Don’t sink below the Whipple Line: Virago would not publish Dorothy Whipple, Persephone did

February 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

Wouldn’t we like to be Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books? Wouldn’t we like to be the person that others must please, the person with the power to say ‘No’ ? I rather fancy the idea of sitting on the other side of the desk, being the one in charge. Let others try to please me for a change, because I am tired of trying to please them.

Persephone reissues books, but only those that Nicola Beauman likes.

Nicola Beauman had for much of her life, probably, no intention of founding her own publishing company. Years ago she tried to persuade Carmen Callil (Virago) to reissue the novels of Dorothy Whipple. But the novels of Dorothy Whipple were not at all to Carmen Callil’s taste. They were not good enough. We had a limit known as the Whipple line, below which we would not sink (Carmen Callil to the Guardian, Saturday 26 April 2008).

What are you supposed to feel when your read that, and like Dorothy Whipple’s novels? Are you to conclude that you have bad taste or even worse that you have a taste for the middlebrow?

I do like the novels of Dorothy Whipple. She was the only relatively unknown author I discovered at home. Sadly for me, those books have since disappeared. The Other Day, Young Anne, Because of the Lockwoods, The Priory and High Wages were the ones I read. Of those books, Persephone has only reissued The Priory and High Wages.

However, I have enjoyed all the Dorothy Whipple novels that Persephone has reissued. Yet I don’t think that I preferred those that were new to me Someone at a Distance, They knew Mr Knight, They were Sisters and Greenbanks to those I had read before. Perhaps our affection for books is strongest for those we read when we were young.

If you too have had the bad taste to like Dorothy Whipple, no doubt you will be consoled to learn that the once highly-regarded Ivy Compton-Burnett* kept Dorothy Whipple novels in her bedroom. Perhaps she left Proust in the drawing room.

So Virago was having none of Dorothy Whipple. Time passed, Nicola Beauman came into some money, and Persephone Books came into being. One of those businesses that was born, in part, out of frustration: if you want something to be done, do it yourself.

Nicola Beauman has been vindicated: Dorothy Whipple is her best selling author. Does Nicola Beauman have a line she will not go below? Is it the Sharp line?

*Can’t recollect where I read this, perhaps in Ivy When Young by Hilary Spurling

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Elizabeth Taylor still, after all these years, the best known unknown writer: Rediscovering writers

February 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

At regular intervals someone writing in the Guardian (Review) brings Elizabeth Taylor to readers’ attention. I wonder how she can have escaped their attention, if they have been reading the Guardian in the last ten years. Haven’t articles about her appeared in the Review no less than three times?

Many years ago a journalist friend of my mother’s recommended Elizabeth Taylor to her. So those articles in the Guardian were not the revelation to me that they might have been. (I wish the Guardian would discover some writer for me.)  In a Summer Season, a yellow hardback, I found at home in Dublin was the first Elizabeth Taylor I read. Later, I bought some of my own in green Virago covers which ultimately disappeared. I now have copies of the Virago reissued, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, In a Summer SeasonAt Mrs Lippincote’s, A view of  [not from] the Harbour, Blaming, an old Virago edition of Angel and a penguin edition of A Wreath of Roses (reprinted 1984).

When I first read In a Summer Season I was younger than Arminta, now I am a good bit older, but Arminta (Minty) has remained, for me, one of the high points of that book. Sometimes you are sorry to reread a book, after a long interval, and discover you cannot recapture the pleasure you once took in the characters or the story. All you do is spoil the memory of that pleasure.

I have read most of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels twice and some three times, possibly more. Every so often, Elizabeth Taylor crops up in my reading cycle, and I read a handful. Some such as At Mrs Lippincote’s and A Game of Hide and Seek, I don’t feel inclined to read again. Yet I am very taken with Julia and her son in the first, and the romance between Harriet and Vesey in the second. However, both books were spoilt by secondary scenes with ancillary characters. At Mrs Lippincotes was spoilt by Roddy’s cousin Eleanor and her communist friends, A Game of Hide and Seek by the too frequent appearances of Mrs Brimpton and other shop assistants. Robert Liddell (Ivy and Elizabeth ) does not share my feelings about this book: Mrs Curzon, her ‘lady-cleaner’, is in the great tradition of comic servants, always so well done in this author’s work.

For me the appearance of these servants in various guises has sometimes made me sigh. I think of them as stock Elizabeth Taylor characters, just as I often think of a difficult adolescent girl (with the exception of Portia, Death of the Heart) as a stock Elizabeth Bowen character. Yet I enjoyed Ernie Pounce—another servant, perhaps his being a man introduces a necessary variation—in Blaming.

Why hasn’t Elizabeth Taylor’s popularity grown, despite repeated rediscovery? Some people, Sarah Waters included (in her introduction to A View of the Harbour) is of this opinion: This is due partly, I think—and it’s a daft reason, but by no means a trivial one—to the eclipsing of her reputation by the other Liz Taylor; for even booksellers confuse the two, as I discovered when I asked for ‘anything by Elizabeth Taylor’ in a second-hand bookshop recently, and was promptly offered a book on the making of Cleopatra.

A well-known name, shared with a film star, should not do much damage. Surely anything that rescues you from obscurity works in your favour. In the future, the similarity in names may be of less importance; the actress may become less famous. Not long ago, I was told of a young person who did not know who Elizabeth Taylor (the actress) was.

It is easier to advance a reason for Elizabeth Taylor’s repeated discovery—the consistency of her work—than to explain why she is not more popular. Although I don’t like some of her books as much as others, they are all well-written. It is a remarkable achievement to have written so many readable (and good) books. Most authors don’t achieve such consistency. Sometimes we can’t believe that a writer of books, we have admired, produces one which is not at all as good. Was The Zigzag Way really written by the same person (Anita Desai) who wrote Fire on the Mountain and Clear Light of Day?

Besides, Elizabeth Taylor offers not only quality but quantity: twelve novels and four collections of short stories (included with other uncollected work in Complete Short Stories) make her a writer well worth discovering. What other unknown writer is likely to offer us such a treasure trove?

If I recall correctly, Nicola Beauman in The Other Elizabeth Taylor mentions that Elizabeth Taylor described herself as the best known unknown writer. She has retained this title for years. Do the Guardian’s stores of information on unknown writers, worth discovering, contain just one name: Elizabeth Taylor?

The impossibility of the puzzle-type crime novel: writing crime novels

February 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

The writer of the classic puzzle-type crime novel is attempting to reconcile some irreconcilables, so it is expected that something should fail.

The crime writer is bound to have a mystery: the solution thereof should not jump into the reader’s mind straight off. And this mystery must be plausible. Someone must be murdered, the murderer must have a strong motive, and then several eligible murderers must converge (or must possibly have converged) at the time and place of the murder.

The murderer, if we are to be puzzled at all, while having a strong motive, must seem quite unsuspicious or so suspicious that we count him out. The crime writer has a tall order to fill: I don’t expect her to fill it, and I am quite willing to make allowances.

Ivy Compton-Burnett said real life is of very little use in helping you to formulate plots. Real life is rather plotless. Equally real murders are of very little use to the crime writer. They, too, are rather plotless. Motives can be feeble, suspects rather scare—and therefore obvious from the outset—and real-life detectives never display Sherlock Holmes’s brilliance.

Judges do not throw murder cases out of court because of the feebleness of the murderer’s motive. But readers do reject crime novels because of a murderer’s inadequate motive. As there is something essentially fantastical about the puzzle-type crime novel, the writer can never completely get over its hurdles. Crime novels rarely have satisfying denouements. So the crime writer must offer some pretty good things along the way, to distract the reader from the fact that the novel’s resolution does not really past muster.

Both Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare) and The Widow of Bath (Margot Bennett) offer many compensations.

Is there anyone who has not seen a copy of ‘The Private Lives of Pippa Lee’ in a North London charity shop?

February 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

When I first made the rounds of charity shops in North London, I used to be very disappointed in the books on offer. In the mid-nineties The Millstone by Margaret Drabble was a regular sighting. (Now you are more likely to see Notes from an Exhibition. ) I supposed these charity shops would be filled with the interesting libraries of the recently deceased. And I supposed wrongly. They were filled largely with the recently published cast-offs of the living and thriving: just as many are today.

A small revolution occurred when Oxfam opened its dedicated bookshops. The books are laid out in a defined order under titles such as history, biography etc. The fiction section might be divided in two (modern fiction and classics) or three (and crime) or four (and science fiction). I frequent the Oxfam shops in Crouch End and Muswell Hill.

Sometimes I take the W5 and spin up to the Highgate Oxfam. The books are more expensive there than in Crouch End or Muswell Hill, but Highgate’s literature section is good. On a recent visit to Highgate I was tempted by a number of books which included a hardback complete collection of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. But as a soft back collection, not quite, adorns the bookshelves in the sitting room, I had to let it go. No doubt I shall regret that hardback collection.

The art of economy is one which sadly eludes me. Will the Katherine Mansfield collection haunt me as the tan leather satchel in the window of the other Highgate Oxfam does? I passed up on the satchel at the end of August: I look in vain now for something as good.

I remember hearing a man talk about a particular set of china his mother had seen but not bought (because she didn’t feel she could afford it), and forever afterwards regretted it. His attitude was: you always have money for the things you really really want. And this is true, in a way, because there are very few things that you really really want.

I shall have to console myself by reading Great Stories of all Nations (George G Harrap & Co, 1927) and On the Art of Writing* by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Cambridge University Press, 1923), both bought, last year, from Oxfam, Muswell Hill.

* Based on a series of lectures (first published in book form in 1916).

If a sense of humour is like a piano keyboard, then mine has two dud notes, farce and black comedy: Looking at ‘The Journeying Boy’ by Michael Innes.

February 13, 2013 § 1 Comment

Apart from The new Sonia Wayward (1960) and The Journeying Boy (1949*), I have forgotten most of what I read by Michael Innes. But, for me, memory is no yardstick when it comes to testing literary merit: I forget everyone’s work, Jane Austen’s, Henry James’s, Leo Tolstoy’s . . . The only novels I remember are those I have read more than once.

However, a body of work leaves an impression and we can recall its terrain. My recollection of Mr Innes’s work is that there was more humour than could be realistically contained in serious crime novels, and characters displayed more learning than their equivalent in real life were likely to.

Michael Innes is a good writer, and an amusing one but his humour has a dangerous tendency to teeter over into farce; at that point, Mr Innes and I are no longer in sympathy.

On the 100 best crime novels list, The Journeying Boy finds a place at no. 54. Does it deserve a place on the list?

Sir Bernard Paxton was a scientist of International repute and considerable wealth, Mr Thewless [Clueless?] was a private tutor of modest repute and no wealth. He was therefore pleased and flattered to have the chance of becoming tutor to Sir Bernard’s wayward son Humphrey, who was in some ways normal, and in others horribly advanced.

But Mr Thewless didn’t get the job – it went to an intellectually limited field-sport enthusiast, Captain Cox. Or rather it would have gone to Captain Cox if the latter had lived long enough to start it. Taken from Penguin’s blurb (1964).

For Humphrey’s protection, Mr Thewless takes him to Ireland to stay with the Bolderwoods (some unknown and distant relatives). Various misadventures, en route and in Ireland, follow. On the journey over, they meets a Miss Liberty who is apparently going on holiday. Miss Liberty, we think, is not telling us the full story. I can’t believe in Miss Liberty any more than I can believe in the criminals who are in hot, and ham-fisted, pursuit of Humphrey. Their villainy is that of characters in a child’s cartoon.

You must choose whether you are going to plump for drama or comedy. (You can’t have both unless, of course, like Shakespeare, you separate dramatic scenes from comic ones. ) When the two are intermingled, an author writes a farce. At least, this is my understanding of a farce. Farces don’t work for me because they pull me in two different directions: Is it funny? Or is it dramatic? My reactions are confused. The dramatic aspects mute the comic ones and vice versa. Farce makes me anxious rather than amused.

The obvious villains in The Journeying Boy can’t frighten us—they are too absurd—but neither do they succeed in amusing us because we have the expectation of being kept in a state of suspense, and we are not. So we neither feel one thing nor the other and the reading experience is spoilt.

For all that Miss Liberty and the criminals fail as characters, Humphrey, Mr Thewless and the Bolderwoods succeed. Although the Bolderwoods are marvellous, I can’t help being disappointed in the use Mr Innes made of them. But, I think, other readers will not necessarily share my feelings about that. The point is: if Mr Innes can portray such believable characters, why have unbelievable ones? Is he so irresistibly drawn to farce that he must introduce unrealistic characters to carry through the farcical elements of his plot?

When Mr Thewless rises in the middle of the night to investigate some strange goings-on in Killyboffin Hall (applause for Mr Innes’s portrayal of the Irish), Mr Innes out Henry-James Henry James. I skipped ahead at this section to see how many pages were before me and then—with a terrible sense of being imposed upon—I read them. Michael Innes can be long-winded.

The new Sonia Wayward is much shorter than The Journeying Boy and has fewer flaws. Yet I would not consider it to be a better book. We have, amongst other things, to believe that one character was able to successfully pass herself off as another. Whereas, whatever the weaknesses of The Journeying Boy, its strengths far outweighed them. Perhaps the most important thing for a reader is to be able to like, or take an interest in, some of the characters. Some of the characters appealed to me a great deal in The Journeying Boy but none did in The new Sonia Wayward.

Where Mr Innes is successful in The Journeying Boy, he is very successful. And he can be very amusing, so long as he falls short of farce: the ending was an inexcusable piece of farce. However, I am willing to accept that the limitations of my sense of humour make me incapable of judging this book fairly.

In conclusion, The Journeying Boy deserves a place on the CWA’s 100 best list.

* Originally published by Victor Gollancz

The CWA’s top 100 crime novels reconsidered

February 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Wikipedia informs that The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time was a list, published in book form, in 1990 by the British-based Crime Writer’s Association (CWA). I wonder how many of the books listed would appear today, even if the choice was limited to only those books published at the time of the first list. Would today’s impatient readers put up with some of the books?

I will be considering whether some of those books (I have read about a third) deserve a place on the list. I will also be making a case for a few books that don’t appear and were in print at the time the list was drawn up.

How would Jane Austen have fared in a creative writing class?

February 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

I wrote my first novel and more without reading any creative writing manuals. That first novel has long been thrown away. I don’t think, in fact, that any publisher would have viewed it as a novel. And today that ‘novel’ would only be an embarrassment to me. But I can console myself: however bad my writing is now, it was very much worse then.

In the last few years, I have looked into a great many writing manuals. I read some with more attention than others. Many of them seemed to say much the same thing, and some of the advice was too irksome to be applied, even more irksome than the actual writing of a novel.

One idea that never appeals to me is drawing up a checklist for the hero. What is his favourite colour? What is his favourite sport? And so on. Do you even know the colour of your friends’ eyes, never mind their favourite sport?

Creative writing teachers are fond of giving two examples of writing, a good and a bad. It is just as well they are labelled because sometimes you simply aren’t sure which is which. The bad one does not seem so bad, and the good one does not seem such an improvement on the bad.

We, would–be writers, are often told to engage the readers’ senses in descriptions. You must not restrict your descriptions to visual ones. Readers are to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Of course, you mustn’t over do it. Don’t have all the senses working in one short passage.

What might Jane Austen have thought of that? How many senses does she engage? How many descriptions are there in her books? She barely describes a character’s appearance. We know Henry Tilney has a brown complexion; Marianne Dashwood’s figure is more striking than Elinor’s; Elizabeth Bennett’s—face or figure, I can’t remember which—shows a want of symmetry; Emma has a true hazel eye; Jane Fairfax’s hair is dark, and Anne Elliot has lost her bloom but will regain it. (Jane Austen, I believe, preferred dark eyes and hair to light-coloured, and she preferred the slim figure to the buxom one.)

On the whole, there is very little description in Jane Austen’s work of place or person. I don’t miss such descriptions for a moment. So long as I know if a person is handsome or plain and roughly their age, I have enough to be getting on with.

The characters don’t intermingle their dialogue with action. They don’t smoke, they don’t pause much, they don’t look out windows or pace rooms. What are they wearing? Bingley has a blue coat. How are the rooms furnished? We could tell you something about Pemberley or Captain Harville’s house but not much about Kellynch Hall, apart from the fact that there are too many mirrors.

We don’t doubt Jane Austen’s ability to describe: she will if forced to. We learn quite a bit of the Prices’ slovenly house (Mansfield Park). And Jane Austen can manage an action scene too:

Miss Smith and Miss Bickerton, another parlour boarder at Mrs. Goddard’s, who had been also at the ball, had walked out together, and taken a road, the Richmond road, which though apparently public enough for safety, had led them into alarm. About half a mile beyond Highbury, making a sudden turn, and deeply shaded by elms on each side, it became for a considerable stretch very retired; and when the young ladies had advanced some way into it, they had suddenly perceived at a small distance before them, on a broader patch of greensward by the side, a party of gipsies. A child on the watch, came towards them to beg; and Miss Bickerton, excessively frightened, gave a great scream, and calling on Harriet to follow her, ran up a steep bank, cleared a slight hedge at the top, and made the best of her way by a short cut back to Highbury. But poor Harriet could not follow. She had suffered very much from cramp after dancing, and her first attempt to mount the bank brought on such a return of it as made her absolutely powerless.’  Emma but taken from Robert Liddell’s,  A Treatise on the Novel.

So how does Jane Austen fill her pages, if she doesn’t pad them out with description? They are filled with the actions, emotions and thoughts of the characters.

Jane Austen hadn’t the advantage of reading writing manuals. So why are we still reading the work of someone who does not abide by creative writing formulae? Think of the pointers her writing group mentors would have given her, after she read out a few of her descriptionless passages. A writing teacher might have taught her to include those passages that Elmore Leonard excludes: the bits that readers skip. And imagine starting a novel with a sentence in the passive voice: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

 

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