Thursday, 27 July 2006

Regency Recollections; Captain Gronow's Guide to Life in London and Paris edited by Christopher Summerville

Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, Formerly Of The Grenadier Guards And Member Of Parliament For Stafford, Being Anecdotes Of The Camp, The Court, And The Clubs, At The Close Of The Last War With France, Related By Himself, together with its three, thankfully more succinctly titled, sequels is one of the most valuable sources of information on the Regency haut ton, but it has not always been that easy to get hold of. Indeed the most recent edition listed on Amazon, from 2004, has a sales ranking of "none", which is quite an achievement.

Now Ravenhall Books have come to the rescue, with a well-designed and well-produced edition from Christopher Summerville, a historian and writer specialising in the early nineteenth century, and author of Napoleon's Polish Gamble.

Summerville states in his preface:
My purpose in presenting this volume of Gronow's celebrated memoirs is to serve up a palatable slice of Regency history for the general reader. To this end, I have strived to prepare a book that is light, pleasing, easily digested, and moreish.
The result is a selection from Gronow's work, concentrating on the Regency period (Gronow's Reminiscences cover his life all the way through to 1865), and arranged in broadly chronological order. This produces a book of four parts, covering the Peninsular War, Waterloo, Restoration Paris, and Regency London.

Editorial additions include a biographical sketch of the Captain, and short essays providing the historical context for each section. There is a sprinkling of explanatory footnotes, explaining people and things mention in the text. Summerville admits to having modernised Gronow's punctuation, and has apparently "restructured" one or two of his anecdotes. He has also unsuppressed a few names, where these are known. There are 16 pages of black and white plates in the midle of the book, mostly portraits and cartoons illustrating people mentioned in Gronow's accounts.

The one thing that the book lacks is an index. It is a pity that it is not possible to look up "Almack's" or "Manton's" and go straight to some half-remebered anecdote involving one or the other.

Despite the omission this is a very nice volume, and I must credit Mrs Wenlock for finding it and giving it to me as a birthday present.

So much for the book. What about the Captain himself? I have to say that I don't warm to the man. He is never slow to put down others and boast about himself. For example, the anecdote about Manton's Shooting Gallery is one of several designed to denigrate Byron (he secretly used curlers on his hair, he frequently went boating with a lad who was possibly a girl in disguise). Having mocked Byron's high opinion of his (Byron's) shooting, Gronow adds
Lords Byron, Yarmouth, Pollington, Mountjoy, Wallscourt, Blandford, Captain Burges, Jack Bouverie, and myself were in 1814 - and for several years afterwards - amongst the chief and most frequenters of this well-known shooting-gallery and frequently shot at the wafer for considerable sums of money. Manton was allowed to enter the betting list and he generally backed me.
But the most egregious example of Gronow's unpleasantness appears in his account of the Spa Fields Riots. In November 1816, the Reform movement organised a rally in Spa Fields, in Clerkenwell, with the aim of petitioning the Prince Regent to reform Parliament. Gronow had been sent with a company of Guards to occupy the nearby prison and "to act, if necessary, in aid and support of the civil power." The crowd of 10,000 (described by Gronow as a mob of 60-70,000) was eventually ordered to disperse, before they could be addressed by one of the great advocates of electoral reform, Henry "Orator" Hunt. Gronow calls Hunt "notorious" and "the blacking-maker", and describes him as "a large, powerfully made fellow, who might have been taken for a butcher." There was no actual riot on this occasion, in contrast to what happened at a similar event in St Peter's Fields, Manchester, three years later.

Gronow concludes his account with an epilogue.
Several years after this event, at the time of the Reform Bill, Hunt was elected Member of Parliament for Preston... and I was elected for the immaculate borough of Stafford. I well recollect - but cannot describe - the amazement of the blacking-man when I told him one evening, in the smoking room of the House of Commons, that if any attack had been made upon the prison at Spa Fields, I had given my men orders to pick off Major Cartwright, himself, and one or two more who were in the cart. Hunt was perfectly astonished. He became very red and his eyes seemed to flash fire: 'What, sir! do you mean to say you would have been capable of such an act of barbarity?' 'Yes,' said I, 'and I almost regret you did not give us the opportunity, for your aim that day was to create a revolution and you would have richly deserved the fate which you so narrowly escaped by the cowardice or lukewarmness of your followers.'
Hunt had been at Peterloo (he is the figure in the centre of the stage, holding a white hat, in the picture below). He is unlikely to have been impressed by Gronow's posturing.

Regency Recollections, Captain Gronow's Guide to Life in London and Paris edited by Christopher Summerville, Ravenhall Books, 2006. £16-99

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Tuesday, 25 July 2006

Well, the Crime Writers' Association narrowly lost their first round match in University Challenge - the Professionals to a team from Prospect Magazine by 170 points to 180. But with only five first round matches it turned out that they had just done well enough to qualify for tonight's first semifinal, where they faced the impressive looking team from The Bodleian Library.

Sadly it was no real contest. The Bod started well and stayed the course, running out the eventual winners by 295 points to 70. I reckon that they will be a difficult side for either Prospect Magazine or the Royal Statistical Society (who contest the second semifinal next Monday) to beat.

But I do hope that this is the start of a new trend. What literary festival wouldn't be livened up by a general knowledge quiz contested between genres, or publishers? How would a team of Virago authors do against a team from Viking? Would writers of science text books hold their own against poets?

Come on Rosie Boycott - you led a team from the Hay Festival on University Challenge last year - why not host an event yourself? Perhaps Penguin could put up a team including the editor of Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life.

And if any publisher wants to boost their chances by having me on their team, you know where to find my agent...

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Sunday, 23 July 2006

Another enjoyable talk at the RNA Conference in Penrith was Rachel Summerson's (she writes as Elizabeth Hawksley but has no webpage to link to) on what a villain can do for your story.

Rachel/Elizabeth has written some good villains herself, most notably the evil Mr Balquidder in Frost Fair, but for her talk she focused on the villains in Jane Austen, and in particular on Mr Wickham.

Wickham serves a very valuable narrative purpose, and one which only villains (with or with moustachios to twirl) can really achieve, which is to cast light on other characters (in this case primarily Darcy) from a different angle, and thus give them additional depth. Rachel pointed out that when Wickham appears, we do not know that he is a villain at all. We (and the character with whom we probably most empathise with, Lizzie) therefore take his opinions on Darcy at face value, or at least as being as valid as any other, until we learn the truth about our informant.

Whether we ever learn the whole truth about Wickham is a matter for speculation - something that Paperback Writer has been indulging in today.

But the point is that because we have seen Darcy through Wickham's eyes, as well as through those of his friends, we have a much more rounded view of him than we would if Wickham had never existed, and that is achieved even without the latter's act of greatest villainy: running off with Lydia.

That event does, however, give Darcy a chance to prove himself by his deeds, as well as his words, and that is, of course, another function of villains; to throw obstacles into the course of true love that forms the main plot of any romance.

In real life I subscribe to Hanlon's Razor, which is most simply expressed as "never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity", but when it comes to fiction I much prefer things to go wrong through somebody's malevolence, rather than the Big Misunderstanding, or any other demonstration of the hero's or heroine's fundamental stupidity (we're supposed to identify with one or the other of these two - do we really want to think of ourselves as dim?)

It is not surprising therefore that I have villains in my books. However I do find villains who are villainous "just because" to be a bit irritating. I prefer my villains to have a reason for their villainy, and the more wicked they are, the more compelling a reason I need to believe it. I'll make an exception for fantasy, where the universe may well exist within some Manichean struggle between the dark and the light, good and evil, or law and chaos, but in fiction set in the real world I struggle to accept people - contemporary or historical, simply being bad by nature.

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Sunday, 16 July 2006

There are quite a few general accounts of the RNA conference popping up across the blogosphere, so I will not duplicate them. Amanda Ashby's account is as good a place to start as any. Instead I will say a bit about a few of the individual sessions that I really enjoyed. I'll start with the one I found most valuable of all.

Jenny Haddon, Chairman of the RNA, and top-rated Mills & Boon author under her pen name of Sophie Weston, gave a talk on Sunday called What do you mean, it needs more emotion?

The suggestion that our writing lacks that critical emotional punch is one that most writers have heard at one time or another. I certainly have. The first reaction to this has to be "does the person saying it know what they are talking about?"

Jenny suggested that they don't always. Emotional reaction to writing is a very personal thing, and your friends and critique partners may not always be the best judge of something like this. On the other hand the professionals out there - agents and editors - probably do know what they are talking about, and since they guard the portals of publication, it is always well worth listening to them.

However, while these people can point out the problem, they cannot fix it. Nobody can but you. So where do you start?

One place to look is your cast of characters. Perhaps the critical reader doesn't care enough about one of the key characters - the hero or the heroine. The first question to ask yourself is whether you care about them. Really. You love your plot, you love your hero, but when you look into your heroine's eyes you see what?

It was when my agent pointed out that nowhere in Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth was there any physical description of Miss Charlotte Hopesay that I realised that she hadn't properly come alive for me. I thought that I could see her through Lord Alexander's eyes, but it turned out that all I could see was him seeing her. I could barely see him through her eyes, and still less could I see what she thought about herself.

Faced with this dilemma, Jenny suggested going for a walk, to think about the problem character. Do you care about him or her? If so, what do you care about, and are you sure that you have said anything about it? If not, then maybe you should find somebody you do care about.

As it happens I had done just that. I'd found a surrogate Charlotte, I'd listened to her voice, and I had breathed life and emotion into her as I redrafted.

If you think that you do care, it's worth checking to see where in the story you say so. If you go through the draft highlighting every statement that shows you care, where are the highlighted bits? If there aren't plenty of them in the first fifty pages, then perhaps you should shuffle things around until there are.

Of course, your character has to be realistic and rounded. Even if you care about a perfect paragon of virtue others may find him or her unbelieveable. Jenny suggested looking at the flipsides of your characters' strengths. If they are energetic, perhaps they can be impatient. If they are kind perhaps they are weakwilled. If they are loyal maybe they are blind.

Of course there may not be time to pack all this characterisation into dialogue in the first few chapters. Jenny suggested that we should not be afraid to do a bit of telling, rather than relying on showing. But she made it clear that it must be simple telling, not diagnosis. By this, I believe that she meant that we can give our characters' backstories in the form of potted biographies, setting out the experiences that made them what they are now, but we must not say that they are this way because of that event. That would be interfering with the way our readers learn to love our characters.

While we can tell our readers what the characters are feeling, it is fatal to attempt to tell them what they should be feeling.

It's not always the characters that are the problem. It may be a matter of pace. I am certainly not going to try and explain how pace works, but I did recognise Jenny's suggestion that we have to take our readers through the story at the right speed. If we don't start writing until we know our stories really well, we may forget to take the reader through all the steps of the journey. This forces them to make assumptions, and they may make the wrong ones.

This was not a major problem for most of Lord Alexander's Cipher; or, the Bridekirk Behemoth, as I did not have a clue what was going to happen next, but when I was a little over halfway through I jumped to the end, to ensure that I knew how all the threads tied up, before filling in the bit before the end. Sure enough, it was the part of the story where I was joining things up that my agent said lacked sufficient punch. This was the bit where I knew where everything was going, but my reader didn't.

There was more, much more than this in Jenny's talk, but this post is already quite long enough. If you want to learn these secrets then rather than reading Wenlock, you need to join the RNA and come along to the conference. Next year we are back at Leicester University.

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Monday, 10 July 2006

Wenlock is almost a year old. I was reminded of this by the reappearance on the television of : the Professionals. Tonight's opener pitted the Bodleian Library against the Society of Antiquaries of London.

The team from the Bodleian felt that they had a point to prove, as the 2004 series had been won by their bitter rivals at the British Library, who had, to add insult to injury, beaten the Bod's near neighbours, the Oxford University Press (in fact a team all from the Oxford English Dictionary) in the final. Winning by 190 points to 80, the Bodleian are, probably, on track to get through to the semifinals.

Next Monday will see another organisation enter the lists with a point to prove. The Crime Writers' Association will be following in the footsteps of the last year. It is a bold move on their part.

Should they fail to make it all the way through to the final, they may have to endure comments along the lines of "crime writers aren't as smart as romantic novelists". Should this come to pass, however, I'm sure that it would be character-building.

I certainly wish the CWA the best of luck, and I hope that they do well. But not too well.

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Almost three weeks since I last posted. This really isn't good enough.

The last few weekends have seen a fair amount of upheaval at Wenlock Chase, with my books and computer coming down from the spare bedroom to the downstairs library, and Mrs Wenlock's books and computer going in the other direction.

I have been trying to turn the chaos to advantage by taking the opportunity to catalogue all my books on Library Thing. I suspect that I am not the only thingabrarian to pause at a fairly early stage in the cataloguing process with only the first chunk of books done. I am almost certainly not the only one to start at the beginning of the alphabet. This tendency might go some way to explaining why, in an author cloud dominated by writers of SF, one of the biggest names (literally) is Jane Austen.

My own collection, as far as it has been catalogued, can be seen as a cloud, or in full.

On top of all this cataloguing activity I have been away at the Romantic Novelists' Association's Annual Conference, which took place this year just outside Penrith, on the edge of the Lake District. I'll say some more about all that in a later post.