Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Heyeroines in need of a slap

25. Arabella Tallant (Arabella)

Faced with the sorry tale of the “little Tallant” the question we are forced to ask is simple: just who does she think she is? By this I do not mean “what business has she pretending to be an heiress when her clothes appear to have been knitted by a minor character from The Scarlet Pimpernel?” No indeed. There is a much deeper malaise here. Let me explain.

In our first encounter with Miss Tallant we find her, with two sisters, in the schoolroom of a Parsonage in the Yorkshire village of H_____. Who amongst us, of literary taste and refinement, cannot but be struck by this scene, yet struck more forcefully by its resemblance to a typical scene from one of the less Gothick products of the pen of Mrs Gaskell. The fact that one of the sisters, whom we shall refer to as E____, is clearly quite mad (as proven by the fact that she is seeking to insert a boiled onion in one ear) merely confirms that H_____ must indeed be H_____.

And yet. In a moment all our suppositions are overturned by the discovery of a fourth sister. We must revise our opinions. Perhaps the cromnyophilic sister is not mad E____, but poor sickly B___, and we are to imagine ourselves in Orchard House. But before the end of the chapter we discover there to be an equal number of brothers also. Arabella may well be the story of a lovely lady, but we were surely not expecting this.

The sad fact is that Miss Tallant, lacking, for whatever reason (and one possible line of argument is rehearsed in a post scriptum to this post), any literary identity of her own, seems desperate to insert herself into whatever classics of 19th Century fiction she can obtain from the lending libraries of Harrowgate (and when such fiction is unavailable, who knows how low she may stoop?) This is an affliction not without risk even in the remote fastnesses of God’s Broad Acres, but how could she be safe in London, from whose very bricks fiction and fantasy must constantly drift?

We cannot know what truly delayed Miss Tallant’s journey to London until mid-February, but I suspect that there might have been an intervention of some sort. Perhaps she had become convinced the she and Sophy were surrounded by wolves and Hanoverian plotters. Or she might have been found in a hidden garden by a young Yorkshire lad with a knack for talking to animals. Whatever the truth of the matter, her family must have worked through the issues with her during the grim winter nights and to have thought her cured. How quickly they were to be proven wrong.

Barely has she left Yorkshire when Miss Tallant diverts her journey to the implausibly named village of Arksey, where she claims to have cousins. And where these cousins have a mother, Emma, her aunt. It takes two days for these lesser Tallants to get rid of their unexpected guest, who seems to have developed a whirlwind passion for the place. Oh, Auntie Em, Auntie Em.

Our heyeroine destabilised by the discovery that she cannot stay in KansasArksey any more we cannot be surprised when Miss Tallant’s perch breaks, and her body slides forward into her box (I assume that Miss Heyer knows what she is talking about here, as I for one am completely foxed). The Marston Turnpike is, alas, almost without literary merit, let alone a lending library, so Miss Tallant has little control over her situation. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Heyeroine in the general vicinity of Grantham and in want of a plot, must be in possession of a good fortune.

And in good time Miss Tallant arrives at last in London, and it is everything that she might imagine – or more accurately, everything that she might have read. Her first impressions of the metropolis are of the noise of post bells, and of wheels on cobbled streets, and of the melodious cries of charming cockney street urchins selling fresh milk and sweet red roses coals, brick dust, door mats and rat-traps. We can be sure that she considered herself well in.

Once established in the bracing Bridlington Household, Miss Tallant can really go to town. While the Incident of the Maid with the Toothache, must be considered an alarming attempt at fiction (the Queen of Denmark, perhaps?), it is Miss Tallant’s adoption of the role of Ellie from that nice Mr Kingsley’s mawkish morality tale that shows the depths to which she has fallen, taking as she does the unprepossessing Jemmy from that archetypal Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby, the breezy Lord Bridlington, and turning him over to her own Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid, Robert Beaumaris.

This episode is soon followed by a yet more desperate attempt, as she seeks to convert the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Street from a throwaway line in a magazine serial into a wholly different story. That the centre cannot hold, and things are falling apart, is so clearly shown when Mr Beaumaris goes off to meet his grandmother, the infamous Dowager Duchess, and finds the good dog Ulysses trotting closely behind, clearly intending that he too should take the road to Wigan’s peer (Wenlock apologises for letting that one slip through his normally rigorous editorial process).

Simply imposing her fictions upon herself, and occasionally Mr Beaumaris, might be overlooked in the broad scheme of things, but this is no longer enough for Miss Tallant, and with the arrival in London of her brother Bertram, she has a new victim. Her options are many. She could have him run up debts that would lead only to the sponging house or worse (although whether the Marshalsea would in reality be worse than the abode of Leaky Peg is a moot point). She could have him caught up in a financial scandal. But it seems that frequent visits to Richmond Park have given her flights of fancy a less urban edge, and in the end she decides to go down a more historical, even Scottish, route and so, perhaps as a result of mishearing an introduction during some dreadful squeeze, she introduces Bertram to her friend Chuffy.

But for Miss Tallant, there clearly remains a literary pinnacle yet unscaled by her erratic behaviour. I refer, of course, to the one known only as She Who Must be Read. And now the time for that apotheosis approaches. In chapter 15 of Arabella, Miss Tallant reaches for chapter 46 of That Book.

By now, of course, Mr Beaumaris has visited Miss Tallant’s family and been made aware of her true condition. Whether to encourage literary delusions in such a severe case is entirely wise must remain a matter of dispute, but it is clearly Mr Beaumaris’s chosen approach, at least for the purpose of removing her to a more secure environment. This he does in his unparalleled way and we can be relieved to know that, with Mrs Watchet and her “warm milk” always to hand, Miss Tallant will be well looked after from now on.

Post Scriptum

In searching for a possible cause of Miss Tallant’s condition I became aware that she has an air of fragility and delicately moulded lips. At first I thought this no more than proper for a Dresden China Miss, and should not, of itself, be a cause of instability. However it is clear from the book that Miss Tallant is no such thing. Indeed she may be, I fear, something rather inferior. Could her lack of a genuine character of her own be because she is not a Dresden China Miss, but a Franklin Mint Figurine?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The gallery in which she stood was of immense length, and partially separated into five unequal divisions by a trellis-work of what looked to be bamboo, but which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be painted iron. The central division was surrounded by a Chinese canopy of similar trellis-work hung with bells. Above, a coved ceiling projected through the upper floor, and had set in it the light towards which the Regent had directed her notice. A chimney piece in brass and iron, worked in further imitation of bamboo, was placed directly facing the middle entrance, and on either side of it, two niches, lined with yellow marble, contained cabinets.

Wenlock had the good fortune to be invited to dine last night at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Before setting out I took care to re-read the description of Judith Taverner's visit as described in Georgette Heyer's Regency Buck. The Chinese Gallery is today very much as Miss Taverner saw it, and indeed as depicted in Henry Winkles' print, now held in the Royal Collection.

Before dinner we were offered a glass or two of champagne in the kitchen, a part of the Pavilion that Miss Taverner never got to see. In her day Marie-Antoine Carême would have run the kitchen, directing his staff to produce banquets like that served on 18 January 1817 for the state visit of Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, featuring 120 different dishes. The full menu is given by The Old Foodie. The kitchen, like the Chinese Gallery, looks much as it does in this print, complete with an unfeasibly large number of small copper saucepans, although the tables have been cleared of all those silver covers. The leaves on top of the iron palm trees were added a few years after Carême's great feast.

On our way to the dinner we were given a chance to see the Music Room, in which Miss Taverner listened to a concert.

At first sight it was all a blaze of red and gold, but after her first gasp of astonishment she was able to take a clearer view of the whole, and to see that she was standing, not in some fantastic dream-palace, but in a square apartment with rectangular recesses at each end, fitted up in a style of Oriental splendour. The square part was surmounted by a cornice ornamented with shield-work, and supported by reticulated columns, shimmering with gold-leaf. Above this was an octagon gallery formed by a series of elliptical arches, and pierced by windows of the same shape. A convex cove rose over this, topped by leaf ornaments in gold and chocolate; and above this was the central dome, lined with a scale-work of glittering green and gold... I could go on, as Miss Heyer does, perhaps a little excessively, but you get the idea. And it does indeed look the same today, and as illustrated in James Agar's print.

Faced with such opulence, Miss Taverner was quite overpowered. We, however, were taken through to the Banqueting Hall.

Without a description from Miss Taverner or Miss Heyer you will need to rely on the John Nash print on the left (there is a much larger image available if you click on this one, although not for the prints above). Once again the room looked much as it did in the Pavilion's heyday, but unlike the other rooms, which are a little short of furniture after the Prince Regent's niece took most of it away in 1847, not only is the Banqueting Hall still furnished with the main table as shown, but eight smaller tables, at which we were seated, were placed along its long sides. I found myself sitting roughly where the green-jacketed gentleman is standing to the front right in Nash's illustration.

Needless to say, we were not offered les faisans truffés à la Perigueux, le turbot sauce aux crevettes, le buisson des homards or les gateaux renversés glacés au gros sucré, let alone un gros nougat à la française or a croque-en-bouche aux anis, but the food was good, the company delightful, and the setting something the like of which I am unlikely to experience again.

Monday, 20 June 2011

The British Library has announced that it is to digitise some 250,000 items published between 1700 and 1870. This project will be carried out in partnership (almost inevitably) with Google. The British Library holds around 150 million items in its collections, but how many of those are from between 1700 and 1870, and thus what proportion of them will be covered by this new partnership, I have not yet been able to establish.

Any student of Behemoths will be delighted to learn that one of the newly digitised texts will be De Natuurlyke Historie van den Hippopotamus of het Rivierpaard, by George Louis Leclerc, from 1775 (admittedly translated from a French original, but with additional material, including an account of the stuffed Hippopotamus in the Prince of Orange’s cabinet of curiosities), but I am looking forward to finding out what other Georgian and Regency treasures are to become available.
There has - quite rightly - been considerable concern over Google's earlier adventures into digitising books that are still in copyright with little or no consultation with authors and other copyright holders, but I don't think that such criticisms can be levied at this venture. Most of us simply do not have the time - or the resources - to visit the British Library, or another such comprehensive reference library when researching for historical fiction. being able to access hundreds of thousands of books from home will be wonderful. The only downside I have identified is the ease with which it will be possible to become distracted from the subject in hand, and lost down random paths paved with ancient wisdom.

De Natuurlyke Historie van den Hippopotamus of het Rivierpaard, George Louis Leclerc (1775), [The Natural History of the Hippopotamus, or River Horse] - Translated from a French original but with additional material, including an account of the stuffed Hippopotamus in the Prince of Orange’s cabinet of curiosities.
De Natuurlyke Historie van den Hippopotamus of het Rivierpaard, George Louis Leclerc (1775), [The Natural History of the Hippopotamus, or River Horse] - Translated from a French original but with additional material, including an account of the stuffed Hippopotamus in the Prince of Orange’s cabinet of curiosities.
De Natuurlyke Historie van den Hippopotamus of het Rivierpaard, George Louis Leclerc (1775), [The Natural History of the Hippopotamus, or River Horse] - Translated from a French original but with additional material, including an account of the stuffed Hippopotamus in the Prince of Orange’s cabinet of curiosities.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

What, Wenlock asks, do the following have in common?
Once you have worked out the answer, Wenlock will say no more than that, over the next few months, he plans to take them, one by one, from this list, and add them to another list.

Friday, 17 June 2011

This is annoying. The runaway success of Lord Alexander's Cipher, or: the Bridekirk Behemoth (it sold a second copy in the US today) made me think of digging out the start that I made on a sequel just over five years ago. I blogged about it at the time. The laptop on which I wrote it was stolen a few years ago, but I thought that I had the draft backed up on a USB stick.

After much searching on the deepest recesses of the writing room in Wenlock Towers I found the USB stick, only to discover that of the sequel there was no trace. So I shall have to start all over again.

I do remember that he story opened with the unfortunate destruction by fire of a Chinese Pagoda in St James's Park. This happened in the summer of 1814 and was believed at the time to have been an accident. Five years ago I had a cunning explanation; I'll have to think it up again.

So, to ease my frustration I decided to put together a teaser cover. The title is just a place holder. Those who have read LAC,o:tBB will have a fair idea who the orphan might be, but whether she actually will play a leading role in this one I don't know. The heroine will be a person mentioned only in passing in the first book, and the hero probably won't be Lord Alexander, although he will be playing a part. I won't really know what to call this one until it is written - whenever that might be.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

My newspaper of choice, theguardian, has just published a list of the 100 best non-fiction books ever written, and actually, it's not a bad list.

Which doesn't mean I agree with it from end to end. OK, so it would take a bit of special pleading to persuade the editors of the merits of Wenlock's style bible,  On Dandyism by Jules Amédée Barbey-d'Aurevilly (1845), not least because it is really no more than an essay. Similarly Paterson's Roads (1785, and updated regularly thereafter), for all that it is an essential guide to travel by coach along the principal turnpikes of England, probably fails the readability test. However there are a few more obvious omissions.

On a wet summer's evening Wenlock likes little better than to curl up with a mug of gin and a good dictionary. Both Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and the Rev John Lemprière's A Classical Dictionary (1788) are delightful reads, and deserve a place on the list.

On a less wet summer's evening, the only thing that will do is a good game of cricket, and that is best captured by C L R James in his Beyond a Boundary (1963). Miss Austen, in Northanger Abbey, refers to a children's game by the name of "baseball", and even that has its literature, perhaps most memorably in The Boys of Summer (1976) by Roger Kahn.

Had Wenlock world enough, and time, no doubt I could come up with so many more worthy candidates, but perhaps my last choice for now would be from the realm of Euterpe. Perhaps the only way to understand what is going on in 20th Century "classical" music is to read The Rest is Noise, by Alex Ross.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Apart from a pointer to a blog that never really got going, it has been almost five years since I last posted here, and the world has not stopped moving. Most significantly, from the lofty perspective of Wenlock Towers, Amazon has introduced the Kindle, and with it, the Kindle Store.

Suddenly self-publishing has become a little less desperate, and as hordes of other writers drag their much-loved but misunderstood masterpieces out from under their beds, and try to work out what a Mobipocket might be, I have done so too.

A weekend spent reading, rereading and proof reading Lord Alexander's Cipher, and playing around with image manipulation programs and free fonts, has resulted in the arrival of the Behemoth in the Kindle Store for readers in the territories served by Amazon's operations in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany.

If you have a Kindle, then you can try the first chapter and a half for free. If not there is a free Kindle emulator for the PC and the Mac, and of course apps for android smartphones and all those iThings.

So give it a go - and tell me what you think, whether by commenting here, or leaving a review at Amazon.