Perhaps not strictly teenage boys, but -

bonking hedgehogs

- Um, wasn't Cheri still in his teens? (According to Wikipedia, yes, he's 19 and Lea is 43 when they initiate their affair.)

Thoughts riffing off this article in yesterday's Observer about the older woman/younger man trope in literature.

(And how old is Hippolytus when Phaedra experiences 'Venus tout entiere a sa proie attachee'?)

But what struck me, thinking about this scenario, is how often the versions I have come across involve Forbidden Love in more than the age-gap - stepson (classically Phaedra, also a novel by the ponderous R C Hutchinson, actually entitled The Stepmother), son-in-law (Diana Tutton's Mamma) or impending son-in-law (Delafield's Late and Soon). Or, if not specifically within the forbidden degrees of matrimony, Best Friend's offspring (as in Cheri), which is also a bit creepy.

Was led to wonder if this was to do with the circumstances of women's lives and who they would be likely to meet and interact with, at least if Respectable Married Ladies (okay, Lea was in a rather different situation, but presumably most of her interactions with men were Business).

(I just mention Germaine Greer's controversial The Boy in this context.)

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Yes! there has been reading


Books finished

Finished Breakfast with the Nikolides, which improved on the essentialism of the opening passages by including several major, differentiated, Indian characters. However, not among my top Goddens, I think. (there is a creepy flashback about the parents which is the same sort of Oh No! as the famous GwtW scene).

Two Edmund Crispins, one of which - The Case of the Gilded Fly (1945) I really quite liked except the rather pulling-it-out-of-thin-air resolution (but one's modern dodgy things associated with S America would involve white powder rather than white slavery, so maybe this was more foreshadowed than it seemed?) and Love Lies Bleeding (1948), where the whole thing got rather tediously rococco; also, didn't like the setting & characters as much.

Neville Shute, Lonely Road (1932) - quite an early one of his, and really quite compulsively readable. Was sceptical from the start that the gun-running was A Communist Plot, though I was expecting Fascists (though, arguably, the villain is a bit creepily ubermenschy in his attitudes). However, killing off [spoiler] was I thought a cheap resolution/motivation move.


On the go

At last it came along - The Goblin Emperor arrived on Monday, and, o so good. I really like the psychological plausibility of Maia's goodness - it is not just A Given because he is The Chosen Rightwise Heir or of the Right Blood, he had eight years of childhood with a loving mother (who clearly also laid sound ethical foundations of character), and although his subsequent guardian was horrible and abusive, he was at least consistent in this rather than playing double-bind headgames. Plus, the having to work within the constraints of his position - how great is this? (away with your power fantasies.)


Up Next

Probably Americanah. NB I see that there is a film about to be released of Half of a Yellow Sun, and while we would probably pay good money just to see Chiwetel Ejiofor read the telephone directory, I am a bit 'um' about the movie being pitched as 'a love story'. Also as about 'four people' when there are 5 main vp characters in the book.

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Subversive male

Over the past year, I have had occasion to read a good deal more male-authored genre fiction than I normally do.

Quite apart from the books that are all about phallic objects, or have female characters whose middle name is Anima, even within this field I noted several narratives on those less-than-universal narrative themes, young-man's-coming-of-age and male-midlife-crisis. We feel that that these themes lack general interest to a broader spectrum of humanity.

However, I have been agreeably surprised to find that there are male authors (and by no means all of them of the younger generation) who can write plots that are not all about urgent phallic things or excruciating man-angst, and give us rounded and complex characters of all genders and sexual inclinations.

Given the tone of some debates I have come across on the internetz, I was startled but delighted to discover that there are gentleman authors (whom I assume to be probably white and cis) of genre fiction who are a good deal more subtle, a great deal more inclusive in their cast, and much better writers, than I had been led to believe by the attacks on genre authors outside this trad group, bewailing all these non-white non-males etc intruding upon those nice clean phallic spaceships full of manly men of sound Anglo-Saxon, possibly with a touch of Celtic, stock.

Who'd a thunk.

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There's no such thing as from scratch

Delphic sibyl

Further to my comments on a post by [personal profile] sara yesterday about the assumption that writers who deploy similar plots/tropes/configurations of characters are derivative of Some Other Writer or Work -

To be completely original one would have had to a) create language and b) develop the idea of telling a story all by one's lonesome. Short of doing what the Emperor Frederick II did and bring up children without any interaction with other human beings (they all died) to see what language they would speak, this is not really a feasible model.

When we talk of cooking something 'from scratch' we don't actually mean that e.g. we have developed agriculture or at the very least harvested seeds of wild wheats, milled the grain, mixed the flour with water, left the dough out for wild yeasts to start fermenting; or that we have hunted and slaughtered the animal, butchered it, etc etc. What we tend to mean is that we have started from the raw materials already in our cupboards, using the equipment in our kitchen, rather than obtaining readymade.

Even radical gastronomy on the Blumenthal/Feran model doesn't actually commence from a naive premise of let's throw all the ingredients up in the air and see what comes down - it proceeds from a knowledge of existing food science, develops &/or subverts this.

It really helps, rather than hinders, to have a knowledge of what has gone before - cf the recurrent criticism of litfic writers who venture into genre and reinvent the wheel, sometimes as an octagon.

I will also surmise that there are some narrative tropes that have become completely detached from the origin tale, and that there are people churning out Orphan Heroine/Brooding Male/Looming House romances who have never read either Jane Eyre or even Rebecca. If one of them thinks, wow, wouldn't it be cool if his Dark Secret was a mad wife in the attic, is that ripping off Bronte?

Oft, oft have I bemoaned the Failure To Engage With Existing Literature by historians. In this, as in so many fields, it is not actually about dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, it is a whole lot of people of more or less standard size making small but significant contributions or new developments as part of a chain, a collective and cumulative endeavour.

Unfortunately, of course, the narrative trope of Amazing Game-Changing Original Discovery persists, it's as hard to kill as the Angel in the House

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What you learn at breakfast


Conversation with partner this morning over coffee:

He remarked that that picture of the 1607 Bristol Channel Floods, which is supposed to be a contemporary depiction of the devastation, is in fact heavily based on, or at least deploying iconographic conventions originating with, earlier works depicting the 1421 St Elizabeth Flood in the Dordrecht area of South Holland, such as the floating baby in cradle, church steeple sticking up from the flood waters, etc.

We then established that this was what he uncovered when perusing an article in the most recent issue of Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Judith Pollman, 'Of Living Legends and Authentic Tales: How to get remembered in Early Modern Europe', which includes discussion of the longer tradition of local tales about descent from the floating baby miraculously saved from the flood (in fact there turns out to be a 2009 Dutch movie in which this story features in the context of the great floods of 1953, because you can't keep a good archetype down).

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Ursula nails it

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

I commented once (at least) that there are certain sf tropes that literary types are allowed to do, and it's quite okay to be dystopic or apocalyptic, providing you at no point introduce a spaceship or a talking squid. Plus, the mood should be, on the whole, grim.

(Naomi Mitchison of course completely ignored any such strictures and had spaceships and aliens - though I don't think any of the latter were squidiform - in Memoirs of a Spacewoman, and in Solution Three something apocalyptic or nearly so has happened, and civilisation is being carefully and caringly rebuilt, rather than a brutal Hobbesian state of nature pertaining. But she was pretty much sui generis.)

Ursula Le Guin takes a very large codfish to the dystopia trope:

Dystopia is by its nature a dreary, inhospitable country. To its early explorers it held all the excitement of discovery, and that made their descriptions fresh and powerful – EM Forster's "The Machine Stops", Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. But for the last 30 years or more, Dystopia has been a major tourist attraction. Everybody goes there and writes a book about it. And the books tend to be alike, because the terrain is limited and its nature is monotonous.

She nails the repetitious setup of what dystopia looks like:

human hives, controlled by government and supporting a regimented, sheltered, safe, highly unnatural, often luxurious, "utopian" lifestyle. Those inside the enclaves consider those living outside them to be primitive, lawless and dangerous, which they are, though they also often hold the promise of freedom. So Dystopia has a hero: an insider who goes outside.

Oh dear yes.

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Dating for detectives

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

Surely there are easier ways for Golden Age detectives to find a life-partner than falling in love with a suspect? (On the highest setting for Wimsey, who first spots Harriet in the dock charged with murder; but also Alleyn, Nigel Strangeways. The lowest setting is Campion/Amanda - he meets her in the course of an investigation, in fact, 2 investigations, but in neither is she under suspicion.)

Poirot and Miss Marple are exempt from the softer passions (Hastings will do all the falling in love with potentially dodgy ladies required).

Possibly they do not have time for socialising outside their crime-fighting careers, but at least in the case of Lord P, mothers are throwing their eligible daughters at him.

In the case of the hardboiled noir 'tec, however, the chance is high that a) she did in fact do it and b) she will be dead by the end of the book anyway.

Does this apply to lady sleuths? I have a feeling that there was a point where it was more or less obligatory for Our Intrepid Heroine to shag some bloke who turned out, ooops, to be the murderer (as I recall this happened in one of Kinsey Milhone's early cases, to Lauren Henderson's Sam Jones, and possibly even VI Warshawski and Sharon McCone may have succumbed to the blandishments - and wasn't there some instance of guy who turned out to be the murderer putting the moves on Barbara Havers, although, while wavering, I don't think she actually fell). But not usually to end up in an ongoing relationship.

Brought to you by just having read Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death, in which the evidence seems to be stacking up against Georgina while Nigel S is becoming increasingly attracted to her. Another interesting facet is that the women in question are not notable simply for the pathos of being caught in a terrible trap, even if only Georgina has actual form for shooting someone who went berserk during one of her expeditions.

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Not universally generalisable, but


Thinking (as one does) about dystopias -

- and, okay, there is also the 'smother them with creepy niceness the better to absorb them' version -

- but do not a lot of dystopias posit a very binary society, i.e. you have the Haves (or even the Have-It-Alls) and the Have-Nots or (or even the Have Absolutely Nothings)?

I.e. there is yawning chasm that is impossible to cross between the Ins and the Outs.

There is no middling sort and no possibility of making some slight improvement in one's circumstances should one be in the Out-Group, except possibly by resort to crime.

(Though this model is also applicable to fantasies, no? see earlier complaints about societies within which there is no role for women beyond Princess/Duchess, downtrodden household drudge, or busty barmaid/prostitute.)

I thought of Jerry White's book on the Worst Street in London (not 100 miles from where I reside, and probably now massively gentrified) and how even there there was a good end and a worse end. The only work young women from the Bad End could get was the rougher sort of domestic labour - until a mattress factory opened up, and while that was hard work, and probably not all that great conditions, they threw down their scrubbing brushes and pails and signed up to work there in droves, because it was An Improvement. Plus better paid.

In rl, for large swathes of history, there were possibilities of making some slight improvements to one's lot, through luck or hard graft or changing social circumstances, so 'bettering oneself' was not a huge leap into the Upper Classes but having a nicer house and mother not having to go out charring and better clothes and children staying on at school rather leaving as soon as they could... and being able to afford medical care when needed.

Maybe the point of dystopia/oppressive system is that there is not that possibility? And even something a bit less binary might get rigidified - in M K Wren's 'Phoenix Legacy' (1981) there was a 'Fesh' class of people with technical and professional skills but I can't remember whether there was any movement between the various castes (probably not).

ETA And the corollary is that if anybody is cast out from the Haves, it is a descent into Horrible Squalor rather than just less lavish circs among NQOSD people.

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Homo-like, hetero-like?

Delphic sibyl

I've been given to think by a discussion in a locked post on LJ about friendship and people who claim that they can't somehow really be friends with persons of the same/opposite sex.

Okay, there is that whole pernicious trope of 'wymmynz b backstabbing bitches to one another', and that other one that cross-gender friendships, at least if the orientations of the individuals involved are compatible, can't really work because SEX.

And I'm sitting over here, thinking that friendship is All More Complicated.

On the whole, I don't think people make the assumption that because one's sexual orientation is whatever it is, that one will find Any Random Person of Specified Gender actually attractive.* Ditto, surely, for liking.

As far as friendship goes, I lean quite heavily on the concept of differences within persons of any given group rather than their similarity.

I cannot be the only person who around for whom it is a startling and lovely revelation to find somebody who is on the same wavelength, speaks the same language, gets the same jokes, in among all those people who, perfectly pleasant as they may be, don't ring that bell.

Sometimes, I will concede, one's bar may be set lower for this depending on circumstance - I've been in situations where encountering under otherwise unpromising conditions someone who read books for pleasure or had some other overlapping area of interest, was enough for me to wish to grapple them to my heart with hoops of steel or at least feel like a conspiracy of two against the rest.

There is also that thing - perhaps more so in one's youth, but perhaps not - where one hangs out with people and does stuff with them simply because they're there.

Anyway, just because you're a hedgehog and I'm a hedgehog is not necessarily a sound basis for being BFF anymore than a fling on the P&O going out to India constituted a social introduction.

*Plus, just because one finds someone attractive, doesn't inevitably mean leg-over situation must eventuate. There may be all sorts of factors which mean that, while acknowledging that X is not just a lovely intelligent and congenial person but also really quite HOTTT, there is no need to do anything about it. Really. Truly.

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50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers

I suppose it is not surprising that such a hairy-chested come-on (even though the compiler appears to be of the female persuasion) has rather an over-proportion of big fat books of conscious difficulty by blokes (not to mention a significant 'grim and unflinching' quotient). Even if some of those books are Clarissa. (Hmmm - and given that Sophie's Choice is among the number too, wonder how many invoke the edifying spectacle of an attractive woman SUFFERING.)

The whole thing reminds me of that thing that was around a few years ago of someone wanting to produce BOOKZ 4 BOYZ, that would be a kind of treehouse or gentleman's club thing with NO GURLZ ALLOWED.

I'm also wondering about what constitutes 'tough' in this context, or maybe it's just me who found The Waves a whole lot more challenging than To the Lighthouse?

Why isn't Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage in there, if you want tough?

Plus, when the tough get reading... what do the tough actually read? (Viz: all those heroes of the Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, etc, drenching their moustaches with their tears over the works of Charlotte Yonge.)

Thought for a t-shirt: REAL MEN READ DAISY ASHFORD.

(I wonder if this somehow intersects with a thought I'd been having during the week about the other half of the Slow Motion Trainwreck Relationship, who had some odd ideas about the purpose and point of reading, or indeed most things that one might do for entertainment, which, although not exactly replicating Victorian models of 'useful' or 'improving', was weirdly not dissimilar.)

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Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

Another television drama I have no desire to watch

Presumably somewhere out there are people writing serious contemporary dramas that do not feature the maiming and murder of women. Good luck to them, you have to say, because what chance does their work stand of ever seeing the green light of commission?
what's wrong with all such characters – is that they didn't seem to have watched the kind of television in which they happen to be appearing. They were ignorant of the conventions, clueless as to the clues.

Reissue of Mary Renault, The Charioteer

Katharine Whitehorn on Her Brilliant Career. See also, Miranda Sawyer on women in broadcasting.

Lesley Yellowlees: 'I saw something no one else had seen': A solar energy pioneer, the first female president of the Royal Society of Chemistry is striving to open up R&D to more women: and another one for the 'non-linear trajectory of women's careers' list.

The rather erratic Eva Wiseman on the unsung importance of comfort.

I am so sticking to conventional forms of massage at any spa I go to: Eels, fish and formaldehyde – the risks of new beauty treatments. The place for eel and fish is inside me, possibly as sushi, not nibbling on me.

'This Much I Know': Margaret Drabble, who has a new novel out.

Barbara Ellen (scroll down) is apparently unaware that white poppies are not some sudden new thing:

The white poppy was not intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War - a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers - but a challenge to the continuing drive to war.

O tempora, o mores: How the 'thigh gap' became the latest pressure point on a woman's self-image. According to the novel on which the movies Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967) was based, one of the several factoids about sex mentioned by the protag as current among his peers is that if a girl's thighs didn't touch she wasn't a virgin.

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Don't think the trope really reverses...


Thinking, as one does, in the idle thoughts that drift through one's mind while getting a deep-tissue massage, about whether there is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy trope that reverses the MPDGirl trope.

And on thinking this through further, come to the conclusion that there is a MPDB trope but it is very different from the MPDG liberates and livens up sad bloke (or, as I have suggested elsewhere, 'HAI! Mi name iz ANIMA!').

The woman who encounters a MPDB is more likely than not to end up as Wendy to his Peter Pan, not just taking care of him but being Little Mother to the Lost Boys as well, ballast to his balloon, clutching the latest in a long row of offspring to her bosom and declaring that She Will Never Desert Mr Micawber (surely Mr M was a MPDB in his youth, and Harold Skimpole goes on being one).

This was a recurrent theme in the novels of GB Stern and indeed features in her ragbag memoirs. Am inclined to wonder if her husband was a MPDB.

Will Ladislaw starts out being a MPDB (no?), but under the influence of his feelings for Dorothea, actually grows up a bit.

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Manic Pixie Dream Poet from Hell? discuss.

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Why didja havta be a rule-breaker

Subversive male

Glancing through this, found today via GeekFeminism, my thoughts riffed off into how much I hate the bad-boy rule-breaker WINS scenario when I encounter it in any form of narrative.

There are narrative scenarios in which I am quite okay with our protag finding themselves outside the law, whether the actual law or the rules of society.

Maybe they've been driven outside the system because they are wise to the Corruption Starting At The Top.

Maybe they've been fitted up for stuff they didn't actually do and thus acquired a Malign Reputation to begin with (O Hai, Francis Crawford of Lymond).

Maybe they have decided to break that rule or transgress that convention because they believe there is a higher value at stake.

But anyway, what you have in any of those scenarios is COSTS, and driving forces that are not about Our Hero's massive - ehrmmmm - ego, and inability to believe it possible that he may be mistaken.

Am now trying to think of bad-boy rule-breaker stuffs up scenarios in literature or other media - would Macbeth count? Antony, in A&C, has a certain bad-boy element, no?

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queen victoria is not amused

Given that there was a good deal of panic about the dreadful pace of modern life - trains! trams! steamships! five posts a day! electric telegraph! telephone! periodical press! - in the later C19th, did the terrible stress this caused ever form the basis of fictional futuristic speculations?

The usual suspects were leaning on urbanisation, industrialisation, capitalism, and class antagonism, whether as the evils overcome in News from Nowhere or as producing the Eloi/Morlock division in The Time Machine. The feminist writers were about putting the evils of society on male dominance.

In fact, checking up in NfromN, Morris makes Idleness, rather than frenetic activity, the disease of the past:

It is said that in the early days of our epoch there were a good many people who were hereditarily afflicted with a disease called Idleness, because they were the direct descendants of those who in the bad times used to force other people to work for them—the people, you know, who are called slave-holders or employers of labour in the history books. ... [T]hey, especially the women, got so ugly and produced such ugly children if their disease was not treated sharply, that the neighbours couldn’t stand it. However, I’m happy to say that all that is gone by now; the disease is either extinct, or exists in such a mild form that a short course of aperient medicine carries it off. It is sometimes called the Blue-devils now, or the Mulleygrubs.

This thought brought to you by encountering a similar sf scenario to that posited, to general critical scorn, by Susan Greenfield in 2121 - teh internetz b rewiring ur braynez, disaster and dystopia ensue.

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Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire
It is a fascinating tale, and if there is an element of luck to Olson having such great access it is the kind of luck you have to work like a dog to win, because this may be a tale about the reach and power of new technology, but it is backed up by old-fashioned investigative reporting. Olson's research is properly impressive.

Which is why it is a shame there is not more of her in the book. When I interviewed her for a piece I wrote on Anonymous last year, she described how she'd flown up to Shetland to meet Topiary while the world was still clueless as to his identity and it is such a great detective thriller that it's a shame that there's not more about the investigative process itself, though it is to Olson's credit that her modesty and sense of journalistic decorum prevented that.


For every possible pattern, you can concoct an equally convincing opposing theory; for every victim, there are countless survivors.

So, why 27? It remains a mystery. If there is any scientific research to explain why it's a particularly volatile age, then it is not included here among all the broad-brush quotations from the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Sounes painstakingly demolishes conspiracy theories and other forms of magical thinking but offers no persuasive alternative. It simply seems that some gifted musicians are unhappy, some of the unhappy ones become addicts, some of the addicts die, and some of those do so at 27. The longlist of 27 Club members in the appendix sinks the concept for good.

Sort of a new 'sifilitic geeenyus' trope? I.e. the correlation is a stretch and the causation, no can haz.


Yay Ruth Rendell:

I just want to tell a good story so I always ask myself, are these people real to me? The things I write about are completely removed from my own life, but people want to know the characters better. There are schools of thought that dispense with all that now, but I think if there are strong characters, people want to know more.

I have talked before about the withholding of information from the reader in a great book like Jane Austen's Emma and I do think it should be part of any story, if it is told well, whether or not it is detective fiction. The reader has got to be thinking, what does it mean? Why did they do that?

And possibly paging the shade of EM Forster about the role of mystery and withheld information in constructing plot.

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Probably not very coherent, it's Friday

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

While I was away last week, one of the things I did was watch some DVDs.

One of which was, what turned out to be a somewhat dysfunctional disc of Sabrina (the Hepburn/Holden/Bogart version).

In fact it stopped dead shortly before the end, but I don't think there was any doubt about where it was going by that time.

Some while back there was rather a spate of Marivaux on various London stages, and the whole 'person pitches woo at someone for non-romantic ulterior reasons, like distracting them while their mate puts the moves on the someone's current partner, and ooops, EMOTIONZ eventuate' (like a similar spate of Aphra Behn, this was A Thing and then the fashion passed and one never seems to see any Marivaux these days, chiz). I am not sure I could name which one it was, as they could all probably be called 'The Game of Love and Chance'. But anyway, this is a narrative arc which dates back at least that far.

(And is different from the 'seducing someone for a bet' trope.)

But one thing that I came across when looking it up was that Cary Grant was originally considered for the Bogart role and I was, well that would have killed any narrative tension absolutely stone dead. How could it possibly have been that the young Sabrina would have crushed on the younger, playboy, brother with Cary Grant in the picture? Whereas Bogart plays him rather as one might imagine the elder brother of the Prodigal Son.

Another movie I watched was Tea with Mussolini, which is about middle-aged and elderly and in some cases rather eccentric English ladies in Florence being (mostly quietly) awesome as Fascism rises and war breaks out. Also a couple of Americans, including a trouser-wearing and explicitly lesbian archaeologist and good egg played by Lily Tomlin. It is also gratifying to see Maggie Smith as an ambassador's relict Learning Better (eventually) and Admitting It. Also, Judi Dench as scatty arty lady, saving the frescoes at San Gimigiano.

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Women, on the edge of time

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

Article in today's Guardian G2 section on the absence of women from time travel movies.

Which, if so, is odd, because in written sff, women have long been writing time travel narratives, often featuring female characters, even if some of them fall into the YA category (e.g. Nesbit, Uttley, Mitchison) and thus (perhaps) even further off the map. Ditto, perhaps, a similarly long-standing tradition of time-travel romance (going back at least to Margaret Irwin, and I am quite willing to believe that she hardly invented it).

On another paw, perhaps not so odd, as the narratives I can think of are not, on the whole, slam-bang boys'-own adventures but raise issues of more complexity, ethical density, etc; not to mention the whole OMG We're Somehow In The Wrong Time-Line trope.

I can't immediately think of any time-travel narratives by women which I've read that would really readily turn into all-action fun movies. What with the sinister manipulating organisations like Russ's TransTemp and Kage Baker's Zeus (Co? Inc? can't offhand remember), or the being stranded in plague struck C14th village, or, of course, Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, just not your boys'-own adventure, really.

I am not sure whether this is entirely an issue of gender, as I daresay that given adequate time I could think of complex time-travel works by male authors, or featuring male leads (? du Maurier's House on the Strand, I think?), but more about the difference between written and filmed sff.

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There should be a word for this...

Dr Johnson

The frustration of wanting to discuss a recently-seen film in terms of a particular genre, and realising that even invoking the genre may be SPOILER for anyone aware of the conventions of the genre in question.

However, I do not think it is SPOILER to murmur that a British accent in a US film if not actually signalling 'villain' nonetheless does tend to evoke dodginess, no? (Though for me it evoked as much as anything 'oh, bottled out of working in the NHS, did we?')


It has suddenly gone back to being winter, and Houndz of Spring are curled up by the fire, going 'Walkiez DO.NOT.WANT.'

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More on what civilised eating is...

Accomplisht Lady

I'm not talking about actual table manners here, but about that subtextual claim I was referencing yesterday that proper civilised eating takes place with all the household (except for the servants?) round the table, and engaging in suitable conversation - presumably the mess rules apply of no politics, religion, or sex, talk. Possibly with grace as a prelude? (And, absent servants, involves Mother or whoever is taking on the role jumping up and down and generally having a rather unsettled time of it.)

Okay, I think the fictional convention (is it in TVTropes? I daren't look) that if people get sat down around a table the next thing is Massive Ruxxions, e.g. people throwing down their serviettes and storming out, attacking one another with the cutlery, or possibly expiring from poison, is no real model for what happens either.

But I can think of perfectly civilised ways of consuming nutriment that don't involve strict formality, sitting at a table, or making conversation.

I may have mentioned heretofore a lovely evening my mother and I spent when we were, for some reason, alone in the house when I was 14/15 or so. We had a meal of something nobody else in the household liked and would probably have gone yuck over even if not required to eat it, and read our books while dining in mutual companionability, before going out to the movies.

I am, perhaps, old enough and retro enough to come across somewhat Disgusted Of North London when I hear of people going to dinner-parties and tweeting comments about and even photos of the food while these are in progress (indeed, I think 'phones set to silent, in pockets or bags' is a reasonable rule if you are at a dinner party, as in theatres and concerts).

But at home? There are all sorts of preconceptions bound in with that 'family meal round the table' model, one of which is often that there is a male breadwinner, who must be fed at a particular time.

But that is not the only pattern, especially these days.

Will concede, I concede, that much of the time (um, present company excepted!) I personally would rather be combining reading with eating and have moaned muchly about people in e.g. staff canteens who think person alone with book = person wanting companionship and chatter. And the horror of conferences when they involve refectory breakfasts at group tables.

However, eating alone and with a book (or even with another or other persons, also reading books), doesn't mean that what I'm eating is necessarily microwaved mush full of sugar and E-numbers and dubious ingredients. It may well be a sandwich made from lovely homemade bread...

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Exception becomes the rule?

Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire

I am sorry for the distress that James Lasdun experienced from his stalker, but I am just a tad weary of the popularity of the motif of stalker-is-female, and being A Story, when I am led to believe that, statistically, far more men stalk women than vice versa.

This is perhaps because it resonates with my feelings aroused yesterday, not so much by Naomi McAuliffe's actual post about The news a Brazilian woman may have tried to poison her man through oral sex, but surfing through the comments (don't go there!!!!: I was only doing so to see if anybody, anybody at all, brought up the theory that that was how Madeleine Smith dunnit in the famous Victorian poisoning case). No, it was all that stats-wrangling on the point McAuliffe made that poison is not so much a woman's weapon, given that the overwhelming number of convicted poisoners are in fact men, by either claiming 'yes but: a higher percentage of women murderers do so by poison' or else 'they so good at it they get away with it'.

There is this representation of a phenomenon which is, in fact, predominantly done by males, as somehow particularly feminine.

I wonder if this is an allotrope of Wilkie Collins' observation about, if you had somebody who was sane being illegally banged up as mad, 'The victim, to be interesting, must be a woman, to be very interesting she must be a lady'; even though most actual cases were about men and money, control of.

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O, Lucy Mangan, bless

James M Barry

A really out-there piece in the Pride and Prejudice at 200 thing in today's Guardian Weekend Review:

The older I get, the more I admire the pragmatist. Romance is fine in books.... But I took, then and now, Jane Austen to be not so much a pleasant few hours' diversion but a manual for life, and looked beyond the dazzling protagonists for better guides through it.

Step forward, then, Charlotte Lucas, you magnificently clear-eyed, steel‑spined, iron-willed creature who, while everyone else is mooning over dance partners, parsing glances and bobbing curls hither and thither, is taking a cold, hard, dispassionate look at her situation and making a reckoning of the fates to come.
Charlotte, standing calm and still in the middle of all the flap and pother... and gazing with a cool, appraising eye on her own and everyone else's best chance of the greatest happiness while everyone else's vision is either blinkered with pride, blurred by prejudice or occluded by simple stupidity (Lydia! Mrs B!) offers a valuable, if not ideal, corrective. I cleaved to her as a teenager and I cleave to her now. And if part of me wants to rewrite the implied end of her story so that she and Lady Catherine end up having an affair and the shock of the revelation kills Mr Collins, leaving his affairs in a state that contrives to return the Bennets' estate to them while Lady C sells Rosings and moves herself and Charlotte to Bridport where they open a boutique hotel for Georgian lesbians and die happy at the age of 110, well – who's to say I'm wrong?

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Good in *my* way


Somewhere in one of James Agate's Ego volumes, I came across a line I've subsequently been unable to track down (it is decades since I read these):
There are many books that are good in their way; this is a book which is good in my way.

Was given to think, via a locked post on my rlist, of something I've been musing about for some time about what I like in my reading and what makes a book good in my way.

One of my conclusions is that I really, really, like a distinctive, recognisable, authorial narrating voice.

I was recently trying to get involved in a hard-sf, space-opera-y, novel that came highly recommended, and I just could not be getting into it. The prose was perfectly competent as prose goes, it wasn't egregiously bad, but it was completely flat and anonymous (there was also a lot of info-dumpy stuff where I was thinking, 'surely there would be better ways to get this across', especially when something that had already been info-dumped was repeated).

I'm sure I have read enough of this sort of thing, and at one point I was perhaps sufficiently engaged by plot and narrative and so on not to notice it, but I find myself noticing it more and more, possibly because the actual subject matter is rather more been there and done that, what are you doing with it that's fresh and new?

While there is one level (I suppose) at which in e.g. genre fiction writers are probably being exhorted to write plainly and within the grasp of their presumed audience and not to confuse them with literary fireworks*, on another level, haven't we all come across ghastly examples of 'creative writing class' prose similarly lacking in actual individuality?

While I am of the opinion that if one found two random sentences by my beloved Dame Rebecca running around in a howling wilderness one would know at once who they were by, and this is perhaps an exorbitant standard to hold writing style to, I do at least think that a paragraph, or at a stretch, a page by a given writer should be something that only they could have written in that particular way.

Rather on the Simon Hopkinson and chicken paradigm (would rather eat a supermarket bird cooked by someone who knew what they were doing rather than poulet de Bresse messed around by someone who didn't), I'd rather read what appeared to be going in a bog-standard quest/coming of age narrative by someone who had the engaging voice chops, than something that pushed the boundaries in plonking prose.

Saw something recently about stylistically sophisticated writing vs popularity, and the author of the piece was pointing out, in perhaps rather moany tones, that the bestest ever selling writers were Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton, who did not write ye great prose. I would contend that, okay, they did not write in flamboyant, draw attention to itself prose, they got on with the story: and they also wrote in individually recognisable styles. (You may not like the styles, of course.)

Okay, just as a poulet de Bresse cooked by someone who knows how to cook it is the ideal, so is great voice and fresh narrative. Though I do find that someone with a great narrating voice is usually at least doing intriguing riffs even on the stockest of stock tropes.

*'Oh, Mr Dickens, we like your novel but we feel that the language is full of excessive and strained metaphor and digression. Could we discuss this over lunch at my club sometime?'

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My peeves have niggles...

Neither a doormat nor a prostitute

Could be just me...

But I am so over that (mainly sff? - now trying to think of thrillers to which it might apply, might also apply to historicals, which Iread fairly little these days) narrative set up where there is AWESOME (and doesn't she know it) female protag (usually she is the narrator as well). She may be cast into all sorts of disaster and trouble, but throughout remains stroppy alpha female of Unique Gifts and Talents.

And all the other significant characters, whether antag or ally or ambivalent figures, are male.

And all the other women, if not merely set decor or background figures fulfilling functional roles, are weak, bitchy, envious, or rivals, and essentially NQOSD.

Have just finished - yes, with all the other factors in the mix, this one did keep me reading - a novel which did this very thing. (In this case there was a brief appearance of a woman, very late in the narrative, who was pretty much OSD, but in just one scene.)

It's not quite a deal-breaker, providing there's something else (world-building, plot tension, whatever) in the mix.

But given what Naomi Mitchison was doing in the 60s (and in her historicals, in the 20s), it irks me liek WHOA.

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Somebody has written a book on Victorian lunacy which appears to be doing it RITE more than RONG for a change, even if it's actually about the campaigns over 'alleged lunatics'* who were not actually mad but banged up by their covetous relatives, rather than the less contentious cases who, like Uncle Louie, 'were mad'.

And these involve mostly men, and it was all about property-property-property and Hard Cash, even when things like sex and religion were in the mix, as those tended to involve moving money out of the kinship network within which concerned family members felt it ought to stay.

Anyway, the book is, and I haven't read it yet, just seen a review, Sarah Wise, Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England, just out. Review here, I note the irony of who is actually reviewing it. A blog post about her talk on the book at the Ilkley Literature Festival.

As review in The Literary Review - not online, at least, not yet - points out, this undermines the popular myth circulated by literary sources that it was all about unwanted wives or inconvenient women.

The review cites a nice quote by Wilkie Collins (who did so much to establish the trope):

The victim, to be interesting, must be a woman, to be very interesting she must be a lady

and his grasp on that is perhaps one reason why his The Woman in White remains rather better known than Charles Reade's Hard Cash about a man miscertified as insane. (It is also, of course, possible, that Collins was a better writer.)

But oh dear yes, that does explain quite a lot of popular fictions across a range of media.

I suspect that analysis of asylum records of a more routine nature for the period would suggest that men and their mishandling of money, whether thriftlessness and extravagance or melancholic lack of interest in business, was a lot more common as a reason for certification than the standard narratives suggest.

*The Alleged Lunatics Friend Society vs the After Care Association for Friendless Females Recently Discharged from Lunatic Asylums - which is the better Victorian philanthropic organisation name?

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You read books about Polar exploration. Do you really, really, long to be stuck in a hut on the permafrost in the middle of a howling blizzard, with frostbite, scurvy, and (if your particular interest is Scott) a withering sense of failure? Or do you, like I think it might be Katharine Whitehorn, like to read about this sort of thing while sitting in front of a roaring fire, the only ice around in the G&T you're drinking?

You read action thrillers. Do you really, really want your life to resemble these in even the minutest particular?

Do you suppose that people who read misery memoirs want to be having a massively abused childhood?

Why, therefore, do you get so anxious if the wymmynz in your circles are reading Fifty Shades, and immediately assume that you need to start finding DIY guides to building your own Red Room of Pain?

No, I haven't read them myself: but I've read enough people writing about them to get a fairly strong sense that they are Basic, even Mills&Boony, Romance Plot, with added literal rather than metaphorical bondage, and that a lot of other people are simply not getting that, like the person who claimed that the admittedly improbable sexual innocence of the heroine at the age of 21 was a cover for a narrative of paedophilia, which seems to me to display a lack of knowledge of a trope that was actually at one time (though perhaps no longer) written into M&B's guidelines for aspiring authors - the sexually experienced and knowing woman could only be the baddie rival for Alpha Hero's attentions.

There's nothing wrong with escapism in reading, but it doesn't necessarily signify that one wants the cellar of one's home converted into a well-equipped dungeon.

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Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire
Wandering Hedgehog
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