“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
L P Hartley, ‘The Go-Between’ (1953)
The famous opening sentence of The Go-Between is such a powerful statement, not only because it’s undoubtedly true but also because it taps into our profoundest perceptions of living in the here and now while retaining a sense of the past as being somehow alien.
‘Alien’ is itself a word freighted with several values — sometimes meaning something extraterrestrial, or in a pejorative sense as somehow wrong or unwelcome — unsurprising when we consider it derives from the Latin alienus indicating “of or belonging to another; not one’s own; foreign; strange.” That quality of otherness, of difference in kind, is thus added to the notion of distancing, as suits alienus deriving from an Indo-European root meaning “beyond”.
Hartley’s phrase therefore combines our perceptions of difference and distance while expressing much that both attracts and repels us about even our own history. And it may explain why we have a fascination for stories that take us out of ourselves, and which deliberately confront us with what may be very unfamiliar.
A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.
Though I’ve yet to read the collection with which this quote is associated — from Alice Munro‘s own introduction to her Selected Stories, 1968-1994 — I’ve always loved the concept of a storied house ever since I came across it, heaven knows when.
Yes, sometimes readers feel their way through a story as though they’re on a journey through a tangled wood or on a path through an unknown country; but I’m someone to whom the image of a narrative like a storey’d edifice appeals very strongly.
Maybe it’s because I’m fairly visual; because I’m drawn to urban and suburban environments, happy to stand outside a building and admire its architecture; because I love gardens with an arrangement of ‘rooms’ where one can pause and take in one’s surroundings.
“Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ’em.” — Farder Coram, Chapter 15 ‘Letters’
Parts of Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (2018) have both a universal relevance and one equally specific regarding the times we live in now. A chapter in which Lyra as the main protagonist is trying to escape detection in the Norfolk Broads is just such an instance. She is discussing with the gyptian elder Coram how it is that the Consistorial Court of Discipline is able to achieve what it does, and Coram gives her his view of the current political situation in Lyra’s world.
Ruthlessness creates its own rules. So my mother taught me. People are intimidated by a man who acts with no apparent regard for consequences. Behave as if you cannot be touched and no one will dare to touch you.
— Assassin’s Apprentice, chapter 23.
It feels as if the world is dominated by machismo at the moment — some might say this is how it has ever been — but the advent of universal suffrage and democratic conventions was supposed to put on a brake and a limit to it all. That people in too many countries have insanely acted like turkeys voting for Christmas is, I think, the greatest failure of modern democracy, allowing unbridled machismo to disregard those who need the most support.
Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice (like any good literature, including much fantasy of course) presents us with a mirror to view our modern lives, and this quote drew me up short. One of the principal antagonists at an apparent moment of triumph crows about his ruthlessness. ‘Ruth’ of course means pity, and showing no pity or compassion is here held up as an effective means justifying its ends. It is a ‘virtue’ that should be exercised by a successful politician, many think, indeed it’s a stance recommended in Machiavelli’s The Prince.
I spotted this neon sign in a Cardiff café. Cynical me thought this might be a spurious claim for a city business — a way of selling themselves as ethical — but I’d reckoned without it being a rather special establishment: Bigmoose Coffee Company.
It aims, as it says, to ensure that “all profits are reinvested into good causes.” After a close friend died the owners decided to make a difference in the world:
“I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things, in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements. This is all very provoking to Miss Scatcherd, who is naturally neat, punctual, and particular.”
So says Helen Burns in Chapter 6 of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Ten-year-old Jane has been admitted to Lowood School and has just seen Helen, three years her senior, severely chastised by Miss Scatcherd, a woman whom Jane sees as cruel and vindictive for picking on Helen.
Helen however sees herself as entirely in the wrong, listing what she counts as her own faults. In a later elaboration she describes how she daydreams, allowing her concentration to stray from the teacher’s words.
“Now, [my thoughts] continually rove away; when I should be listening to Miss Scatcherd, and collecting all she says with assiduity, often I lose the very sound of her voice; I fall into a sort of dream. Sometimes I think I am in Northumberland, and that the noises I hear round me are the bubbling of a little brook which runs through Deepden, near our house; — then, when it comes to my turn to reply, I have to be awakened; and having heard nothing of what was read for listening to the visionary brook, I have no answer ready.”
“Yet how well you replied this afternoon,” replies Jane, with some wonder. “It was mere chance,” returns Helen, “the subject on which we had been reading had interested me.”
This time the subject was a king who reigned nearly two centuries before Brontë lived:
“This afternoon, instead of dreaming of Deepden, I was wondering how a man who wished to do right could act so unjustly and unwisely as Charles the First sometimes did; and I thought what a pity it was that, with his integrity and conscientiousness, he could see no farther than the prerogatives of the crown.”
For a thirteen-year-old Helen is quite perspicacious. “If he had but been able to look to a distance, and see how what they call the spirit of the age was tending!”
I have quoted all this because a lot of what Helen Burns says reminds me of myself both as a school student and latterly as an adult. I daydreamed during lessons and even lectures: a word, phrase or image would set my thoughts wandering freely down byways until brought back with a shock to the mainstream. Unless the subject interested me deeply and I could engage with what was being said — until the next moment when another idea caught my attention, distracting me from the main argument.
Like Helen — whom Jane witnessed being punished by having “sharply inflicted on her neck a dozen strokes with [a] bunch of twigs” which she herself had to fetch from a small inner room — I was beaten for inattention or, more frequently, not doing my homework, in the days when corporal punishment was permitted. I had the strap (several strips of leather sewn together) administered by Irish Christian Brothers or masters on the palms of my hand, up to six strokes in all on one occasion.* When I was twelve, going on thirteen I held the class record for straps in one year: thirty strokes, which I notched up on my wooden ruler.
Did it cure my inattention or laziness? No, it did not. Did Helen Burns learn to mend her ways? Hard to tell, given what was to come. But it made a great impression on young Jane, who had a natural rumbustiousness coupled with a towering moral indignation. Much of Jane’s appeal to readers must come from those sterling qualities, traits she shares with many a later young protagonist (such as Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite).
* Possibly false memory syndrome, now I think about it. I remember being strapped more than once on on each palm, but whether in all four or six strokes were given I can no longer swear to it. The practice of six strokes was not unusual.
There seems to be something about the human race that makes it crave Rules. Or maybe it’s a quirk of the human brain that it gets frightened if it’s allowed too much exercise.
Diana Wynne Jones is talking about Rules. In particular about Rules for Fantasy and what Children should be allowed to read (‘A Talk About Rules’ in Reflections: On the Magic of Writing, 2012).
She then comes round to Genre: “Genre has been around as a convenient idea for a long time,” she writes.
I prefer to think of it as a notion mostly developed in the 1920s, whereby publishers and reviewers could point people at the kind of thing each person liked to read. It was a useful system of tagging stuff. They sorted books into Detective, Thriller, Children’s, Ghost, Horror, and so on. And naturally they went on to do the same with the newer things like SF and Fantasy. Everyone in, say, the seventies knew what Genre was.
Unfortunately, as she points out, once writers began believing in Genre it became a Rule. One which stated that each Genre has absolute boundaries which Must Not Be Crossed — or else readers will be confused and won’t read any fiction that crosses those boundaries.
Potentially this could result in “a fair old disaster for all kinds of writing,” she suggests, meaning that “almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s Genre.”
In the years since 1995, when DWJ gave this talk in Boston to the New England Science Fiction Association, readers fortunately are a little less constrained by arbitrary rules on genre, especially as mainstream literature has happily strayed across the boundaries by utilising time travel, or employing magical realism, or introducing elements of horror, thriller or whatever into their narratives.
But there are still diehard conservative fans who take a rigid approach to what is Right and Proper in whatever Genre they are currently world authorities on. You come across these angry voices in social media, or when they’re writing opinion columns for literary supplements.
Surely, she argues, the reader should take each story on its own merits, not on whether it fits a template, or slots into a pigeonhole, or suits a straitjacket. Shouldn’t we see the story first and not the label?
And what you see should be a magnificent, whirling, imaginative mess of notions, ideas, wild hypotheses, new insights, strange action, and bizarre adventures. And the frame that holds this mess is a story […] The story is the important thing.
It’s like that argument about different races, when in fact, biologically speaking, there is only one race — the human race.
Individuals are hybrids, each with their own story to tell; and, just as humans all have their own unique genetic code, the stories we tell don’t have to confirm to one genre let alone be clones of one another.
1. Steal Nothing, whether it be an abstract idea or another life.
2. Examine Everything.
3. Pay a Fair Price.
These are the laws of the city state in the Valley of the Golden Cloud, from Michael Moorcock’s fantasy The War Hound and the World’s Pain (1981). The city guard who announces this adds,
“And remember, to lie is to steal another soul’s freedom of action, or some fragment of it. Here a liar and a thief are the same thing.”
As Captain Ulrich von Bek suggests, these laws sound excellent, even ideal, to which his companion Sedenko adds, “And simple.”
Yet, as the guard rejoins, they sometimes require complex interpretation. Which then leads von Bek to muse that it had been many years since he’d been able to believe in absolute justice, and some weeks since he’d believed in justice of any kind. He’s been living through the Thirty Years War after all — and we seem to be living through an equally tumultuous period of modern history, with similar concerns about justice.
Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be co-opted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires. The conquerors may leave desert where there was forest and meadow, but the rain will fall, the rivers will run to the sea. — from the foreword of Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (2001)
The late Ursula Le Guin knew all about fantastic realms. She created several, including the abiding world of Earthsea, that archipelago of islands amidst a boundless ocean.
In her foreword to the collection of short stories about this world she took a tilt at what she called commodified fantasy which, she asserted, “takes no risks: it invents nothing, but invents and trivialises.” We’re well aware of that derivative impulse that somehow diminishes what it feeds on: we see it constantly in never-ending book franchises, films, TV series, video games and assorted spin-offs: it’s a desperate experience to watch as they dilute the originals, before squeezing every last drop of merchandising out of them.
But she is optimistic about the capacity of the imagination to mount rearguard actions whenever needed, to defend against insidious exploitation whether of the commercial or intellectual kind:
The unstable, mutable, untruthful realms of Once-upon-a-time are as much a part of human history and thought as the nations in our kaleidoscopic atlases, and some are more enduring.
With a little over a month to go to a miserable Brexit, I thought I’d quote this skipping rhyme from Terry Pratchett’s fantasy Wintersmith to illustrate my belief that for some people you can provide the ingredients that make up a human but they may still lack the essentials that would make them truly humane.
These are the Things that Make a Man
“Iron enough to make a nail,
Lime enough to paint a wall,
Water enough to drown a dog,
Sulphur enough to stop the fleas,
Potash enough to wash a shirt,
Gold enough to buy a bean,
Silver enough to coat a pin,
Lead enough to ballast a bird,
Phosphor enough to light the town,
Poison enough to kill a cow,
Strength enough to build a home,
Time enough to hold a child,
Love enough to break a heart.”
Here’s the related track from folk rock band Steeleye Span, from their 2013 Wintersmith album which was inspired by Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels:
I opened a book and in I strode
Now nobody can find me.
I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,
My town and my world behind me.
Julia Donaldson’s 2004 poem ‘I Opened a Book’ — now a common meme on a social media site near you — is one that must appeal to bibliophiles everywhere. True booklovers well know that particular magic that comes from not only having hold of a book but of turning the door-like front cover and immersing oneself in the words (and maybe also the images) on each page.
Though I describe imperfect characters (every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line) I have not undertaken to handle degraded or utterly infamous ones.
Charlotte Brontë introduces her authorial voice into Shirley (1849) a few times, including here in Chapter V. Now, Jane Austen intrudes herself rarely in her novels and that usually very briefly towards the end, in the last chapter or so. Charlotte, who (as discussed here) didn’t anyway have a high opinion of Austen, had fewer compunctions and here justifies her inclusion of flawed humans.
Child torturers, slave masters and drivers, I consign to the hands of jailers; the novelist may be excused from sullying his page with the record of their deals.
So it is that her leading actors in this novel (set around 1812 when Jane was in reality revising First Impressions as Pride and Prejudice) allude to the Napoleonic wars, politics and social unrest, unlike Miss Bennet or Lady de Burgh, Mr Darcy or Mr Bingham (Austen’s novel had first been drafted a score of years before).
And yet, imperfect though some Austen characters may be, Jane doesn’t show potential protagonists in quite so unflattering a light as Charlotte does. Robert Moore for example declares that the poor “ought to have no sympathies; it is their duty to be narrow. Poverty is necessarily selfish, contracted, grovelling, anxious…” Though Caroline Helstone appears to be more ‘in the model line’ and the epitome of the kind, generous and intelligent young woman that one may admire, she is revealed as brittle, doubting; while other females — such as Robert’s sister Hortense — are more abrasive.
And yet we thrive on imperfect characters in fiction, do we not? Without their imperfections how can they progress to happy or tragic ends, how can they grow or become corrupted, how may they achieve great things or alternatively fail to realise their potential? What is a narrative about a perfect human being but a parable or allegory, a homily to pointedly indicate our weak wills and unspiritual natures?
However, despite the author declaring that she will not ‘handle degraded or utterly infamous’ personages in Shirley we will find that there are villains sufficient to create the external tensions that drive the plot forward, unlike the difficult conversations and misunderstandings that mostly animated Austen’s novels.
Maybe the charge of imperfection that Charlotte laid at the door of her characters was a reflection of her view of herself: a probable self-portrait underlines the low opinion she had of her appearance when we compare it to the more idealised chalk drawing by George Richmond in 1850, completed five years before the author’s death.
I have always enjoyed reading, but I’ve never been sure how to select appropriate material. There are so many books in the world — how do you know which one will match your tastes and interests?
Thus writes the titular character in chapter 32 of Gail Honeyman’s excellent Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017). A Latin graduate, she clearly has no problems with factual works but fiction confuses her.
The covers are of very little help, because they always say only good things, and I’ve found to my cost that they’re rarely accurate. ‘Exhilarating’ ‘Dazzling’ ‘Hilarious’. No.
For her, I suspect, novels may provide clues as to how ordinary minds work, because Eleanor is no ordinary person. The thought processes of most people are largely a mystery to her.
The only criterion I have is that the books must look clean, which means I have to disregard a lot of potential reading material in the charity shop.
I sort of understand that squeamishness. Luckily for me the secondhand books in the charity shops I frequent are often as good as new, but that’s not always the case.
I don’ t use the library for the same reason, although obviously, in principle and in reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.
Eleanor is anxious about library books touched by unwashed hands, read in the bath, sat on by dogs, or body effluvia and excess food wiped on pages. I’ve worked in suburban libraries in the past and can understand those worries, though she does exaggerate them: “I look for books with one careful owner.”
Is that the case for you too? What are your tolerance levels for pre-owned, even pre-loved reading materials? Is your motto secondhand bad, firsthand good? Or is the book’s condition a matter of indifference to you?
Inverted Commas 3: The modern world viewed from Earthsea
‘Nature is not unnatural. This is not a righting of the balance, but an upsetting of it. There is only one creature who can do that […] by an unmeasured desire for life.’
Sparrowhawk is speaking of humans, in Ursula Le Guin’s wonderfully immersive Earthsea fantasy The Farthest Shore (1973). And, as in all great fantasy, what he has to say — what she has to say — is as apposite to our own lives as it was in Earthsea.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.