Jane Austen’s advice, applied to ‘Untimely Death’ by Cyril Hare: 3 to 4 families in the Country the very thing to work on

March 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Francis Pettigrew travels to Exmoor for a holiday with his wife – an area in which as a young boy he was traumatised by coming across a dead body on the moor. In an attempt to exorcise this trauma, Pettigrew walks across the moor to the place where the incident occurred – only to find another dead body.

Moreover, when he returns to the scene with the police, the body is gone. Did he really see a body – or is it a hallucination conjured up by his return to the scene of the crime that has haunted him since childhood? (Faber & Faber’s blurb for Untimely Death by Cyril Hare)

Some years ago I read Cyril Hare’s With a Bare Bodkin: it was not at all as good as Tragedy at Law. Having recently reread Tragedy at Law, and read within a few days Untimely Death, I feel there is about the same gap in excellence between them as between Tragedy at Law and With a Bare Bodkin.

Tragedy at Law gained so much from its rich legal setting that we feel the thinness of the setting of Untimely Death. Exmoor is not to Untimely Death as the circuit was to Tragedy at Law.

Why did Cyril Hare bother to marry Pettigrew? He was well into middle age. His marriage has not done much for him except give him a wife. Faber & Faber don’t name her (Eleanor) in the blurb. She is not significant enough. She may be very busy in the background, tending to Pettigrew’s meals and laundry and making beds: doing all those very thankless things that a wife might do in real life but they are to little purpose in the story. The story might have gone on well enough without her; her contributions to the plot could have been taken over by someone else.

If Cyril Hare gave Francis a wife, would it not have been useful to have given him a child as well: a boy of about ten who could have been the one to find the body? And the boy could have enriched the story with his own problems. If the Pettigrews were unable to have children, perhaps the boy could have been the child of deceased relatives and they, his newly-appointed guardians.

Hester Greenway, does wonder (aloud) why Eleanor didn’t have children, but Eleanor no more satisfies our curiosity on this point than Hilda does about why she married Barber in Tragedy at Law.

When Jane Austen talked about 3 or 4 families in the country as a good amount of people to write about, she was on to something. Many modern novels are more likely to be spoilt for having too few than too many people in them. Think of the number of people in Tragedy at Law. There are not only more characters but they are more particularised too. We learn a bit about the clerk, the servants, Derek and his romance, the Barbers etc. The characters in Untimely Death are less memorable than those of Tragedy at Law. Once read about, they fade quickly from the mind: Joliffe (he’s mean) Jack (the irresistible male, a type so often met with in fiction, so little in real life) and Hester Greenway (the forthright friend). This book would have benefited from two more characters that could have been to Untimely Death as the Barbers were to Tragedy at Law.

Untimely Death seems inferior to Tragedy at Law in all respects: the story is not as dramatic, the setting as significant, the characters as well-developed, the humour as evident, the writing as good, nor the plot as intricate.

If the writer has devised a good story, is it likely that the rest will follow? Or is the number of characters critical, more people, more stories and ultimately a more satisfying novel? Julian Symons writes of Cyril Hare’s gifts coalescing in Tragedy at Law, and I agree with him. What is it that makes them coalesce?

Why do few writers produce one good novel after another? Great ones do, but the novels of lesser writers can astonish in their disparity.

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