Monthly Archives: June 2009

The letters of the alphabet frighten me terribly

I was looking through my notebooks and came across a great quote about writing from Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel about St. Francis of Assisi, Saint Francis. (I can’t vouch for the translation in the linked edition–I read a much earlier one–but as far as I can tell it’s the only one in print.) The book is narrated by Francis’s best friend and follower, Brother Leo, who says (and I apologize in advance for the association of blackness with the devil):

“Yes, may God forgive me, but the letters of the alphabet frighten me terribly. They are sly, shameless demons–and dangerous! You open the inkwell, release them; they run off and how will you ever get control of them again? They come to life, join, separate, ignore your commands, arrange themselves as they like on the paper–black, with tails and horns. You scream at them and ignore them in vain: they do as they please. Prancing, pairing up shamelessly before you, they deceitfully expose what you did not wish to reveal, and they refuse to give voice to what is struggling, deep within your bowels, to come forth and speak to mankind.”

He’s got it right on the nose, doesn’t he?

Here is another bit from the book that I love:

“When an almond tree because covered with blossoms in the heart of winter, all the trees around it began to jeer. ‘What vanity,’ they screamed, ‘what insolence! Just think, it believes it can bring spring in this way!’ The flowers of the almond tree blushed for shame. ‘Forgive me, my sisters,’ said the tree. ‘I swear I did not want to blossom, but suddenly I felt a warm springtime breeze in my heart.'”

"Is it true, the dreadful story about you and Currer Bell?"

I recently talked about Thackeray’s dislike of Regency clothing. One of my favorite historical anecdotes about unfortunate coincidences and social awkwardness is about him and Charlotte Brontë.

I’m not actually sure how many times I’ve read Jane Eyre. The scene where Mr. Rochester talks about how there’s a thread from his chest to hers, and if they were separated he might take to bleeding internally—I swoon every time. A few years ago, I got a copy that reprinted the preface to the second edition. I laughed and laughed. Here’s the relevant bit in its entirety, because you don’t really get the scale of the fullsome earnestness otherwise:

“There is a man in our own days whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears: who, to my thinking, comes before the great ones of society, much as the son of Imlah came before the throned Kings of Judah and Israel; and who speaks truth as deep, with a power as prophet-like and as vital—a mien as dauntless and daring. Is the satirist of Vanity Fair admired in high places? I cannot tell; but I think if some of those amongst whom he hurls the Greek fire of his sarcasm, and over whom he flashes the levin-brand of his denunciation, were to take his warnings in time—they or their seed might yet escape a fatal Ramoth-Gilead.

Why have I alluded to this man? I have alluded to him, Reader, because I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of the day—as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things; because I think no commentator on his writings has yet found the comparison that suits him, the terms which rightly characterize his talent. They say he is like Fielding: they talk of his wit, humor, comic powers. He resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture: Fielding could stoop on carrion, but Thackeray never does. His wit is bright, his humor attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud, does to the electric death-spark hid in his womb. Finally, I have alluded to Mr. Thackeray, because to him—if he will accept the tribute of a total stranger—I have dedicated this second edition of Jane Eyre.

Currer Bell.
Dec. 21st, 1847.”

Now, Thackeray is a very Victorian, moral writer, and he does have social/political/moral points to make with his books. But he’s also a snarky guy who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. And Charlotte Brontë is a genius, and Thackeray loved Jane Eyre, but…her sense of humor isn’t really her strong point, is it? I can’t imagine Thackeray reading this incredibly sincere, dramatic, serious dedication without laughing yet also being sort of vicariously embarrassed. I don’t think his intention was ever to save anyone from a fatal Ramoth-Gilead*, you know?

So I laughed, and I thought no more about it. But THEN I was reading a biography of Thackeray that my dad had lying around the house and discovered there was more to the story!**

Thackeray’s wife, like the first Mrs. Rochester, was mentally ill. Which Charlotte Brontë would have had no way of knowing. But there was ALREADY a rumor going around that “Currer Bell” was Thackeray’s children’s governess, getting back at him for his unflattering portrayal of her as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair (which came out in serial form the same year). So when this dedication was printed a lot of people saw it as proof.

Yes! They were convinced that Jane was a Mary Sue for Charlotte Brontë and that Jane Eyre was about her and Thackeray’s forbidden love!

This rumor was so popular it was still going around THIRTEEN YEARS LATER. In 1860 Thackeray was at a dinner party, and an American lady asked, “Is it true, the dreadful story about you and Currer Bell?”

Thackeray said, “Alas, madam, it is all too true. And the fruits of that unhallowed intimacy were six children. I slew them all with my own hand.”

I love Thackeray a lot.

Now I’m wondering if Georgette Heyer was inspired by this misunderstanding when she wrote Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle.

*I looked up Ramoth-Gilead, in case any of you were wondering. Apparently the reference is to 1 Kings 22: all the prophets except Micaiah tell King Ahab he’ll win if he fights to take back Ramoth-Gilead from the Syrians. Micaiah says, “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the LORD said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace.” Ahab gets really mad and throws Micaiah in prison and goes into battle anyway. Of course he loses and gets killed.

…It doesn’t say whether they let Micaiah out of prison after that.

**For this post, I confirmed the details in Love’s Madness by Helen Small.

Five Titles In Search Of A Novel

I’ve been writing historical romance since I was 17, and since then I’ve never wanted to write any other kind of novel. I don’t get plot bunnies for them, either.

What I do get are titles.

Seriously, I have a whole list of titles for never-to-be-written novels in such genres as:

The Great American Novel: Meet Me in Sumner J. Calish Square.
The Great American Expatriate Novel: The Bushes in Paris Have Thorns.
The Great Jewish-American Novel: Envious Kishke (and its sequel, Kaddish Cheese).
The Great American Novel with a Southern Setting: A Jar Big Enough to Hold the Sky.

I have no desire to actually WRITE any of these books. I don’t know anything about their plots or characters, and anyway my talent is for writing an entirely different kind of book. But what I love about them is that you can tell from the title exactly what KIND of book they would be.

Obviously romance titles are often instantly recognizable too, and a lot of the time you can even guess subgenre: historical, paranormal, romantic suspense, comedy, &c. Which is something I love. I think it’s amazing how genres and subgenres develop their own style and culture and conventions that a community of writers and readers can play with and follow and subvert and love and laugh at and share and make their own.

I love fake books and book titles within novels, too, so long as it’s done with affection–for example, The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death in Ellen Kushner’s Riverside novels.

I also love when real period titles get a mention. In In for a Penny, my hero reads Chronicles of an Illustrious House; or the Peer, the Lawyer, and the Hunchback. That’s an actual book published by the Minerva Press in 1816, and it’s much funnier than anything I could have come up with on my own!

Of course, it’s not foolproof. For example, when I first saw the movie poster for “Immortal Beloved,” I was CONVINCED it was going to be a vampire movie. You’ve got the intense 19th century guy in a red cravat, the beautiful women with chokers, and of course, the name–“Immortal Beloved.” (Obviously, I knew nothing about the life of Beethoven.) I was completely stunned at being wrong. All the signs were there!

Does anyone else make up titles for books you’ll never write? And if so, what are your titles?

And was there ever a time you were fooled by a title?

I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous

One of my favorite artists is Kate Beaton. She draws whimsical, energetic, hilarious webcomics–and a lot of them have historical subjects! One of my favorite Regency-themed ones is this one about Prinny.

Anyway, when I was visiting New York a few months ago and went to meet my editor Leah, I wore my Napoleon-eating-cookies t-shirt. Alissa, an assistant editor at Dorchester, asked me about it, so I sent along a couple of comics with my contract. (Okay I need to take a moment. Typing “my contract” is still very exciting for me.)

So Leah went to the Museum of Comics and Comic Arts festival and MET her! I am so, so jealous. Kate even drew her a cute sketch of Jane Austen being long-suffering about the hot men in her head and their unreasonable demands. Check it out here in Leah’s blog!

One of the things I love about Kate Beaton is the way she draws historical clothing. She captures so much personality and period detail with a few simple lines. And this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I love historical clothing. I’ll admit to a soft spot for Georgian fashion (powder and patch!), but I really, really adore Regency-era stuff too.

Guess who hated Regency fashion? Thackeray. His novel Vanity Fair takes place over about ten or fifteen years (not sure exactly) surrounding the Battle of Waterloo. The recent movie with Reese Witherspoon had FABULOUS costumes–Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ haircut in that movie is one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen, and I’m not even a big fan of his. But when Thackeray drew his illustrations, he used contemporary (late 1840s) clothing. Here’s his explanation:

“It was the author’s intention, faithful to history, to depict all the characters of this tale in their proper costume, as they wore them at the commencement of this century. But when I remember the appearance of people in those days, and that an officer and lady were actually habited like this–

I have not the heart to disfigure my heroes and heroines by costumes so hideous; and have, on the contrary, engaged a model of rank dressed according to the present fashion.”

I have always found this absolutely hilarious, because to me, 1840s clothes are SO much less attractive.

But remember how, until a couple of years ago, everyone was so hideously embarrassed by the eighties? It was impossible to look at eighties fashion and find it even remotely attractive. And now you see sort of modernized, sexy depictions of eighties fashion around sometimes, and the nineties are starting to seem a little embarrasing (oh dear God, the shoulderpads! the HAIR! Watch an episode of “Lois and Clark” sometime and you’ll see what I mean).

When I was in elementary school (early 90s) there was NOTHING more horrifying than bellbottoms. I remember watching some kind of educational film made in the seventies when I was about ten, and every time a pair of bellbottoms came on screen the entire class would start laughing. And then flared jeans and peasant blouses came back in style, and “That 70s Show” took 70s fashion and made it look pretty adorable, and pictures of the 70s don’t seem quite so appalling anymore. (They’re still a LITTLE appalling.)

Is there a ten-to-twenty-year rotation on this stuff? Was Regency fashion Thackeray’s equivalent of the eighties?

And how can the same outfit seem so great at the time, so awful a few years later, and kind of cute and nostalgic after a couple of decades?