When only a Georgette Heyer will do

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‘I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense’ wrote Georgette Heyer, ‘but I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter or recovering from the flu.’

Nonsense Georgette Heyer’s regency romances may be, but there are times when they are just what the doctor ordered. From the first page we are taken into another world, knowing we are on safe ground where love and happiness will win through, in much the same way as Golden Age or cosy crime fiction leaves us with the reassurance that the baddies will get their come-uppance, good will triumph and order will be restored. Confidence and happiness is catching. Escapist literature gives us more than just a respite from our increasingly unpredictable and confusing world. It makes us feel better.

But why am I sounding so defensive? Perhaps because Georgette Heyer is sometimes viewed with disdainful superiority as being a literary stablemate of Barbara Cartland. Which is a mistake. This is not to criticise Barbara Cartland; I read one of her books when I was young and rather enjoyed it. But anyone who has read more than a page of the regency novels of these two authors knows how entirely different they are.

It’s not surprising that Jane Austen devotees are often voracious readers of Georgette Heyer; it’s not only the regency setting and happy endings the novels have in common but the perfect grasp of comedy. We never tire of the humorous aspects of Mr Bennet, Mrs Elton and Mr Collins and so it is with the unforgettable comic characters who pepper Georgette Heyer’s books. Ask Georgette Heyer fans about which novel or secondary character is the funniest and a clamour of opinions starts up, with Ferdy Fakenham in Friday’s Child a hot favourite.

Nor is it surprising that feminists often approve of Georgette Heyer because rather than creating soppy, milky heroines subservient to men, she shows us strong-minded, spirited young women who think and act for themselves: capable and feisty like Deborah in Faro’s Daughter and Sophy in The Grand Sophy who give as good as they get to any man who tries to rule them, intelligent and sensible like Drusilla in The Quiet Gentleman and Elinor in The Reluctant Widow.

Love doesn’t come one-size-fits-all either. We are shown mature love developing out of friendship in Sprig Muslin, the growth of self-knowledge and confidence in The Foundling, and a perceptive examination of the difference between infatuation and commitment in A Civil Contract.

‘A crash course in romantic novels – Georgette Heyer say – and men might learn what’s expected of them’ I made a disappointed character say with joking irony in my novel Of Human Telling. For Georgette Heyer offers us heroes to meet every changing taste as we grow older: boyishly charming Lord Sheringham in Friday’s Child, autocratic Lord Worth in Regency Buck, reformed rake Damerel in Venetia, philanthropic Waldo Hawkridge in The Nonesuch, wild Lord Vidal in Devil’s Cub, unassuming, kind-hearted Freddy in Cotillion. They may be very different but they have one thing in common: we can feel quite certain that they will always be faithful to the women they come to love and marry.

Georgette Heyer fans endlessly re-read her novels, catch themselves using the regency slang used by her characters, and hoard their tattered paperbacks so that unlike popular thrillers or issue novels you rarely find secondhand copies in charity shops. As the entirely wonderful Freddy Standen in Cotillion would say, stands to reason!

A woman ‘must improve her mind by extensive reading’ pronounces Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and nobody can argue with the principle in spite of the haughty manner in which it is delivered here. But most of us need a varied diet – light-hearted, sun-filled novels as well as more serious, thought-provoking, questioning ones.

There are many other delightful authors whom we may turn to for sheer undemanding enjoyment or when we are feeling ill or in need of comfort. I only know that Georgette Heyer will always, like Sir Tristram Shield in The Talisman Ring, ride ventre à terre to my side.

 

 

 

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No longer on the bookshop shelves

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What would a writer prefer? Great success in his or her lifetime, but then dropping out of sight? Or obscurity while she or he lives, but immortal fame afterwards? Chance would be a fine thing, many of us would answer, and we’d be delighted with ‘Local Writer Writes Interesting Story’ on page 4 of the entertainment section of our local newspaper, but we can always dream …

I muse on this because of the mention of John Creasey in my last post (on very valuable commas). How fame can pass. When I was at school he was one of Britain’s most prolific and successful crime writers, under his own name and his several pseudonyms such as JJ Marric and Antony Morton. He sold over 80 million books. His dates? 1908-1973.

On my shelf I have tales of his heroes Inspector West, Commander Gideon and the Toff. These are pictured. I used to have many more, but when I was a teenager my collection fell victim to a domestic misunderstanding and in my absence was given away for sale at the local village fete. (The Gideon book pictured is actually not one he wrote himself, but was written after his death ‘in his footsteps’ by William Vivian Butler. There’s a better picture of covers of John Creasey’s novels at http://www.johncreasey.co.uk/.)

I loved his work. His name is retained in the John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award, but apart from that he is largely overlooked. Perhaps his books are too rooted in their time: Inspector West and Commander Gideon are incorruptible, and don’t have damaged back stories. It wouldn’t be overly unlikely in his 1950s novels for a criminal to mutter “It’s a fair cop, guv”. Tethered Camel Publishing recently reprinted some of John Creasey’s titles, but if you look on the shelves in Waterstones you won’t find him.

So fame can be fleeting. Maybe, if I were selling 80 million copies, I’d say “Let it fleet.”

What would be your choice? Lifetime success or posthumous fame?

A comma can cost millions

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At school, like many others I was told that when writing a list you did not put a comma after the penultimate item and before the ‘and’ or ‘or’ preceding the final item. So a grammatical shopping list (are there people who write grammatical shopping lists?) could read ‘apples, pears, blackberries and caviare’, or my favourite crime authors as a schoolboy might be ‘Erle Stanley Gardner, John Creasey, Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace’.   My dear wife, who learned English as a foreign language, was taught likewise.

It wasn’t till much later that I learned about the Oxford Comma. The comma that would come after ‘blackberries’ and ‘Agatha Christie’ in the previous paragraph. The last comma in ‘He went into Rymans to get notebooks, ink cartridges, paperclips, and inspiration.’

Its proponents say that it can avoid ambiguity: eg the sentence “I love my sisters, Claudia Cardinale and Jane Austen” could mean that Claudia and Jane are my sisters. Interesting as that would be, I doubt that many people would come to that conclusion: Claudia’s not the kind of name my parents would have chosen.

People can get exercised about this. But, you might think, it does not have any real consequences, other than whether you think your sentence does or doesn’t flow more smoothly without the comma.

You would be wrong. The Oxford comma (or rather the lack of it) is worth $5 million to the drivers who recently brought a court case against their employers, a dairy in Maine in the USA. The details of the case can be found in the New York Times article at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/us/oxford-comma-maine.html. In short, the case hinged on the meaning in a state law governing overtime of the following list of exceptions:

‘The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: 1. Agricultural produce …’

Was ‘packing for shipment’ separate from ‘distribution’, or was ‘distribution’ only involved insofar as ‘packing’ was concerned? The old ambiguity argument. The drivers won. The statute has now been reworded, and semi-colons replace commas in the list: and there’s what you might call an Oxford semi-colon after ‘shipment’, in case you were asking.

The NYT’s attitude to the Oxford comma debate may perhaps be inferred from its description of people interested in it as “punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs.”

Who’d have thought that a few drops of ink could be worth so much?

The stature of waiting …

I love it when authors share what they go through while awaiting feedback. In her recent autobiography, Claire Tomalin describes how she ‘tactfully left the room’ after giving her husband a chapter of her first manuscript – only to find him asleep with it in his hand when she crept back. Fortunately, ‘We were both able to laugh.’ Later, when she ‘nervously’ sent the whole thing to her editor, Tony Godwin, she says, ‘Silence fell. After four days the telephone rang, Tony on the line. He seemed stiff and odd, and I, embarrassed, thinking he must have hated the book, tried to chat about nothing much. Then he exploded: “What about my telegram?”’

Apparently, he had sent a ‘glorious message of enthusiasm and congratulation’ – to the wrong address.

This ending is pure wish-fulfilment – but for me the real interest lies in the description of Tomalin’s uncertainty beforehand.

Stephen King is still more endearing when it comes to self-disclosure. In his 2000 memoir On Writing he says he always writes with one ideal reader in mind – his wife – and that when something of his makes her laugh ‘out of control … I … adore it’. He recounts a drive during which she read the manuscript of his latest novella: ‘I kept peeking over at her to see if she was chuckling … On my eighth or ninth peek (I guess it could have been my fifteenth), she looked up and snapped: “Pay attention to your driving before you crack us up, will you? Stop being so goddam needy!”’

(In case you’re wondering: five minutes later he heard ‘a snort of laughter’.)

Of course, it has to be easier sharing moments like this when the outcome’s good but if you have any kind of ‘author waiting’ story I’d love to hear it.

Good Housekeeping Novel Competition

This rather wonderful, FREE, competition gives you until 30 March to enter the first 5,000 words of your unpublished novel (in the women’s fiction genre), a 100 word mini biography of yourself, and a full synopsis (no more than two sheets of A4 paper).

The prize is a book deal with Orion Publishing and a £6,000 advance.

You also need an original copy of the entry form, from January Good Housekeeping. While this edition is no longer available in the shops, you probably know someone who still has a copy – or might even be able to scrounge the entry form from a copy in your doctor’s surgery or hairdresser’s (please ask permission first!)
The winner of their last competition, Margaret Kirk, whose entry, Shadow Man, set in atmospheric Inverness, currently sits on our own bookshelves, wrote this page-turning whodunnit ‘on a chair in the living room with the cat on my knee’. I have the chair; I have the cat; what’s stopping me?

 

 

 

Unusually the competition asks for a hard copy to be sent to Orion Books, so give yourself enough time to interact with your printer. I’m actually looking forward to the nostalgia of queuing up at the Post Office with my brown envelope…

 

Good luck!

 

 

Writing Competitions to Enter in February

‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?’

Chipping Norton Literary Festival Penny Shorts Short Story Competition. Short story, up to 2,500 words. Longer short story, up to 5,000 words. Entry fee: £5 (short story); £8 (longer short story). Prizes: £500; £100; £50. Plus publication on Penny Shorts. Details: http://www.chiplitfest.com/short-story-competition. Deadline 7 February.

Bath Flash Fiction closes on 11 February. There is a 300 word limit with prizes of: £300; £100; two commendations of £30 each. Entry is £9 for one; £15 for two.50 longlisted entrants will be offered publiction in their 2018 end of year print and digital anthology plus a free print copy.

CWA Debut Dagger are looking for the opening of a crime novel not exceeding 3,000 words, plus a synopsis of 500-1,000 words. The winner receives £500 while all shortlisted entrants get written feedback from the judges on their entries and get exposure to agents with an interest in crime writing. Entry is £36 and you must not have previously had a book published. Deadline 28 February. Details: thecwa.co.uk

The CWA also run the Margery Allingham Short Story Competition to find a story of up to 3,500 words which fits into legendary crime writer Margery’s definition of what makes a great story: ‘The Mystery remains box-shaped, at once a prison and a refuge. Its four walls are, roughly, a Crime, A Mystery, an Enquiry and A Conclusion with an Element of Satisfaction in it.’ This is open to published and unpublished authors, but the story itself must not have been published previously. Prize is £500, plus two passes to Crimefest 2019. Entry is £12 per story. Deadline again is 28 February. Details: thecwa.co.uk

Nottingham Writers’ Club invites entries from non-professional writers for its National Short Story Competition 2018. They want a story of up to 2,000 words in which a season plays a major part. Entry fee:  £6 for one story, £12 for two and £5 for each of three or more on-line entries. Prizes are: £200; £100 and £50. Details: http://www.nottinghamwritersclub.org.uk

Are your children following in your footsteps? This competition is open to children aged 5-13 only, and is free. BBC Radio 2,500 Words Short Story Competition Flash Fiction max. 500 words. Details: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00rfvkl

Big on Ideas, but Short on Words? THE BIG IDEA COMPETITION is a joint initiative by The Blair Partnership and top UK children’s publisher Chicken House Books. So if you have a great idea, but don’t want to write it yourself, then this could be for you. The aim is ‘to find a great idea which will be written by a well-known children’s author, published by Chicken House Books and potentially developed for television, theatre or other media by The Blair Partnership. If domestic commitments mean you’re short on time, this could be the one for you – and get you noticed in the children’s publishing world. The idea should be presented in no more than 750 words. There is a £1,000 prize for the winner, who will be named on the published book alongside the author and paid an agreed royalty on every copy sold. There are also five runners-up prizes of £1,000 and these entries MAY also be taken up and turned into a book. Entry is free and the closing date 23 February. Details: http://thebigideacompetition.co.uk

Morgen’s Monthly 100-word Competition is for micro-fiction: 100 words exactly, excluding title. Themne: The Outskirts’. Entry is free and prizes consist of online creative writing courses or a full-edit critique. Details: morgenbailey.wordpress.com/100-word-free-monthly-competition

There are also, of course, competitions in Writing Magazine and in Writers’ Forum which are well worth entering. Members of ninevoices have been shortlisted in some of these – so be encouraged to consider submitting something. By clicking on ‘Writing‘ above you can see two stories entered by Tanya which achieved prizes and publication.

Please remember to check all details before entering, guys. Good luck!

The quote is from Robert Browning – and the picture is to remind us that you should always aim to punch above your weight…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not a ‘horribly good’ heroine

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‘I am not good and I never shall be now… I might be a heroine still…’

Cynthia Kirkpatrick is not the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Wives and Daughters but some modern readers may think she deserves to be.

Elizabeth Gaskell brought up four daughters in a happy, high-principled family home. In her portrayal of the sweet-natured, truth-telling Molly Gibson, the actual heroine of this last unfinished novel published in 1866, she writes with all the realism and delicate perception of a good and wise mother. But while it impossible not to love Molly, it is Cynthia, the daughter of a bad and neglectful mother, who is somehow more interesting and arguably Elizabeth Gaskell’s finest creation.

Patricia Beer, in her study of the women characters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot Reader, I Married Him writes that ‘Cynthia is perhaps the least hypocritical girl, and the one with the most self-knowledge, that we meet before the twentieth-century novel.’ It’s this that gives her so much appeal to modern readers, who may not always relate to Molly’s struggles to be good when presented with a truly appalling stepmother.

‘Cynthia was very beautiful, and was so well aware of this fact that she had forgotten to care about it; no one with such loveliness ever appeared so little conscious of it.’ We see her being the perfect companion and guest: ‘She exerted herself just as much to charm the two Miss Brownings as she would have done to delight Osborne Hamley, or any other young heir. That is to say, she used no exertion, but simply followed her own nature, which was to attract every one of those she was thrown amongst.’

Cynthia is the daughter of another splendid creation, the widowed Hyacinth, tired of having to earn her own living:  ‘How pleasant it would be to have a husband once more; someone who would work while she sat at her elegant ease in a prettily furnished drawing room, and she was rapidly investing this imaginary breadwinner with the form and features of the country surgeon.’ Mr Gibson, anxious to provide his daughter Molly with a suitable stepmother, falls into the trap set for him.

The new Mrs Gibson, caring only for her own comfort, has been a lazy mother to her own child Cynthia. She sent her away to school at four years old to be out of the way; on her wedding day to Mr Gibson she even cunningly arranges for Cynthia to be kept in France, not wanting to be outshone. ‘If there is one thing that revolts me, it is duplicity,’ she asserts, but her selfish neglect of her daughter has meant that Cynthia too has a mercurial relationship with the truth.

It is Cynthia’s recognition that she does not love her mother – this at a time when filial love and duty was part of Victorian thinking – and her apparent careless acceptance of the damage that has been done to her which give her character its modern flavour and conviction. As she says to her stepsister Molly, to whom she is a loving and sympathetic listener ‘But don’t you see I have grown up outside the pale of duty and “oughts”. Love me as I am, sweet one, for I shall never be better.’

Cynthia’s disarming self-knowledge contrasts sharply with that of her mother, who has none at all: ‘I never think of myself, and am really the most forgiving person in the world, in forgiving slights.’ When speculating about the advantages of the possible death of the heir to an estate, Mrs Gibson insists ‘I should think myself wanting in strength of mind if I could not look forward to the consequences of death. I really think we are commanded to do so somewhere in the Bible or the Prayerbook.’

‘Do you look forward to the consequences of my death, Mamma?’ – Cynthia’s barbs, always directed at her mother, provide much of the comedy in the novel, much as do the exchanges between Mr and Mrs Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But there is a greater depth of seriousness and pathos in Elizabeth Gaskell’s examination of relationships between mother and child or husband and wife. Mrs Gibson’s futile attempts to win back her husband’s esteem after he has discovered her shallow self-seeking deceit not only stir the kind-hearted Molly into pity, but also the reader. Mrs Gaskell is careful too not to reduce her to the level of caricature – whereas Mrs Bennet comes perilously close – by small details; we learn that Mrs Gibson was always good to the poor.

‘I wish I could love people as you do, Molly!’ Cynthia knows what she is and what is likely to become of her. She escapes into what an earlier or sterner morality might call worldliness – though Elizabeth Gaskell does not make this judgment – but what nowadays we see as the fun and pleasure that life may have on offer.

Cynthia’s need is to be always admired, and relies on ‘all the unconscious ways she possessed by instinct of tickling the vanity of men.’ But these men mustn’t find her out. ‘I try not to care which I dare say is really the worst of all, but I could worry myself to death if I once took to serious thinking.’ ‘I don’t like people of deep feelings… I’m not worth his caring for’. Her eventual choice shows her understanding of her own inability to commit herself to anyone who wants too much from her or sees the flaws behind the fascinating created self she displays to the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End – at last…?

What a relief to finally type The End on the final page of my novel.

But, sadly, that doesn’t mean work is finished. I’m reminded of jumpers I struggled to knit in my teens. The shape is recogniseable, but the tension’s all over the place, there are odd holes which weren’t in the pattern, and nobody would be seen dead wearing it.

A recent quote of Gustave Flaubert’s, seen on Twitter,* struck a chord:

‘I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.’

If Flaubert struggled, what hope for lesser writers?

Weeks, perhaps months, of editing those 100,000 words lie ahead. Of straight-forward proof-reading. Of adverb-pruning. Of tightening action sequences. Of making sure those blue eyes in chapter three haven’t turned hazel by chapter thirty. Of wheedling long-suffering friends in ninevoices to take yet-another look at a purple passage I’m insecure about.

In the meantime I hope a police car doesn’t draw-up outside my house, with gentlemen in dark blue wanting to ask awkward questions about my on-line researches into the murkier corners of the eighteenth century…

 

 [*My thanks to Marylee MacDonald @MaryLeeD]