Sunday, 25 September 2005

Heyeroines in need of a slap

5. Penelope Creed (The Corinthian/Beau Wyndham)

Who among us has not, at one time or another, found themself being coerced into a marriage with a cousin that they do not love, by an aunt with a ridiculous name? And yet who amongst us has responded to such sore provocation by cross-dressing and climbing out of a window with the aid of that hoary cliché, a rope of knotted bedsheets? I am certain that the answer to that second question is "none of us", and even if there are those who have acted in such a precipitate way, I am willing to wager that they made sure that the sheets were sufficient to reach the ground.

Miss Penelope Creed's incompetent decision making and even more hopeless planning when faced with such commonplace circumstances do not presage well for her future happiness. Her lack of thinking skills is further evidenced by her behaviour on a public coach where, while she should be maintaining a low profile in keeping with the fact that she is travelling under an assumed identity, relationship and indeed gender, she manages to engage in conversation with all around her, from the humblest farmer to such local eminences as Mr James "Jimmy" Yarde (whose taste in clothes, including a remarkably fine catskin waistcoat, should be considered second only to the Corinthian himself.)

Needless to say such ill-judged behaviour is more than enough to entangle Miss Creed in all kinds of lunatic criminality, and it is hardly a shock for us to discover that Mr Piers Luttrell, the childhood friend of Miss Creed upon whom she has fixed her sights as a suitably dull foil to her eccentricities, seems more than happy to have slipped the traces of her unstable affections while she was in London, and that he plans to settle down with the infinitely more suitable Miss Lydia Daubenay.

Sadly but predictably this clear indication of a wish for disengagement is not merely ignored by Miss Creed, but taken as a reason for her to involve herself in poor Miss Daubenay's affairs to the extent of devising a disastrous scheme for an elopement, a course of action that places at risk the reputations and even the lives of not only that innocent girl, but also Mr Luttrell, Sir Richard Wyndham and that most respectable pillar of society, the Honourable Cedric Brandon.

In her defence one could argue that nominative determinism forces our heyeroine's hand, for is not "elope" Pen Creed's middle name? Such defences cut little ice here, however, and Miss Penelope Creed's future, even under the soubriquet of Lady Wyndham, can only lead to Newgate or Bedlam, unless she snaps out of it sharply.

Technorati Tags:

Friday, 23 September 2005

Sunday will see a new heyeroine in need of a slap. I have several on the blocks, but I am always open to suggestions for suitable candidates.

Once Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth is safely in the hands of the NWS I will be adding an occasional supply of Regency heroines possibly in need of a slap from other authors. First off the mark will be Belinda Farringdon from Pam Cleaver's The Reluctant Governess. Any Regency author wondering whether their heroine is up to the mark should contact me to arrange the supply of a copy of the relevant book.

Wenlock in Lego (thanks to Gabriele for the idea.) Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, 20 September 2005

It's Two Thirty in the morning. I have just finished Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth.

When I say "finished" I mean that I have just typed those two magic words, "The End". There is plenty for me still to do. Firstly I need to check for consistency throughout. My hero and my heroine definitely reach the end of the book with the same names as they began it, but I have probably managed to swap over the names of the fat loquacious villain and the thin silent villain halfway through, and who knows whether the same butler has stayed in the same household from start to finish? Then I need to ensure that the hero's personality flaws, so critical to the climax of the story, are properly flagged up early on, and that the heroine's character development actually happens on the page and not just in my mind. I also need to do what I can to improve the bits that read like a pile of poo.

All that to be done in half-a-dozen evenings and a weekend, so that I can get the typescript submitted to the RNA's New Writers' Scheme.

But it still feels good to have gotten this far.

Sunday, 18 September 2005

Heyeroines in need of a slap

4. Frederica Merrivale (Frederica)

Miss Merrivale has, she announces confidently at an early stage, been the mistress of her household for years and years. One might expect such a boast to be accompanied by at least a trace of competence in this role, but the more we learn of Frederica, the more we discover that what she presumably considers to be initiative and independence is in fact pig-headed, thoughtless ego-tripping, verging on psychosis. Were she free of family obligations, such behaviour might be laughed off as eccentricity. There might even be those who might find her captivating. However she does have a family for which she is, faute de mieux, responsible. A reliable woman would at the very least see that her siblings were in safe hands before going off on her flights of fancy, but that is not Miss Merrivale's way. Instead she uses her family as weapons in a crazed campaign to climb the social ladder. Her sister Charis is paraded in front of hard-working bachelors such as Mr Trevor in a way that is today typical only of the lowest sort of tradesmen marketing "modifications" to horseless carriages. Her younger brother, Felix, is allowed to run wild, pestering anybody and everybody as if the concept that children should be seen and not heard had never been thought of. Her other brother, the ridiculously named Jessamy, is equipped with dangerous toys and let loose on the streets of London with inevitably costly results. She is prepared even to stoop to letting her mongrel dog loose amidst a herd of cattle simply to draw attention to herself and to publicise a link with one of her social betters that exists in nowhere but her fevered mind. The most active of today's professional publicists would have trouble matching Frederica's twisted ingenuity.

The series of assaults that she unleashes from her lair in deeply unfashionable Upper Wimpole Street would, if she were to attempt them in modern London, be more than sufficient to have her identified as a stalker. Alverstoke would be able to obtain a restraining order, and the Merrivale family might well be made the subject of an ASBO. Such civilised means of redress are unfortunately not available to the long suffering Marquis, who is forced to waste valuable time fending off an ever more ghastly sequence of outrages while trying to sort out the problems of his closer relatives, whose greater right to his attentions are so obvious to all except the solipsistic Frederica.

It is of course Miss Merrivale's last desperate throw of the dice which must earn her the greatest disapprobation. Careless of the risk to her brother's life she has him carried off in a Montgolfier in a manner which forces the long-suffering Marquis to leave town in pursuit. It is only when he finally tracks the errant balloon to earth near a remote farmhouse that he discovers that it has all ben a plot to compromise him. Not content with implying a liaison which Alverstoke might perfectly reasonably shrug off as the deluded ravings of a mad woman, Frederica has taken steps to ensure the presence of a number of witnesses, and has even made a point of insinuating to them the deviant behaviours that she claims the Marquis indulges in by her pointed proclamation of his use of a substance that she crudely refers to as pork jelly.

When the Marquis, surely by now no more than a haggard shell of the man he once was, finally submits to Frederica's demonic campaign we are left to the realisation that Georgette Heyer, like Ibsen, is capable of conjuring up bitter tragedy from the materials of domestic bliss.

Technorati Tags:

Saturday, 17 September 2005

Cheltenham has two big bookshops on the Promenade, Ottakars and Waterstones. In my opinion Ottakars is much the better of the two. It carries more books, and its staff are both more knowledgeable and more friendly. naturally I am concerned that HMV, which owns Waterstones, is bidding to buy Ottakars. Joel Ricketts says in today's theguardian that
Nobody predicts that HMV will run Ottakar's as a separate business: it wants a greater brand clout and advertising spend for Waterstone's, which would grow to 333 stores. HMV has already made clear that it will centralise book buying and stock systems.
This implies a distinct reduction in local autonomy, which is one of the strengths of Ottakars.

The Society of Authors are concerned about this issue, and have sent a letter round to their members, and posted it on their web site. Since they encourage us to air our views wherever we can, I do not think that they will object to my publishing their words in full:
You will probably have read the recent press reports about the likely take-over of Ottakar's by HMV, owners of Waterstone's. The Management Committee considers that the take-over, if approved by the Office of Fair Trading, will be a bad development for authors, publishers and the public. We will shortly be making a submission to the Office of Fair Trading, arguing that the take-over would be against the public interest, because of the dominant position that would be occupied by the combined group, and should be referred to the Competition Commission. If you wish to make your own comments on the proposed take-over to the OFT, please address them to Ms E Rotondo, Office of Fair Trading, Fleetbank House, 2-6 Salisbury Square, London, EC4Y 8JX ( Submissions, which must be received by 23rd September, will be treated in confidence.

The future of Ottakar's came under close scrutiny when James Heneage, the Chief Executive, proposed that Ottakar's, a publicly listed company, should be taken private once again via a management buy-out (with the help of City backing). He said that Ottakar's needed to improve/update its systems significantly and that this could not happen easily or quickly as a public company. The management buy-out proposal led to a bid by HMV, which looks as though it will succeed unless there are regulatory complications. HMV claims that Waterstone's and Ottakar's between them control 24% of the retail book market, which would not normally trigger a referral to the Competition Commission. However, if one considers stock-holding book retailers, excluding, for example, supermarkets and airport bookstores (all selling large quantities of very few titles), the combined share of Waterstone’s and Ottakar's is probably in the region of 50%.

Ottakar's generally good reputation may, of itself, not cut much ice with the OFT, which is going to be more concerned with the impact of a take-over on the book market and the public. What seems clear is that if Ottakar's is consumed by Waterstone's, the range of books available to the public will decline, with Waterstone's exercising yet more control over what is sold (and to some extent what is published). Life for mid-list authors will get tougher still. Publishers may well be forced to concede more discount and royalties may be hit.

Our considerable reservations about this take-over should not be taken as implying criticism of Waterstone's, which over the years has done much for writers. Our concern is about its further expansion and the possible demise of Ottakar's. If you share our concerns, do please air your views where you can - in the press and with the OFT.
Wenlock is not a campaigning blog, and I will not use it to air my opinions on matters unrelated to writing and reading, but the future of the best bookshop in Cheltenham (and excellent bookshops across the country) is definitely within the scope of what I want to blog about. Please do what you can.

Tuesday, 13 September 2005

Grumpy Old Bookman is pointing out that the first week in October is Buy a Friend a Book week. This sounds like a thoroughly Good Thing, and to be encouraged. I hope that by this time next year I will have a vested interest in recommending a particular book, but for this year I plan to spend the next couple of weeks thinking about which friend, and which book. Suggestions are very welcome, but any particularly self-serving ones will need to be accompanied by appropriate quantities of Green & Black's dark chocloate (yes, Miss Grange, I am thinking of you).

For those who cannot wait until October for something exciting, don't forget that Monday is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Monday, 12 September 2005

Well, we didn't win University Challenge - The Professionals. We were beaten by a Privy Council Office team who were that little bit quicker to the buzzer. Nonetheless we had enormous fun taking part. In putting up a team, the Romantic Novelists' Association was hoping to demonstrate that we romantic novelists are not the feather-boaed ladies of leisure that are so frequently portrayed in the media. I think that we achieved that quite convincingly.

Two million people watched our first round match. I don't know how many were watching this evening, but it may well have been boosted by team captain Catherine Jones' appearance on the Dermot O'Leary Show on Saturday on Radio 2. If you click on the "listen again" link, Catherine's bit is from about 15 to about 25 minutes into the show.

Sunday, 11 September 2005

Heyeroines in need of a slap

3. Hero Wantage (Friday's Child)

"Not Hero?" I hear you say. "Not dear, sweet little Kitten? What has she ever done to harm you?" The short answer is that she is the epitome of icky-sweet gooeyness. The long answer, well, it's like this...

We first meet Hero in her natural element, sitting on a roadside wall in somebody else's dress, sobbing her heart out in an affecting manner that she must know is just what is needed to catch the attention of any passing Viscount. Of course we know that she is a charity girl, who owes pretty much everything she has to her long-suffering cousin Jane, who has three daughters of her own to bring up. Is she grateful? Not a bit of it. Not only does she appear to have led on one of her young cousins, Edwin, but she has also somehow managed to acquire some very expensive tastes. She also knows how to satisfy them. Her first move on seeing Viscount Sheringham is to blackmail him by threatening to tell the truth to the incomparable Isabella Milborne about Sheringham's liaisons with a dancing girl. Once she has her claws in him, Hero presses home her advantage.

Hero is nauseatingly twee about what she wants from marriage - going to parties and balls, and not being scolded. She is, of course, being utterly disingenuous. Not a word is said about financial matters. Her true colours are revealed on her wedding day: she is late for the ceremony because she has been out shopping, and not many pages latter we find her helping herself to large quantities of green peas. It was a taste for green peas that led Lady Bellingham to her ruin (Faro's Daughter). It is clear that Hero is cut from the same cloth, and it isn't sprig muslin.

A single-minded pursuit of wealth might be considered an almost admirable characteristic, but only if it is accompanied by some degree of taste. Hero seems to have none. Unsuitable dresses, hideous clocks and canaries are just the beginning. Faced with all the cultural delights of Regency London, what does Hero want? The Fireproof Woman washing her hands in boiling oil, a theatrical work called The Hall of Death, or Who's the Murderer? (would anybody with taste go for one of these long titles with an "or" in the middle?)

Only lack of breeding can explain Hero's reckless pursuit of her husband's friends. Scarcely a day seems to go by without her turning up on the doorstep of Gil, or Ferdy, or Lord Wrotham. The only surprising thing about their decision to get rid of her is that they chose to send her to Bath rather than Bedlam. Even in Bath, where standards of morality are somewhat lower than in London, she still manages to be shocking, running off with one man, having him stabbed, and then finally talking about sex in the public parlour of some remote rural coaching inn.

I am sure that, had she realised what a transformation lay ahead for Hero, from poor charity girl who had never had so much as a reticule to call her own, to tasteless, vulgar hoyden, Cousin Jane would not have limited herself to administering this particular Kitten a slap. She would quite properly have tied her up in a sack and dropped her into the river.

Technorati Tags:

Saturday, 10 September 2005

Candy and Sarah have discovered that Wikipedia does not have an entry for Regency Novel, and they are looking for help in drafting something. Please help out (I have already made a couple of suggestions).

I should also point out that Wikipedia has no entry for Gullibility.
Two more little news items about our performance on University Challenge. Firstly from the Ephraim Hardcastle column in last Wednesday's Daily Mail:
There's great merriment in medialand over The Economist, which employs some of our more snooty journalists, being defeated 200 to 185 by the Romantic Novelists' Association on Monday's University Challenge. 'No one will talk about it,' whispers my source at The Economist's St James's Street HQ.
Thanks to Jill Mansell for flagging that one up.

Then from Nicholas Clee's "Hot Type" column in today's Times:
A general fondness for patronising romance may have influenced this defensive headline, "Romantic novelists have brains", announcing that the Romantic Novelists' Association had reached the final of University Challenge - The Professionals. Yes, of course you do dears. Watch out on Monday when BBC Two broadcasts their deciding clash with the Privy Council Office.
Thanks to Jane Gordon-Cumming for that one.

Tuesday, 6 September 2005

Last night's triumph was picked up by Nancy Banks-Smith, the TV critic for the Guardian.
Who would not be cheered to hear that The Romantic Novelists' Association has pipped The Economist to win a place in the final of University Challenge (BBC 2). The romantic novelists were stiffened in their resolve by their only male member, Stephen Bowden, who frankly hasn't had anything published yet. He is currently working, more in hope than expectation, on Lord Alexander's Cipher.
Now I have to say that Nancy Banks-Smith is my all-time favourite TV critic (I rate her even above Clive James in his Observer days) and I am delighted that she went to the trouble of finding her way here to Wenlock (I assume that's where she got the title from) but she is absolutely not right on that final point. I am determined to get published, and to quit my day job. If not with Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth, then with the next one, or the one after that.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the media jungle, The Gloucestershire Echo are following the story.

Monday, 5 September 2005

Well, we made it through to the final, which will be against the Privy Council Office. We filmed the semifinal and the final on the same day, 10 July, which happened to be the last day of the Romantic Novelists' Association Conference. Jenny and Catherine, despite being RNA Chairman and Vice-Chairman, made the sensible call of leaving the Conference the previous afternoon. Annie decided that the logistics meant that it was too much to try and combine the Conference and the filming. I was determined, however, not to miss the big Conference Dinner, not least because I had gone to some lengths to have something decent to wear to it - the Regency outfit that graces my profile photo over on the right, and which was displayed by Kate Allan on her blog a while back.

So I ate well, drank well, partied after dinner with some of the more committed partiers within the RNA, and then the next morning stuffed my Regency gear into my motorbike panniers and bombed up the motorway from Egham to Manchester in time for our call. Luckily it was one of those perfect biking days - calm, sunny, and, at 6:00am, not desperately hot.

I promised various people, including Dawn Wood, who made the clothes, and Sarah Juniper who made the shoes, that I would wear my Regency outfit in the final if we made it that far. Having hauled it out of its confinement I was rather worried that it would be so crushed and crumpled that it would be a poor advertisement for their work, but Granada's wardrobe people did a marvellous job of steaming, starching and ironing, so it was very presentable indeed.

Quite what it looks like on TV, even I will only find out next week.

Sunday, 4 September 2005

Heyeroines in need of a slap

2. Serena Carlow (Bath Tangle)

While Venetia Lanyon betrays her irritating habits from the very first page, with Serena Carlow we do not discover quite what she is like until, ooh, the beginning of Chapter 2, where she starts pacing round the room, muttering "infamous!" and "abominable!", and acting out in a toddler-like manner that she maintains, more or less, for the rest of the book.

And what is it that precipitates this display of childish petulance? Her father's decision to leave her inheritance in trust until she marries, and to appoint the Marquis of Rotherham as her trustee. Given her reaction, more befitting a five or fifteen year old than a woman of five-and-twenty, this was clearly a very sound move on the part of the late Lord Spenborough. Serena's subsequent actions: moving against all advice to the Dower House with her tediously mousy step-mother before finding it a total bore (as everybody said she would); then moving to Bath and behaving in a manner guaranteed to frighten the horses, demonstrate without a shadow of a doubt that had she been allowed free run of the Hernesley and Ibshaw estates from the get-go she would have been the on dit of half the country within a matter of months.

Now some of you will be saying, "it's not the trust, it's the trustee," and suggesting that Serena's objections to the will are entirely justified because Ivo Rotherham is her ex-fiancé. What I would say to Miss Carlow is get over it. You're twenty-five years old. You have a lavish inheritance. If you are as intelligent and independent as you claim, go find a husband who will suit you. It's not as if you don't have the ego and address to carry it off. Or if, as seems more likely to be the case, you can't actually bring yourself to walk away from what must have been a coach-wreck of an engagement, then don't. Stop the attitudinising, apologise to Rotherham, and settle down with him. But which ever way you go, don't keep going on and on about it as if we should care. You'll only end up alienating your readers and driving your dull but harmless stepmother into a fit of the vapours and the arms of a distinctly dodgy army officer.

Just think, if Serena had just taken a deep breath and counted to ten when the will was read, we would all have been spared 300 pages of unbridled solipsism, and might have had instead one of those sweet little romances that Miss Austen does so well.

Technorati Tags:

Saturday, 3 September 2005

Is Jane the new Black?
Austen's peerless depictions of Regency England still chime with audiences across the globe. But in 2005 she is also a brand, perhaps the most profitable literary brand. Her stock is certain to rise again in the coming weeks as the new Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, hits cinemas in the UK.
And yet they say that the traditional Regency is dead.

(Yes, I know that what Jane Austen wrote and what goes by the name of "traditional Regencies" are very different beasts, but you have to allow me the odd attempt at a shaft of wit, don't you?)
I wrote 2,800 or so words of Behemoth yesterday, which I am pleased with, so I treated myself to a leisurely perusal of the Guardian today. Now that the summer is finally over (barring a Test match) the Review section has started to return to form. Today it includes a good discussion of the whole concept of "classic" novels by Alan Warner. Warner is unimpressed by Vintage's attempt to use reading groups to identify the future classics of 20th Century fiction. Vintage have started with a list of 100 titles, and then winnowed it down to fifteen, which, not exactly coincidentally, is how many years Vintage has existed for.
In our violently consumer, winner and loser society, lists are a new catechism - excellent for dealing with books and circumventing the pesky act of actually reading them. Choosing from a list, we believe we somehow briefly have power over everything proffered upon it. I have always been tickled by that truism, "a list, by its very nature, is exclusive": classics, literary canons of "great" works, prize short-lists and long-lists, certainly are exclusive.
Like Warner, I am somewhat suspicious of canonical lists (especially those whose size is constrained by either a desire to have a nice round number or else by the age of an imprint.) The idea of a canon of great works which are objectively better than the rest is something that harks back to the Leavises, whose approach was neatly dissected by Terry Eagleton in his surprisingly readable Literary Criticism (I found his subsequent books, like Ideology, a bit indigestible - partly because I am not a great reader of "formalism, semiotics, hermeneutics, narratatology, psychoanalysis, reception theory, phenomenology and the like", and partly because I just disagreed with what he said.)

Where was I? Canons, yes. Warner usefully skewers the idea that anything that is hailed as a classic novel must be a great novel by looking at one of his favourite writers, Sir Walter Scott.
Even after three single malts and a patriotic suppository, Scott's ravings remain without charm for me. Technically I know he is an awful writer - much of his punctuation had to be added by the compositors and this shows - and that Scott was never capable of writing a masterpiece. Yet I devour his work out of a painful and fascinated curiosity. Walt's contemporary, that unbearable snob Austen, could write very well indeed and Scott could not, yet it was Scott who changed the future of the novel, so I can quite comprehend his sentimental, romantic junk being tagged "classic". Thus, bad writing can be classic writing.
If some Leavisite test of "worth" or quality cannot be used as the test for classic or canonical status - and the importance of Scott suggests that it should not be - then what can be?

Warner's suggested alternative approach is one I whole-heartedly endorse:
Reading fiction is not a rationalistic act of enlightenment. Like life itself, reading novels has no definite final outcome, except The End. We are always changing throughout this campaign of page turning and our literary memories shapeshift too. Every book we read in some way nudges our stubborn psychological DNA into reaction and affects our impressions of the book we read before and the one we shall read after.... It is up to each of us to conclude which books we should not be reading. We might be missing out on something important, so we cannot trust anyone but ourselves. Let us not say we should celebrate a few select books. I say: profusion, abundance, read more, more, more!
And if that is not sufficient encouragement for you all to rush out and buy Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth once I've finished writing it, I don't know what is.