Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Elsie’s Widowhood (book #118)

24 October 2011

Martha Finley. No date in my edition, wch looks as if it might be 1920s, but the book was first published in 1880. It’s online.

There is a frontispiece, wch is graphically very dull I think but amusingly and interestingly* shows Elsie sitting on the beach in full mourning. Presumably people did have to do this. I can’t scan it at the moment but will do. *I have Show-not-Tell Fail.

Here’s a description of tea-time before Elsie’s husband dies:

It had been wont to be a time of glad, free, cheerful, often mirthful intercourse between parents and children; no rude and noisy hilarity, but the most enjoyable social converse and interchange of thought and feeling, in which the young people, while showing the most perfect respect and deference to their parents, and un-selfish consideration for each other, were yet under no galling constraint, but might ask questions and give free expression to their opinions, if they wished ; and were indeed encouraged to do so.

Doesn’t it sound terrible?

Here’s Elsie’s son Edward before going to college:

Mother,” he said, ” I think I have a pretty clear idea of some of the temptations of college life: doubtless there are always a good many idle, profane, drinking, dissolute fellows among the students, but it does not seem possible that I shall ever find pleasure in the society of such.

Impossible not to think Prig. When he comes back from college, you’ll be glad to hear that Elsie takes one look at him and knows “that I can believe my boy has come back to me as pure and innocent as he went!”.

I like Mr Embury falling for Molly Percival (who I think is Elsie’s father’s half-brother’s daughter, but I may be wrong) because she is a “cripple”:

“Your very helplessness draws me to you and makes you doubly dear. I want to take care of you, my poor child. I want to make up your loss to you as far as my love and sympathy can; to make your life bright and happy in spite of your terrible trial. … Your love, dear girl, and the blessed privilege of taking care of you, are all I ask, all I want … “

Can we say co-dependency? Also I think it’s odd that he brings his daughters to the proposal, but keeps them out of sight (behind a bush?) until she’s accepted:

“You will be mine? my own dear wife? a sweet mother to my darlings. I have brought them with me, that their beauty and sweetness, their pretty innocent ways, may plead my cause with you, for I know that you love little children.” He was gone before she could reply, and the next moment was at her side again, bearing in his arms two lovely little creatures of three and five.

Speaking of children, this is random, though admittedly from a non-Christian (=bad person): ‘”the heat and threats of yellow fever drove us North. I scattered the younger children about among other relatives, leaving several at your house, Adelaide”‘.

In the second half of the book Elsie’s son and daughter live in a cottage with some friends and do their own housekeeping. There are some interesting menus. Violet is planning

“potatoes, (sweet)corn, beans, tomats (sic – this is dialect from a boy bringing the groceries), cabbage, lettuce, and young beets … ” … “There’s a chicken all ready for the oven – cousin showed me how to make the stuffing and all that. I’ve engaged fresh fish and oysters – they’ll be coming in directly. I shall make an oyster pie and broil the fish. I mean to make a boiled pudding and sauce for dessert, and have bought nuts, raisins and almonds, oranges, bananas and candies besides, and engaged ice cream and cake.” … (they also have) the lettuce, the cold-slaw and bread and butter … the tarts

It turns out that Vi can’t cook well enough, her timings all go wrong (I sympathise) and some of the food is inedible. Elsie has foreseen this (you would have to kill her) and sent a hamper of “a pair of cold roast fowls, a boiled tongue, pickles, jellies, pies and cakes in variety”.


26 June 2011

Johnson, comparing the historian William Robertson with Goldsmith, famously said to Boswell

You must look upon Robertson’s work as romance, and try it by that standard. History it is not. Besides, Sir, it is the great excellence of a writer to put into his book as much as his book will hold. Goldsmith has done this in his History. Now Robertson might have put twice as much into his book. Robertson is like a man who has packed gold in wool: the wool takes up more room than the gold. No, Sir; I always thought Robertson would be crushed by his own weight,–would be buried under his own ornaments. Goldsmith tells you shortly all you want to know: Robertson detains you a great deal too long. No man will read Robertson’s cumbrous detail a second time; but Goldsmith’s plain narrative will please again and again. I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

Amusingly, Boswell adds “it is probable that Dr. Johnson, who owned that he often ‘talked for victory,’ rather urged plausible objections to Dr. Robertson’s excellent historical works, in the ardour of contest, than expressed his real and decided opinion; for it is not easy to suppose, that he should so widely differ from the rest of the literary world”. Do you think?

Quiller-Couch likewise wrote:

Style … is not–can never be–extraneous Ornament. You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels. Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it –whole-heartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. _Murder your darlings._’

I finished a fairly protracted bit of editing last weekend and sent the pear story off to the Guardian competition. Four friends and family have now read it and of course all had different views about what I should change or keep. I felt like Jo in Good Wives when her “cool, impartial persons” all tell her different things, as do her family:

So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.

Her father liked the metaphysical streak which had unconsciously got into it, so that was allowed to remain though she had her doubts about it. Her mother thought that there was a trifle too much description. Out, therefore it came, and with it many necessary links in the story. Meg admired the tragedy, so Jo piled up the agony to suit her, while Amy objected to the fun, and, with the best intentions in life, Jo quenched the spritly scenes which relieved the somber character of the story. Then, to complicate the ruin, she cut it down one third, and confidingly sent the poor little romance, like a picked robin, out into the big, busy world to try its fate.

There were some structural problems about the end wch I hope I sorted. But what struck me was how hard, even with multiple passes through the thing, it is to strike out the “good” bits, or murder one’s darlings. When I went through one of my father’s novels with him we called these Ruperts, after a character who was pointless except to advance the plot – one of the characters was being interviewed by mysterious civil servants, and someone came in to the office, announced himself as Rupert, handed over some forms, made a few jokes and left. We cut him and then when we found extraneous words wch weakened or at best failed to strengthen the writing we leapt on them with cries of “it’s a Rupert”.

Here are some of the Ruperts I removed from the pear story:

“Then the apothecary, the same day, talked of”
“Or perhaps fruit flavours for you today?”
“that slight – ve-ry, ve-ry slight – but unmistakeable reek”
“the greatest houses, those where the”
But never mind that, you know your own business”
really, they would be”
Now this was unfathomable
In future, he said”

Those were the ones I found in pass five, I think – there were around another 15 passes. Mostly what they do is interrupt – one over-writes, explains to the reader too much, comments on the action. It’s a lack of confidence in the text. A few of the Ruperts were also jokes (such as sudden changes in register) that may have been amusing in themselves but didn’t work in this story.

I also found a random typo pretty late on – the curate’s house had a rood rather than a roof. At least one of my readers thought this was a point I was making about religion.

Other things I had to do a lot of work on were rhythm and tracking the characters’ / narrator’s eyeview – who exactly is seeing the action described.

Anyway, I can’t imagine it will win – there’s the randomness of any big competition, and also the story itself is too weird, not the sort of thing they’ll be looking for. But it’s good to have got it done, particularly during a period of insane busyness at work (on leave this week, hence the rash of posts).