetitions is vibrant with stealth and subterfuge.
While not all the sentences are literally short and jerky, he's right that it creates a 'nervy' atmosphere. I'd go further; I'd say it's doom-laden.
Fate and inevitability weigh heavy on the novel. Christian himself is a figure of profound pathos, a sane boy systematically tormented into helplessness at the hands of a court preferring to keep the king weak enough to leave their power unchecked; his preoccupation with acting and theatre, of which the film makes much play, is presented not as an aristocrat's vanity but as the utter confusion between reality and performance of a boy who has spent his entire life required to speak the lines given to him and kept ignorant of anything else. Struensee is, for a man who managed to revolutionise a country not his own, a curiously passive figure: it is Caroline Mathilde who seduces him and guides their sexual encounters, and his regency is unmixed with any desire for power:
It was as if he saw the aperture of history open, and he knew that it was the aperture of life, and he was the only one who could step through this opening. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was his duty.
And he was tremendously frightened.
Fear rather than ambition rules Enquist's Struensee, just as it rules Christian; Enquist's imaginative sympathy is entirely on the side of the frightened, and the Queen's fearlessness is presented as a strength of which Struensee himself is 'afraid', another way in which she dominates him. Struensee is afraid, and he's also 'doomed to destruction' because, as the Queen sees it (and the narrative tends to support her) he's too 'pure-hearted': fear, innocence and virtue are conflated, and those who do not fear, including the instinctual, physical Queen, have an element of monstrosity to them. The entire tone of the novel has a kind of impassioned caution, the desperate restraint of one who has much to say but fears to say too much.
We can hear it in the first sentence, though the style is so unusual that it takes a little time, a little practice getting one's ear in to Enquist's rhythms, before the emotion starts to strain through the facts. It deviates from plain history in one notable omission, for example: it doesn't say which country Christian was 'King' of. A popular textbook, especially one written in Swedish, would more likely say 'King Christian VII of Denmark
,' just to make sure that everybody had all the relevant information at the outset. By omitting the reference to the country, the narrative assumes a certain knowledge from us.
Which, in turn, has a curious effect on the names. 'Johann Friedrich Struensee' and 'King Christian VII' are obviously formal, nothing anyone actually speaking to them would employ. But at the same time, leaving out that all-important location - it only crops up in the next paragraph, in which there's mention of 'the Danish court', still expecting the reader to do a little mild deduction, and even then it's only mentioned because it's about to quote the opinion of 'the British Ambassador to the Danish court', locating the sense of Danish foreignness in a character rather than the narrative - sounds as if, in some way, we were hearing about people we all knew. We hear their full names, but we apparently don't need telling who they are. It creates a weird sense of formality, a disconnected courtliness, as if the narrative itself is reluctant to commit straight away to calling them 'Christian' and 'Struensee' as it later does. Knowing already how Struensee's career ended - for this first sentence delivers him dead on arrival - it almost feels like reading a transcript, a statement to the police from a speaker not quite sure he won't be arrested himself if he says the wrong thing.
And we can see why when we consider the sentence's content. A man's 'visit' opens and closes in a few short years, and the close of his visit ends his life. Fortune's wheel is revolving fast in this world: to be near to power - as we must be as readers of stories of the powerful - is to be near to danger, near to death. Caroline Mathilde acknowledges this to herself in the reflection that:
To desire the queen was touch death. She was forbidden, and desired, and anyone who touched the most forbidden of all would have to die. It excited them; she knew that. She saw it in their eyes. And once she was aware of it, all the others seemed to become ensnared, ever more strongly, in an intense and silent radiance.
Enquist adds that this thought 'filled her with a tremendous sense of power', and as moments like this predominate when it comes to our insight into Caroline Mathilde's thoughts, you can see why I described her as feeling very male-written - but thematically it's central to the book and sexuality is only part of it. Life and death are intermingled, and to live too vividly is to court disaster. In a sense, the opening sentence links Struensee's rise and fall almost as cause and effect: had he not become Royal Physician, he would not have been executed. We open, in a sense, with the beginning of the end. (An impression that's heightened by the fact that the first few chapters following describe time after Struensee's death. Death hangs over Struensee before we ever meet him.)
In the face of this morbidity, performance and concealment are key: spontaneous expression tends to be destructive, as in the 'great furious confused rape of Copenhagen' that takes place in anti-Struensee riots, or self-destructive, as when Struensee sleeps with the Queen or his ally Brandt defends himself against a frantic attack from Christian, a defence that will later sign his death warrant. The narrative does not court such destruction. 'Johann Friedrich Struensee' and 'King Christian VII' are not so much naming the people as quoting
their names, using an official version that no one could be blamed for saying.
It is, simultaneously, a sentence that speaks of characters more than of history. Note the order: not, 'On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII,' but 'Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII on April 5, 1768...' The subject is the man, not the date. Now, this is a decision made by Nunnally, not Enquist; the original sentence ran thus
Den 5 april 1768 anställdes Johann Friedrich Struensee som den danske konungen Christian den sjundes livläkare, och avrättades fyra år senare.
- and according to my Scandinavian friends, it would have been grammatically acceptable to put Struensee's name at the start. (And the Danish translation begins with the date too.) Not being a Swedish speaker I'm in no position to comment on the subtleties of Enquist's choice - very probably it involves nuances of language and literary tradition about which I can say nothing sensible - but Nunnally's makes it clear to English eyes that this is a novel, and that Johann Friedrich Struensee will be at the centre of it.
There's an added ironic emphasis that shows up on rereading, especially when we consider the title. Struensee's execution takes place a few pages from the end of the novel, in a section that concludes, '...the axe at last found its mark and severed the head of the German royal physician; and his Danish visit was over.' 'Visit' is one of those words that Enquist charges through repetition, and when we've read the entire book, we can see its significance: the 'visit' is a fatal one, not just a consultation with a patient but his engagement with an entire country and culture which will ultimately destroy him. 'The visit of the royal physician' is, in effect, summarised in the first sentence: we begin with the moment he could first be called 'royal physician', and end where he ends. The 'visit' is, like many other words in the novel, a word that contains more implication, more weight, more inevitability than a single word can comfortably contain.
And it is, indeed, an uncomfortable read, linguistically as well as narratively. This is not a fault in the book: Enquist is evidently a fine writer and Nunnally does a fine job with the translation: discomfort is an effect it works to produce. To take an example: while touring Europe, Christian has a habit of smashing furniture in fits of hysteria, and Enquist describes it thus:
In the end [Christian] was practically certain that he was a prisoner who was being escorted, in a gigantic procession, to his punishment.
This no longer frightened him. But an infinite weariness encompassed him; he felt himself slowly sinking into sorrow, and all that could bring him out of it were the regular otubursts of rage, when he would slam chairs against the floor until they shattered.
The reports and dispatches were telling. 'There were few hotels along the travel route where a certain amount of destruction could not be found, and in London the furniture in the King's room was almost always smashed.'
That was the summary.
Look at the final paragraph, that dry, repressed sentence, 'That was the summary.' We can hear it it both condemnation and resignation. Yes, that summary is accurate and contains within it a swathe of destruction, and in describing Christian's behaviour, more hardly needs to be said. And no, that description is a summary and nothing more, and what it omits - Christian's inner experience, the pain that motivates him and the abuse that created the pain and the profound cynicism that motivated the abuse - are the important things, and a 'summary' that omits everything important comes out of a culture that is itself the cause of the destruction. A single sentence, isolated in its own paragraph to give it weight, both affirms and blames the summary, not disagreeing with it factually, but challenging it morally - but a challenge that could, if pressed, be denied. After all, it's just a plain statement of fact.
Interpretation, then, is key. The plain statements of fact are always understatements
: 'It would be a long night. First dinner. Then tea. After that the masked ball. Then the coup d'etat.' And they're understated because they take place in a narrative that has already anticipated its end. We already know when we hear a comment like 'That's how things were at the best of times,' the worst of times are in view. More or less everything is 'summary', in fact; the closest we get to authorial explanation is the odd bald description like 'The atmosphere was charged and hostile, but courteous', a description that's once again isolated in its own paragraph, too frozen to expand. Expansiveness only takes place in the characters' private reflections, and the narrative voice just quotes them rather than confirming or denying. It's clear which characters the narrative prefers, but we have to deduce that from the evidence: it isn't going to tell us directly.
The characters themselves tend to be obsessives of some kind or another, often defined by epithets - 'the wine treader', 'the Silent One' - and ruled by single guiding ideas. It's a device more commonly seen in comedy, where monomania is the staple of humour: think of Mrs Elton's 'Maple Grove' in Jane Austen's Emma
, for instance, or Madeleine Basset in the P.G. Wodehouse novels and her preoccupation with rabbits, fairies and God's daisy-chain of stars. Here, though, it's frightening: while comic characters amuse us by finding endless variations on their central trait, in The Visit of the Royal Physician
, variation isn't possible. The 'wine treader' Guldberg, for instance, who eventually orchestrates Struensee's overthrow, is driven by a ferocious commitment to punishing the impure who have failed to appreciate his value, and when Caroline Mathilde asks him why he destroyed them, he quotes long sections of the Bible with the air of finally revealing his character. Christian's preoccupation with unreality isn't funny: it's ridiculous, but it's also a prison that prevents him from saving his friend. When obsessives jostle against each other, it's only funny if it's survivable.
Which, as we know from the first sentence, it is not.
Pulling off a trick of style like this, and sustaining it through an entire novel without boring the reader, is a truly remarkable feat. For Enquist's style to work, we have to read at a slow pace, listening for the resonances and echoes in apparently ordinary words. By beginning as he does, with a single-sentence paragraph that contains both dry facts and the history of a man's terrible fall, he slows us down. It's as if the book is saying to us, 'Stop. Tread carefully. Listen to every word I say.' Fate is hanging over our shoulder from the very beginning, giving every word an invisible weight. In plain language, we are told that we are on borrowed time, and like condemned criminals awaiting execution, we find ourselves in a world where everything is magnified as if it were our last moment.
Writing a work of historical fiction is always a case of compromise. Every era has its values that are held too deep to see, and a writer must balance their own era's preconceptions against the foreign preconceptions of the era they depict. At the same time, every historical novel is a novel of the present day: we interpret the past according to our own lights, and what we say of it, we say of ourselves. Struensee is an interesting case of this: the Enlightenment is an era that has shaped our own and most of us accept many of its new ideas as unquestioned truths; a man like Struensee is an easy choice for our identification. Yet at the same time, he must have had a will to power - nobody becomes head of state without one - and that sits uneasily with Enlightenment values: personal advancement is the stuff of aristocracy, and an Enlightenment ruler is supposed to be ruling for the sake of the people in the name of reason. It's interesting that a 1935 film of the same story, rather than choosing the more neutral 'A Royal Affair
' or the straight-faced 'The Visit of the Royal Physician
', was called 'The Dictator
'; Struensee was, for a brief time, a dictator, and while his reforms seem to have been all to the good, the twentieth century has taught us to fear any man who claims to be dictating for the benefit of the people. Arcel and Mikkelsen deal with the issue by creating a Struensee mostly driven by human connection - by liking for the aristocrats who press him to apply for the royal post, by compassion for the demented Christian, by love and admiration for the enlightened Caroline Mathilde. Enquist takes our fear and relocates it in Struensee. We have nothing to fear from him because he is more afraid of his power than we are.
You can see a useful contrast between the two approaches in the 'wooden horse' incident - a moment that A Royal Affair
must have taken from Enquist, but adapted. If you've seen the film, you may remember it: riding together, Struensee and Caroline Mathilde pass the dead body of a peasant strapped to a torturous trestle, his widow sitting hopelessly beside him and running away in terror when she sees the aristocrats approach. Struensee dismounts, tries to reassure the widow, then unties the dead man, releasing him in death from the horrible device. In the book, it is Christian who accompanies Struensee, and the victim is alive, in the process of being whipped, probably to death. Struensee tries to explain to Christian that, 'That's the way things are in your kingdom, Your Majesty ... An entire peasant class is sitting there on that wooden horse ... That is reality. Liberate them. Liberate them.' Yet Christian is too horrified to make sense of the scene, unable to grasp its abstract 'reality', and Struensee, faced with Christian's panic, is too afraid to intervene. The boy - younger than depicted in the film, his age is guessed at sixteen - is left to his fate. All that Enquist is prepared to acknowledge is the power of Struensee's values, 'something left that could not be chopped off' after Struensee himself has been beheaded and quartered. Actual people are not saved. Enquist's novel is uncomfortable with granting any moments of hope to the past: ideals and ideas alone are safe. It's one of those novels that is as much a hymn of praise to the present, or to the future, as it is a commentary on the past. Struensee, in the abstract, is the eternal intellectual, frightened by the pragmatic brutality of the world and more potent as a symbol than as a man.
You can see why this wouldn't translate very well into a film. A Royal Affair
has many influences, and cinematically it's somewhat akin to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon
: visually lush, verbally understated, steady-paced and merciless. When you can see the people up on screen, their inner thoughts can only be expressed by actors' performances, and to perform a character is to render them specific, intimate, more particular than symbolic. To shoot in beautiful fields and palaces is to treat of beauty and expansiveness. What Enquist gives us, instead, is the entrapping repetition of obsession and fear, a voice that lives in the little breaks between reason and madness that make an oppressive world. What we have in the first sentence is the novel in microcosm, an ingrown fractal of fate. A man is appointed, he is executed, and the narrative voice can add no rhetoric that could possibly communicate more than the bare events. We, like the characters, must see what has happened and draw our own frightened, confused, hopeful conclusions.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Opening Line: Persuasion by Jane Austen
This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of Opening Line posts can be found here.
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somerset, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.
What's your favourite Austen book? Do you prefer the breathless romance of Pride and Prejudice
? The poised sparkle of Emma
? The involved drama of Mansfield Park
? The warm, imperfect charm of Northanger Abbey
? The witty, partisan suspense of Sense and Sensibility
Or do you prefer Persuasion
, that most-favourite, least-favourite, best or worst of Austen's oeuvre, depending on who you ask?
Jane Austen was a genius. In the days when the novel was but nascent, having no correspondence with any other writers, educated only at home, and beginning in her teens, she somehow managed to create a form of perfection, a brilliant, gripping, hilarious and polished set of creations that still enthrall centuries after the manners she parodied have passed. Few novel-lovers can think without regret of her early death, leaving us with only those half-dozen books to enjoy ... but among that half-dozen, loved as they are by both scholars and the popular market, which is the most loveable remains a question we can debate with some animation. Emma
tends to sit securely high on most people's lists, as does Pride and Prejudice
; Northanger Abbey
has faults which most readers gladly forgive but openly acknowledge; Sense and Sensibility
may suffer a little in comparison with Pride and Prejudice
, but only a little, and we fall into it grateful for its existence.
is a thornier question; Fanny Price is perhaps the least popular of Austen's heroines, and the serious manner and pious attitudes of its hero lack the charm and virility of most of her other men. For all that, it's a beautifully written book with a truly marvellous structure, slow-paced on the surface but with an undertow as fast and forceful as any thriller: tiny incident adds to tiny incident and builds to some of her most extreme disasters, and the steady increase of tension is played with mastery. Likewise Fanny, if lacking in sass and sizzle, is a delicately-observed portrait placed in plausible circumstances, her timidity and caution understandable given her broken childhood and constantly-disregarded feelings, a heroine that Austen, finally calling her 'my Fanny', evidently loves. Personal preference being so much a part of reading Austen - another measure of her brilliance, for how many other great authors attract such intimate attachment? - I'll lay down my cards: Mansfield Park
is one of my favourites, probably equalled only by Emma
: for me, what it lacks in wit it makes up in psychological complexity, what it lacks in sex appeal it makes up in sensitivity, and its story draws me in every time.
Yet if we're talking about an engaging story, why do I not love Persuasion
I have an exercise in mind with this Opening Line post. A first sentence can cast light on the rest of the novel, and it's the rest of the novel as much as the first sentence that interests me. Sometimes, it's good to re-examine the books that don't engage us.
Earlier this year, the Slate journalist Adelle Waldman ranked Austen's novels 'from best to worst
' (in an order that I find hard to quarrel with, particularly if we're talking about technical perfection rather than personal preference), and rated Persuasion
lowest. Accompanying this list
, she posed the following question:
Why do so many of Jane Austen’s smartest readers consider her weakest novel to be her best? Persuasion, the story of kind, helpful Anne Elliot—who made a mistake years ago and is still suffering for it when the book opens—is didactic and full of crude, overdrawn characterizations. It is also the least funny of Austen’s books. The bad characters, whether snobbish, scheming, or hypochondriacal, are unwaveringly bad. (Directed at such easy targets, satire ceases to be satire. It’s more like gawking at roadkill.) The book’s good characters are even worse: boring, smug and, after a while, downright insufferable. Writing about a rough draft of The Watsons, one of Austen’s unfinished books, Virginia Woolf said that “the stiffness and bareness of the first chapters” suggest that “she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather baldly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere.” Woolf might have been speaking of Persuasion. Published posthumously, it has an almost skeletal feel, like an outline in which only the most salient points about each character are noted, as if Austen didn’t have time to “cover them with flesh.”
The essay of Woolf'
s she quotes does actually touch on Persuasion
, in a slightly more sympathetic style:
There is a peculiar beauty and a peculiar dullness in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world; she no longer notes them freshly. There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobberies of a Miss Elliott. The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude. She is no longer so freshly aware of the amusements of daily life. Her mind is not altogether on her object. But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before, and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, the quality, perhaps, that made Dr Whewell fire up and insist that it was 'the most beautiful of her works'. She is beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed. We feel it to be true of herself when she says of Anne: 'She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older - the natural sequence of an unnatural beginning. She dwells frequently upon the beauty and the melancholy of nature, upon the autumn where she had been wont to dwell upon the spring ... The observation is less of facts and more of feelings than is usual.
Waldman theorises that Persuasion
is rated by some notable critics as Austen's best work because of a general preference for the 'serious' over the comic. Woolf's analysis notes a melancholy and emotion in Persuasion
which may have a stronger effect than mere prejudice against the humorous. Both may have a point, but I'm not sure it's the whole picture.
To me, Persuasion
was hard to learn how to like - to the point where it didn't feel quite like an Austen book but like the work of a skilled ghostwriter. It's probably the least funny of her books, but that isn't wrong in itself; Mansfield Park
is sober in its mien too and I've loved it since I first read it aged twenty. It's bitterly judgemental towards the 'conceited, silly' characters, but then Pride and Prejudice
is thoroughly rude about the 'mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper' of Mrs Bennet right in the first chapter, and everybody loves Pride and Prejudice
. What's the difference? Partly, I think, is that Persuasion
is the angriest of Austen's books: as Woolf observes, Austen doesn't seem to be entertained by her characters. What laughter there is is scornful rather than amused. To draw out a single illustration: while Sir Walter's 'contempt and pity' are presented for us to judge harshly in the first sentence, it's also presented as a mark of worth that Frederick Wentworth, our charming hero, can be spotted turning aside from Anne's sister Mary with a look of 'contempt' not once, but twice - the 'contemptuous glance' he hides on the hill above Winthrop, and the 'momentary expression of contempt' when Mary presumes to whisper audibly that he must be 'delighted' to get an invitation from her father. 'Contempt' is the same emotion we deprecate in the ghastly Sir Walter - yet in Captain Wentworth, we are meant to approve it.
I'll focus on this word for a while, because it's a good demonstration of Persuasion
's atypical tone. Using a Kindle search I find forty-four instances of the word in Austen (including variations such as 'contemptible', and including juvenilia such as Lady Susan
), and in most of her other books, it's not a virtuous emotion. Emma denies to Mr Knightley that Harriet Smith's connections are 'so contemptible as you represent them', for instance, and the fact that she's attributing the word to him when he hasn't spoken it himself is a none-too-subtle accusation. Maria Bertram feels 'contempt of the man she was going to marry' - not entirely unfounded, for Mr Rushworth is a fool, but in that context the word is also a judgement on Maria: to feel contempt for a man whose fortune she plans to live upon is a sign of her own spoiled and selfish attitudes. Isabella Thorpe exclaims 'How contemptible!' in conversation: she is self-dramatising and affected, and almost nothing she says is sincere. General Tilney feels 'happy contempt' towards a man with an inferior greenhouse to himself, and 'contempt of [Catherine Morland's] family': he is a materialistic old snob. The word recurs a fair amount in Pride and Prejudice:
Elizabeth Bennet discerns the 'contempt' of the Bingley sisters and accuses Mr Darcy of 'contempt' more than once; contempt is precisely the value Darcy must disown to win her. Elizabeth, too, fears the 'contempt' of society towards her family, and comes to regret her father's tacit encouragement of 'contempt' towards her mother.
Most of the time, in other words, contempt is a vice or a problem in Austen. Seldom is it attributed to sympathetic characters, and on those occasions, it's usually very carefully handled. Marianne Dashwood is prone to feel 'contempt' for people, but while we love her, she's impulsive and prone to over-reaction. In that context, it's not so much a sneer as a tossed head and a lifted chin, the sudden reaction of a high-minded but immature girl. There are only two instances of sound-judging heroines feeling contempt, and in both cases, it's felt in heat, not coldness: Elinor Dashwood feels 'angry contempt' for Willoughby, but only after he's cruelly abandoned her sister and is attempting to justify himself, and Elizabeth Bennet can't think 'without anger, hardly without contempt' of Mr Bingley's willingness to be persuaded to give up his love for her sister Jane. Anger and contempt mix together in warm-hearted characters - even in Persuasion
, the loving but misjudging Lady Russell's 'heart revelled in angry pleasure, in pleased contempt' at the thought that Captain Wentworth is proving himself unworthy of Anne Elliot, thus confirming that she was right to talk Anne out of marrying him. Anger is always added in, a touch on the reader's shoulder to remind us that this is the 'contempt' of indignation, of outraged love for a third party, not of superiority. Yet when we come to Persuasion
, we see it in the hero, twice, with no such qualification. True, he has reason to dislike Mary, but she has not been the main agent of dissuading Anne from marrying him, nor is she the primary source of Anne's low status in her family: the former sin rests with Lady Russell, the latter with Sir Walter. Mary is demanding, self-flattering and unreasonable, but she is not cruel, and of the Elliot relations that encumber Anne, she is probably the least bad. On the hill he might be excused for still feeling bitter towards the whole Elliot clan, but by the time of the invitation, his love for Anne has returned, and he's still contemptuous towards her sister. We may feel a certain contempt towards Mary ourselves, but then we are outside her world, aware that she is a fictional character, not required to treat her with humanity. Wentworth does not have that position. He is a character, and subject to our judgement to - yet because Mary is not admirable, we are not to question how well a ready contempt sits alongside a declaredly loving disposition.
The unmoderated language is far heavier, far cruder than we can usually expect from Austen. Compare it, for instance, to the beautiful turn that sums up a hero's dislike for a tiresome woman in Emma
: 'Mr Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile, and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs Elton's beginning to talk to him.' There, we see a hero not just as a judge of character, not just desirable because his view of human nature is correct, but as a human being himself, interacting with others, trapped by good manners into a conversation that allows us to laugh in sympathy with his plight as well as with his opinion. Persuasion
lacks this complexity; we are to accept judgements without being laughed into them. We do not get to laugh both at and with the heroes simultaneously.
I may seem to be making heavy play out of a single word, but in fact, Persuasion
is full of such issues. Part of the problem is that, as Woolf points out, the book is light on dialogue. In every other novel, Austen can boast at least one or two great comic voices: Northanger Abbey
has the playful teasing of Henry Tilney and the pretentious flutterings of Isabella Thorpe; Sense and Sensibility
has the 'beau'-obsessed elder Miss Steele; Pride and Prejudice
has the raucous Mrs Bennet and the weightily obsequious Mr Collins; Emma
has the incomparable Mrs Elton. Even Mansfield Park
, serious though it is, has the endlessly mean Mrs Norris exposing her dreadfulness every time she opens her mouth: we may not quite laugh at her, but we certainly see her hypocrisies revealed, and hypocrisy is one of the prime ingredients of comedy. But while there are distinctive voices in Persuasion
- Anne's egregious relations, the hearty Admiral Croft - there is less irony in their delineation: even the nasty people are not so much hypocrites as they are just plain selfish, conceited and dislikeable. There is no Mrs Elton, no Mr Collins, no Miss Steele: Persuasion
contains none of Austen's comedic greats. Added to that, Austen tells us a great deal more in her narrative voice than she does with conversations. The first chapter of Pride and Prejudice
reads almost like a play script; the first chapter of Persuasion
contains only a single, incomplete line of quoted speech: 'For they must have been seen together,' he observed, 'once at Tattersal's, and twice in the lobby of the House of Commons.' Austen, that pitch-perfect writer of voices, sings rather low in Persuasion
. The narrative voice intrudes; the character voices suffer.
So, too, does the characterisation of her heroine. There is a simple problem: Anne, unlike the interfering Emma, the misjudging Elizabeth, the inhibited Fanny, the naive Catherine, the heedless Marianne and the misled Elinor, is never seriously wrong. Mr Elliott's courtship does not tempt her as strongly Wickham's tempts Elizabeth; her well-meant reticence is never truly unfortunate, as Fanny's is when she lacks the courage to warn her uncle why Henry Crawford is not a man to marry; unlike Emma or Catherine or Marianne, she has no moments of silliness; she does not even struggle, as Elinor does, with the keeping of a secret that leads her into unwanted deceits, or with the conflict between love for her family and fear of their folly - with moments when it's all but impossible to know what the right course of action should be. Anne's behaviour is consistently virtuous and her opinions consistently reliable. Yes, the novel's plot is based on a terrible mistake, in that she refused the man she loved, but that mistake is blamed on the 'persuasion' of other characters which 'was more than Anne could combat' - and even then, we are firmly told to believe her motives 'not a merely selfish caution', but 'the belief of being prudent, and self-denying principally for his
advantage.' Anne is just a little too spotless. Austen herself acknowledged it in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight (LXXXIV)
Do not be surprised at finding Uncle Henry acquainted with my having another ready for publication. I could not say No when he asked me, but he knows nothing more of it. You will not like it, so you need not be impatient. You may perhaps like the heroine, as she is almost too good for me.
In this same letter Austen acknowledged that 'pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked', and while she does not quite attribute this nauseating quality to Anne, we are not seeing the tenderness of 'my Fanny' here. Anne is almost too good - which isn't just a flaw in a character, but in the narrative: events happen around Anne, but characters' stories have a tendency come to rest on the issue of whether they value Anne enough in the end. Anne struggles with her own feelings, and she struggles to be useful, but she is a rather static point in the narrative, and as such, rather a drag on the individuality of everyone else.
Or at least, so she seems. There are reasons why the novel isn't universally popular: the dearth of dialogue, the 'almost too good' heroine, and the increasingly acidulated tone. It's a deft stroke, for instance, in Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal
that Barbara, the lonely misanthrope, tells us, 'I have created my own traditions for the high days and holy days. This New Year's, as on every New Year's for the last decade, I bought in a bottle of sherry and spent the evening getting slightly sozzled while re-reading Jane Austen's Persuasion'
; we can just picture her sighing along to the hopes of second chances and nodding in satisfaction as one character after another is condemned for failing to recognise the heroine's essential rightness. Yet somehow, despite all this, Persuasion
is a novel people fall in love with.
Waldman's suggestion of humourlessness doesn't seem to cover it. Nor, peace to her ashes, does Woolf's reflections on the melancholy and the love of nature: they're part of it, but not, I think, the whole. The complex interactions between class and class are part of it - Persuasion
takes in a lot of subtle social gradations - and so too is the hopeful message of lost opportunities redeemed. There's something else, though, something that we see in the action that outstrips any of Austen's other books. Persuasion
The plot is rich in tantalising thrills. Frederick Wentworth loved Anne Elliot, and she, foolishly, rejected him, breaking both their hearts in the process. Eight years later, he comes back to the neighbourhood. They are often in each other's company, but cannot speak. It is clear he has not forgiven her - though to heighten the suspense, we as readers sense that the very fact he's still angry with her is a sign he still loves her; his passion has never cooled to indifference, and is ready to return given the opportunity. But because of circumstances, they have no time alone together; they can only guess at each other by watching across an unsuspecting crowd. The sexual tension surpasses even that of Pride and Prejudice
, and the language, too, is sensual. Anne 'trembled' after an indirect declaration that she doesn't love Wentworth's rival. Recalling moments when Wentworth seemed to praise her, she experiences 'a faint blush at some recollections' - and how tantalising is that laconic 'some'! Austen's characters usually blush from embarrassment; here, though, is a character blushing with excitement, a warm revelation. Anne is even seen 'beginning to breathe very quick' after speaking to him. Physical closeness is felt: Anne anticipates Wentworth's presence by looking at a setting and thinking 'a few months more, and he
, perhaps, may be walking here,' inserting him as a physical presence into the scene before her; she manoeuvres around concert benches to get 'within reach' of him; there's a ravishing moment early in the story in which Anne, hung upon by a misbehaving nephew, finds the burden suddenly lifted off her - a perfect metaphor for the role the Austenian hero plays towards his heroine, but also a moment of near-embrace, of sudden, unexpected touch in which his strength is at her back. 'We are not boy and girl,' Anne reflects to herself, and indeed they're not: with constant separation and the restrictions of etiquette to magnify every moment of 'half averted eyes, and more than half expressive glance', this is Austen at her most erotic. Compare Anne's gasps and flushes to the Pride and Prejudice
Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common
awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and
immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her
sentiments had undergone so material a change since the period to which he
alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present
assurances. The happiness which this reply produced was such as he had probably
never felt before, and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as
warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.
... and you can see just how far Austen has come. Trembling and rapid breathing have replaced 'awkwardness and anxiety', as if sensuality has come to life somewhere between the two. Lord Grey of Falloden's famous remark on Austen comes to mind:
Jane Austen is to me the greatest wonder
among novel writers. I do not mean that she is the greatest novel writer, but
she seems to me the greatest wonder. Imagine, if you were to instruct an author
or an authoress to write a novel under the limitations within which Jane Austen
writes! Suppose you were to say, "Now you must
write a novel, but you must have no heroes or heroines in the accepted sense of
the word. You may have naval officers, but they must always be on leave or on
land, never on active service. You must have no striking villains; you may have
a mild rake, but keep him well in the background, and if you are really going
to produce something detestable, it must be so because of its small meannesses,
as, for instance, the detestable Aunt Norris in 'Mansfield Park'; you must have
no very exciting plots; you must have no thrilling adventures; a sprained ankle
on a country walk is allowable, but you must no go much beyond this. You must
have no moving descriptions of scenery; you must work without the help of all
these; and as to passion, there must be none of it. You may, of course, have
love, but it must be so carefully handled that it very often seems to get
little above the temperature of liking. With all these limitations you are to
write, not only one novel, but several, which, not merely by popular
appreciation, but by the common consent of the greatest critics shall be
classed amongst the first rank of the novels written in your language in your
It's a handsome tribute in its way, but he's wrong about Persuasion. It's quietly done, peeping from the margins, but in her last novel, passion literally breathes upon the page. Anne Elliot may be 'almost too good', but she is, to a unique degree among her literary sisters, finally and deliciously embodied.
What can we see of this in the first sentence?
Anne is more of a physical presence than a plot one in Persuasion: things happen to and around her, and only glances and hints allow her to shape her destiny. As befits a self-effacing character - the same thing happens with Fanny Price - we begin not with her, but with the people around her who will crowd her into corners. Sir Walter is not present during many passages of the book, both because as an individual he's too selfish to leave his pleasures, and because as a character he's too single-note to adapt well to every scene. 'Vanity was the beginning and end of Sir Walter Elliot's character', Austen tells us crisply after a page and a half of watching him play with the Baronetage, and when a character begins and ends with a single trait, their fictional possibilities are limited.
It is a well-sketched trait, though, that's for certain. Austen loves serious readers - you can usually tell who her heroines are going to marry on the strength of it - and never opening books, in her context, immediately debars Sir Walter from her approval. More than that, though, he's a man who only reads 'the Baronetage' - that is, the guide to the baronets of Britain. Now, while to be a baronet is definitely to be blue of blood, there's a sly poke at Sir Walter in her choice of rank: baronet is the lowest of the inheritable titles, higher than a knight but not a full peer. Later in the novel, in fact, we see Sir Walter cravenly courting the attention of his higher-ranking cousin Lady Dalrymple; he cannot be unaware that to be a baronet, aristocratic though you are, is not to be above the whole of humanity. But he screens himself from that knowledge: it's not a peerage he's reading, not a list of every rank of nobility. He confines himself to the Baronetage, pleasingly full of more arriviste baronets than himself that he can look comfortably down upon, where he need be troubled with no odious comparisons.
Sir Walter is, by naturalistic standards, nearly insane with vanity. He feels 'admiration and respect' for those who rank alongside him or slightly above him, 'pity and contempt' for those who do not - and to admire your equals in rank simply for being your equals in rank is mere extended self-love. We know this even before Austen's sharp conclusion to the sentence, the 'interest which never failed' in reading the dry summary of his own life - a life he turns away from the reality of, to read the official records about. It's clear from the beginning that his life could do with some attention: obviously he's an empty-headed man if he's entertained in an 'idle hour' by reading the same page over and over, but he's also ignoring 'domestic affairs'. A few paragraphs on, we see the extent of his madness: that he's recorded not only his daughter's marriage - seeing no foolishness in this emendation that can only be read by people who already know about it - but, 'most accurately', the 'day of the month' of his wife's demise. His good lady's death occasions no deeper mourning than a careful adjustment to his favourite page - no reflection except the desire to keep his image impeccable. Pride destroys any kind of health in his family, and at the beginning of the story has led him near bankruptcy. What we see, in fact, is the perfect image of a latter-day Narcissus, gazing entranced into his own destruction.
The structure of the sentence supports the circularity of Sir Walter's thinking. It's a long opener, the longest of all Austen's novels - a hundred and two words, in fact, nearly twice as long as the fifty-six words of its nearest competitor, Mansfield Park
- and in its repeated 'there' at the beginning of each new clause, it achieves a rhythm that's either soothing or maddening - soothing for Sir Walter, returning again and again to the reliable, controllable page, and maddening for us, watching him find the same wrong answer to every question life throws at him. It's almost like listening to a mother murmur 'there, there' to a child, or rather, like watching a childish sensibility murmuring 'there, there' to itself, when in fact it has no right not to act like an adult. In the name of historical accuracy, I should admit that far as I can tell from Internet research, the phrase 'there, there' may not have been in use in 1816
; whether or not it was a literal comfort phrase, it has the air of self-soothing through repetition. Self-soothing, and also mockery: we can almost hear the rhythm of harsh laughter. Sir Walter's opening line is one of circles, not progress: before we're told that vanity is his 'beginning and end', we know it rhythmically. Both in action and in tempo, he always comes back to the same place. And it's a place that narrows down. He begins by looking at 'the limited remnant of the earliest patents' (that is, the old aristocracy), then at the 'creations of the last century' (that is, more recent baronets), but he's not reading as an historian: he reads them only to compare with himself. Like his psyche, the sentence ends where it began, with Sir Walter Elliot.
Austen never begins with dialogue, but this is an unusual piece of scene-setting. Often she opens with a bit of family history, but Sir Walter Elliot, part of a noble family, is presented solo. It's a neat reflection of the way that, despite his preoccupation with family as heritage, he isn't actually interested in his family as a living unit: he's only interested insofar as it reflects on him, so while Mansfield Park
begins with the marriage of 'Miss Maria Ward' and 'Sir Thomas Bertram' and Sense and Sensibility
with the statement that 'The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex' - sentences about how families form and live - the Elliot family, in this opening sentence, exists only on a doctored page in a book. They do not interact; they are merely there in the record. Meanwhile Sir Walter Elliot is, uniquely for an opening character, actually seen in action. Northanger Abbey
tells us that 'No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine,' and Emma that 'Emma
Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy
disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had
lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex
her,' - but these are characters in summary, not characters in motion. Sir Walter is in the action of taking up a book: not exactly as a single action, but rather as a habit, which fits with Austen's tendency to begin with generalities, but even so, the habit is that of single action we can easily picture. As befits Persuasion's more sensuous tone, the first character we see is unusually tangible.
His repeated action is also, of course, the opposite of the book's narrative and moral drive. Anne marries a newly-rich man with no aristocratic background to speak of, and is glad to do so; being trapped in old patterns is a comfort to Sir Walter, but a slow death for her. Persuasion is a book of second chances - another reason it's so popular, containing as it does a message of hope that even when we think life is over, good things may still happen - but what we see here is a character for whom second chances are of no interest. He is too complacent about what he already has - even though all he has is his title, his debts and a family that aren't really happy and don't really love him. Unsurprisingly for a man of the domestic habits we see in this first sentence, his children and he have no strong connection: his eldest daughter and he rub along in mutual admiration of their own beauty and name; his youngest daughter displeases him by being 'coarse' from her discontent in marriage, a discontent largely lying in the fact that he has raised her to have so much of 'the Elliot pride' that she feels ill-used at every minor inconvenience. And then there's Anne, obedient but ashamed, in whom he takes practically no interest. We begin with the cause of Anne's problems, caught in the act of repetitively closing himself off from the harm he wreaks.
This is the angry element of the book. To say that 'Sir Walter Elliot was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage' is an epigram. Austen, that famous author of 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife,' was not willing to stop there. 'There' extends and extends, measured but hammering, until we are absolutely prevented from picturing Sir Walter acting with any credit under any circumstances at all. Condemnation overmasters laughter. The very fact that we begin with a character to dislike is new: while it's not unusual for Austen to begin with characters who are less than helpful to the heroine - Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park do the same - it is unusual to begin with a single individual who is not the heroine (as we begin in Northanger Abbey and Emma), but is a problem all on their own. Problematic interactions or settings have begun her books before, but while Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park begin with faulty individuals, all of them have some redeeming features. Mrs Bennet is funny, and her concern for her daughters' marriage is not unreasonable; Mr Bennet isn't very responsible, but he loves his Lizzy; Aunt Bertram may be lazy and useless, but she's fond of Fanny in her vague way; Sir Thomas may be heavy-handed and unobservant, but he's principled and well-intentioned. Sir Walter, mounted on his own like Catherine Morland and Emma Woodhouse, is a villain. There is nothing about him at all redeemable; the most you can say is that his vanity sometimes can be directed towards a less-than-harmful end. What Austen places before us is not a piece of family history or a glittering joke, but somebody to hate.
What we see in this first sentence, in fact, is deadly serious. Anne, famously among Austen heroines, is not a girl who may never get her chance at happiness: she is a woman who had her chance, threw it away, and now has to live in what looks to be a dreary and inescapable ever after. She's twenty-seven - the same age at which Charlotte Lucas marries the loathsome Mr Collins knowing it's her only alternative to dependent spinsterhood, the same age Marianne Dashwood declares is too old for a woman to ever 'feel or inspire affection again.' In carrying the first sentence into clause after clause after the initial swipe, Austen is presenting Anne's father - and thus her whole situation - as, literally, beyond a joke
. Things have gone too far, too much has happened, and it's been happening for too long. It's no longer funny.
The plot of Persuasion
is truly glorious, and its tenderness towards women past their 'bloom' is righteous. To this reader, it would have been served by a greater degree of polish - as the quotes above point out, Austen (like many comic writers) was a rewriter, and a refinement of the acridity, a bringing-forth of the voices, a gentle balancing of the partisanship could have made it truly great. Tragically, of course, Austen was already in poor health when she finished it, and would appear to have done what writers often do with an unfavourite project: she looked back, editing Northanger Abbey
, and looked forward, beginning the never-completed Sanditon
. Then she died, at the age of forty-one, and there were no more novels. Or, you could say, she died, leaving the whole world to her children and grandchildren, to every novelist who followed after her. Both are true.
, from its first sentence on, is a difficult place to be. Anger burns through it; the writing is not ladylike but aggressive. 'If I am a wild beast I cannot help it,' she wrote
to her sister Cassandra. 'It is not my own fault.' And there is a wildness to Jane Austen, a fury and a hunger and a vicious, desperate, brilliant imagination that only sometimes moderated itself into wit. Soon she'll be appearing on our £10 notes
, thanks to the campaign of Caroline Criado-Perez, an irony we can imagine she might laugh at with greater pleasure: finally, Jane Austen will have contact with unlimited money.
She might laugh more sharply at the chosen quotation, though: 'I declare after all there is no enjoyment quite like reading!' Austen didn't say that. Caroline Bingley said it in Pride and Prejudice:
contemptuous, pretentious Miss Bingley, feigning a love of books to impress the wealthy Mr Darcy. Nobody in Austen who truly understood the value of books would exclaim so showily about them. Wherever value is located, it is not in the declaration. Any Austen lover knows as much.
But perhaps, in a way, it's appropriate. There is
no enjoyment quite like reading Jane Austen. Sometimes, reading her isn't quite like enjoyment. Persuasion
, for many readers, is one of those books: it is too relentless, right from its protracted opening sentence, to read in comfort. But still, here she is, emblazoned on a banknote, mistress of the edged bon mot
but stubbornly resistant to the soundbite, quoted with a pretentious incomprehension worthy of Mrs Elton, exposing a rich man to the ridicule of her readers
. It's so ill a choice, making the Bank of England's governor look so stupid, that it's tempting to feel it could only have happened with Austen. One feigner of literacy quotes another, and Austen's many devoted followers, as one, exchange a glance and get the joke. You can't condense Austen down to a comfortable phrase, for what does she do, right at the opening of her last book, if not savage a man for being too pleased with himself and too happy to stay in his comfort zone? The bank should have seen it coming. Nearly two hundred years after her death, and Jane Austen is still making fools of those who seek to control her.