Showing posts with label literary efforts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literary efforts. Show all posts

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy by Nick Holland

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This tells an unusual biography - not one of a writer, but one of someone who influenced a writer - or more accurately, four writers: the Brontës.

I've never actually been a fan of the Brontës' writing, but I am a fan of writing in general, and I'm always interested in the process: in how writers start out, where their inspiration comes from, how approach their work, and how they sit down day after day and write. I do have my own experiences, but it never hurts to learn of others'. Unfortunately for me, this book really didn't help in that regard. While Aunt Branwell's influence is touched upon, it's never really demonstrated, so for me, the book failed in its thesis.

The Brontës themselves (the surviving, writing Brontës that is) do not show up until forty percent into this book when Charlotte is born, so we get a long introduction to Elizabeth Branwell, her history, and her tenure in Penzance, Cornwall, on the very tip of England's west coast. I did not know until I read this that Cornwall had suffered a tsunami, caused by an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal in 1755. This actually wasn't the first tsunami to strike the British coast (there was one in 6100BC that hit Scotland), but they are rare. There was one on the south coast in 1929, and a minor one as recently as 2011. It was on odd coincidence that simultaneously while reading this, I was also listening to an audiobook during my daily commute, which featured a tsunami.

But I digress! Elizabeth eventually left Penzance to stay with her sister in Yorkshire and was there at Charlotte's birth, and this is where I had some problems with the text. A major problem I had with this biography was in how it frequently leapt to conclusions and made unwarranted assumptions. For example, when Elizabeth gets the letter inviting her to visit her younger sister in Yorkshire, the author writes: "Tears welled in Elizabeth's eyes as she placed the letter carefully back into its envelope, but how should she respond?" How can this author possibly know what her emotions were? This kind of thing appeared more than once, and without any supporting reference, and it severely devalued the authenticity of the biography in my opinion.

Around this same event, I also read, "Elizabeth's intuitive response was to accept the invitation." The author knows what Elizabeth is intuiting at a specific moment how exactly? There is a reference at the end of this paragraph, but my intuitive response is that this reference relates to the difficulties of long distance travel in those days, and not to intuition and responses per se.

Later I read, "It was decided to call this third one Charlotte after her aunt in Cornwall, a move Elizabeth wholeheartedly approved of." And the author knows what Elizabeth wholeheartedly approves of how? If there had been a reference to a letter or a journal entry supporting this assumption, that would be one thing, but just to put this out there is meaningless when it's merely the author's evidently over-emotional opinion. It cheapens the whole work. It's possible to put heart and soul, into something without having to resort to pure invention which is what these comments felt like to me.

There were many instances of this, which had not seemed so prevalent before the Brontë children began showing up. It seemed like it was after that point that the story became rife with them as though the author had been lightning-struck by the arrival of the children and suddenly everything was ten times more dramatic. I read things like: " Ripping open the envelope, not standing on ceremony this time, she knew something was terribly wrong."

No, she really didn't. She merely got a letter in an unfamiliar hand! When she read the letter and learned that her younger sister was gravely ill, then she knew something was terribly wrong, but there is no foundation whatsoever for the blind assumption that she ripped the envelope open especially since, back then, the letter was the envelope as often as not, and 'ripping it open' would have actually torn the letter and made it harder to read!

I also read: "Elizabeth's mind raced as she slumped into a chair, letter clenched tightly in her hand." We don't know any of that! I can see how it would appeal to an author to imbue his writing with some emotional content, to leaven the dry facts, but there are limits to what's reasonable.

If you want to add that kind of dramatic flourish to it, then for goodness sake write it as fiction. This kind of intemperate invention does not belong in a biography! Another such instance was: "Branwell, just turned 4, looked on with a confident gaze, and a toddling Emily remained with shy suspicion in a corner." Really? And you know this how? It was the repeated influx of what can only be deemed to be pure fiction, which turned me off this biography and actually began to make me doubt some of the other things I'd already read.

With regard to their home education provided by Elizabeth Branwell, I read that the children "were, in general, able and eager students, although they also demonstrated a mischievous streak from time to time." Again, there's no reference for this, and no example given here of how they were mischievous, so why would the author say this? He adds later, "even though the lessons given by their Aunt Branwell were not always to their taste." How do we know this? Again, there's no reference. It doesn't matter how much of their history the author has read; if he or she cannot reference something, then it can be only opinion. It makes a big difference when opinion is substituted for actual evidence. It makes the whole biography untrustworthy.

In another instance, there was this:

When Elizabeth informed her nieces of her new subscription they were delighted, although Charlotte's announcement of it in a letter to her brother is characteristically muted: 'I am extremely glad that Aunt has consented to take in Fraser's Magazine for though I know from a description of its general contents that it will be rather uninteresting when compared with "Blackwood"

Blackwood was Charlotte's preferred magazine, so it hardly looks like she was "delighted" with her aunt's choice! Again, it leaches credibility from the account to have so much fanciful commentary added.

If the author had written, for example, that "Patrick's journal for that day reported that Elizabeth was slumped into a chair, letter clenched tightly in her hand," it would be one thing, even if some dramatic license had been taken with the verbs, but that's not what we read. If the author had reported, "according to some reports, the children demonstrated a mischievous streak from time to time," again, that would be another matter, especially if the reports had been referenced in the notes. If the author had reported, "When Elizabeth informed her nieces of her new subscription the children evidenced mixed feelings" and quoted Charlottes comments, that would have worked well, but this constant resorting to superlatives strongly suggests an overly emotional and unreliable reporting of events which is not what I want to be reading in a biography.

I read at one point about the children naming toy soldiers they had, which were characters in the various worlds they built in their evidently fertile imaginations:

Charlotte instantly named hers after her hero the Duke of Wellington, whereupon Branwell decided that his would be Napoleon Bonaparte. Even at this stage of his life - he was then aged eight - he delighted in being the anti-hero rather than the hero. We should also remember, however, that the twelve soldiers had been bought for Branwell, yet he willingly shared them with his sisters; this one early moment encapsulated the duality of his nature.

I'm sorry but I don't buy this. Charlotte instantly named hers? Maybe. Patrick deliberately chose an anti-hero rather than he just chose Napoleon because that man was the brain-dead option when his sister had chosen Wellington? Once again the author seems to be investing far too much fertile (if not fervid) imagination of his own into every action the children took.

Patrick was eight years old for goodness sake, yet already the author wants him to be well onto the downhill slide into addiction and intemperance which we know did not become part of his character until later in life. It's too much. The author fails to give us sufficient information for us to tell if Charlotte's naming was a one-time thing for a specific scenario they were playing out, and this is why Patrick chose Napoleon, or if Arthur Wellesley was the permanent name she gave him. In omitting this, he does the reader a disservice and to quote Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame, he rejects reality and substitutes his own.

The author can even read the thoughts of the dying! As a part of the description of Aunt Branwell's last hours, I read, "Her thoughts dwelt once again on her family in Cornwall, the beautiful coast she would see no more, and then upon her nieces." The problem with this was that she died of an apparent bowel obstruction and was in severe pain for four days. It seems to me a stretch to declare with such certainty where her thoughts were when pain was the foremost thing in her mind. It seems far more likely that her thoughts dwelled on wishing the pain to be over even if it meant her dying. I don't doubt that at times her mind was in other places, but to certify that we can read her thoughts with such confidence seemed disrespectful to me.

Their aunt never did know of her nieces' success. It was only after she died and the children received a very generous inheritance, that they embarked upon their 'professional' writing careers. The first effort was a book of poetry to which all three contributed quite a number of poems. They had to pay for the publication and it never did take off. It was this failure which far from stunting their growth, launched them into their prose careers. We're told that the poetry book was launched after Charlotte had discovered a book of poetry written by Emily. The poems were supposedly, "a key to Emily's soul, and she was furious when she learned Charlotte had found them. After days of silent, and not so silent, recriminations, Anne managed to persuade Emily of the opportunity the discovery had brought."

Given that Emily was widely known to be shy and retiring (even her signature was more restrained than that of her sisters!), this rage and several days of huffy silence felt like a lot of drama, too, especially since Charlotte herself went on record stating that "My sister Emily was not a person of demonstrative character"! The actual words Charlotte used in describing this particular incident were "It took hours to reconcile her to the discovery I had made, and days to persuade her that such poems merited publication."

While we must make allowances for Charlotte perhaps downplaying emotions here, there's nothing there about fury and days of silence! This is all imagination. We can, using imagination, convince ourselves that Emily would have been at least embarrassed that her secret writing had been read, but anger? Perhaps a little, but the fact is, we do not know. This 'days of silence' is pure fiction. It took days to persuade her to publicly reveal her private writing, but this does not mean she was off in a huff somewhere, perhaps stalking the moors wearing sackcloth and with ashes in her hair, for goodness sake!

It's well known among Brontë aficionados that each of the three sisters chose a masculine name that preserved their initials while masking their femininity. Charlotte adopted Currer Bell, as the author suggests, perhaps taken from Frances Richardson-Currer a family friend who may have helped her father out of dire straits at one point with an anonymous donation.

Emily adopted the name Ellis Bell. The author assumes this to be a shortened version of Elizabeth, but that seems a stretch. We honestly don't know where it came from, but it's also been suggested it might be a reference to George Ellis, a friend of Walter Scott's, who is referenced in Scott's poem Marmion, which itself is mentioned in Jane Eyre.

Anne's experiences at Blake Hall, which were given new life in Agnes Grey, could equally have played a part. Anne's employer at the hall was Mary Ingham, whose father was Ellis Lister, an MP who presided over the Brontë's electoral district. But to me these are also a stretch. I prefer to think it was taken from contemporary writer Sarah Ellis. This would fit in with the other two sisters also choosing a (to them) well-known last name as their first.

The author suggests that the inspiration for Anne's choice of 'Acton' may be the castle her aunt had told her about during many childhood stories, but it could also have been from the last name of a recipe book writer and poet named Eliza Acton. She's largely unknown to us today, but may well have been in the Brontë library and for all we know could have been a beloved author of Anne's.

Of the surname, the author speculates: "It is often conjectured that the surname Bell was inspired by the sound of bells from their father's church; this may be so, but it could also be a contraction of the family name B(ranw)ell." Or it could have been the middle name of the curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls, whom Charlotte later married? There are too many options to be sure, and in the end we cannot really know. It's all guess-work!

Tragedy struck when three family members all died within a few months of each other. The apparent cause was tuberculosis, and the author seems to think this came from the visit made to London by Charlotte and Anne (Emily was too retiring!) to prove to their publisher that they were women - and not one man - who wrote all of these novels! He says, "Could one or other of the sisters have picked up a further dose of tubercle bacilli which when they returned to Haworth they handed on to Branwell and to Emily? This seems a most likely supposition. Almost certainly one or other of them introduced a new pathogenic element into the closed community of Haworth Parsonage, which wreaked so much havoc so quickly."

We can't know now who patient zero truly was, but it seems far more likely to me, since Branwell was the first to get sick and die, that it was his dissolute lifestyle that doomed them all. He died in late September 1848, and was doubtlessly nursed by his sisters, in particular, Emily, who then died in late December that same year. Anne, who was so very close to Emily died in late may of the following year. To me this scenario makes more sense than blaming Charlotte.

So evne to the end, this book felt like it was far too much authorial imagination, and not enough hard fact - or supported conjecture at least. I imagine when an author is writing a biography and researching endlessly, that they come to feel close to the subject of their research, but this is not the same thing as actually knowing them personally, and certainly not the same as actually having evidence for assertions that are made. For me, the author crossed that line too many times, and this is one of the two main reasons why I felt this book fell short.

The other is the fact that I think the underlying assertion, that Aunt Branwell was such an influence on these creative children, is not made convincingly. From all that I've read about the Brontes, and from this book too, it seems to me that while they were undoubtedly influenced by many things and people around them, including Aunt Branwell, these kids themselves were the biggest influence on their writing - their minds, their interaction with each other, and their wide reading, which made the perfect storm that became their oeuvre. While I wish the author all the best, I cannot commend this biography.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Rating: WARTY!

Have you ever noticed how all the books which tell you how to write great novels ware written by people you've never heard of, and who've never had a best-seller? Even if they had, it doesn't mean they can show you how to emulate their success.

his was another Audiobook. This time it was non-fiction. It was read, a little stridently I thought, by Nanette Savard, whose voice I don't feel I can recommend, but that was less important to me on this occasion than the content, which was about how to read a book from a writer's perspective so you can learn how to a reader? I'm kidding. I like this idea in theory because reading a lot is a good way to equip yourself with writerly tools, but the question is what kind of a writer do you want to be? Francine Prose (great name for an author of a book about writing, right?) repeatedly neglects to ask this question as she fails to ask many others, and for me that was why this book is a huge fail.

Francine Prose is (amusingly to me) a Visiting Professor of Literature at Bard College. I don't know how often she visits, but it would seem that she has all the tools: her name is Prose and she teaches at a college named Bard for goodness sakes! Her book progresses from words to sentences to paragraphs, which was about halfway through and where I gave up on it as a bad job. I wasn't learning anything useful to me, and most of what she said was painfully self-evident. You'd have to be an idiot not to know it already if you're a prospective a writer.

he teaching method is to constantly refer us, the listeners in this case, back to classic novels of yesteryear, as though no modern novel has anything to tell us. I found this peculiar, but I have to confess I'm not a huge fan, nor a big respecter of the so-called classics. I don't get why schools insist upon inflicting these on children. It seems to me to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: that they're classics because the schools teach them and the schools teach them because they're classics.

Obviously it's a mite more complex than that, but even so, that pretty much sums it up. Very few of these 'classic' authors were loved in their lifetime. Like many artists, many of them died in poverty or near obscurity. It's only with the sorry patina of age that the stories they told became 'classics', and I have to wonder whether that was because they were so brilliantly written or more likely, simply because they evoke a bygone age and perhaps do it a tad better than some of their contemporaries. Just because a person does something a little better than someone else doesn't mean they're a paragon! The title genius and hero are squandered far too cheaply in this age of superlatives and soundbites, to the point where they've become practically meaningless.

The author's apparent position is that these antique authors agonized over every word and were heroically genius in their brevity and communications abilities, but to me their work seemed ordinary and no different form what modern authors are doing. My main beef is that all of her prognostication is done in hindsight after these works have been pored over so much by scholars who apparently have nothing better to do with their time, that the very words have been leached (or even leeched!) of all color and meaning. Worse, no-one ever asked the authors of these obsolete opera how they wrote or why they wrote in that way.

It occurs to me that if we could go back and ask them, they'd simply tell us that they wrote what they wrote and didn't sweat it; although they probably wouldn't use that exact phrase! I know some authors did and do agonize over every word, but they're morons. This is where the author's lack of insight shone so brightly. She seems to be laboring under the misapprehension that every writer wannabe out there wants to create clones of these 'classic' works, but few do. If you take a look at Wikipedia's list of best selling novels, very few of the writers Prose mentions are in it, at least not near the top. The ones who are up there are the ones who explicitly did not clone the classics.

I know there are many pretentious writers who desire to transmogrify themselves into wan duplicates of their idolized forbears, but most writers simply want to make a living through writing, and in this era you're not going to do that via writing classic literature. The way to accomplish that goal these days is to get a best seller. Even one best seller will set you up for life. Very few people want to write literature and those who do are doomed to make a poor living at best. Prose doesn't seem to grasp that.

All that most modern writers are interested in is writing cheap romance, paranormal romance, thrillers, whodunnits and YA. They don't care about great writing and neither do their readers. For better or for worse that's the way it is, and Prose teaching her readers and students to clone earlier authors isn't going to cut it, because it's not the people who clone the work of others who have the big success, it's the people who are willing to step out from the crowd and plow their own furrow who get the attention: people like JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins for example.

For this reason I cannot recommend this book. I don't think it serves any purpose. The only way to succeed is to familiarize yourself with the genre(s) you wish to write in, and then write, write, write and never give up!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Sensualist by Barbara Hodgson

Title: The Sensualist
Author: Barbara Hodgson
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Rating: WARTY!

This novel started out right up there with Frances Hardinge's efforts for being downright weird, so it drew me in right away, but in the end it became tedious, repetitive, dull, and boring. Barbara Hodgson is an artist who has written several novels and this is the first of hers that I've read. And probably the last, which is sad, because the format of this novel is quite charming. It contains multiple illustrations and fold-outs representing the materials of which the main character comes into possession as she rides a train into Vienna, Austria and meets with people in an effort to try and discover what has happened to her deadbeat husband who has been missing for three months. He has often gone off for weeks at a time, ignoring her letters and failing to contact her, but the editor from the newspaper he's working for on a story about art theft or art forgery (it’s unclear which it is at first) calls her to see if she knows where her husband is, because the story is overdue and he hasn’t heard from him. Thus her forlorn quest begins.

She takes off into Europe and encounters three strange women and a strange train conductor during the journey before she even leaves the train - and that's just for starters! One of the women leaves her a box which contains an antique book in which hollowed-out pages hold a magnifying glass and six vials of herbal medicines. The materials are ancient. Everyone she meets seems to know something about her or her quest, and everyone seems to want to trade her something of theirs for something she has - seemingly insignificant, ordinary and occasionally disgusting objects, such as a molar tooth which an elevator operator trades her for one of the pearls decorating the box lid.

Helen runs into one offbeat character after another and takes it all in stride, very much like one would do in a dream. She seems to become quite easily distracted from her purported main purpose of tracking down her husband (about whom I'd long given up caring anyway), and side-tracks into pursuing a discovery adventure of Flemish printer Andreas Vesalius and the woodblocks he created for a publication he produced on anatomy. These blocks were thought to have disappeared during the bombing of a Berlin in World War Two, but maybe they were not all destroyed, in which case any existing ones may have survived. Is this why the director of a museum has been murdered? Did Helen murder him?

There are some weird references too, such as the one to Felice Fontana (1730-1805). Hodgson describes this character - represented as a wax figure in an obscure European museum - as a woman, but that name and those dates apply to a man who was a physician. Whether Hodgson knows this and is playing, or is simply ignorant, or is merely trying to ratchet up the absurdity factor I have no idea. I just found that interesting. There may be other such references that I missed. But the problem for me was that her quest for her husband was uninteresting and when she effectively abandoned that, I was given nothing else even remotely interesting to engage me.

Of all her encounters, Helen's first is the one which most unsettles her, because she seems to be the very same person as the one she first meets on the train. She doesn’t realize this at first because the other the person is aged and significantly overweight, but when Helen finally gets a look at a picture of the other woman when she was younger, she notes a striking resemblance to herself. In addition to this, Helen seems to be traveling in an earlier time - much earlier than 1998 when this novel was published. She goes by train, not airplane, and she has no cell phone or email. The impression I increasingly had in reading this novel was that the real Helen was not the younger version, but the older one, and was possibly lying in a bed somewhere dying of old age, or in a coma, and recalling her younger life. So: trope-ish and boring.

It was all well and good and rather fun and intriguing to begin with, but as the novel creeps towards some 300 pages of nothing but this stuff, the novelty value wears off, and as Helen becomes more and more obsessed with Vesalius's wood blocks, it starts to become completely uninteresting. Normally I would have ditched a novel like this, but I kept trying to stay with it. When I realized I had only some seventy pages remaining, and since I had enjoyed the beginning so much, I decided to try and finish it even if I no longer liked it.

I got within 35 pages of the ending, but I couldn't stand the mindless diversions into Vesalius's wooden blocks and the increasingly repetitive nature of the story-telling. I felt more and more like this was going quite literally nowhere and I reached a point where I decided that there was no payoff, no matter how brilliant nor how miraculous it may be, that could make up for the effort I was being forced to put in! Hodgson, if this was some kind of a big joke on your readers - which I could easily believe - you got me, but you didn't get me all the way to the end. WARTY! Life is way too short to waste on that kind of writing where "literary" is used as a really poor euphemism for 'self-indulgently soporific', not when there's other much more engaging and exciting material waiting to be read.