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

09 April 2020

Passing the Time


I've seen a lot of memes about how Isaac Newton discovered calculus while he (and everyone else) was under quarantine for plague, and how William Shakespeare wrote the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.  In other words, get off your butt and do something with all this free time!

To which I answer, what free time?  I'm still writing blogs, writing stories, keeping up with friends, paperwork for Alternatives to Violence Project Sioux Falls, writing (with the permission of prison authorities) to the inmates, keeping up with the latest COVID-19 statistics, a daily walk, and then there's laundry, constant reading, making face masks and other survival kit, and the weekly foray to find food and other necessities.  I suppose I could also clean the house a little bit, but let's not go too far.  It might break into my reading.  And at night - a girl's gotta have some fun - there's Netflix!

Meanwhile, let's talk about our reading habits in time of worldwide pandemic.

Daniel Defoe Kneller Style.jpgSome people are reading Albert Camus' The Plague, and I tried, I really tried, to re-read it, but it was just too damned depressing.  On the other hand, Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, is a real nail-biter, but also has a lot of mordant humor to it.  (Which is only what you would expect from the author of Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe.)  The descriptions of "doctors" and treatment alone is enough to make every Monty Python movie look underdone and insipid.
BTW, every day for the last two months I've included the daily COVID-19 statistics in my journal, because (1) I'm an historian and (2) I read Defoe's Journal years ago, and one of the things that always stood out to me were the "daily bills of mortality".  I believe in maintaining the tradition.  In the immortal words of Mr. Defoe, "The bills were simply frightful." 
Meanwhile, if you really want good literature about epidemics, you can't go wrong with the Victorians.  They knew how to write a cracking good yarn, and wallowed in sickbed and deathbed scenes, and all the accompanying pathos and tears, as well as tender moments of love-making on the precipice.  Plus they're long novels.  Like a mini-series, you can binge for quite a while.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House.  - Smallpox.  Besides being the most bitter satire of the legal system, bureaucracy, and greed that's ever been written, some of the major plot twists depend on a smallpox epidemic.  While I - like many others - find our heroine Esther Summerson almost nauseatingly sweet and self-deprecating (it doesn't help that she narrates much of it), there are enough other characters to make this a great novel.  One of them, Harold Skimpole (supposedly based on the real life poet Leigh Hunt), who is a masterpiece:  free of all the duties and accountabilities of life.
Bleakhouse serial cover.jpg
"I covet nothing," said Mr. Skimpole in the same light way. "Possession is nothing to me. Here is my friend Jarndyce's excellent house. I feel obliged to him for possessing it. I can sketch it and alter it. I can set it to music. When I am here, I have sufficient possession of it and have neither trouble, cost, nor responsibility... It's only you, the generous creatures, whom I envy. I envy you your power of doing what you do. It is what I should revel in myself. I don't feel any vulgar gratitude to you. I almost feel as if YOU ought to be grateful to ME for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity. I know you like it. For anything I can tell, I may have come into the world expressly for the purpose of increasing your stock of happiness. I may have been born to be a benefactor to you by sometimes giving you an opportunity of assisting me in my little perplexities. Why should I regret my incapacity for details and worldly affairs when it leads to such pleasant consequences? I don't regret it therefore."  
Who among us has not met a Mr. Skimpole?  And what a hard lesson it is when the Mr. Skimpole does to us or someone we love what he does to Richard Carstairs - bleeding him dry of every penny - and to the poor boy Jo, dying of smallpox:  "You had better turn him out." And when Mr. Jarndyce will not turn him out, but nurse him, Skimpole - we find out later - takes a bribe and turns Jo over to the man sent to find and kill the boy.  And no one kills Skimpole!  Bleak House is worth the reading just for the portrait of Skimpole, the ultimate conman.

Charlotte Yonge, The Trial.  - Scarlet fever (an outgrowth of strep throat) combined with typhus (lice) spreads through the village in the opening chapters, killing tons of people.  In the aftermath, one of the local doctors' families has lost the parents, leaving the oldest son (also a physician) in charge of his 4 siblings.  Unfortunately, Henry Ward is of the pompous ass school of Victorian pater familias, and the conflict between him and his younger brother explodes into violence.  Leonard takes off and goes to work for an old reprobate who's a distant relative.  Old reprobate is killed.  Leonard's arrested and tried, and Henry takes his sisters and leaves for America, where they move to a swampy, disease-filled settlement (that should be named Eden after Martin Chuzzlewit).  What could possibly go wrong?  Especially after Henry leaves his sisters in the settlement to go be a doctor in the Civil War?  Who will rescue them?  What will happen to Leonard?  What does Sir Walter Scott's Marmion have to do with anything?  (BTW - this novel is a sequence to her The Daisy Chain, both of them favorites of C. S. Lewis.)


Group read: Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau | Virago Modern ...Harriet Martineau, Deerbrook.  - Among the earliest Victorian novels (1839), the real plot is about Dr. Hope, who marries one sister while being in [unrequited] love with the other, and how that works out.  About mid-way through the novel, either cholera or typhoid ravage through a town, causing mass deaths and change.  This was the only novel Martineau ever wrote - she was famous for her political economic theories, which she put forward in a series of surprisingly well-written Illustrations on Political EconomyDeerbrook doesn't have much on political economy:  but it does have a lot of authorial musings about hopeless love, what women should do with their lives, and poverty.  Plus a truly evil neighbor who will do anything - ANYTHING - to prevent her brother from marrying the object of Dr.  Hope's true love.

Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth.  - Ruth is a fallen woman, but pure of heart, who redeems herself  by nursing her seducer during a typhus epidemic.


But, if you're tired of morality and uplifting thoughts, or even thoughts about death at all, why not go further back and dig out a copy of Boccaccio's Decameron Tales?  Ten young people (7 women, 3 men) flee plague-stricken Florence and go out in the countryside (yes, they're young; yes, they have money; yes, they have servants; think all the New Yorkers who fled to the Hamptons), where every day they eat and drink and sit out in the garden, each one telling a tale.



They are almost all tales of love, trade (they're from Florence, and they're all merchants' children) many bawdy, most surprisingly (?) anti-clerical (in a time when there was no alternative to The Church), some tragic, most witty, and very, very, very entertaining.  Most are very old, retold by Boccaccio for his modern audience (everything was modern once upon a time).  And - if you're ever short of a plot, you could do worse than browse through The Decameron.  (Or Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron, which often skewered her contemporaries...)

And let's not forget Chaucer, who lifted a number of his Canterbury Tales from The Decameron, so why not read that, too?  Read about Chanticleer and Pertelote (The Nun's Priest's Tale), The Wife of Bath's Tale ("Alas that ever love was sin!"), the Cook - too drunk to tell his tale; the Knight's Tale (a classic tale of chivalrous love), and the battling Reeve and Miller (whose tales show a miller and a reeve, respectively, being bamboozled and cuckolded).  And on and on and on:

Thus swyved was the carpenteres wyf,
For al his keping and his Ialousye;
And Absolon hath kist hir nether yë;
And Nicholas is scalded in the toute.
This tale is doon, and god save al the route!
- The Miller's Tale

All of these and more are available for free at Gutenberg! (http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page).

And most are available for darn near free on Kindle and Nook.


19 December 2019

Angelic Voices


by Eve Fisher

'Tis the week before Christmas, and the rituals have begun:

Image result for vintage ceramic christmas treeWe put up our Christmas tree.  (Forty years ago, it was real; twenty years ago, it was artificial; the last five years it's been vintage ceramic!) 

We watch our favorite Christmas movies:  We're No Angels (the original 1955 version); The Man Who Came to Dinner; Reborn; Scrooge (1951, Alistair Sim); The Muppet Christmas Carol (I'm a sentimentalist at heart); The Bishop's Wife (1947, Loretta Young & Cary Grant); National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation; Blackadder's Christmas Carol; and all the Christmas Specials from Last of the Summer Wine.

We go driving around at night and look at Christmas lights.  Falls Park does a great light show; downtown's pretty; and there are all these old houses over by McKennan Park and elsewhere that have wonderful decorations.

Winter Wonderland at Falls Park
Sioux Falls - Falls Park's "Winter Wonderland"

And we go to various musical concerts.  Some years, Handel's Messiah, or Christmas at the Cathedral, or any of a variety of musical Christmas offerings.  This year we went to hear the Singing Boys of Sioux Falls at East Side Lutheran Church.  I hadn't heard of them before, and while I knew that there were men's choirs in Sioux Falls, I hadn't known there was a boys' choir.  So we went, and it was wonderful - beautiful music, beautiful voices, beautiful church.

Now boys' choirs developed in the Middle Ages, when women were barred from participating in any sort of performing arts in mixed company in churches, and they had to get sopranos from somewhere.
NOTE:  Later, of course, women would also be barred from participating in theaters, which leads to the crazy plots in Shakespeare, et al, in which a man playing a woman in disguise as a man courts another man playing a woman, who sometimes pulls a double switcheroo, and basically good luck keeping up with who's playing what when.  It makes our current touchiness about gender roles look pretty strange.
Anyway, it wasn't until the mid-1800s that women were allowed to join church choirs, which is why boys' choirs remained strong well past the Victorian Age. Cathedrals had cathedral schools for young boy singers, where a good voice could get you an education and perhaps even a career where you weren't plowing fields or living on the streets with Fagin.

And there were plenty of boys to choose from. This was because (1) people had a lot more children before birth control and (2) children didn't hit puberty until their mid to late teens because most of them were malnourished. Poverty was a huge factor. Most people were poor. Very poor.

We tend to forget how prevalent poverty was, is, and how it was one of the major subjects of most Christmas stories. Until now. Probably the last Christmas special on TV that centered on the poor - with any sort of accuracy - was the precursor to The Waltons, 1971's The Homecoming:  A Christmas Story.

But almost all Victorian Christmas stories were about the poor.  That or ghost stories (see my blog post https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/12/ghoulies-and-ghosties.html) .  Part of the reason why Dickens' A Christmas Carol became such a runaway bestseller is that it combined the two.


Christmas (12 days of it, thank you) with ghosts, and the poor, and sometimes they died! As in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl - because no Victorian ever shied away from death, even the death of children. Especially the death of children. Think Little Nell, Tiny Tim (until Scrooge's repentance), Beth March, Smike, as well as a host of lesser known victims of the Victorians' love of a good cry, especially at Christmas. And well past Victorian times. There's O Henry's The Gift of the Magi.  There's Mary Mapes Dodge's Hans Brinker, or the Silver SkatesLittle Women opens with this famous sequence:
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
"We've got father and mother and each other," said Beth contentedly, from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly,—  "We haven't got father, and shall not have him for a long time." She didn't say "perhaps never," but each silently added it, thinking of father far away, where the fighting was.
Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone,—
"You know the reason mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for every one; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can't do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don't;" and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.
And then Marmee shows up and the girls go off to get the real Christmas spirit by helping the Hummels, German immigrants who are desperately poor, crammed 6 in one room, with a dead father and a very sick mother.

Besides the actual story of the birth of Jesus, i.e., the Incarnation (which most Victorian authors considered too sacred to write directly about), this was what Christmas used to be all about - helping the poor.  But any more it seems that modern Christmas movies are either comedies (increasingly raunchy) or the neverending Hallmark offerings, which specialize in Christmas Princess and other glittery tales of beautiful young women meeting the perfect hunky guy in the perfect snow-covered site - well, I think this video sums it up best:




But back to boys' choirs.  Most of the old 1940s/1950s movies (The Bishop's Wife, Going My Way, and The Bells of St. Mary's) showcased the Mitchell Singing Boys, led by Robert Mitchell from 1934-2000.  (Mr. Mitchell himself lived from 1912-2009!).  The example below is from The Bishop's Wife.



Today, boys' choirs are up against increasing affluence.  Frankly, boys today get a lot more to eat, so the boys go through puberty earlier and earlier.  This means that the general age of boys' choirs have decreased.  And a 10 year old can't be expected to have the same musical ability, understanding, and musical ability as a 15 year old.  The result is that modern boys' choirs have greater turnover, and are often singing much less complicated music than they used to.

Meanwhile, let's listen to the Vienna's Boys' Choir from 1957, with (according to YouTube) boy soloist Michael Paddy Quilligan.  And have a very Merry Christmas, with or without ghosts!







09 February 2019

True Lies


by Stephen Ross

I've been thinking lately about what I do for fun (and a little bit of profit). I like to make stuff up. I routinely write about people and events, conflicts and conundrums, and barely a word of it is true. My stories are mostly cut from the whole cloth of my imagination.

And that said, people read what I write and believe every word.

Bless them. Note: Believe is a fluid term.

I'm no exception. Every writer of FICTION is granted this privilege. And it's a privilege we work with carefully, because if we stretch our fiction too much, too far, or too absurdly, it'll break. The reader will snort with derision and hurl our writing across the room at the wall; or worse, into the publishing house's rejection receptacle.

When people pick up a work of fiction, 99% of them will read and accept it, happily allowing for its inherent falseness; and as long as the writer plays more-or-less by the rules (of whatever field, genre he/she is writing in), everything will be fine.

But, of course, there is that 1% of folk who will pick up a book and actually believe the whole thing is a true story, i.e., not made up.

My percentages are also fiction, but based on a reasonable assumption. People really do send death threats to actors who play nasty villains on TV and in movies. And to pluck an excellent example from history; people really did cry when (PLOT SPOILER!) Little Nell died at the end of of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. In fact, it's been said that readers in New York stormed the docks (in 1841) when the ship arrived bearing the last installment, shouting to the sailors, "Is Little Nell alive?"

Alive?

"Little Nell" perhaps better demonstrates the power of a good story, rather than complete acceptance of a work of fiction in blind faith. But, you know, there really are people out there who totally, utterly, unquestioningly, believe there's a school in Scotland called Hogwarts. Right now, I have at least one friend who's saying, What the hell are you talking about, Stephen?!? You know who you are.

Liking a good story is why we will happily suspend our disbelief. We are consciously aware it's made up, but we allow for that. In fact, the more we like a story, the greater is our ability to suspend our disbelief, regardless of how ludicrous the story might be.

(I am very tempted to segue into politics at this point, but I will not.)

Liking a good story is part of human nature. We've been liking a good story since man could talk and could string enough sentences together to say something interesting. And let's face it, there wasn't much else to do of an evening in prehistoric times, when sitting around the fire, after having swallowed the last mouthful of woolly mammoth. There was nowhere to plug in the TV, to start with, and the wi-fi was lousy.


There is something innate in the human mind that can easily latch onto, like, and believe in a good set of characters and reasonable plot. Were there not, books, plays, movies, and so on, would not be a thing. We'd still be sitting around the fire. Counting the stars.

Speaking as a writer, there's something nice about being able to send made-up ideas into the heads of other people. To make them see things that don't exist. To make them feel. And to keep doing that, possibly forever, or until the stars burn out. Think about it, every time someone picks up one of Dickens' books, the ideas of a man who's been dead for nearly 150 years come through clearly into the reader's head. Natürliche, you need to be someone as good as Dickens to achieve that kind of longevity.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, talked about this. From memory, I think he referred to it as a form of telepathy—transmitting ideas from the writer's mind into that of the reader's, with, some times, years apart between the writing and the reading.

Nice.

Anyway, back to the next chapter, and making up more stuff.


Thanks to @nubikini for the photo!




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24 December 2018

The Christmas Spirit


by Steve Liskow    



"Brown Eyes Crying in the Rain," my take on the Ghostly Hitchhiker legends, appears in the upcoming issue of Occult Detective Quarterly. It didn't occur to me until a few days ago how appropriate that is. Tomorrow is, of course, Christmas Day.


The British have told ghost stories as part of the holiday celebration for centuries, apparently because the winter solstice is only a few days earlier and the Christians co-opted December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and overshadow the Pagan Saturnalia. Ghosts presumably walk more freely on the longest night of the year, which celebrates the death and re-birth of the sun.

Oliver Cromwell, never the life of the party, didn't want Christmas celebrated as a holiday. He wanted the workers to labor for another long and underpaid shift. During his tenure as ruler of the Commonwealth, he even banned Christmas carols. Barrel of laughs, that Ollie.

But the ghost story is still alive and well (Is that an oxymoron?), and it may have reached its peak of popularity in the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens published short novels for the season, many of them ghostly tales. His most famous is A Christmas Carol. Does anyone even know how many films and theatrical adaptations of that one work exist? My wife and I attended a stage version at the Hartford Stage Company this year, where it has been an annual event for twenty years. It still sells out the thirty performances.

Other British writers have offered ghost stories, too. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1611), Prince Mamillius says, "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/ Of sprites and goblins." We never hear the tale because Mamillius dies before intermission. Mary Shelly Wrote Frankenstein when Byron challenged her and others to write a ghost story, and she dated the beginning of the book in mid-December. Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell revived the faltering tradition along with Dickens. Algernon Blackwood, Conan Doyle and M. R. James carried it on.

I don't remember Poe setting any of his stories at Christmas (I can't find my copy of "The Devil in the Belfry" on my shelf. Is that set at yuletide?), but Henry James sets the telling of The Turn of the Screw around the fire during a Christmas celebration.

Remember the popular (Well, in my day...) Andy Williams song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?" The third verse ends with "...There'll be scary ghost stories/ And tales of the glories..."

I seldom set stories around a holiday, the only exception being "Santa and the Shortstop," which appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine a few years ago.

But who knows? A little more eggnog and maybe I'll be in the spirit to write another ghost story for next year...

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fright.

06 December 2018

A Corporate Christmas Carol


by Eve Fisher

It's December, and we've had a lot of news to deal with over the last year, so some things have just gone under the radar.  But it's time to let some of those rats out of the woodwork, and the current scene with nursing homes around the country - including 19 of them here in South Dakota - has enough rats to kill every cat in the country.  That and make Ebenezer Scrooge wonder why he ever listened to the Ghost of Christmas Future when there was money to be made out of starving old folks.

Now I'll admit, I'm fascinated by nursing homes.  My parents lived in a massive retirement center complex in Knoxville, TN, that allowed you to buy a house, then a town home, then an apartment, get assisted living, and then go to their nursing home premises. For ten years, I spent my vacation visiting them and living on-site, and I always found it somewhere between fascinating and scary as hell.  And yes, I've set a few stories in that milieu.  A lot can happen in retirement centers and nursing homes.  In fact, the same things happen there as happen among any other group of people.  Just cause you're old doesn't mean you haven't stopped working on your life, for good or ill.  But it's better when the crazy stuff happens at the instigation of the residents, and not come down from on high.

Back in May, 19 nursing home facilities were going bust in South Dakota, thanks to their (mis)management by Skyline Healthcare of New Jersey. Skyline had gone on a nursing home buying binge between 2015-17:  110 nursing homes in six states at bargain prices, mostly from Golden Living, a large national chain that was sued by the Pennsylvania attorney general in 2015 for providing poor care. Golden Living wanted to lease out a lot of its nursing homes, and Skyline gladly took them over. 

This is the picture you get when you Google
Skyline Healthcare
Now here's one of the problems:  Skyline Healthcare was and isn't a large corporation with the kind of bucks to run 110+ nursing homes. Instead, it's owned by a single family, the Schwartzes (Joseph, Rosie, Michael and Louis), and nursing home industry watchers used to joke about the fact that their office was above a pizza joint in Wood-Ridge, N.J.  

But it wasn't so funny when Skyline quit paying the bills to, among others, nursing home vendor Health Care Services Group in Pennsylvania for housekeeping, laundry and dining and nutrition services. Then they stopped paying in Massachusetts, Florida, Arkansas, Kansas, and most lately, South Dakota. (Kansas City News
According to the complaint argued by Pierre attorney Margo Northrup, Skyline did not pay bills for the facilities, including from vendors and employee salaries. More seriously, “there are hundreds of patients currently residing at the (nursing facilities) who receive varying levels of care and whose health and safety have been put directly at risk by Defendants’ many defaults,” according to the complaint. On April 26, Skyline, the defendants, notified the state health department “that they no longer had sufficient funds to purchase food for the patients.” (Capital Journal)
The former Golden Living Nursing Home in Madison, SD
The result is all the Skyline nursing homes were put in receivership, and most of them are going to close. Where do the residents go? God only knows.

What the hell was the deal? Well, apparently Skyline Healthcare was a classic example of buy, gut, and sell - or outright abandon. And none of the sellers - Golden Living, among them, apparently bothered to check the Better Business Bureau ratings (D+, and God only knows how they got that) or their employee reviews (HERE).   So Skyline Healthcare bought the nursing homes using borrowed money, hosed up all the money in the nursing homes' accounts to repay their debt (and pay themselves, and their investors, of course), and then dumped the nursing homes.  And leaving the residents holding nothing but eviction notes.

And - WARNING, WARNING, WARNING! - this appears to be a (relatively) new trend in elderly care. Witness this article from The Washington Post. Back in 2011, The Carlyle Group bought the ManorCare nursing-home chain - the second-largest nursing-home chain in the United States. The financial deal "extracted $1.3 billion from the [ManorCare] company for investors... Shortly after the maneuver, the company announced hundreds of layoffs. In a little over a year, some nursing homes were not making enough to pay rent. Over the next several years, cost-cutting programs followed, according to financial statements obtained by The Post."

Among those costs were staff, utilities, rent, and patient care:
"The number of health-code violations found at the chain each year rose 26 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to a Post review of 230 of the chain’s retirement homes. Over that period, the yearly number of health-code violations at company nursing homes rose from 1,584 to almost 2,000. The number of citations increased for, among other things, neither preventing nor treating bed sores; medication errors; not providing proper care for people who need special services such as injections, colostomies and prostheses; and not assisting patients with eating and personal hygiene." (The Washington Post


The Carlyle Group is disputing all of these claims.  But the result was bankruptcy and sale, this time to non-profit ProMedica Health.

The Washington Post points out that private-equity firms have been moving - like sharks - into businesses serving some of the nation’s poorest or most vulnerable people, including payday lenders, nursing homes, bail bond providers, low-income homes for rental and prison phone services.

"Ludovic Phalippou, a professor at Oxford who wrote the textbook “Private Equity Laid Bare,” says it is a question of whether private-equity methods are appropriate in all fields. He has praised the ability of private equity to streamline companies but he has also described the firms’ approach as “capitalism on steroids.” (my emphasis)  He said, for example, that while private-equity ownership of nursing homes is accepted in the United States, people in some other countries would be “aghast” at the idea. “People will wonder whether this pure capitalism is appropriate in nursing homes,” Phalippou said. “The health and welfare of the old people who live there depend on them.” (The Washington Post)

But who cares about health and welfare?  That's so oldfashioned!  From The New Yorker:
Ron Shaich, founder of Panera Bread
"Wall Street has embraced the idea that companies exist solely to serve the holders of their stock. Under this way of thinking, managers of companies should focus their actions on driving short-term value for their shareholders, and should pay far less (or no) regard to other constituents who may have a stake in the business, such as employees, customers, or members of the community. [Ron] Shaich... believes that the fixation on short-term profits is jeopardizing the future of American business, and creating social instability that has contributed to our current state of political polarization."

And adding to the fears and worries of a lot of elderly people in nursing homes who literally have nowhere else to go.  Up here in South Dakota, there were 111 nursing homes, so closing 19 of them is taking away 17% of all the nursing homes in this state.  There aren't enough beds left in this state to take all the residents.  Where is Granny going to go for Christmas, this year, anyway?   Does anybody care? 







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.