Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Dickens. Show all posts

05 November 2018

Present Tense Tension

by Steve Liskow

One of my beta readers returned a manuscript yesterday and commented that she liked the way present tense carried the story along.

I grew up listening to baseball games on the radio, and the play-by-play was always in present tense. All the announcers were great story-tellers, putting you on the mound, in the batter's box, racing for the fence after that fly ball. You became part of the game. That's why so many of us grew up wanting to be Willie Mays, Yogi Berra or Al Kaline.




But today, many editors loathe present tense. At least one publisher I know says "Absolutely no present tense" on their website guidelines, and I've seen the same warning on a few magazine sites. I've never understood why.

Present tense is nothing new. Charles Dickens used it for portions of Bleak House, one of my favorite novels. Other writers have used it off and on, just as some people experiment with point of view or stream of consciousness or some other technique.

If we're telling a story, we can assume that it's over so past tense is natural and logical. Past tense adds distance if you're discussing a particularly disturbing event because it implies that the narrator survived to tell about it. Everything is over and it's safe again.

But present tense became more common after World War II. Salinger opens The Catcher in the Rye with Holden Caulfield talking to us (his therapist) before he moves into past to tell his story. Kesey's first words in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are "They're out there." Both Salinger and Kesey trace their literary lineage straight back to Huckleberry Finn, which starts by addressing the reader in present tense: "You don't know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain..." Twain even manages BSP right out of the gate.

By the 1970s, the style choice was fairly common. Pynchon opens Gravity's Rainbow with "A screaming comes across the sky."

All my early unpublished work was in past tense. Then I read Don Winslow's California Fire and Life, still one of my favorite crime novels--in present tense. Winslow consistently uses present tense, and while you may or may not like his characters or plots, the tense is never a problem. He made me consider that choice seriously for the first time.

My first published novel, Who Wrote the Book of Death? is in present tense. I started writing The Whammer Jammers in past tense and it bogged down after about 50 pages. Then I realized it was sports, like those baseball games when I was a kid. As soon as I changed to present tense, the story took off and I finished a 300-page first draft in five weeks.

Regardless of editorial bias, the present tense has advantages. First, it's more immediate. Not only does the action happen before the reader's eyes, it makes him participate. I generally use what used to be called third person detached POV, and it helps me share the character's reactions and responses, too. It's easy to add sensory detail without calling attention to it, which helps deepen character, too.

Three different readers (all good writers, all female) tell me that the most disturbing scene I've ever written is in The Whammer Jammers. The scene involves Annie Rogers being raped by the abusive boyfriend against whom she has a restraining order, and it got the book rejected by at least one agent (She told me her reader stopped at that scene). The scene had to be horrible to change the trajectory of the plot, and present tense accomplishes that. It means that since the event isn't "over" yet, it could get even worse. I only remember one other scene nearly that bad, and it's in past tense (Shoobie confronting the killer in Dark Gonna Catch Me Here), which seems to soften it a little.

I write the Connecticut novels (Zach Barnes, Trash & Byrne) in present tense because that's how and where I started them. The early drafts of the Detroit books used past tense, and I decided to keep them that way to help me separate them from the Barnes stories. That helped when I was writing or revising two or even three books at once. Now it's not an issue, but I find that I'm used to plotting the Guthrie books in past tense except for Megan Traine's scenes. Meg lives in the moment, so sometimes her scenes work better in present tense.

I'm currently plotting the next Woody Guthrie book, which doesn't even have a title yet. The list of characters grows and shrinks daily, too. I know one pivotal scene that will occur around the middle of the book, though, and it's ugly and brutal. It's also necessary. It will take the book into darker places than I usually go, but it already feels right. The good news is that the Detroit books are in past tense, and that adds a little buffer zone.

Hold that thought…

20 November 2017

Plotters and Pantsers

by Steve Liskow

Several years ago, I sat on a panel with three other writers and one of the patrons asked if we outlined or not. I said "yes," and it set off a debate that filled the rest of the evening and did little except confuse the poor woman who asked the question in the first place.

Saturday, I conducted a workshop on plotting and the same issue held the center stage for most of the afternoon. I think it's an important question, but there's not one right answer. Writing is a personal action tied to your own rhythms, thought process and voice. About half the writers I admire do outline and an equal number don't. Both approaches have advantages.

Dennis Lehane and Tess Gerritsen don't outline. Gerritsen writes (or used to write) her first drafts in fountain pen in a notebook over the course of about seven months and revised for the rest of the year. Lehane used to write longhand on legal pads and type his work into the computer at the end of the day. He said that if he hit writer's block (a topic for another day), it meant he'd made a wrong choice somewhere and he had to re-read everything to find it. He would make all the necessary changes from that point on and continue. I don't know if his process has changed now that he also works in television.

Robert Crais got his start in television, writing for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and others. He says he still pins index cards with ideas on a cork board in his office and sorts them until he knows where he's going. Maybe having to write quickly and know the good guys will survive at the end makes that necessary. Mark Twain didn't outline but Charles Dickens did.

When I started writing (without an outline), I produced nearly 300 pages of a first novel over the course of about a year and a half. Then I got lost. I went back and discovered I had over 125 characters, many appearing only once, and lots of dialogue that went nowhere. I scrapped about 90% of what I'd written because it was all tangents and false starts. What was left looked sort of like an outline, and I've used a refined version of that approach ever since.

My thought process is far from linear (my friends prefer to call it "delusional") so plotting is hard for me. I also tend to use several point of view characters to help with pacing and to keep information away from certain people. Outlines help me keep track of who knows what. It also helps me find recurring images or themes to use along the way. I usually have a general idea of the ending, but the outline helps me figure out how to get there. It's sort of like MapQuest with a few wrong turns.

My outline is closer to a story-board, a list of scenes that name the POV character, the setting and the important action or change that takes place in that scene, all in three to five typed lines. I like to have about fifty scenes in what seems to be the right order before I write the first real text, but I never have them right. I add scenes, delete others, and move many around to get the pacing right and strengthen the cause and effect connections. That list is both my outline and my first draft. By the time I finish the first full prose version of the story, I've revised that list at least a dozen times. I think my record is 27. By the time I have the list and the completed first typed text, most of my plotting is done. Everything after it is revision.

That revision often involves going back and adding false leads or red herrings to make the ending a surprise. Occasionally, I find a more surprising ending along the way. Chris Knopf (I don't think he outlines) once told me that he writes with several possible endings in mind. When he decides which one will pack the most punch, he goes back and changes the details that lead elsewhere. I suspect other writers do that, too. I assigned Huckleberry Finn in my American lit classes for decades, and I still maintain that Twain added the scene with the dead man in the floating house (chapter 9) when he realized that Pap was an unresolved problem at the end.

People who don't outline have a sense of pacing and probably know their characters well enough (maybe in a series?) to understand where they will go and what they will do next. And, again, there's always revision. At that plotting workshop last week, I cited Jack Bickham's book Scene & Structure
with his explanation of scene and sequel. The sequel is a reflection on what has happened and what to do next. It helps with pacing and it gives pantsers a place to figure out where they will go next. They can even delete the passage later if they want to.

If you outline and it locks you up, toss it away and try writing your first scene. That will show you what your second scene should be. That will give you your third scene, and so on.

If you write from the seat of your pants and keep getting stuck, try an outline. My scene list is usually about six pages long and takes me anywhere from two to six weeks to write. Not only does it give me the action, it shows me what research I might have to do. Maybe that's another topic for a rainy day.

Remember, the only wrong way to write is not writing.

22 December 2016

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain

by Eve Fisher

As I happened to mention last year ("Ghoulies and Ghosties"), ghost stories were one of the key features of a Victorian Christmas.  And Dickens wrote more than one of them for the holidays:

One thing "The Haunted Man" shows is how obsessed Dickens was with memory, and his analysis of how memory fits in/creates who we are.  From the opening scene, where he describes a portrait with the motto, "LORD, KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN", to the very last moment, it is a novella about memory.  It has what is perhaps the first experiment in memory erasure in literature, which makes it a forerunner of Charlie Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind".  Although in this case, it isn't love that makes our self-induced amnesiac go for the darkness.  Mr. Redlaw, brilliant professor of chemistry, comes back from his overflowing lecture halls to his lonely abode and sits and broods among his beakers about the endless, unbearable wrongs that have been done to him.  Depressive, full of resentments, letting his mind feed and fester on them like rats in the walls, Mr. Redlaw is ripe to the point of rotten for any promise to get his own back. And what comes, well - here's Dickens:

Christmas Eve!  (No chains clanking, no wailing in the hallways - but on the wall, where Milly Swidger (his landlady) put it), "the healthy holly withered on the wall, and dropped—dead branches."

Image result for the haunted man dickensThen, "As the gloom and shadow thickened behind him, in that place where it had been gathering so darkly, it took, by slow degrees,—or out of it there came, by some unreal, unsubstantial process—not to be traced by any human sense,—an awful likeness of himself!"
[This Spectre, this Phantom, listens to Redlaw's litany of woe, and, finally, offers him a solution]:
“Hear what I offer!  Forget the sorrow, wrong, and trouble you have known!”
“Forget them!” Redlaw repeated.
“I have the power to cancel their remembrance—to leave but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon,” returned the Spectre.  “Say!  Is it done?”
“Stay!” cried the haunted man, arresting by a terrified gesture the uplifted hand.  “I tremble with distrust and doubt of you; and the dim fear you cast upon me deepens into a nameless horror I can hardly bear.—I would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others.  What shall I lose, if I assent to this?  What else will pass from my remembrance?”
“No knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections.  Those will go.”
“Are they so many?” said the haunted man, reflecting in alarm.
“They have been wont to show themselves in the fire, in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years,” returned the Phantom scornfully.
“In nothing else?”
The Phantom held its peace.  But having stood before him, silent, for a little while, it moved towards the fire; then stopped.  “Decide!” it said, “before the opportunity is lost!”
“A moment!  I call Heaven to witness,” said the agitated man, “that I have never been a hater of any kind,—never morose, indifferent, or hard, to anything around me.  If, living here alone, I have made too much of all that was and might have been, and too little of what is, the evil, I believe, has fallen on me, and not on others.  But, if there were poison in my body, should I not, possessed of antidotes and knowledge how to use them, use them?  If there be poison in my mind, and through this fearful shadow I can cast it out, shall I not cast it out?”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“A moment longer!” he answered hurriedly.  “I would forget it if I could!  Have I thought that, alone, or has it been the thought of thousands upon thousands, generation after generation?  All human memory is fraught with sorrow and trouble.  My memory is as the memory of other men, but other men have not this choice.  Yes, I close the bargain.  Yes!  I WILL forget my sorrow, wrong, and trouble!”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“It is!”
It is.  And take this with you, man whom I here renounce!  The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will.  Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach.  Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it.  Go!  Be its benefactor!  Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.  Its diffusion is inseparable and inalienable from you.  Go!  Be happy in the good you have won, and in the good you do!”
Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly

In case you can't guess, this does not end well.  Mr. Redlaw finds that, as he goes out into the world, he does indeed have the power to transmit the power of complete oblivion of all memories of wrong, hurt, sorrow, trouble of any kind:  and the results are horrific.  
He goes to the deathbed of Milly's brother-in-law, a man dying of alcoholism and vice, who calls to his father (old Mr. Swidger, Milly's father-in-law) “Father!  I am dying, I know.  I am so far gone, that I can hardly speak, even of what my mind most runs on.  Is there any hope for me beyond this bed?” 
But just then Redlaw touches him, just to help...  With the result that the man closes his eyes; puts his hands over his face, and then emerges, and shouts out, scowling, “Why, d-n you!  what have you been doing to me here!  I have lived bold, and I mean to die bold.  To the Devil with you!”  And dies, unrepentant, unreconciled, unloving and unloved...
And it spreads - touching the dying/dead man makes old Mr. Swidger and Milly's husband, William Swidger quarrel over the deathbed as to which of them is the more selfish, old Swidger for still being alive or young Swidger for not giving him enough, i.e., everything.

And it spreads - to everyone Redlaw touches, even with his shadow, all lose all sense of gratitude, goodness, charity, hope...  until finally even Redlaw knows that he is an infection, and he is horrified by himself.  He flees back to his lonely room, withdrawn from everyone - from the Swidgers, from a poor student he was meant to help, from Milly...  But he can't escape himself, and the worst is, perhaps, when he realizes that he destroyed all the good within himself when he sent his memory away with the Phantom. 
Redlaw and the BoyThe only one he cannot hurt is a homeless orphan off the streets who Milly Swidger took in:  "A bundle of tatters, held together by a hand, in size and form almost an infant’s, but in its greedy, desperate little clutch, a bad old man’s.  A face rounded and smoothed by some half-dozen years, but pinched and twisted by the experiences of a life.  Bright eyes, but not youthful.  Naked feet, beautiful in their childish delicacy,—ugly in the blood and dirt that cracked upon them.  A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast."  
This boy never changes.  Hard, starving, snatching, growling, snapping from beginning to end. Redlaw's touch makes no difference to this feral beast:  and, when the Phantom returns, Redlaw begs to know why.  
“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up.  No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast.  All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness.  All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness.  Woe to such a man!  Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!” 
Only one creature can touch the boy; only one creature can save the people whom Redlaw has damaged and destroyed; only one creature can (perhaps) heal Redlaw himself:  Milly Swidger.  Milly, the angel in the house, whose only child died immediately after birth, who has the answer that Redlaw has never even thought of as to why humans need the memory of trial and trouble:  
Read "The Haunted Man" and find out what that answer is.   
‘LORD!  KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN!’ 

14 December 2016

Dickens and His Ghosts

David Edgerley Gates


One of my co-workers asked the other day, Which is your favorite Christmas story? I said, the original, meaning the Nativity. I've always loved the Christmas Eve church service, the lessons and carols. The narrative from Luke, "Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed."

Thinking about it, though, I realized that there's a lot to choose from, and the chiefest of these is A CHRISTMAS CAROL. It was a personal favorite of Dickens, and he performed it both publicly and for his family year after year, playing all the parts, taking all the voices, acting out every flourish. He was quite the spell-binder, by most accounts - his children loved it - and it must have been something to see. The story itself has amazing durability, and survives almost any adaption. (One of my own personal favorites is the animated Disney version.) What accounts for its staying power?

Well, first of all, it's a ghost story. There are four of them, remember. Most of us would say three. But the first to visit is Scrooge's dead partner, Marley, and he sets the tone, foretelling the spirits who are to come, past, present, and future. Dickens, then, shows his hand, he lets us know what to expect, even if he doesn't reveal all his cards, Like any skillful conjurer, Dickens uses a succession of reveals, each effect providing a shiver of recognition.

And it's a story of redemption. We suspect Scrooge will save himself, of course, but most of the fun comes from his adventures along the way, not his getting there. It's his resistance to the pull of his own feelings that gives the story its tension. If we were absolutely sure he'd give in to his better nature, we'd be looking behind the curtain. We pretend to be surprised, every time. It's more satisfying that way.

I think there's also a hidden force behind A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Dickens was always very aware of social injustice, and his age saw a lot of it. Children at risk, from poverty, from sickness, is one of the currents in the story. Dickens' own humiliation, when he was a boy, his father in debtors' prison, and the hated blacking factory (which experience figures in both COPPERFIELD and OLIVER TWIST, too), his long-lasting sense of victimhood. A CHRISTMAS CAROL is sentimentally effective because it's at first terrifying.

Lastly, the story's subversive. We sympathize with Scrooge, in some sense. Christmas has become a sort of pathology, all that crappy music on the radio, and the cheesy sales promotions. Who isn't a little gleeful to see it disdained? On the other hand, Dickens had a big part in making Christmas what it is today. It was the Victorians who created our Christmas, although they emphasized a generosity of spirit and the "context of social reconciliation" (the historian Ronald Hutton), not its commercial aspects.

So, in keeping with the season, let's say God Bless Us, Every One, and a Merry Christmas to you all.




31 December 2015

Ghoulies and Ghosties

by Eve Fisher

On this Seventh Day of Christmas (seven swans a-swimming...), I'd like to discuss a Victorian tradition:  Ghost Stories for the holidays.
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!
  - Traditional Scots prayer
ghost photo woman scared by apparition
1860s : Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Or, it says in Andy Williams’ classic Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.”

In Victorian England, Christmas Eve (and pretty much the whole Twelve Days of Christmas) was the traditional time to tell ghost stories.  People would rake up the fire, sit there with their mulled wine and roasting chestnuts, and scare the bejeezus out of each other.  M. R. James, the provost of Kings College, Cambridge, had a tradition of inviting students and friends to his rooms on Christmas Eve where he'd read them a ghost story he'd written. Charles Dickens published ghost stories every year at Christmas in his periodical, All the Year Round, as did other contributors like Wilkie Collins.  And, of course, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in which four ghosts are prominent characters (you have to include Jacob Marley!), and the Ghost of Christmas Future was supposed to give you nightmares.

But if you really want nightmares, read Dickens' The Chimes.  Toby Veck, a poor ticket-porter, and his daughter, Meg - about to be married to Richard, a young laborer - are confronted by Alderman Wick.
Alderman Wick and company
‘You are going to be married, you say,’ pursued the Alderman.  ‘Very unbecoming and indelicate in one of your sex!  But never mind that.  After you are married, you’ll quarrel with your husband and come to be a distressed wife.  You may think not; but you will, because I tell you so.  Now, I give you fair warning, that I have made up my mind to Put distressed wives Down.  So, don’t be brought before me.  You’ll have children—boys.  Those boys will grow up bad, of course, and run wild in the streets, without shoes and stockings.  Mind, my young friend!  I’ll convict ’em summarily, every one, for I am determined to Put boys without shoes and stockings, Down.  Perhaps your husband will die young (most likely) and leave you with a baby.  Then you’ll be turned out of doors, and wander up and down the streets.  Now, don’t wander near me, my dear, for I am resolved, to Put all wandering mothers Down.  All young mothers, of all sorts and kinds, it’s my determination to Put Down.  Don’t think to plead illness as an excuse with me; or babies as an excuse with me; for all sick persons and young children (I hope you know the church-service, but I’m afraid not) I am determined to Put Down.  And if you attempt, desperately, and ungratefully, and impiously, and fraudulently attempt, to drown yourself, or hang yourself, I’ll have no pity for you, for I have made up my mind to Put all suicide Down!  If there is one thing,’ said the Alderman, with his self-satisfied smile, ‘on which I can be said to have made up my mind more than on another, it is to Put suicide Down.  So don’t try it on.  That’s the phrase, isn’t it?  Ha, ha! now we understand each other.’
And things only get worse from there.  Poor Meg!  Poor Toby!  And when Toby, looking for solace on a cold New Year's Eve, goes up to the church to hear the bells, and falls to his death, his ghost is shown a future complete with his darling Meg now abandoned, starving, with a newborn, no hope or mercy anywhere on earth, and racing for the river...  Let's just say that The Chimes is so bleak that it makes Cormac McCarthy look like a comedian.  Yes, Dickens does supply the mandatory happy ending, but until then...  it's a treatise on the ultimate result of Victorian economic theory (primarily Utilitarianism and Malthusianism), and a legal system designed to eliminate the poor the hard way. This fun read for the holidays is available for free here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/653/653-h/653-h.htm

But not all ghost stories were so obviously political or polemical.  Most were just designed to scare people.  The above mentioned M. R. James was very good at this. He said that every ghost story must "put the reader into the position of saying to himself, 'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'"  Allow me to recommend "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come To You, My Lad" (http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/150).   "Rats" isn't bad, either.

FS Coburn. Photograph: British Library/Robana via Getty

And The Paris Review has a great blog post listing five forgotten Christmas Ghost Stories (check it out here http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/19/ghosts-on-the-nog/).

Why did the Victorians love ghost stories at Christmas? Well, it was dark and cold and beside a good fire was the place to be.  The nights are extremely long, and all the old, pre-Christian traditions knew that the veil between here and there was very thin around the winter's solstice.  And Christmas Eve - with Christmas Day coming almost immediately - was a time when ghosts could walk the earth and finish their unsettled business, relatively safely (for humans at least).

There was also, among the wealthy, the little issue of gas lighting, still in its infancy, which emitted carbon monoxide, which had a tendency to make people see things.  And, sticking with the wealthy, let's not forget that, in a Victorian world where almost everyone had servants, and yet those servants were expected to be almost invisible, leading to houses with separate entrances, staircases, even hallways for servants, people would be unexpectedly popping in and out of dark places on a regular basis.  Were they always people?

And the poor, huddled around their fire and their candlelight, both sending shadows and ripples of shadows, flickering in the never-ending drafts (there's a reason people - even skinflint Ebenezer - had bedcurtains), squeaky windows, rattling latches, shuddering shutters, and corners dark as the devil's foot...

Besides, people just like to be scared.

Speaking of which (and part of what sparked this blog), I recently read a ghost story by Dylan Thomas called The Followers.  I can't find a free e-text, but go check out Dylan Thomas' Complete Short Stories, and enjoy a story that starts out perfectly normal, nothing strange going on, as two young lads try to find something to do on a dull, boring, wet night in a city...  I can assure you, it adheres to Mr. James basic rule:  'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'

But it's still not as scary as "The Monkey's Paw":  Keep the lights on.

Happy New Year!

22 July 2015

The Case Against Charles Dickens

Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis
by Louis Willis

I won the prize of a proof copy of the novel, Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis, based on my comment on his April 12 post. I promised Leigh that I would write a review of the novel for SleuthSayers. By the time you read this review, the novel will have been published in the UK and the US. I didn’t read the reviews of the novel in the June 2015 issue of The Atlantic or the July 19 issue of the NY Times Book Review for fear they would influence my opinion.

Death and Mr Pickwick is based on the life of the 19th century caricaturist Robert Seymour. Mr Jarvis’s purpose is to correct the accepted version of who created Mr Pickwick and the pickwickian characters, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) or Robert Seymour (1798-1836). He argues that the accepted version is wrong. For him, "Seymour is THE key person in Dickens’s career; and in my forthcoming novel, Death and Mr Pickwick, which tells the story of the creation and subsequent history of The Pickwick Papers, Seymour is the main character."

I don’t challenge Mr. Jarvis’s argument. I leave that up to the Dickensian scholars. My concern is how the novel reads as fiction based on the lives of real people.

 Robert Seymour
The novel is a biography of Seymour and a history of The Pickwick Papers using fictional techniques. In the framed narrative an old man who calls himself Mr Inbelicate is the inside narrator. He hires a young man, whom he nicknames Inscriptino, to write a book based on the documents, pictures, and drawings in Mr Inbelicate’s possession to correct the accepted version of who created Mr Pickwick and the pickwickian characters. Scripty, as Mr Inbelicate calls him, is the outside narrator. He tells the story of how the old man would explain the history behind each document and each picture. After Mr Inbelicate dies, Scripty reads his narrative of the history of The Pickwick Papers and the amazing effect the novel had on readers (Inbelicate is a compositor’s error of indelicate and Inscriptino of inscription).

In the accepted version, Robert Seymour might have played a minor part, but Dickens created Mr Pickwick. Mr Inbelicate claims Dickens, while not saying so outright, with help of his friend John Forster, used evasive techniques in prefaces to the various editions of the novel to deny Robert Seymour’s contribution in creating Mr Pickwick. The publishers Edward Chapman and William Hall also denied Seymour’s contribution and refused to pay his widow and two children what they were due based on the success of The Pickwick Papers. Since Seymour burned all his papers, including the contract he had with them, the widow could not prove her husband created Mr Pickwick. Dickens’s conscience bothered him when he learned the widow and children were living in poverty. Forster persuaded him not to help the family. However, Dickens did give the widow five pounds.

According to Mr Inbelicate, Seymour suggested such to Chapman and Hall and they accepted the idea of the gullible man who would wander through England with friends. They would form the Pickwick club and report on their exploits. Chapman, Hall, and Seymour searched for a writer to provide the words that would accompany the pictures. After reading Sketches by Boz, Seymour agreed to accept Dickens, who was familiar with Seymour’s work. In their first meeting, things got a little tense when Dickens commented on and altered one of Seymour’s drawings. Seymour didn’t mind the criticism but was not happy with Dickens’s altering the drawing.

In their second meeting, Dickens insisted Seymour draw pictures to his specifications. He also suggested Seymour redraw a clown that Seymour had previously drawn to be included in an episode. Seymour refused. He returned home, burned all his papers, and committed suicide. Before Seymour’s confrontation with Dickens, Chapman and Hall decided Dickens’s writings rather that Seymour’s drawings would sell the magazine. Thus, Dickens took ownership of the Pickwick project before the first installment was published.

The Pickwick Papers was first serialized. The magazine sold more copies after Dickens added the bootblack Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick’s Sancho Panza. After the final installment, the issues were collected into the novel that brought Dickens fame. If it weren’t for Dickens, Mr Pickwick would have died with Seymour. The case against Dickens is not that he stole the idea but that he refused to acknowledge Seymour’s part in creating Mr Pickwick. Dickens clearly played a major role breathing life into Mr Pickwick.

I enjoyed the novel not for its plausible argument that Robert Seymour created Mr Pickwick but for its depiction of Dickensian-like characters, real and invented, and the nineteenth century milieu. The characters and humorous situations in which they find themselves are a joy to read. The novel does the one thing fiction must do. It entertains, something it probably would not do if it were a scholarly treatise. Reading the 800 pages was well worth my time and effort.

30 April 2015

Useful and Necessary Knowledge

by Janice Law

I just finished a novel, always a satisfying moment, even if the product never quite lives up to the initial inspiration. Novels begin in careless rapture with hints of genius, run into complications toward the middle, and end, if one is lucky, somewhere in the realistic realm of ‘good enough.’

But this one, being set in the 1920‘s, got me to thinking about how one gets information for historical novels and the differences in what is needed for history, on the one hand, and a story, on the other. In my opinion, it comes down to minutia, and while I don’t like to criticize historians, whose ranks I’ve joined on occasion, they usually skimp of the day-to-day details that are the blood and bones of any novel.

Money, in particular, is always tricky. Not only did earlier eras have different coinage – the UK went decimal within living memory – but it is extremely hard to determine equivalents in today’s money. You don’t need to be a Jane Austen or a Karl Marx to feel that lacking a grasp of how much and what value leaves a gap in a manuscript.

Of course, historians venture into the realm of economics, but they tend to like the big scale and the overall trend. Only occasionally do they include the price of a modest lunch or the cost of a subway ticket or a ride on a mail coach. What would a woman pay for a dress and how much would her seamstress clear? These are often hard to determine.

Consider Weimar, the ill fated Republic and its rowdy capital, Berlin, where I’ve recently been spending time in the service of the very young Francis Bacon. It’s easy to find statistics on everything from housing to political preferences, but I really had to struggle to find out what was served in the local bars, where I’m afraid Francis spent a lot of time. Fortunately a memoir came to the rescue with the menu: pea soup, sausages and beer. Memoirists are notoriously unreliable about their personal history, but I think they’re probably trustworthy on fast food.

Memoirs, particularly Christopher Isherwood’s, were useful in another way, because Berlin suffered extensive bombing damage during the war. It was then divided by the wall, and ,when the wall came down, reintegrated with the east. All this has meant buildings lost, areas redeveloped, old haunts vanished except in the mind of the memoirist who helpfully resurrects forgotten districts and seedy cafes. Sometimes, though, one must finesse a problem. I read whole books on the so called combat leagues, the groups of political activists that slid from providing bodyguards to fueling street warfare. Their motives, their sociological backgrounds, their financial support, their aims, their resentments were all laid out in neat columns. But what about the colors of their shirts? Except for the Brownshirts, no dice.

Of course, occasionally one comes across a volume that seems written with other writers in mind. I can recommend two. Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic, the Erotic Worlds of Weimar Berlin is beyond lurid but the vocabulary and the venues, not to mention the goings-on of the notorious sex trade, are all usefully laid out. With pictures. Want to know who patronized the Cozy Corner, the “boy bar” beloved of Auden and Isherwood? Care to take a gander at the Eldorado, the great transvestite club and cabaret? Gordon has the info and the illustrations. A picture really is worth a thousand words in this case.

Not related to Weimar but useful for anyone who cares to dip into the Victorian world is Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Divided up by topic ranging from transportation to marriage to money to etiquette, it can help you distinguish a barouche from a victoria, and a ladies maid from a housemaid. A useful volume indeed.

But sometimes there are no useful memoirs or frivolous historians. Then the writer must improvise.

Soon after we moved to eastern Connecticut, I was asked to write a local history, and wanting to do something a little different, I came up with the idea of ending each chapter with short blurbs like what’s for dinner? what did they do for fun? travel time to some local town or attraction? how were they educated? and how did they die?

You can probably guess which ones were easy to discover, New England being proud of its education and mortality being popular with medical historians. Travel was another matter. I wound up checking with a local cross country coach to estimate how long it would take a tribal runner to cover rough ground and with the university equestrian center for the time it would take a decent horse to make a ten mile journey on dirt roads.

Historians need the big picture, bless them, but novelists have – or should have – their own big, or little, picture in mind. What we need are the details, the minutia and the ephemera that allow us to conjure the ghosts of the past.

12 April 2015

Death and Mr Pickwick

Stephen Jarvis
Stephen Jarvis
Mention Sidney Paget or John Tenniel and aficionados of Sherlock Holmes and Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories recognise the original artists who illustrated the characters we know and love today. But bring up Robert Seymour and puzzled looks abound. A new author, Stephen Jarvis, intends to change that.

I’m not sure how I stumbled across Stephen Jarvis, although Velma claims credit. Once I realized he was writing about Charles Dickens and Pickwick, I had to know more. Indeed, we’ve written about Pickwick’s manservant, Sam Weller, and when I realised a mystery was involved, I asked Mr Jarvis to write an article for us. After you read today’s column, take a moment to read about Jarvis
 and his wife’s 2005 detective work discovering Robert Seymour’s tombstone.

Stephen Jarvis was born in Essex. After dropping out of graduate studies at Oxford University, he quickly tired of his office job and began doing unusual things every weekend and writing about them for The Daily Telegraph. These activities included learning the flying trapeze, walking on red-hot coals, getting hypnotized to revisit past lives, and entering the British Snuff-Taking Championship. Death and Mr. Pickwick is his first novel. He lives in Berkshire, England.

— Leigh Lundin

Death and Mr Pickwick


by Stephen Jarvis

Charles Dickens left behind two mysteries when he died: the well-known mystery of the ending to his unfinished last novel Edwin Drood, and the much lesser-known mystery of his illustrator Robert Seymour, who shot himself shortly after starting work on Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Why did Seymour kill himself? What happened when he and Dickens met? And what role did Seymour play in the creation of The Pickwick Papers? It is astonishing, when you consider all the thousands of academic papers, articles and books that have been written about Charles Dickens’s life and works – often on the most obscure subjects - that so little has been written about Seymour. For me, Seymour is THE key person in Dickens’s career; and in my forthcoming novel, Death and Mr Pickwick, which tells the story of the creation and subsequent history of The Pickwick Papers, Seymour is the main character.

But who was Robert Seymour?

Robert Seymour
Robert Seymour (1798-1836)
self portrait
Seymour was the most prolific cartoonist of his era, and he drew literally thousands of pictures. He was best-known for his political cartoons – even though Dickensians usually refer to Seymour as a “sporting artist”. Actually, his sporting pictures represented just a small fraction of his overall output. In his own time, Seymour was famous: he was called “the Shakespeare of caricature” and “the ubiquitous Seymour”. And yet today, Seymour is so little-known that I have been in shops that sell antique prints and even the proprietor has not heard of the artist. You would almost think that people deliberately want to hush up Seymour’s life – and indeed, there are some indications that that is so.

In the 1920s, an American called Dr Samuel Lambert came over to England, to investigate Seymour’s role in The Pickwick Papers. My opening statement about the two mysteries that Dickens left is a homage to Lambert, for that is what he said himself. Lambert approached the Dickens Fellowship in the course of his research – and soon discovered that the Fellowship was most unwilling to talk to him. What’s more, an attack on Lambert was published shortly afterwards, in the Fellowship’s journal The Dickensian, stating that the idea that Seymour had any significant role in the creation of Pickwick was “exploded long ago” and was not even worthy of serious consideration.

When I read that piece in The Dickensian, it sounded to me that the Fellowship was trying to steer people away from Seymourian research. A possible explanation is that Seymour may have been gay. In the 1920s, there were taboos about even mentioning homosexuality – and the idea of a gay man being associated with Dickens, and with the largely male cast of The Pickwick Papers, would in all likelihood have horrified Dickensians of that time.

Seymour’s wrapper design
for original serialisation
of The Pickwick Papers
But there is also the question of the role that Seymour played in the creation of The Pickwick Papers. At first, when I started doing research for the novel, I believed the statements that Dickens, his publisher Edward Chapman (of the firm Chapman and Hall, the publishers of Pickwick) and his biographer John Forster, made about the origins of Pickwick. In essence, they stated that Seymour had an idea for the adventures of a club of cockney sportsmen, called the Nimrod Club - but that Dickens overturned this idea, and that only vestiges of Seymour’s original plan remained, in the form of the sporting tastes of the character Mr Winkle. Moreover, Edward Chapman claimed that he was responsible for the visual image of the novel’s main character, Mr Pickwick, and that Seymour had followed instructions to base the image on the appearance of a man that Chapman knew. In other words, the role of Seymour was minimal. However, as I continued my research, I came to realise that this supposed origin simply could not be correct.

Contradictions started to emerge, and there was a complete lack of evidence for the statements made by Dickens and his associates. Also, contemporaries gave a rather different account of Pickwick’s beginnings – for instance, an engraver called Ebenezer Landells, who was working for Chapman and Hall at the very time Pickwick was published, said that Seymour created Sam Weller. The artist Robert Buss – who temporarily replaced Seymour as the Pickwick illustrator after the suicide – said that Seymour had created Mr Pickwick and the members of the Pickwick Club. Also, there were reports in the press that Dickens was “writing up” to Seymour’s pictures – the opposite of what Dickens later claimed. Nor were these simply wild allegations. If one looks at Seymour’s output, one can indeed find prototypes of the likes of Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller. And when I looked into the background of John Forster, I discovered firstly that he had written a number of historical works, and secondly that he had no reputation as a historian – he was quite prepared to fabricate material, and be fiercely partisan.

But what of the suicide? Most Dickensians simply deny that Dickens had anything whatsoever to do with Seymour’s death. They point to the artist’s suicide note, in which Seymour said he blamed no- one and that the suicide was down to his own “weakness and infirmity”. One Dickensian even said to me that Seymour “exonerated” Dickens in that note. Another distinguished Dickensian told me that “we must look elsewhere” for the causes of the suicide, not towards Dickens. What the Dickensians don’t point out, though, is that Seymour returned from a meeting with Dickens in a state of extreme emotional distress – and he immediately burnt his papers and correspondence about Pickwick.

Mr Pickwick Addresses the Club
by Robert Seymour
Another fact not usually told is the nature of the law surrounding suicide at this time. The law distinguished between suicide and felo de se, or self-murder: if an inquest decided that a suicide was a rational act, that is felo de se, then it would have the most terrible consequences for the victim and his family. In the first place, the victim would be denied a Christian burial, but also the victim’s family would instantly be reduced to destitution – because the Crown would take away all the victim’s property, leaving the wife and family to inherit nothing. So of course in a suicide note, Seymour wouldn’t blame Dickens - he would be unlikely to blame anyone at all – because if he had done so, he would be handing the inquest evidence that his death was felo de se, a rational escape from the problems of life. Seymour’s real feelings were communicated by the way he left his etching plates for his last drawings for Pickwick: He turned the plates to the wall, as though they disgusted him. And this was for a project which Seymour’s wife said was the artist’s “pet idea”. An idea which – until he came into contact with Dickens – was of immense personal importance to Seymour.

You will notice also that I said that Seymour returned from a meeting with Dickens. Not the meeting. For Dickens claimed that he met Seymour only once in his life. That, too, I believe to be a lie.

I am not trying to denigrate Dickens’s abilities as a writer. But I do say that he did not tell the truth about Seymour and he tried to pass off Seymour’s ideas as his own.

The Pickwick Papers catapulted Dickens to global fame and it went on to become the greatest literary phenomenon in history: it was the most famous novel in the world for almost a hundred years, with a circulation that was exceeded probably only by the Bible. And The Pickwick Papers would not have happened without Robert Seymour.

It is surely time to acknowledge Seymour’s great significance in the life and career of Charles Dickens. Death and Mr Pickwick sets the record straight.

Death and Mr Pickwick will be published on 21st May 2015 by Random House (in the UK) and on 23rd June by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA).

Further information can be found at DeathAndMrPickwick.com where there are also links to the publishers’ sites for pre-ordering.



Exciting news!

The publisher, Farrar Straus & Giroux, will provide two ARCs as prizes to SleuthSayers readers. ARCs are Advance Reader Copies, bound uncorrected proofs, available now in advance of the publishing release in May (UK) and June (US). Among readers, ARCs are considered collectors’ items. Not only are they rare and unusual and suggest you know someone who knows someone, they often give insight into the writing and editing process. For our readers, these come with a clever bookmark and a special address from the head of FSG.

Author Stephen Jarvis will magically select at random two non-SleuthSayers (I hear the sighs) from amongst the commenters. Here is where we need your help: Our blogging software doesn’t provide an invisible way for you to give us your email address without the risk of receiving spam offers for fake Rolexes, hangnail implants, and special financial deals from Nigeria. You must do the following so we can contact you from your comment:

  1. Under Choose an identity, select Name/URL
  2. Enter your name in the first field.
  3. Enter your email address with a ‘.’ (dot) substituted for the @.
    • For example, if we replace the ‘at’ symbol with a period/fullstop, Velma’s email address of Velma@SleuthSayers.org becomes Velma.SleuthSayers.org
Good luck!

10 September 2014

Resurrection Men

by David Edgerley Gates


Ian Rankin published his thirteenth Inspector John Rebus novel, RESURRECTION MEN, in 2002. The story is about a group of cops in a rehab facility - sent down in disgrace because of alcohol or domestic violence issues, or they've fallen afoul of Internal Affairs - but being Rankin, the book is of course about a lot more than that. The title is double-edged, a turn of phrase with a dark history.


In the early 19th century, medical schools relied on the dead bodies of executed criminals for anatomy studies. It was illegal, in that day and age, to leave your body to science. but the supply began to dry up, and it gave rise to a trade in fresh cadavers, and the graves of the newly buried were dug up by body-snatchers, who sold the dead for necropsies. They were known as Resurrection Men. 



Two of these entrepreneurs, Burke and Hare, resident in Edinburgh in late 1827, improved their market share by skipping exhumation and turning to murder. Their victims were the derelict, the sickly, women of the street - people who wouldn't be missed. Over the course of the next year, they killed at least sixteen people, and shopped their corpses to a surgeon named Knox, to use in his anatomical lectures. How much Knox knew, or suspected, is an open question, but certainly he turned a blind eye. After they were caught, Hare turned King's Evidence, in return for immunity, and Burke was hanged. His body, as it happens, was then publicly dissected at the University of Edinburgh. Knox, the doctor, was never prosecuted.


"A wretch who isn't worth a farthing while alive," Sir Walter Scott remarked, "becomes a valuable article when knocked on the head and carried to an anatomist." Scott was being ironic about economies of scale, but as far as I know, he never used this incident as material. Dickens wasn't so shy. One of
his characters in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Jerry Cruncher, is explicitly a grave-robber. And in 1884, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a story called "The Body-Snatcher," which stops just short of naming Knox as a knowing accomplice. Stevenson's DR.
JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a reimagining of the Whitechapel murders, and there's been some conflation, in books and movies, of Burke and Hare's crimes with Jack the Ripper. The serial killer, as a figure of fear, is a mid-Victorian invention, I believe. Not that somebody might not claim many victims, but that he does it for the sick thrill.


Psychopathology wasn't well-understood, in the 1800's - the term didn't even come into general use until the early 20th century. One of the narrative engines of David Morrell's gripping recent novel, MURDER AS A FINE ART, which takes place in 1854 London, is the lack of any practical forensic approach, and the inability to process, let alone inhabit, the mindset of a serial murderer. It's not simply an unknown, but unimaginable, like an empty space on an old map, which simply states: Here Be Monsters. Burke and Hare took up their trade for the easy money, but the seeming
effortlessness of the murders gives you pause. They displayed no remorse. Burke, in fact, before he went to the scaffold, asked whether Dr. Knox would give him the five pounds he was owed for his last victim, so Burke could buy a new suit of clothes to be hanged in. 

"To know my deed, 'twere best not to know myself," Macbeth says. Burke and Hare apparently avoided any kind of self-knowledge. They denied the humanity of the men and women, and at least one child, that they murdered, but did they deny their own? Neither one of them were crazy, so far as we know, although they were probably a few cards short of a full deck. They were paid five to ten pounds for each dead body they delivered. In today's numbers, between six and twelve hundred bucks. Not too shabby, if you're desecrating a grave in the wee hours, but for a capital crime? The odd thing about these guys is that they were very far from the pathology of the Ripper. There was actually nothing out of the ordinary about them. They were simply dumb enough to get caught.

Maybe that's the thing. It isn't that Burke and Hare live on in our imagination because they were criminal deviants who've evaded detection for 125 years - is the Ripper case solved? More, perhaps,
that Burke and Hare touched a popular nerve at the time, and that a writer like Dickens or Stevenson gives them shelf life. (Burke's skeleton is still on display at the Edinburgh Medical School.) No, the dread lies in the open grave. 

http://www.davidedgerleygates.com/

24 December 2013

Dickens' A Christmas Carol – at the Movies


by Dale C. Andrews


Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.  
       As I wrote in this space two years ago, so begins one of the most popular novellas in English literature. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published just before Christmas in 1843, rushed to the press since it had only been completed several weeks earlier by Dickens. That previous article discussed the back-story of this little classic in some detail, but today lets look in the other direction. While many of us read this slim volume annually as part of our holiday ritual, it is safe to say that many more revisit the story of Ebenezer Scrooge in versions of the story that have been adapted for the screen. 

Tom Ricketts as Ebenezer Scrooge, 1908
       By Wikipedia’s count, which is close enough for present purposes, there have been 42 filmed versions of A Christmas Carol over a period now spanning more than 100 years: The earliest, a 1908 silent version filmed by Essanay Studios in Chicago, starred an uncredited actor named Tom Ricketts as the miser on the cusp of redemption; the most recent, a 2009 animated motion-capture version of the story filmed in 3-D by Disney and starring a very credited Jim Carrey. Rather than discussing each of the 42, lets cull the list a bit. After all, if you are sitting in front of the tree today with your eggnog while you surf the channels looking for some filmed holiday cheer, there are really only six versions of A Christmas Carol that you are likely to encounter over the air or on DVD. And as to those, here is my holiday viewing guide.

     A Christmas Carol (2009) As referenced above, the most recent filmed version of the story is the ambitious 3-D adaptation released by Disney in 2009. The film, written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a followup to his previous holiday offering The Polar Express. As is so often the case when the adjective “ambitious” is used, in many respects the mighty efforts here have produced a version of Dickens’ story that is flawed. First, and notably, the motion capture technique that Zemeckis uses here and in Polar Express, while visually stunning, is also a bit creepy in its rendition of characters. Second, stated carefully, Jim Carrey is not for everyone. And while he works hard at his Scrooge he is still, well, Jim Carrey, an actor not known for subtle performances. Third, the movie was one of the first of the new batch of 3-D films, and as such it employs some of the older 3-D tricks – like throwing things at the audience – that James Cameron subsequently managed to leave behind a few months later with the release of Avatar. Particularly embarrassing is the prolonged scene in the Third Stave of the story, where Scrooge is shrunk to the size of a mouse and then slides down a roller coaster-like incline. When that comes on, think of it as a commercial and act accordingly. (In other words, leave the room for another drink.) The movie does have its moments, however. When not reaching for gimmicks, the 3-D can be beautiful, even stunning, And Zemeckis’ version provides an interesting new perspective for the story, situating Scrooge and the ghost of Jacob Marley above much of the action, as they stare down through the transparent floor of Scrooge’s rooms. The film received mixed reviews, although Roger Ebert gave it four stars. 

       A Christmas Carol (1999) is graced by the presence of Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart is not only a gifted actor, he is also a long-time fan of Dickens’ story and has performed it as a one-man reading in London and New York for years. The film was produced for the TNT television network and is generally available over the air during the holidays. Unlike some other versions, at least the early parts of Stewart’s interpretation have a somber, gloomy aspect to them, much in keeping with the original tale by Dickens. The approach is realistic and I like it. Remember that, as discussed in the earlier SleuthSayers’ article, Dickens intended his story as a morality tale – a condemnation of British child labor laws and the plight of the poor in England in the mid 1800s. Stewart’s version toys with the original a bit, offering up more of the backstory of Scrooge and Marley, but this works well even if it involves scenes not envisioned by Dickens. And in addition to Stewart’s bravura performance as Scrooge, watch for a good turn by Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Also watch for the montage, early on, of various denizens of the English working class -- in mines, on boats, in a lighthouse – setting aside their troubles to sing Silent Night. The scene is original to Dickens, but only rarely portrayed in filmed versions of the story.

     A Christmas Carol (1984) is yet another television adaptation of the story, this time starring the late George C. Scott as Scrooge. The film was produced by Hallmark and aired for years on NBC each December. Like the Stewart version Scott’s Scrooge is depicted in early scenes that are not found in Dickens' novella, including (again) in scenes fleshing out more of the backstory of Scrooge and Marley’s beginnings. Scott was reportedly anxious to participate in this production since he had long believed that Scrooge tended to be portrayed by others in too broad a brush. Scott’s goal was to present Ebenezer Scrooge as a hard man of business, conservative and strict, but not someone who was mean simply for the sake of meanness. Beyond Scott’s performance, highlights of the version include Anthony Walters’ portrayal of Tiny Tim. Unlike some other child actors called upon to breathe life into that role, young Walters actually looks the part – managing to convey innocence, kindness and frailty in his demeanor. Another highlight is the superb performance by the late Edward Woodward (who played the lead in CBS’ The Equalizer) as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Toward the end of Stave Three Part Two of the book, Dickens has the Ghost of Christmas Present turn like quicksilver from jovial to fed-up as he listens to Scrooge.  He looks Scrooge in the eye and delivers the following line: 
'Man,' . . . if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. 
No one, and I mean no one, delivers this line as effectively as Edward Woodward. Essayist Lewis Bayard, writing for Salon.com, called this “the best Christmas Carol ever.” Even if you don’t agree, you can’t go wrong watching this one. 

       Scrooge (1970) This version of our story is the Leslie Bricusse musical adaptation, starring Albert Finney as Scrooge, which was filmed for theatrical release. I like the version, but it is sort of an acquired taste and decidedly not for everyone. Telling a story as a musical, with certain exceptions, becomes an invitation to tell it as a musical comedy, to play it too broadly, and that light air certainly has its effect on the brooding morality of Dickens’ original story. As an example, the most hum-able song in the score, the Oscar nominated Thank You Very Much!, is sung by those who owed Scrooge money as (unbeknownst to Finney, who is joyfully singing along) his coffin is wheeled down the streets of London. Also a bit strange is the casting of Finney, who decidedly is not a singer, although, according to rumor, the score was originally written for another non-singer, Rex Harrison, who ultimately turned down the role. The film also adds an excruciating scene after the Ghost of Christmas Future in which Scrooge falls into his grave and ends up in Hell, as an accountant to Lucifer. The scene, often cut (thankfully!) in the televised version, was likely added to give Alec Guinness, portraying the ghost of Jacob Marley, one more scene. If it is still in the version you find yourself watching, well, think of it as another invitation to refresh your drink. But don't get me wrong, this version does have its treasures, including the best metamorphosis of Scrooge’s door knocker into Marley’s face ever filmed, a wonderful stint by Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Laurence Naismith, who delivers the absolute best Fezziwig of all time.

     Scrooge (1951), released in the United States as A Christmas Carol. Many (myself included) believe that this modest British production is the finest film version of Dickens’ story. Alistair Sims is so perfect as Scrooge – tall, skinny, gaunt, tortured -- that he played the role not just once, but again in 1971 when he voiced it in an animated version of the story. Interestingly, Sims was reportedly a substitute for Basil Rathbone, who was originally to have played the part. But that is mere trivia – Sims' portrayal is perfect and wonderful. The production also is true to Dickens in the sense that it is presented darkly – for me it plays better in the original black and white than in the colorized version of several years ago. In the black and white film one feels, particularly in early scenes, the desolation of the English working class that is at the heart of Dickens’ story. But at the same time Sims’ version goes beyond Dickens in some respects and, like the George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart productions discussed above, delves into Scrooge’s past life with Marley and Scrooge’s evolution into the miser that we meet in Stave One. Watch for a young Patrick MacNee (later John Steed in The Avengers) in those early scenes portraying the young Jacob Marley. 

       A Christmas Carol (1938) This is likely the earliest version of Dickens’ story that you will find on broadcast channels or streaming video. It starred Reginald Owen, who was also a last minute Scrooge substitute, taking the place of Lionel Barrymore who stepped out of the production because of arthritis, but still provided the film’s opening narration. The film is a good rendition and, perhaps, its only fault is that it has a sort of sunny disposition that makes it difficult to find the London of Dickens. Cratchit looks too well fed; Tiny Tim, too big, too healthy.  The two starving children, "Want" and "Ignorance," who Dickens revealed hidden in the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present, do not even appear in this version.  But watch for Leo G. Carroll, who later starred on T.V. as Topper and then as Mr. Waverley on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and who delivers a great ghost of Jacob Marley. Also of interest is the fact that the Cratchits are portrayed by Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, married in real life, and that one of their daughters, in an uncredited role, is played by their real-life daughter June Lockhart, who went on to a career portraying television mothers in both Lassie and Lost in Space

       Finally, if you are looking for a spoken word version of Dickens, over the years there also were many radio adaptations of A Christmas Carol. One of my favorites was a 1975 episode of CBS’ Radio Mystery Theatre starring E.G. Marshal as Scrooge. Marshal was the host of the series and this episode, as an interesting aside, is the only one in which he also appeared (er, was heard) as an actor. This adaptation is available for downloading on line. 

       So if you are looking for a little Dickens this year, you will not go completely wrong with any of the versions discussed above.  And, as noted, there are some real gems out there.

       Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and see you in 2014.
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

16 February 2012

Beginnings



by Janice Law
In writing, as in so much in life, a good start is vital. Unless it’s the dreaded assigned reading, a novel or story with a flat opening is doomed to remain unread and unsold, one reason why so many contemporary mysteries and thrillers start with the page one discovery of a corpse, preferably young, female and formerly beautiful. While a few writers, like Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell) in A Fatal Inversion and Eric Ambler in Journey into Fear, are content to build up a suspenseful atmosphere and trust to their literary skill, most prefer to start with more visceral excitements.

But the modern preference for a scene of unbridled carnage is not the only option. Since February 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens birth, we can profitably look at a writer who was supremely confident about his beginnings – and his audience.

He is famous for opening lines like, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” that begins A Tale of Two Cities, and he was no stranger to exciting openings. In the first pages of Great Expectations, Pip is frightened by the escaped convict, Magwitch, and early on in Our Mutual Friend, a body, yes, indeed, is pulled from the river. There’s also murder and all sorts of brutality in Oliver Twist, and, besides Our Mutual Friend, another genuine mystery in the unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The beginnings of any one of these – or of other Dickens’ works – repay examination, but I will stick with the one I know best, having taught it to many classes of Gen Ed students, most of whom were not enthralled by literature of any type. A Christmas Carol was a happy exception for them, although it lacks the explosions, car chases, and bizarre deaths of the pop fiction and video games they enjoyed.

True, A Christmas Carol does begin with a death or, at least, the fact that Marley, Scrooge’s old partner, is dead. But Dickens doesn’t plunge immediately into the whys and wherefores of Jacob Marley’s demise. He takes time to speculate on whether “dead as a doornail” is really the most appropriate simile, before declaring that it embodies the “wisdom of the ancestors.” He also allows himself an amusing digression on the ghost of Hamlet’s father before he finally turns to the matter at hand, which becomes the immortal description of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Right away, we see two things that appeal to readers. First, an intimate, amusing, and confident voice. Who can resist Dickens’ conviction that we will stay with him through his little jokes and asides? And who wants to resist those energetic sentences with their reckless piling up of nouns and adjectives, all due to be undercut for comic effect. Referring to Marley’s death, he tells us that “Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event...”

And then, there are the characters. When its time to describe Scrooge himself, Dickens really cuts loose, beginning with “Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Most writers would be exhausted right there, but Dickens is just warming up. He has a lot to say about his protagonist, much of it funny, all of it sharp, with no wishy washy adjectives, no cliches.

Every character gets similar treatment. There is no such thing as a faceless man or woman in Dickens. The most minor character is sharply delineated and even the holiday display of fruit and vegetables in Carol get the star treatment. This is writing with energy, and I think even reluctant readers respond to the writer’s irresistible enthusiasm.

Of course the passport of genius crosses many borders, but it is not a bad thing to remember energy in writing as well as pyrotechnics in plot. Especially in mysteries and thrillers, there is a tendency to rush to the exciting scenes or to what, in more innocent times, was called the naughty bits. Action writers tend to remember Elmore Leonard’s famous dictum to leave out the parts readers skip, but anyone who has sampled his dialogue knows that if his sentences are short, his high octane prose has been painstakingly distilled.

So can Dickens two hundred years on give us some tips for beginnings? Yes, he can. Write with confidence in your audience. Build up the energy in the prose as well as in the plot, and remember there is really no such thing as a minor character in the hands of a genius.