Tidying up last week, I came across this initial sketch for the road The Magic Carpet families live in, made when I realised I wasn’t describing their comings and goings consistently. I may have had early thoughts of including it with the book – I’m a sucker for any book that has a plan or a map at the front, such as the Cluedo style plans used by Agatha Christie. A Book Riot post here has more great examples.
I recently read two contemporary books with house plans for endpapers. It’s a dangerous device as they do suggest extra riches within – Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s Peculiar Ground lived up to the promise with panache as reader and writer explored the grounds of her stately home setting together, but for me bestseller The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastledidn’t work for several reasons, one being that the map didn’t match the story.
Joanna Cannon, in The Trouble with Goats and Sheepand Fredrik Blackman inA Man called Ovewrite their residential street settings so clearly that my mental picture tricked me into remembering plans that aren’t actually provided – I had to check my copies before I realised. I don’t think Richmal Crompton’s William Brown books provided one either, but fifty years after first reading them I could guide you round William’s village to his house, his long suffering school, the Bott’s nouveau riche manor house, and the various cottages where the Outlaws and assorted bespectacled men and tall lady writers lived. My mental navigation skills had first been stimulated by Joyce Lankester Brisley, author of Milly-Molly-Mandy, who does provide a map of M-M-M’s village and by the maps in my Pooh Bear books of the Hundred Acre Wood. Copyright won’t let me reproduce them here but you can see them on the Look Inside pages on Amazon.
A house, a small village, a cul-de-sac – these are all excellent settings because the writer can keep them closed to trap the characters inside while their story unfolds, or open them up partly or in full to admit strangers, dangers or resolution. With only one way in or out (or a sinister back way known only to locals, as in Cannon or Helen Kitson’s The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson) the writer can control character movements as a good general would deploy troops. A fan of early Brookside, I was particularly attracted to a cul-de-sac – a French word but the French don’t use it. They say “impasse” instead, which is much less helpful for plot purposes. Real British cul-de-sacs tend to be designed for and house a more homogeneous demographic than Brookside’s – but in London the monstrous permutations of the property, rental and social housing market lead to all sorts of cheek by jowl variety and make life much more interesting.
Five narrators, aged seven to sixty
So I set The Magic Carpet in a cul-de-sac, with a mix of family structures, incomes and backgrounds, and initially just the school their children attended to unite them. In my childhood, we’d have played outside in such a street. I hoped my characters might grow into that. My initial layout didn’t last: I changed the road name, moved some families and evicted others, swapped addresses, added some posh flats, divided some houses into maisonettes and extended others. I got rid of the central block and paved over most front gardens, with only a posse of gnomes resisting on one of the last remaining lawns. I turned the luxury flats and the poorest house (council tenanted via a private landlord) to face the main road and the dangerous world outside. With no planning permission required, it was quick and easy. Unfortunately all my new maps turned out like phalluses; if you imagine the (deleted) outline of the close you’ll see what I mean. So with no budget for a pro to resolve that particular embarrassment, I didn’t include it in the book. But you people who read my blog are special, so here’s my amateur effort: an additional reading aid just for you.
I started jotting down ideas for The Magic Carpet during my last few years of teaching. After retirement, it became therapy, to get teaching out of my system – the lessons I’d learnt, the people I’d met, the “all human life is there” reality of any school community. It threatened to be heavy going for its future readers, as it turned into a teacher’s sour rant against the government.
Fortunately, the words of a wise headteacher came to mind: “Jessica, always remember the only people with an unarguable right to be in this school are the children. Not the head, the staff or the caretaker, not the parents – just the children.” She was right, so I decided to tell my story – of diversity and language, of education gone wrong and going right, of friendships, tiffs and damaged and happy families surviving, imploding or just plodding on in an increasingly intolerant London – through the eyes of the children.
The Magic Carpet starts in September with a new Year Three class (pupils between seven and eight years old). I’ve worked with learners from three to adult in my career, but my most recent classes were Year 2 up to July, the very same age group. I wasn’t just familiar with the voice, I’d been surrounded by thirty examples of it daily. Up shot several imaginary hands: “Miss! Choose me!” I imagined thirty children, sitting cross-legged on an imaginary carpet in front of me as I took an imaginary register. “I can only choose – let me see – five at most,” I said. The hands stretched higher; the pleading volunteer groans got louder: “Me! No, choose me! I’ll be really good!”
My story involves the relationship between home and school. I was looking for a quiet, perceptive, articulate narrator, who’d know when to stand back and observe and when to express their feelings. Alka and Nathan, a girl and a boy, fitted the bill. Then someone a bit clumsy to add humour, like in a pantomime. That was Sky. As I wrote this self-centred child I softened towards her; she had her own problems. Remember the class excitement when a new pupil arrived? I’d introduce Xoriyo. She’d see what was really going on and be an agent for change. Finally, I chose Mandeep, for likeability. Teachers shouldn’t have favourites but in retirement with a fictional class, you can do as you like.
Now I found a new problem. I’d describe something, then realise even the brightest Year Three child wouldn’t know that concept or vocabulary. Nathan’s father goes online dating, but Nathan would hardly be tagging along, reporting back. Sky’s mother, despite her self-doubt, is a good mother, and would hide her mild depression from Sky. Several elements of my story took place after the children’s bedtimes, or in areas of experience they wouldn’t yet have. But after I’d simplified the language and ideas to account for all that, the voices of Alka, Nathan, Sky, Xoriyo and Mandeep sounded indistinguishable.
A more sensible writer would therefore concentrate on one child narrator, as in Stephen Kelman’s brilliant Pigeon English or Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But I wanted to reflect the variety of personalities, backgrounds, and abilities in a typical class. When I’d nearly finished The Magic Carpet, Guy Gunaratne published In Our Mad and Furious City, also juggling five diverse points of view. He does it very well, but his youngest narrator is already a streetwise teenager, out and about by himself. If my seven-year-olds did that, they’d come to the attention of social services – or not – and I’d be back to ranting.
The narrator in this brilliant novel loosely based on the story of Damilola Taylor is aged 11…narrator aged 11
Five narrators, teenagers to pensioners
A famous teenage narrator
Five narrators, aged seven to sixty
Mid dilemma, the children took over again. Xoriyo opted for a silent protest – a period of selective mutism, not uncommon when a child wants to stay in control of things. Mandeep ran off to play football; Nathan was absorbed in computer games and Sky was moody. That left Alka, a beautiful, bright, shy child who is bewildered and distressed when her secure world is turned upside down by an incident at home. With just one child voice, it became simpler. If she doesn’t know the name of something, I make an adult tell her – “Mum says that plant’s a buddleia.” If she overhears part of a phone conversation, she interprets what she hears literally. She tries to make sense of events in her life by drawing parallels with fairy stories, as all children do (which is why traditional stories remain universally popular). She thinks of law enforcement in terms of school rules. Parents keep her quiet by telling her off or other children bully her or once literally gag her. Once, she tries screaming to get her way. Sometimes she thinks problems through to terrifying logical conclusions because her seven-year-old self can’t get them in proportion.
With Alka in place, four adult narrators flocked to stand guard. Sky’s mother, downbeat but dogged; Nathan’s father, gradually remembering the power of the imagination; Xoriyo’s mother, speaking on her daughter’s behalf for as long as necessary, and Mandeep’s grandmother who has never lost her original childish joy. I hope you enjoy meeting them all in The Magic Carpet – as one Amazon review says: “It is a lovely novel and will resonate with all parents and teachers. Recommended.”
Once upon a time, starting in 2016, an author wrote a story about children and adults in London telling each other traditional tales, and how the tales came to their aid when their lives took unexpected, not always welcome twists and turns. The author hoped to publish her novel in 2018.
Hey ho. London’s a complex city. Any transport a reader jumps on in such a place is bound to be delayed, make unscheduled stops at diversions and events, carry eccentric and delightful and difficult and conflicted characters before arriving safely at its destination. Since I started writing The Magic Carpet, world statesmen have visited (some more worthy of the name than others); royal weddings have pomped and circumstanced down the aisles of chapels and castles; Prime Ministers have come and gone, and all that time I’ve been concentrating on a specific few weeks in a cul-de-sac somewhere around the wiggly bit of the eastern Central line. I’d got my structure, but was otherwise still drafting when Guy Gunaratne impressively stole my thunder by bringing out an edgier, inner city five narrator novel set in London. I reviewed it here. His characters are teenagers and older; mine were only seven when I invented them. They must be preparing for secondary school now. After making them negotiate domestic minefields in the book, I hope they’ve had a more peaceful time since.
Now hold on to your hats! The Magic Carpet will finally be landing on 22nd July in ebook format, and shortly after that in paperback. You can preorder the ebook here, ready for the start of the school year when the narrative begins. Meanwhile, let me show you the cover, designed by Jennie Rawlings at Serifim. I’m so happy with this. I love the bright colours, their impact like the gorgeous fabrics worn by the mums clustered at any London school gate at home time. Jennie’s drawn a ribbon flow of narrative binding together the characters. There are hints of Chinese characters and Islamic art to indicate some of their different heritages. She’s made the children at the centre of the book hold hands at the fringes of the carpet, which is great because in my story it’s the children who show the adults how to join together, and on the spine of the paperback (which I can’t show quite yet) she’s put a little rabbit for reasons you’ll have to read to find out. She’s chosen a strapline quote that sums up the power of telling magic stories for any community.
This is the ebook cover. On the paperback, being finessed as I write this, there’s also a blurb and some ego boosting words of praise. I need those at present – no matter how many drafts and how much time is spent, I’m sending my characters out into the world with all the trepidation of a parent sending a child off to school. I hope they’ll be ok – no, I know they will be! At the the very least I do hope I’ve whetted your reading appetites!
Oddly I wasn’t asked by the Guardian, the Observer etc to review my books of the year. I’ll ignore the snub and proceed anyway.
My runaway favourite was Ghost Wallby Sarah Moss. It’s a short novel, probably a novella. But Moss packs in enough themes, informations, emotions and landscape for her book to resonate way beyond the time it takes to read. As a reader with a dreadful tendency to skim, I was forced to concentrate on every word, lest I miss something important, or beautiful, or poignant, or funny, or all of those. Silvie is the teenage daughter of an obsessive amateur historian. She and her long suffering mother accompany him to enactments of Ancient British life, along with a gullible, irresponsible professor and his wiser students. The violence in their way of life builds among the flora (is it poisonous?) and fauna (can they trap or spear it?) of the Northumbrian landscape. The writing is poetic – the stream was…still the colour of whisky in a bottle, murmuring over the stones – but Moss pulls no punches; her instructions on how to skin a rabbit nearly turned me vegetarian. You sense that she shares the horrible father’s fascination with living another culture, and her research is convincing. This isn’t just atmosphere though – there’s a strong and menacing contemporary story that mirrors the ancient ones, and you won’t be able to put it down.
I was intrigued to see a novel with five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London get long listed for the Man Booker Prize. This year, my own Magic Carpet was rejected by more than one publisher because, er, five interweaving narrators from different ethnicities in contemporary London could be confusing. Checking out the opposition, I found Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City is fantastic. Where my characters have houses in a run down suburb, his live on an estate (except the family who’s “made it”). At first the snob in me didn’t want to read the idiom I hear on the bus every day, but I was so quickly drawn into the story of these characters that I began to empathise with them and enjoy the style. Gunaratne gets four of the contrasting voices, so far as I can tell, perfectly – they could be on any bus I take. The only one that works less well for me is the middle aged Irish woman. But the interrelated stories of the fatherless young Muslim boy, the black fitness fanatic and his disabled Montserrat born father, and the weedy British Asian rapper had me hooked, their hopes snuffed out relentlessly but always resurgent against a background of unfolding tensions and injustice. “Dust of an old order mixing up with the sweat of the new. All I do-tho is head down and go beast-mode when I can. Mission to get out these Ends is enough.” I closed the book rooting for them, hoping that against the odds, one of them would have their gifts and strengths recognised.
Those were the standout two for me from 2018, but honourable mention goes to a favourite author, Andrew Miller, for Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. A deserting soldier is pursued by a member of his regiment from Spain via Bristol to the Highlands and Islands during the Napoleonic wars, giving rise to urban and country settings, seascapes and capitals and early pioneering hospitals (anything medical is a strength of Miller’s). Characters reflect the position of women, the orphaned and the destitute, and even the worst embody at least some kindness alongside the cruelty, show at least some fellowship amid the isolation. There’s a love story and a war story: Miller is always good for a readable yarn with serious resonances and fascinating historical research. It would be a perfect book if, ultimately, it wasn’t just a shade too improbable.
Finally, here’s a writer who died in 1965 but she’s my rediscovery of the year so I’m claiming her for 2018. Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial is a hilarious horror story of a family trapped in a cult of their own making, dysfunctioning away in their ridiculous nouveau riche ancestral home with all the neurosis, snobbery and fancy dress you could want. There’s a funeral, lots of gin, a garden party and a doll’s house and a hidden apartment and several seances and the servants must be sent away in case they see and tell too much…Hooray! There are more Shirley Jackson books I haven’t read – I just wrapped one up for a friend and unwrapped it again because I can’t bear to let it go before reading it.
The blog is going to be intermittent from now on. I’m finding the glare of the screen difficult; it’s a side effect of treatment for an eye condition. So I’m going to try and concentrate on novel number three instead and keep away from the keyboard otherwise. I’ve loved blogging and I want to thank all those who’ve read and commented over the past few years. I’ll certainly be back if novels number two and three (when finished) get a publisher, or if I suddenly have something I want to say. In the meantime, have a lovely Christmas and why not curl up with one of the above books – I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Novel Number Two, The Magic Carpet, has been well received at the publishers – the rejections are very kind and positive. Here’s a typical one from last month:
I thought the ensemble characters were great and all clearly had their own well thought out narratives, and it was really interesting to see a novel not sit in a typical middle class setting. Unfortunately however, that being said, I am going to pass on it for the moment, purely as I feel it doesn’t quite sit in a specific genre, and as such it might make for a tricky sell in the commercial fiction market.
Do I care? I’m pretending I don’t. I read Camus as a student, and took his retelling of the Sisyphus lesson to heart. (In brief: Sisyphus annoyed the Greek gods. He was punished by being made to roll a boulder uphill for the rest of his life. Every time he got it to the top, it rolled straight down again.) My agent will just have to go on bowling Novel Number 2 (NN2) uphill at the publishers and catching it when it rolls down again. KDP/Amazon can have it in the New Year if we’ve had no joy by then.
I’m concentrating on Novel Number Three (NN3). I’m at that stage of a first draft when I have 90k words of material (picture Sisyphus aka me heaving my boulder optimistically uphill). I know I’m going to cut at least 20k words and add some other bits as yet unknown (boulder rolls about a third of the way down). I know what the end is – in fact I have several possible endings – up we climb, Sisyphus! But I can’t decide which scene should form the beginning (watch out below, boulder coming down). Different characters keep pushing to the fore and shouting “I’m important too!” (Broadly speaking, this is good news, so up goes Sisyphus with a boulder that seems lighter today.) But there are also some characters, who meekly admit: “I know I’ve taken up a a lot of your time and energy over the last few months, but actually I’m really, er, boring. Why not delete me?” Crash! Boulder hits base camp. Injuries reported.
Although all I’m actually doing is copying, pasting, cutting, repasting, rewriting chunks of prose on a keyboard, I do feel as though I were pulling a boulder up hill. My ms has a weighty quality, just as it would if it were a paper copy. I’m tempted to print out the whole lot and move it around physically. I’m sure it would reveal both structural weaknesses and restructuring answers. The only reason I don’t is my moody printer, which bears a grudge against me worthy of any Greek god. It rattles out union rules if I so much as change the settings and 350 pages would end our negotiations for good.
I joined a writing course, currently throwing up more questions. Professional wisdom advised NN3 wouldn’t sell with the subject I’d got and a man narrating in first person. So I changed the narrator to an omniscient female, in third. (For some reading platforms, there follows an unchosen paragraph break imposed by WordPress, whose editing quirks are a known blogger problem. Please excuse the interruption to your service. )
Changing narrator involved lots of cumbersome changing of tenses and pronouns, and rewriting chunks of plot that really wouldn’t work in a female voice (see below). Once I’d beaten the POV confusion into order, it seemed to work. Then someone I respect said: “I’d like to hear more from the men. Have you considered a male narrator?” I think, as of last night, we’re agreed on which narration works best, meaning there are only about 40K words to cut and replace, now. Sisyphus can take a breather, half way up, or down, depending how you look at it.
Then there’s the content. Since I’ve been working on NN3, I’ve happened to read The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, The North Water by Ian McGuire, and John Boyne’s wonderful The Heart’s Invisible Furies. In the evenings I watched A Very English Scandal, an excellent BBC drama about homosexual Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. Suddenly I found myself writing scenes of male gay sex, mostly consensual. They do say you should write about what you know, but I have form in the art of bluffing. Years ago in the midst of a World Cup, I went to a party given by a policeman, and managed to convince his colleagues I was an expert pundit on the strength of three football related remarks I’d learned off pat.* I wonder if my male gay sex scenes will be as convincing. But then any sex scene is hell to write, ripe for ridicule and reliant on a finite set of possible moves – (more than three? Discuss.) It does pose problems for a female narrator, though, omniscient or not. Maybe she should transition – again.
I do have the theme, which is unarguably resonant at present. But I’m fighting a rearguard action to defend my style against the gods of marketing. Words are like wild flowers in an endangered ecosystem. We need to recognise and protect them or they’ll disappear. I don’t mean deliberately shoving in obscure vocabulary in cleverdick Will Self style. But I do mean active, precise verbs that mean exactly what they say: “clamour/ suggest/ yell/ murmur” as required, in preference to “said” (not every time, obvs). And sentences that just occasionally have the subject at the end and the passive voice permitted once per chapter if the author’s been good.
Perhaps I should give up and just plug away with sales for NN1 – the good old Infinity Pool, a manual of carefree optimistic mistakes of the sort made by a debut novelist who’d barely heard the term “creative writing”. Did I tell you it’s on offer on Amazon.uk until the end of this month? Jump in, but please be kind.
*I still know the three gems of football punditry but they’re no longer convincing. If I mention Paul Gascoigne those of you over a certain age will know why.
Despite not being all that bloggered about posting at the moment, I couldn’t miss the chance for the puns Hay Festival makes possible. Friends nearby had often said: Hay, why don’t you come along? I only went for Tuesday, not the full ten days, and my introduction is more pictures than words, but I hope you catch my Hay fever. This year I was checking out how it all worked, and could only get tickets for one of the three writers I’d have liked to see. Rose Tremain obliged, but Philip Pullman and Margaret Atwood were sold out long before I got my act together. So we only went to one formal activity, but there was much else to entertain us.
The programme for tomorrow
Hay map shop
Hay-on-Wye itself, permanent population only 1500, has over two dozen bookshops, down from its Hayday but still impressive. Some are now antique shops, and I also diverted into several stylish new and secondhand clothes shops, a café for Hereford apple cake and an outdoor food market for falafel salad washed down by (strong!) local cider. All accompanied by the classiest of classical guitar buskers…
Sustainable cutlery at the food stalls
I want that coat!
A town with a bookshop for every 62.5 people is my kind of town. We especially enjoyed Rose’s Books, where we pounced with delight on affectionately remembered – and long forgotten – gems from our childhoods and giggled over what our grandparents used to read. Remember the Chalet School Girls? Rose has them, along with every Ladybird book you could think of, Rupert and Tin-Tin, William and Jennings, Victorian morality tales, sixties psychedelic picture books and Puffins flying everywhere. Murder and Mayhem, a branch of Addyman‘s, offers a sleuth’s day out, and Richard Booth‘s famous shop includes a cinema.
After browsing, tasting and trying we walked the half mile to the Festival site. There’s a shuttle bus, but then you’d miss the haphazard, inventive enterprise of people who live along the route. Almost every front garden had been turned into a miniature car boot sale, a home-made food stall, a face painter, portrait artist, vintage clothing pop up rail or a purveyor of free range eggs complete with clucking hens to prove the provenance. It was (or seemed) anarchic and I can’t imagine the authorities allowing it in London, but good for these citizens. I hope they made Hay.
The festival site, guarded by two jovial armed police (in honour of Chelsea Clinton perhaps? Surely not still for Salman Rushdie?) was crowded with all ages but fewer races than I’d have liked to see. First things first: the portaloos, with real wooden doors, were the best I’ve seen at an outdoor festival. The bookshop and signing centre, in a vast tent, was humid and uncomfortable with criss-crossing queues, so I left and found more clothes shops selling natural fabrics and one-off designs. There’s also jewellery, cider, wine, cheese…it’s fair to say this is not exclusively a book festival. The best tent was a gallery of book illustrators’ prints, with Jackie Morris painting away to demonstrate her technique while discussing her work, including her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane on The Lost Words. I didn’t explore the scribblers’ tent, the Oxfam tent or the many activities for children – I’m sure I missed a lot.
But one can only digest so much and we had come for Rose Tremain. She was talking in the vast, impersonal Tata area about her memoir of damaged childhood, Scenes from a Vanished Life. Goodness, this was brave. Obviously, she’s a professional, clearly she knew what she’d written and the questions she would be asked. Nonetheless, this must have been like having therapy in front of thousands of people. She was clear, succinct, careful to say exactly what she meant, and the cold calmness of her delivery made the content all the more moving. As she said, her book started as a personal memoir for family and friends only. But when she perceived how emotionally they reacted, she realised she’d stepped into a novelist’s dream. “It’s every writer’s ambition to move people, and I’d moved them so much I had to widen the book out.” I’d been regretting not also booking to see Maggie O’Farrell earlier that day, talking about the seventeen ways she’s escaped death, but I’m not sure I could have coped with the intensity of both. A little goes a long Hay…
Anyway, here are the holiday snaps. I suspect Hay is a very personal experience which affects everyone a different way. I’ll certainly go back for more next year – and perhaps also when the festival is not on, just to enjoy the town and and the beautiful country around it. Because even the car park was scenic and I could harvest the most multicoloured silk scarf in the world, from the shop opposite the alleyway from the castle…
I’ve just finished watching this cracker of a BBC adaptation – it’s not too late for catch up if you want to binge watch from the safety of the sofa.
I first encountered Wilkie Collins when my family sat glued to a BBC adaptation of The Moonstone (another came in 2016). TV companies, desperate to repeat the success of The Forsyte Saga, had found a contender. They rolled him out again with The Woman in White in 1982. I read my parents’ old Everyman edition, which I’m rereading now. At university, Collins figured in lectures on Dickens, Balzac and Henry James, but The Moonstone is now more usually regarded as the first full length crime novel. The Woman in White has no detective as such and even the BBC’s enquiring “scrivener” Emmanuel Nash doesn’t appear in the book, but it too involves solving crimes and elucidating mysteries.
Collins works well on TV, with its tried and tested pot boiler ingredients, as effective now as in the days of steam trains and port for gentlemen in the library. Candle lit interiors of red velvet and brocade film well, and The Woman in White has not one but two isolated stately homes – Limmeridge – bright, airy, a short walk from the sea, and Blackwater, closed in around a courtyard, with neglected ancient wings and a stagnant murky lake, “just the place for a murder” as Sir Percival Glyde asserts. The word “dastardly” was made for Glyde, although it must be said that his birth is the source of all his wrongdoing and 21st century readers may glimpse sympathy from Collins for a flaw that, nowadays, isn’t one.
Collins’ characters are rounded, with varying motives, vacillations, points when their choices blur. As Walter Hartright, the artist turned amateur detective, says: “the best men are not consistent in good- why should the worst men be consistent in evil?” Walter is young, open hearted, romantic, generous – but also indecisive, naive and impulsive. The otherwise admirable Marion makes a crucial mistake in banishing him before Laura’s marriage. Foul Mrs Catherick, to a less moralising era, seems unpleasant rather than cruel, shipwrecked by unwanted pregnancy. Housekeepers and valets are not just goodies or baddies, but confused, conflicted, put upon characters whose economic dependence gives them little space for manoeuvre, compassionately observed by Collins. Most servants are trustworthy, whereas aristocrats Count and Countess Fosco and Philip and Frederick Fairlie behave unforgivably and social values help them get away with it. Fosco was more elegant on screen than in the book, where his white mice, his “low, oily smile”, his age and obesity make him less appealing. The BBC emphasized the sexual frisson between him and active, intelligent Marion Halcombe which the acting was good enough to make convincing, but it’s less reciprocated by Marion in the book. Fosco’s admiration for Marion, and his expressed sympathy for his own wife, forced to “love, honour and obey” him while watching his infatuation, redeem him slightly.
Countess Fosco (Sonya Cassidy) at Blackwater
Count Fosco (Riccardo Scamarcio) in London
Mothers in The Woman in White are either dead or betray their daughters – Hartright’s mother, though, is steadfast and sensible. He’s the poor but honest artist, in love with fey piano playing Laura Fairlie, whose doppelganger is a madwoman escaped from yet another isolated building, a “private asylum” (and is she really mad?). To complete the gothic picture there are inheritances, sinister marriages, debt, alcoholism, a powder that sends tea drinkers to sleep, a tumbledown boathouse, lodgings in a London slum, anonymous letters, a locked church in a near abandoned village, a graveyard, jewelled keepsakes…At Limmeridge dresses swish, and Hartright observes women’s bodies moving in freedom: “…her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays.” But at Blackwater corsets are laced ever tighter, and I lost count of the rooms Laura, Anne, Marion, Fanny and possibly others were locked away in. In the end locks and keys turn against at least one gaoler though, because this is a novel of justice and reparation.
Collins, states my edition’s 1963 introduction, “was a radical feminist”. Possibly not quite one we’d recognise, since his female characters miss no opportunity to denigrate their own sex. Marion, is energetic, intelligent, graceful and ugly, and in her first speech of introduction she blames her own stupid behaviour/attitudes/beliefs on being a woman at least six times, adding “no woman does think much of her own sex, though few of them confess it as freely as I do.” However, the broader premise on which the book is based unambiguously protests against the lack of opportunities and legal status of women and wives in Collins’ day. All Laura’s assets will be signed over when she marries Sir Percival, the family solicitors objections waved aside, although it puts her husband in a position to benefit more from her death than her life. Her father chose the husband for her, and the BBC version gave Mrs Catherick lines similar to “To men like that, character and reputation mean more than anyone’s feelings or well being” although I couldn’t find them in the book. Collins highlights how women were subjected to coercion, violence and emotional abuse, how men fathered children and walked away, how easy it was to portray women as mad or unreliable, and how the a gentleman’s word carried more weight than someone of lower social standing. The legal position regarding the property of married women may have changed (although as late as the 1970s Carmen Callil remembers the header on her tax return: “If you have a husband, this form is addressed to him.”) but, sadly, the other types of abuse are as familiar as they were when The Woman in White was published in 1859.
Skimming the book again, I’ve the impression of a faithful adaptation, with some aspects emphasised as they couldn’t be in Collins’ time. His discussion of dreams, memory loss, post traumatic stress prefigured Freud by forty years and give the BBC cast some wonderful acting opportunities. The emphasis on dependency is there, and also the hints of lesbianism and erotica. Says Marian: “The simple illusions of her girlhood are gone, and my hand has stripped them off. Better mine than his – that is all my consolation – better mine than his.” Marian and Laura, who are half sisters through their mother, frequently share a bed. They touch, stroke and caress; their language about each other is romantic. The BBC even has Marion wearing wide legged trousers. In Anne Catherick’s case, there’s confusion between her mental health and learning difficulties, as in the book. There’s clear economic delineation. We know who is wealthy, who only appears so, who can aspire to be self sufficient, who is respectable and who is precariously surviving, down to the last sextons too debilitated to tend the graves in their charge. And here are public institutions: impoverished half derelict churches whose small congregations graffitti their doors, free village schools for urchins as opposed to foreign boarding schools for aristocrats. (Not a huge amount changed there, then either.)
Many characters and devices in The Woman in White were based on a real case, the Douhault conspiracy in France. Anyone interested in Victorians solving real life crime, and the influence this had on fiction, should read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”. Another contemporary writer with a debt to Collins is Philip Pullman in his Sally Lockhart series – if you’re looking for a strong female lead with full Victorian trimmings, you can’t do better. Meanwhile, if this was your teenage children’s introduction to The Woman in White, do reassure them there’ll probably be another one along in a couple of decades. She’s one literary ghost who will never fade away.