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.
Mansfield Park 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 is sexy.
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 proposal:
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 country.
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.
Persuasion, 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.
Monday, August 19, 2013
Opening Line: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
This site is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of Opening Line posts can be found here.
My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder.
To take on the Victorian novel is no small challenge for a modern author. Nowadays we like to think of ourselves as liberated from the fusty formality of the Victorian age, with its apocryphal covered piano legs and its improving moral pap, but if we look at the actual history, we see something else. It was in the Victorian era that recreation became serious business, giving us laws that created mandatory holidays and railroads that gave us places to holiday in, and with leisure time on the rise and capitalism's machines a-whir, an explosion of amusements followed on.
There was a switch from locally-generated activities and community-based entertainments to increasingly officialised ones: national cricket and football leagues, public swimming baths, dance clubs, museums, exhibitions, arcade games, ticket-only entertainment events - the repertoire of public recreations to which we still adhere. Visual spectacles took on a new primacy. Like us, the Victorians loved staring at things with their mouths open.*It was the Victorian era that gave us Grand Guignol and, in Britain itself, the 'Sensation Dramas' like The Colleen Bawn (1860), with its elaborate trap doors and wavering gauze and dramatic stage mechanics - or what we in our enlightened times would call 'special effects.' It was the Victorians who invented the magic lanterns that prefigure home televisions and the cinematograph, giving us the movies we still watch today. And the visual gadgets did not produce decorous tales, either; consider this 1895 offering of Edison's across the Atlantic, The Execution of Mary Stuart:
The Victorians may not have given us skirts for furniture, but they did give us the splatter film. And of course, they gave us something else, something to which every novelist owes a debt. They gave us the modern bestseller.
What do we know of the 'Victorian novel'? Even those who know Dickens only through his film adaptations, and to whom the names 'Wilkie Collins' and 'Mary Elizabeth Braddon' mean little, have some sense of what the great hotcake-seller books of the era involved. They involved grand, complicated plots with twists and coincidences and tangled family trees. They involved journeys through high and low life with reflections on the nature of society, sometimes radical, sometimes conservative and sometimes both at once, but they were always broad in their sweep. They involved spectacular villainy and eventual punishment. They involved falls and restoration. They involved shameless shocks and grand dramas and, as the phrase of the era had it, they involved 'sensation'. They were gripping but smart, personal but political, thrilling but comforting. They gave you your money's worth. They were big books.
They made a market into which we all now pour ourselves ... and they created a mold that only the boldest of followers tries to fill.
Enter Sarah Waters.
Fingersmith is Waters's third novel and the last, to date, of her three Victorian settings. 'The lesbian Victorian novel' is a marketer's dream: an easy soundbite that immediately catches the ear. In interviews, Waters herself shows the balance you'd expect from so poised a writer:
I'm writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It's right there at the heart of the books. And it's both at the heart of the books and yet it's also incidental, because that's how it is in my life, and that's how it is, really, for most lesbian and gay people, isn't it? It's sort of just there in your life. So I feel it makes absolute sense to call me a lesbian writer, but at the same time I'm just a writer ... I'm just writing stuff that interests me and feels important to me...
And somehow, the concept is charmingly fitting: what did sensation novels do, after all, if not look at the underbelly of life, peer into the dark corners, whisper of the unspoken? Homosexuality, though, was a step too far for most of them - or at least explicit homosexuality; as my Gender Studies supervisor remarked to me, 'When I read David Copperfield as a child, I was always very clear on who the real romance was between' - and the happy coincidence of Waters's natural interests and the appropriate sense of update that 'lesbian Victorians' brings to the field makes for some deservedly popular novels. It's a cool concept to sell, but it wouldn't sell if Waters wasn't good. And good she certainly is.
Fingersmith is the longest and most ambitious of her Victorian threesome, so to speak, more elaborately plotted than the picaresque romp of Tipping the Velvet, larger in scale than the bleak intrigue of Affinity, with a series of plot twists that leave the reader reeling in bewildered admiration. (And yes, I'm going to talk about them, so if you want to be surprised, read the book before you finish this essay. Really, do read it; you'll enjoy the heck out of it.) With the task she sets herself, there are certain things she has to do to make it work. The language needs to have an authentic period feel while remaining lucid enough for the reader to understand it without either losing interest or losing track. Every sentence needs to be both gripping and easy to follow: with so many strange events on their way, there is not an inch of room for minterpretation. It needs to be detailed and matter-of-fact: this is a book that rereading reveals to be rife with dramatic irony, but Waters plays fair and the clues are hiding in plain sight, remarked upon so incidentally that they don't stand out from all the background detail. And dramatic irony is strongly present in this opening line.
Linguistically, it's extremely simple: no word over two syllables, no phrase over three words, the plainest of all declarations - a character's name. Yet at the same time, there's a clear tension of time going on: the narrator's name may have been Susan Trinder once, but evidently it's something different now. 'Those days' have passed, that's what we know at once: we are reading a novel of a life lived in eras, not in a smooth continuum, and between one era and another, the narrator's very identity has been called into question. That's a lot of drama to pack into a small space.
There's another aspect to 'those days' that only becomes clear in retrospect, and in fact, it's central to the novel's theme. Fingersmith is the story of two changeling girls, the illegitimate daughter of a persecuted aristocrat hidden in a thieves' den and the child of a crooked baby farmer swapped into her ladylike, exploited place, and here, Waters doesn't just imitate the Victorian novel. She takes it on.
Nature versus nurture was a question familiar to the Victorians, and their novels reflect it. Though one can't simplify too much and it varies from writer to writer - Wilkie Collins, for instance, was firmly against the stain of illegitimacy and heroised the black cousin over the white in Armadale - there's a running thread of 'blood will tell'. Dickens, most famously, wrote novels in which natural virtue survived low circumstances and social mobility proved problematic at best; his later novels are subtler, but there's some justice in John Carey's swingeing description of Oliver Twist's impervious naivete in the face of baby farming, workhouse abuse and thieves' education as 'a hymn to the purity of the middle-class soul.'** While the popular novels didn't have an exclusively middle-class audience, family relationships are a central element to the Victorian novel - or at least to 'the Victorian novel' as modern readers understand the term - the question of a spiritual family resemblance, even without knowing who your family may be, makes for some interesting dramatic ironies. And it's dramatic irony on which so much of the Victorian novel rests. Sometimes the conclusion can be heart-warming: Rose Maylie, who loves Oliver Twist when he's just a friendless waif, turns out to be his aunt. Sometimes heritage can be risen above: Ozias Midwinter's agonies of conscience show him all the way through Armadale to be a better man than his murderous father, and despite his fears, he is positioned as Allan's protector, not his destroyer. Family connections may be many things, but what they aren't is irrelevant. Family, in the Victorian novel, isn't just circumstance: we inherit destinies and dispositions as well as faces and features.
Waters, on the other hand, takes the opposite line. Oliver Twist is an acknowledged progenitor - one of Susan Trinder's earliest memories is of being frightened by a stage version and fearing that Bill Sykes will come and get her - and in many ways, the story is an inversion of Dickens's concept. Susan, raised in the Borough, is a Borough girl through and through, genteel antecedents or not. Her speech is like that of the people who raised her, and so are her values: while she has more compunction about the meaner kinds of thievery than her foster-mother Mrs Sucksby, she herself says early on that this is largely because Mrs Sucksby protected her from being taken 'on the prig' and treated her with unusual kindness. That Mrs Sucksby did all this for cynical motives, planning to imprison Sue in a madhouse and retrieve her own daughter Maud along with Sue's fortune - that to her 'mother', she was not a daughter to be cossetted but an asset to be guarded until it could be cashed in - Sue does not learn until right at the end of the book. But while the knowledge shakes her, it doesn't change who she fundamentally is. She doesn't become aristocratic on learning that her real name is Susan Lilly; she is a poor girl raised among thieves but sheltered - in many ways, more sheltered than Maud, more used to kindness and less used to pain - and her guiding principle, above all else, is loyalty. She doesn't quite lose her warm memories of Mrs Sucksby; she stays fond of the simple-minded Dainty; she falls all the deeper in love with Maud when she realises that it's Maud who's done the most to protect her.
Maud, too, remains what she was raised to be: a strange, fierce, uncomfortable girl, the product of a ghastly childhood, capable of deep loves and deep hates and hard to subdue. Maud, Mrs Sucksby's daughter, has been raised by her 'uncle' - in reality Sue's uncle - as an amanuensis for his Universal Bibliography of Priapus and Venus (based, Waters acknowledges, on the work of Henry Spencer Ashbee). Maud has been beaten into bitter submission, living her life among works of pornography that mean nothing to her except a collection of fonts and frontispieces until Sue draws her desire; returned to her natural mother, she feels no tenderness for Mrs Sucksby at all. She notes that there's some resemblance in their faces, and it's not unreasonable to imagine that her tough-mindedness and intelligence are traits she got from her mother, but it stirs no sense of kinship. Maud feels herself to be entirely shaped by experience; of her childhood, she says, 'I am an amiable child, I think, made wilful by restraint'; looking at her uncle's bookplate design, she says, 'Sometimes ... I suppose such a plate must be pasted upon my own flesh - that I have been ticketed, and noted and shelved - so nearly do I resemble one of my uncle's books.' Left without means, she eventually supports herself by writing the pornography she was raised to catalogue, saying only, 'I find I am good at it.' Her education becomes her livelihood, and her heart remains unfilial.
The disrupter of experience, in Fingersmith, is not nature but more experience, and it's not family relationships but sexual attraction that begins to break the patterns imposed upon Sue and Maud. Surrounded by 'villains' of one kind or another, each is enticed into a scheme to betray the other, both ignorant of the enticer's real motives; neither is innocent in the literal sense, but both are innocent of the machinations of all around them. Each is, as Sue would say, 'a pigeon'. They are manipulated according to plan, but the plan does not include the possibility that they should feel anything for each other. They are, in the feminist sense, objects who through desire transform themselves into subjects: positioned to be acted upon, their love for each other closes an unforeseen gap and throws everything out of order. The 'unnatural' romance between them becomes the most natural human relationship in the book; the only one between major characters that is based on spontaneous feeling and, despite all the lies, the only one based on really seeing the other person: seeing the small details of her reactions and habits and passing moments of selfhood. Sue and Maud see each other clearly through a welter of misdirection, and spend the rest of the book re-learning how to trust that initial instinct that drew them together.
And in this odd romance, everything in each girl's life is a misdirection, right down to her name. Maud is lied to when she's told her name is Maud Lilly: her name is Maud Sucksby, though she never uses it. Susan's name, with which we begin, is even more fraught. Technically, her name is Susan Lilly, though even that is a little tentative: Lilly is the surname of her mother, and the name of her illegitimate father is never known. Going to Briar to trick Maud, she carries the name Susan Smith, and imprisoned in a madhouse, mistaken for Maud and fearful of incriminating herself, she insists at first that this is her real name. There are moments in the middle of the twists where it seems possible that she might really be Susan Sucksby. 'Susan Trinder', though, is a complete fiction. Mrs Sucksby has raised her with the tale that her real mother was hanged for 'murdering a miser over his plate'; the story is elaborate and full of details, and Sue finds it entirely convincing. (Though again, in post-Victorian style, she feels no particular emotion for this supposed mother: 'How,' she asks, 'could I be sorry, for someone I never knew?') The truth is, there was never a Trinder woman before Sue; the name can only have been plucked from the air as something likely-seeming. Add all this together, and Sue hardly has a surname at all. When she says, 'My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder,' that's really the best she can do. It sounds, at first reading, like promising drama, but it contains all the loss and confusion of her life.
The choice is a suitable one. 'Trinder' is a real surname with proper working-class roots - roots Sue doesn't actually have, of course - but at the same time, it's an unusual one, likely to be unfamiliar to many readers. The effect matches that blurring of reality that dominates the plot: it sounds at once real and unreal, to real to be true. It has the same sort of sound as 'prig' (meaning steal), the same clipped, staccato quality you'd hear in an accent that calls the police 'the blues' and describes the pronunciation of 'gentleman' 'as if the word were a fish and we had filleted it: Ge'mun'. You can hear it said in a Borough voice. Names in Fingersmith are all authentic, but they're also a little outlandish-sounding: John Vroom, Mrs Sucksby, Mr Ibbs, Mrs Cakebread, Maud Lilly. It's a nod to the Victorian tradition again, with its Quilps and Pecksniffs and Betteredges and Verinders, and Trinder sounds like the kind of name you'd expect a thieving girl to have. Actually the name derives from an old word for 'spinner', but if someone told you Victorian criminals called it 'trinding' to file the crest off stolen metal or substitute glass stones for real ones, you probably wouldn't be surprised. 'Susan Trinder' sounds perfectly plausible, and no stranger than anybody else's name. And that's the trouble with it, of course: it is plausible. It's plausible enough to mislead its bearer into a madhouse.
It's interesting, too, the slight note of formality in the opening. People don't actually call her Susan, as she immediately acknowledges in the next sentence: 'People called me 'Sue.' 'Sue Trinder' sounds consistent, 'Sue Lilly' a bit peculiar, but 'Susan' is a public name, an official one. I've said that nurture wins over nature in this book and that Sue retains some loyalty to her childhood, but there's also a note of distance about it, a slight caution about claiming it fully. 'Susan Trinder' was her full name, so she thought, but it's not as if we'd assume that 'Sue' was a shortening of anything else in this context; if she said, 'My name, in those days, was Sue Trinder', it wouldn't be inaccurate. What it does, though, is subtly disclaim the entire name, not just the surname. 'Susan' and 'Trinder' are opposites: 'Susan' was her name, but not what people called her, while 'Trinder' is what people called her, but wasn't her name. By setting the two in tension, this disclaimed identity feels a little unstable from the outset, as if it's become overheated and can only be handled with tongs. In the following 'People called me Sue' we hear the awkward balance between the two: it's at once the blunt statements of an uneducated girl and the careful precision of a girl whose very name is charged with lies.
The same applies to the cadence. 'My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder' is rather soft on the ear, the internal assonance of 'name' and 'days' drawn out by the comma that follows each of them, the setting much gentler than the sharp Ss and Ts and Ds of 'Susan Trinder'. Like so much else in the book, you can hear it two ways: it could be the elegiac grace of nostalgia, or it could be the jerky hesitance of a speaker not sure how to begin. It is, in other words, a deeply ambivalent sentence: an actress could perform it a number of different ways without straining the text. Sue shifts in tone according to the reader's interpretation, and the reader's interpretation shifts dramatically depending on whether we're encountering this book for the first time or the second.
What we begin with, in fact, is a nameless narrator for whom names are the starting point of a story. The book opens with a series of details about Sue's childhood, all with the feeling of background, and then Sue suddenly breaks off and addresses us: 'You are waiting for me to start my story. Perhaps I was waiting, then. But my story had already started - I was only like you, and didn't know it.' Sue tells us right in the opening sentence where the key to the mystery lies: her name. It was Susan Trinder - only it wasn't, and that's where her story begins.
Waters, in other words, begins the story at the beginning of the story, but until we know how it ends, we don't see why it's the beginning. It's a brilliant sleight of hand. The deceptions are indicated a little more clearly in the two sentences that begin Maud's narrative - 'The start, I think I know too well. It is the first of my mistakes.' - which befits its place in the story after the first major twist. Too, it has Maud's angry note in the writing; lady or not, Maud is a more aggressive character than Sue. Essentially, though, she is saying the same thing: I was wrong about myself, my self, all my life.
Waters tells us a tale with twist upon twist and revelation upon revelation, glimpses into high life and low, playing money at the root of evil and galloping through grand dramas and family complications in true Victorian style. What's modern about her, though, is her focus on how a character's inner life becomes shaped to her circumstances.
Modern, but not entirely modern. Oliver Twist was a very early work for Dickens, and he wasn't always that simplistic. The Dickensian brother of Susan and Maud is probably not Oliver Twist but Pip, conflicted and regretful and dangerously malleable in unscrupulous hands. The Victorian novel wasn't merely a case of shocks and spills; psychology and emotion were straining through it, and in Fingersmith, Waters was developing as much as she was subverting. More than most Victorian characters, her narrators discuss the effects of their childhood on themselves, but their basic theme - the relationship between an individual and the society in which they find themselves - is a lesson she learns as much as teaches. In this dark and convoluted story, she manages to be both classical and deviant, all without distracting the reader for a minute from the breathless intricacies of her storytelling.
Fingersmith is a profoundly educated book, but it's not, in the dry sense of the word, an 'educational' book. Waters's knowledge of her subject is naturalised until we are immersed in our strange circumstances just as much as Sue and Maud are in theirs. Nothing is flaunted; we are merely entertained. But the closer we listen to that entertaining voice, the more echoes whisper to and fro through its speech. The opening line of Fingersmith isn't a challenge to read; it's engaging, arresting, readable, combining classic and modern in a gripping new alloy. We read it for fun, but if we reread it, the deadpan subtlety is remarkable. To begin with a life at the beginning of a life is truly Victorian - but in true postmodern style - and so very appropriately for a story all about the dangers of myths and misinterpretations - how you read the sentence is far more complicated than the sentence itself.
*Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1988
**The Violent Effigy, John Carey, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1973 and 1991
Monday, August 12, 2013
Opening Line: Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of Opening Line posts can be found here.
A reader request:
Request: You mentioned, back in the Opening Lines index post, that you might be open to the idea of doing some bad literature. So how about the quintessential bad opening line? It was a dark and stormy night. Could be fun.
In his essay on Yeats, T.S. Eliot observed: 'One of the most thrilling lines in King Lear is the simple, "Never, never, never, never, never," but apart from a knowledge of the context, how can you say that it is poetry, or even competent verse?' So it is with 'It was a dark and stormy night.' To talk about that famous sentence, we have to talk about its context.
Because here's the thing: on its own, it's not that bad a line. It's just incomplete.
'It was a dark and stormy night' is, in fact, the beginning of a much longer sentence that open the novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. This is the full sentence:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of lamps that struggled against the darkness.In context, you can see the problem more clearly, and it's not exactly the dark and stormy night.
Bulwer-Lytton was a tremendously popular author in his day; to quote George H. Spies, he's now regarded as 'perhaps one of the finest examples of a literary figure who was greatly revered during his lifetime and almost completely forgotten after it.' Even looking at that complete opening sentence, you can see the reason for both of these facts.
On the one hand, it's lavishly over-written. Before we've had time to catch our breath Bulwer-Lytton is pounding us with storms, rain, torrents, violent gusts of wind, rattling rooftops and struggling flames: water, wind and fire swirl all over the place, sweeping us into the novel in no doubt that things are going to be dramatic. The 'pathetic fallacy' is a common device in literature and describes the attribution of human emotions to the landscape, usually to express or accentuate a character's emotional state. This isn't quite a pathetic fallacy - 'violent' and 'fiercely' are just on the naturalistic side of the line - but it is, you might say, a stylistic pathetic fallacy. By beginning with such a ferocious setting, Bulwer-Lytton is telling us in no uncertain terms - and no succinct ones either - that this is going to be a story of extreme events and larger-than-life characters. (The story concerns a romantic highwayman, a subject that should surprise no one after such an opening.) This is one of the main reasons why 'It was a dark and stormy night' has become such a catchphrase: it's unquestionably purple prose.
But as a piece of scene-setting, it's also rather vivid. An inexperienced writer is usually well advised not to start with a description of the weather or the landscape: it can be done, and sometimes it can be done beautifully, but it runs the risk of beginning with a sentence in which nobody's there and nothing happens. This is not a problem Bulwer-Lytton faces: what with all the torrents and gusts and agitated flames of lamps, it's a scene full of movement and drama, almost cinematic in mood. Some of the descriptions are good: to describe the guttering of a flame as 'struggled' is really rather beautiful, painting a precise and graphic portrait of its movement, nearly as lovely in its way as the image of flames as 'dishevelled', which falls from such impressive pens as Donne's and Dali's.*. Frankly, as a writer reading that metaphor, my first impulse was to nick it and use it elsewhere (and I might just do that some time) ... but here's where I'd diverge from Bulwer-Lytton: 'struggled against the darkness'. 'Struggled' doesn't just convey the flickering motion in this context; it also conveys a sense of moral conflict: the 'scanty' flames are struggling against the darkness, as if sentient - and more than sentient, possessed of the same purpose as the people who lit them, as if lighting a human pathway was what a flame wanted to do. It's a handsomely Victorian idea - natural element as honest servant - but in terms of storytelling, it also manages to create some drama in a sentence without people. With characteristic speed, a person appears 'wending his solitary way' through the next sentence, but we don't need to see him to get the sense of things. What it's telling us, in fact, is that this is going to be a clash of good against evil.
Now, this is where some of the mockery comes in. It's an effective use of dramatic metaphor, but it's far from a subtle one. Consider, too, the quasi-archaic note of 'for it is in London that our scene lies'. Just as we're being advised that this is going to be a grandly exciting story, so too are we being advised to listen to it as a trusting audience. It's an almost-paternal aside, as if explaining to children hugging their knees around a fireside: it's 'our scene', not 'my scene', and we're assumed to be eager participants from the beginning. We have to accept this on its own terms if the sentence isn't going to feel like a jolly old uncle that nobody takes seriously: in effect, Bulwer-Lytton is forcing us to make a choice about whether we'll be naive readers or not right in the opening sentence. It's easy to make fun of him for this because it's hard to tell whether this is a conscious forcing: the sentence is so fulsome and races along at such a rate that it might just be a convenient aside. And if that's the case, it's easy to laugh at Bulwer-Lytton on the assumption that he's just gotten caught up in his tale without checking whether his audience is with him. We need our novelists to take their creations seriously or the prose won't have any sense of reality to it, but woe betide the novelist who's more convinced than the audience. On the other hand, we could just as easily slip into the role of Constant Reader, accept that this is going to be old-fashioned adventure, and be warmed at the inclusiveness of 'our scene': sometimes it's nice to hug one's knees and listen with simple faith. It could go either way, and the reader is unusually free to make their choice: Bulwer-Lytton runs a risk with this, and it would seem that it paid off for his contemporary audience but fell flat with later readers.
The fall probably has a lot to do with the fact that it's not the only aside. Our cynicism has been primed by a much clumsier one early on: 'the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals...' While the description of those intervals that follows is pacy and vivid enough to distract us if we allow it to - this is prose written to be gulped, not sipped - that really is a bit of a clanger. When a writer throws everything into describing one kind of drama, storms and torrents in full flow, then checks that flow with an 'except' - and 'except at occasional intervals', which has a dry and pedantic ring that doesn't at all suit the tone - it sounds unfortunately as if he'd lost his focus. Loss of focus never looks good, but when it happens between one kind of extreme and another, with a qualification in the middle that smacks more of the inkstain and pince-nez than the swash and buckle, the effect is unavoidably bathetic. To convey broken action needs smooth writing, and Bulwer-Lytton's sentence is in too much of a hurry. Consider, for instance, this lightly-edited version:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents. Violent gusts of wind swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of lamps that struggled against the darkness.
While a little jerky - I'm just removing words, not adding any to counterbalance their loss - it conveys the same information without that bump in the middle. It avoids the comedic glitch - but at the same time it loses some of the enjoyably breathless pace. (One can't fix a problem like that simply by trimming: one has to rewrite, and that's not my task here.) If Bulwer-Lytton had broken his first sentence into two the way I have, it probably wouldn't have become so notorious - but that's partly because it wouldn't have been so interesting.
Unfortunately for Bulwer-Lytton, it's also easy to imitate. Take a look at this year's Bulwer-Lytton Contest winners - the prize for writing a bad opening sentence to a non-existent novel - and you'll see a lot of it: Alanna Smith, Rachel Flanigan, Maggie Lyons, Ward Willats, Kathryn Nelson, Jackie Fuchs, John Glenn and Kevin Fry all use the awkward aside or qualification to some degree. The combination of high drama and sudden change is not a felicitous one, and if you're looking to parody, that's a simple device to copy.
Yet it's not this, the worst point in the sentence, that gets most often quoted. The bit people remember is 'It was a dark and stormy night.' Of course, that's the beginning of the sentence and an audience familiar with Bulwer-Lytton would know what 'It was a dark and stormy night...' denoted, but what it's become by now is an in-joke detached from its source: more people know it from Snoopy than from Bulwer-Lytton. (For those who don't know it from Snoopy: the Peanuts beagle is perpetually writing a bad novel, and 'It was a dark and stormy night' is one of the sentences we know it contains.) There's even a board game named after it. Other writers, though, have taken it on as a challenge - famously, Madeleine L'Engle used it as the opening sentence of A Wrinkle In Time, a book that's considered a classic of its kind. It's the foundation of a circular story popular with children; there are various versions, but the one my dad used to tell me went: 'It was a dark and stormy night. Three robbers sat in a cave. Two said to one, 'Come on Bill, tell us a story,' and so Bill began: "It was a dark and stormy night. Three robbers sat in a cave..."'** And it's worth remembering that such stories are told partly as chants just for the pleasure of their rhythm: it would never have stuck if 'It was a dark and stormy night' wasn't a satisfying phrase to recite. By now, the phrase is more a shorthand for bad writing than an example of it, and not every use of it looks badly written. So, what can we say about the actual sentence as it exists in popular culture? What can we make of it, shaved of its context?
Really, it isn't that bad. As L'Engle and the chanting game show, it can sound pretty good in the right setting. It has a decent dramatic rhythm, a trisyllablic drumroll leading to some good solid iambs: 'It was a dark and stormy night.' It contains no particular howlers. If it has a flaw, it's that it would be a weak opening on its own because nothing happens in it except weather, described by two fairly plain and unimaginative adjectives (though you can't accuse the original sentence of these failings). 'Dark and stormy' is easy to understand, but at the same time non-specific: what is described is the sky and air, not the ground and people, so there's not much going on. Its problem, such as it is, is actually opposite to the problems of the full Bulwer-Lytton sentence: overblown though the latter may be, it's crammed with motion and imagery and scene-setting, and even with no people present, it tells us very clearly indeed what kind of book we're going to read. If this wasn't going to be a story about a highwayman, it'd have to have a gang of robbers or a circle of spies or something equally in that vein: we know what kind of people are going to populate this book well before we know their exact profession. In the context of that high-adventure-in-low-places intensity, 'It was a dark and stormy night' is practically disposable. To say a night is dark is not really necessary - some nights are darker than others, of course, but you could do without the word, especially when Bulwer-Lytton ends his sentence with 'darkness'. When rain is falling in torrents, you don't really need to know that it's 'stormy'. At root, it's faulty because while it's tonally dramatic, it's verbally flat: in context, it's a bit redundant, and out of context, it doesn't have the energy that we're supposed to be picturing in the stormy skies it indicates. Linguistically, it's like singing quietly about a loud noise. It informs, but it doesn't convey.
Now, in itself, that isn't much of a crime. Plenty of fiction, plenty of it perfectly adequate, has plenty of sentences like that scattered throughout their central sections. The problem here is that it's not the way to get a story on the move. If you've ever seen the film Throw Momma From the Train, you may remember Billy Crystal's character being chronically stuck over whether to begin his novel 'The night was hot' or 'The night was moist' (only to be driven to a final murderous rage when the harridan Momma produces the maddeningly perfect solution: 'The night was sultry.') Probably that's a nod to Bulwer-Lytton, but it's also an illustration of writer's block: if you begin by describing the climate, you'd better have a good idea about where to go from there or you've got nothing.
Fundamentally, 'It was a dark and stormy night' is a sentence that doesn't suggest a plot. It suggests an atmosphere - not very graphically when split from all Bulwer-Lytton's more flourishing additions - but it doesn't give you anything to expect. The art of novel writing is the art of building sentence upon sentence, and a good sentence suggests to the writer what the next should be. That's why Throw Momma From the Train's dramatisation is so deft: if you're trying to get your brain working, talking about what kind of night it was probably isn't going to help you. Sentences need to make things, to introduce and build and create, and there's nothing in 'It was a dark and stormy night' that you can grasp to get a hand-hold up to the next one.
And that, I suspect, is why it's so popular as a joke sentence. Fiction is highly specific: every sentence tells you something about where you are, who's doing what, what's going on, and even badly-written fiction contains particulars. The world is full of badly-written sentences, but they're usually badly-written sentences about something, and as such don't stand in very well for all bad sentences. Every unhappily-phrased sentence is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy probably wouldn't say, and when one wants a shorthand, the many different varieties of unhappiness are a nuisance. 'It was a dark and stormy night,' though, a phrase that tells us almost nothing and could lead almost anywhere, is usefully generic. In itself, 'It was a dark and stormy night' is nothing worse than mediocre. For it to be truly hopeless, it has to be detached from its context to become meaningless.
But of course, that's not how it was actually written. You might as well say that 'Shall I compare thee to a sum?' is bad love poetry: once you start removing sections, it's no longer the author's fault if the thing doesn't work. It may not be the most evocative phrase in the sentence and it conveys little in itself, but that's exactly why Bulwer-Lytton didn't end the sentence there: to cut it down is to reduce the frantic profusion that makes it what it is. And what it is, frankly, is enjoyable, not as a sophisticated pleasure but as an enthusiastic piece of unselfconscious romanticism. You can read it generously or ungenerously, and it allows for both options, and if there's some 'perfervid turgidity', as Professor Scott Rice has it, there is also a bravura that deserves its due.
In many ways, being turned into a cliche is a compliment to a writer. A cliche is simply a phrase that's been repeated too often. Shakespeare's plays have given the language innumerable sayings, from 'high and mighty' to 'a rose by any other name'; you don't sound original saying them nowadays, but that's because they redound to Shakespeare's credit, not yours. 'It was a dark and stormy night' has its flaws as a piece of literature, but it's punchy and, as a result, famous. And if it doesn't convey very much by itself, that's by design. It's just by the design of people who needed something generic and cropped it accordingly. 'It was a dark and stormy night' is as much the creation of Good Read Games and everybody who's ever quoted it out of context as it it is of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and it was created, not to serve as the first sentence of a novel, but to serve as an anti-sentence, a sentence stripped down until everyone could agree it was bad.
Really, though, its badness is as much a social fiction as a literary one. There are many worse sentences. What it possesses is a the right combination of qualities for the purpose required: it's short, it's simple, and it's non-specific. Of those qualities, only about fifty per cent can be attributed to its actual author. The rest is cultural rendering, reducing it down to an easily-packaged soundbite.
It's been observed that the jokes in crackers tend to be groaningly awful. ('What do short-sighted ghosts wear? Spooktacles!' 'What did the policeman say to his tummy? You're under a vest!') It's also been observed that there's a reason for this: their purpose is to unite people during a family ritual, and one that can include people who don't see each other that often, know each other that well, or even like each other that much. Different people have different senses of humour, and the chances of every member of every family that buys a box of crackers finding the same good joke equally funny are slim. If some people laugh and some don't, the family is, however subtly, divided in the middle of a feast that's supposed to bring them together. What will unite people is something nobody finds funny, a comedic common enemy; if you can't agree with your brother-in-law about anything else, you can at least bask in the brief harmony of agreeing that 'What do you get if you cross a duck and a reindeer? A Christmas quacker!' is a terrible joke. So the cracker manufacturers who add these paper slips with wince-inducing puns are not actually trying to amuse us, or at least, not to amuse us with the jokes themselves. They're trying to get us to wince in unison.
And that, basically, is the purpose 'It was a dark and stormy night' serves: a literary common enemy created by people whose main interest was in speaking generically of 'bad books' rather than of any one book in particular. It's not about the books, it's about the people talking about the books: not artistic expression, but social currency. For that purpose, a sentence doesn't have to be really bad. In fact, it can't afford to be really truly bad: awkward, unnatural, clunky phrasing doesn't stick in our minds as well as something neat and snappy, and there's nothing more moribund than a catchphrase that's hard to remember. To serve the function that 'It was a dark and stormy night' does, it doesn't have to be bad, it has to be memorable. Yet at the same time, it has to be non-specific: if it hinted at anything about plot, genre or characters, then there'd always be some bugger popping up to say, 'You know, I wouldn't mind reading a book that started like that...' and there goes the harmony. Once it's been repeated often enough, it stops meaning 'It was a dark and stormy night'; it takes on the social meaning of 'I'm a terrible opening sentence', and its actual content doesn't matter that much. It could have been done to any number of sentences. 'It was a dark and stormy night' is just the one we happen to have. But when you think about it, remaining memorable after being pruned of almost all your meaning is quite an achievement. Honestly, I think Bulwer-Lytton deserves some plaudits.
So, to answer the question: In literary terms, 'It was a dark and stormy night' is not a quintessentially bad opening line. It's a proverbially bad opening line - and that's quite a different beast.
*Tip o' the nib to mmy for pointing out Dali's description of Federico Garcia Lorca's verse ('I felt the incendiary and communicative fire of the poetry of the great Federico rise in wild, dishevelled flames...'), and to Amaryllis for reminding me of Donne's 'To the Countess of Salisbury, August, 1614':
Fair, great, and good, since seeing you we see
What Heaven can do, and I what any earth can be;
Since now your beauty shines, now, when the sun,
Grown stale, is to so low a value run
That his dishevelled beams and scattered fires
Serve but for ladies' periwigs and tires
In lovers' sonnets, you come to repair
God's book of creatures, teaching what is fair...
Thank you both; I knew I'd seen that image somewhere, but it was nagging at me that I couldn't place it.
**On the other hand, my mother's version was, 'It was a dark and stormy night, and the rain came down in torrents. The Captain said to the mate, "Spin us a yarn, Joe," and Joe began as follows..." I quote my dad's purely because it's the one I remember from childhood, not out of preference for either version or, indeed, either parent. Interestingly, when I told my mum I was doing a post on the 'It was a dark and stormy night,' she assumed that I meant the beginning of the Captain-said-to-the-mate story; like many people who recite those little loops, it was the only version she knew.
Monday, August 05, 2013
Opening Line: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of Opening Line posts can be found here.
So, a break from the usual choices of book: I put up a two-post series about critical terminology, mentioned J.K. Rowling by way of an example, and everybody abided by my request not to derail the discussion into a Harry Potter fan thread! Thank you all very much. By way of appreciation for anyone who had to restrain themselves, here: an Opening Line post on Harry Potter. Which is, in fact, an interesting subject. No slagging off Rowling as a person, please, we don't do that here, but I hope you'll enjoy the analysis of her style...
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.By now the Harry Potter books are hardly books any more: they're a cultural phenomenon, a modern myth both in their actual story and in the rags-to-riches tale of a penniless single mother lifted to fame and fortune by the books she somehow managed to scrape up time to write. J.K. Rowling is a known philanthropist and public figure, the books have been transmuted into films, video games and theme parks; so famous an export is this story that Britain chose to include it as part of the display of national pride that began the Olympic games. And why not? We have a proud history of children's fiction, being the nation not only of J.K. Rowling but Edith Nesbit, George MacDonald, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis (some of whom I personally cannot abide, but that's another question). Books for children are one of those things, like nature documentaries and ornamental gardens and losing on penalties, that we do well. But this, the behemoth children's tale that reshaped the market, making common the sight of an adult commuter with a colourful volume of children's fiction in their hands, is so famous that it's easy to forget a few basic things about it. It was a minor venture when it first came out: J.K. Rowling's initial advance from Bloomsbury was £1,500, an extremely cautious amount. Its initial print run was five hundred copies, of which the majority were intended for school libraries. It is, no matter how many adults read and enjoy it, a children's book, written by a parent and intended to be read by kids. And as such, it comes out of a cultural tradition of British children's writing. Whether or not you care about the book, it had a big impact on publishing, and it's interesting to consider, aside from all the hoopla, what kind of book it actually is.
So, what do we have in this first sentence?
Straight away we can see some fictional influences in the character names. 'Dursley': beige-sounding, thick on the tongue, utterly unpoetic; it is a real surname, actually, but like the other names in these books, sound rather than realism is the name of the game. Harry Potter, our eponymous hero, has an unpretentious name, friendly-sounding and determinedly ordinary - 'Harry' itself is traditionally a diminutive of 'Henry', meaning that his name feels informal and amiable right from the outset. Dursley, though, with its stupid-sounding 'dur' and its assonance with 'worse', carries a quick aural introduction: the Dursleys are unintelligent, uninspiring, unappealing as cold porridge.
Now this is a recognisable tradition in British fiction: the great champion of it was Charles Dickens, with his Grandgrinds and Gamps and Pecksniffs and Micawbers, energetic names that don't just suit the characters, but somehow summarise them. But if you go down through children's literature, Dickens had a major successor in Roald Dahl, the reigning monarch of children's fiction until Rowling knocked him off the shelves. Dahl was a passionate admirer of Dickens - his genius child Matilda starts her adult reading with Great Expectations, his villainous headmistress Miss Trunchbull in the same book cites Wackford Squeers as a role model, Dahl's autobiography Boy describes reading 'the entire works of Dickens' passing time in a cold school lavatory as a child, his short piece 'Lucky Break' in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar begins by describing the writer's life thus: 'Charles Dickens found it easy. At the age of twenty-four, he simply sat down and wrote Pickwick Papers, which became an immediate best-seller. But Dickens was a genius, and geniuses are different from the rest of us': to Dahl, Dickens practically was literature, and he adopted Dickens's use of colourful names with glad inventiveness: Willy Wonka, Miss Honey, Boggis and Bunce and Bean, all tell us what to think of them as soon as we hear what they're called. Dickens wasn't strictly a children's author, but he was a popular author with children as long as adult books were all they had to go on; Dahl was immensely successful, fond of boasting that he could enter any house in England as a welcome guest as long as there were children within, and he wasn't far wrong, either. Most authors at least think carefully about their characters' names, of course, but there's a particular tradition of outlandish, emphatic, character-delineating names in children's books that a name like 'Dursley' immediately invokes.
Rowling, then, knew what she was playing at. There's another implication, actually, if you hear the echoes of Dickens and Dahl; a child might not pick it up consciously but it's certainly there: energetically extreme names evoke a sense of anarchy. Dickens was on the side of the little guy; Dahl often worried adults by the lavishly rebellious punishments he showered upon the bad adults of his books. Children, of course, loved them, because he tapped right into the sense of outraged justice that besets every child sometimes when they run up against the endless power adults hold over their lives, and by refusing to give adults serious names - by refusing to give them concealing names, rather, but slapping on them labels in letters clear enough for a child to read - Dahl appealed directly to a child's desire for some power in a world so very much bigger than themselves. Comedic names cut characters down to size, and so it is with 'Dursley': they immediately sound mean, but also ridiculous, nothing serious to worry about. In fact they make Harry sleep in a cupboard under the stairs and allow their son to beat him up all the time and generally subject him to the kind of Gothically awful childhood that would traumatise a real child past repair, but they occupy the realm of fairy-tale, not reality, albeit fairy-tale in a modern setting, and that's what we get in this first sentence. They boast of their normality, but the author is poking fun at them through their very names. Outlandish names in children's fiction tend to be the province of the wackily inventive, and wacky invention sits ill with authority. Straight away we know there will be no pieties about respecting your elders here. If elders do not earn respect, they will not get it, and Rowling is on the children's side about this. Ordinariness and reality are themselves fairy-tale fictions, and with them manners and decorum.
Equally evocative - or rather, equally satirical - is the name of their address, a loud warning that this house will be ostentatiously dreary and conventional. For those not familiar, privet is a soft-leafed evergreen shrub, sometimes green and sometimes 'gold', bearing negligible flowers and popular in British streets as a front-garden hedge. Privet is fairly quick-growing, dense enough to form a barrier if you want, leafy in all seasons, and above all easy to trim: use your clippers on it a few times a year and it'll take on any shape you like. It's not small-leafed enough to make the finest kinds of topiary, though you can train it if you want to: what privet normally ends up doing is crouching in front of houses in a neat little box shape. It's a perfectly nice plant in itself and an excellent choice if you want something low-maintenance, but as far as gardening goes, a privet hedge is not exactly imaginative. In the streets of Britain that have front gardens, probably the majority of those streets have at least some privet somewhere.
Naming a street 'Privet Drive' isn't necessarily a slap at privet itself, of course, but what we do notice, whether consciously or not, is that it's not just a feature of the place, but its name, its identifying characteristic. This unimaginative plant choice isn't just background in Privet Drive. And this is relevant because it's Privet Drive, not Privet Street.
While Rowling has had international success, the Harry Potter books are very much of Britain, and to a British ear the word 'Drive' signals something immediately: this address is a new build, post-war and almost certainly suburban. It's a curious feature of British geography that the older addresses tend to have the plainer names, and a rather sad feature that the newer addresses tend to be a little charmless. Better insulated, probably, and more mouse-proof, and generally more practical, but they're also liable to be boxy in their architecture: Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian houses go for higher prices because their proportions, facades and general design are likely to have what estate agents refer to as 'character' - by which they simply mean a layout that feels friendly rather than just functional. British citizens who can afford it often choose a smaller old house over a bigger new build, and if you live in a pre-war house - especially in those cities that got battered in the Blitz - you get regular fliers through your door from the local estate agents pleading with you to relinquish your sought-after residence into their dealership. While there are certainly nice new builds in existence, the prestige is on the 'period' places: those are the houses associated with taste and art - and they don't stand in streets called 'Drive'. 'Privet Street' or 'Privet Road' might be pre-war, and maybe 'Privet Terrace' - though they wouldn't have the name 'Privet' if they were unless there was a person called Mr Privet somewhere in their history; 'Drive', like 'Close', is a more recent name. The usual rule of thumb is that the more expansive the name of a place sounds, the less gracious it will actually be; the most poetic-sounding names are 'Heights' and 'Gardens', and they usually mean an estate - or what American readers would probably call a housing project; even 'estate' is a bit of a euphemism, as it used to mean the land and holdings of a great house. 'Drive' is the name of a recent suburban development - not an urban estate, but middle-class residences, probably with off-street parking, and quite possibly with limited shops or buses so you need a car to get you anywhere useful. While plenty of interesting people undoubtedly live in a 'Drive' or a new build - the catastrophic housing boom hadn't quite hit Britain when the first Harry Potter book was written and houses weren't quite so impossibly expensive as they are now, but you still have to take what you can get - as a name in a book like this, it's a clear signal: this is a soulless suburb, with no history, no intricacy, no magic.
And when you add 'Drive' to 'Privet', you get something else about the character of this place: if we pretend for a moment that Privet Drive is a real place, we must suppose that it was built recently, built by design, and whoever named the road thought that privet, that uninventive gardening choice, was an attractive feature worth making part of the address. A new-built suburb is built with an eye to sales, and names are chosen to make it sound good to potential new residents. A town planner calling a place 'Privet Drive' is either the kind of person who thinks privet is a reason to move to an area or is at least bidding for buyers who do: people who think that the most boring garden plant in the country sounds like a tasteful frontage for a des-res. As I said, lots of houses have privet - there's plenty around my neighbourhood, for instance, and I live in an area with a lot of artists - but only a truly dull person would consider privet anything to get excited about. If we imagine Privet Drive to have been named by a town planner, they must have been the crashingest bore you could hope to avoid; if we remember that Privet Drive was named by J.K. Rowling, it's a very mischievous little poke at suburban gentility. Privet isn't a 'feature', as estate agents would put it; it's just kind of there. Calling a British street 'Privet Drive' is more or less on a level with calling a park 'Grass Common' or a body of water 'Reed Pond'. Like 'Mr and Mrs Dursley' - no first names given in this first sentence - the flavour is strongly, ferociously generic.
Uninventive to the nth degree, in other words, and also short on history. If you wanted to name a street for the other common garden plants in Britain, your first choice would probably be ivy - but ivy is absolutely out of the question here, because it has a magical ring to it, echoes of druidism and Christmas and festivity. Flower names would at least sound picturesque; going on the common garden frontages of Britain, you'd expect the Dursleys to have some neighbours in a Clematis Drive or a Laurel Drive or a Hydrangea Drive or even, pace Desperate Housewives, a Wysteria Drive, but all of them sound at least a bit more stimulating than Privet, that spiky word for those boxy hedges that never bear flowers or fruit worth the notice. It's as if the Dursleys live in the dullest street of a dull suburb. And that, evidently, is how they like it.
Because here's the other thing about privet: it's controllable. Ivy can pull down houses if you give it a chance; clematis and wysteria wind wildly all over the place and drip with petals in spring; hydrangea has its colourful seasons and needs responsive care to look its best. Privet, on the other hand, is planted specifically to be cut back. If you don't trim privet it gets leggy and tree-like, but it doesn't do you any harm, so it's not like a wild plant you have to keep in check for your own security; the worst you can say of untrimmed privet is that, like buddleia without the butterflies, it looks untidy. And that, of course, is what the Dursleys oppose: the untidiness of nature, of free development. They like a street where the plants exist to be cut into line, where it's a regular expectation that the hedges are square shapes never found in the wild. If you want to conquer nature, privet is a soft target, easily defeated and submissive to the shears. As parents, the Dursleys favour their natural son over their adopted one, letting the former run wild and trying hard to prune the latter into a more respectable appearance, but they don't succeed in either case: the pampered son doesn't run to vibrant wildness but to small, mean foolishness, and a magical force will soon sweep into the neighbourhood and transplant the neglected child into richer soil. Privet is what the Dursleys want to make of the world, but what they have on their hands is ivy, about to run rampant.
But that hostility to magic is clear throughout the sentence. Even though there's no dialogue, the Dursley voice rings through it: 'perfectly normal, thank you very much', is an indirect quotation, and in it one can hear the prim diction of the solid middle-class. We can hear, in fact, the Dursley accent. That irritable, emphatic rhythm, heaving with curt little commas and snapped mini-phrases, is the speech not of a cultured family, but of a respectable one: full of unnecessary emphasisers, it's not an elegant way of speaking, but instead a bundle of social quotations. 'Thank you very much' is a common addition when implying that someone was rude to imply otherwise; 'perfectly' is, again, a conventional adverb used under pressure, a kind of verbal ruffled feather. The tone isn't just 'proud' but defensive, a recognisable attitude from people privately sure of their own class but not entirely sure that other people will recognise it. The Dursleys actually send their son to an old-established boarding school, which implies aristocracy, but the primary purpose of that detail is to emphasise the difference in how much money and attention are lavished on their natural son versus their adopted one; in most of their lifestyle choices they are a thoroughly recognisable type: the respectable, monied, complacent middle class, aggressive, but only in a law-abiding way, and vulgar, but only in a boring way. There is nothing linguistically original at all about the phrase 'perfectly normal, thank you very much,' but it's something that the Dursleys are 'proud' to say. It's as if opinions and sentences are things they acquire in the same way that they'd purchase a car or a television: the brand needs to be familiar if they're to be admired and envied by their neighbours.
What's interestingly absent from this sentence, though, is the hero himself. Even for the first readers of the book before it hit the big time, the title makes it clear that the Dursleys are not the heroes: the title is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone*, a good old pulp title in the tradition of The Famous Five and Asterix and all the other classic children's series where the main selling point, the hero's or heroes' names, are the first thing you see on the cover. Nothing could signal more clearly that Harry Potter, whoever that may be, is not just the hero of this book, but (sales and publishers permitting) the hero of a possibly limitless number of others. By the end of the book it's clear that the goal is seven novels, one for each school year, but on the opening page, Harry Potter could be another Billy Bunter, permanently at whatever age most suits the plot. Either way, when a character name leads the title, clearly he's here to stay for a while. What this sentence does, then, is set up a sense of anticipation: there is a hero called Harry Potter waiting in the wings, and whoever he is, he is hopefully worth waiting for.
What the first book does, in fact, is begin with an antonym. Harry Potter is the hero of this promised series. Harry Potter has not appeared yet. What we have instead are characters who are, we can assume, unlike him. We can assume it for two reasons: first, it's more structurally satisfying if the hero enters a situation that he then changes, and so a sentence that begins with the hero not present is the starting point, the place where change will be worked. And second, this is a children's book: we expect to like the main characters, and Rowling makes it impossible for all but the most perverse reader to like the Dursleys. In other words, we begin in a state of Dursleydom that the promised Harry Potter is going to change - which means that even before we meet him, we are on Harry's side. We begin trapped with the Dursleys, and they are written to attract our contempt and dislike: Harry is the breath of fresh air we wait for, and when we find he begins life trapped with them as well, we entirely sympathise. We like Harry Potter before he ever appears because, the book promises, he will be everything these dislikeable Dursleys are not. It's a neat and effective way of directing the reader to root for a hero who will, by the nature of the story, have to wait a certain amount of time before he has the opportunity to do anything heroic. Even having a different personality from the Dursleys is, from a reader's viewpoint, rescuing us from some kind of dragon.
Writing seven books is a massive undertaking, and writing them while they're in the process of publication, rather than writing all seven before committing to press, is a tremendous risk: no matter how large or intense the project becomes, one cannot go back and revise the earlier volumes. To publish a first book in a planned but unwritten series is a leap in the dark. Rowling's style, as any writers' does, evolves and changes as the series progresses: the kind of broad comedy that begins Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone moves more to the background as the conflicts intensify; satire and the skewering of certain 'types' remains a feature, but this is Harry Potter at its lightest and simplest. It's also Harry Potter at its most breathtakingly efficient. Reading is a slower business for children than for adults, and if you bore a child within the first page you're likely to lose a sale. Rowling, though, gives her children the most compelling of all hooks: a maddening set of antagonists that you earnestly want to see set at naught. Not so frightening that a nervous child might decide the book is too much - the real horrors of the story only emerge once the reader is well and truly ensconced - but irritating, dislikeable, smug, a set of turned-up noses badly in need of tweaking. Rowling isn't and doesn't pretend to be the kind of complex stylist I usually discuss in these posts, but by golly she gets the job done.
*Yes, I know it's the 'Sorcerer's Stone' in the US. That's not the title Rowling chose, though, it's a marketing compromise.
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