Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Dark machinations, infidelity and intrigue: just another meeting of the SVA

Now we are six. On 17 November we welcomed Charlotte as a new member. Although unwell with the flu she persevered to the end of the meeting and even found the strength to make one or two acerbic remarks about Rob's latest two-thousand-word extract from 'The Spaniard's Wife', an account of dark machinations, infidelity and intrigue that traces a politician's path from Glasgow's slum tenements to Westminster.The extract displayed all of Rob's usual strong points: excellent command of grammar and dialogue, detailed research of his subject and expert development of characters and plot. I was unable to find any missing vocative commas but I enjoyed pulling him up on the use of the hideous 'comma splice' (the joining together of two sentences with a comma) and an even more hideous exclamation mark in the title of Chapter Three (War!).

If there was one criticism that received general agreement it had to be an absence of detailed discription of the environment in which the action takes place. Linda, whose work I think shows great descriptive flair, remarked that it was a little colourless and Tony felt that Chapter 3 skated over details. I thought that his descriptions of the Glasgow slums at the beginning of the twentieth century might be a little more Dickensian; take this example from the opening of Bleak House:

As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes - gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke) , adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs, fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin, fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of the shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Unfortunately the story of 'The Spaniard's Wife' isn't related by an omniscient narrator who has the luxury of being able to focus simultaneously upon the Essex marshes, the Kentish heights and the shivering little 'prentice boy on a ship's deck, but I hope you get the general gist: this is great descriptive writing. Dickens's attention to detail truly immerses the reader in Victorian London.

An interesting point of discussion was opened by Tony's remark that Rob's reluctance to use natural contractions such as wouldn't and isn't even in direct speech gave some of his dialogue a slightly stilted feeling. Rob replied that he had read somewhere that this was a device to be used if the reader was to get the impression that the dialogue took place several generations ago, but I found myself in agreement with Tony. The following extract from Bleak House (written in the mid-nineteenth century) doesn't bear out Rob's theory:

'Where would you wish to go?' she asked.
'Anywhere, my dear,' I replied.
'Anywhere's nowhere,' said Mrs Jellyby, stopping perversely.
'Let us go somewhere at any rate,' said I.
'I don't care!' she said. 'Now, you are my witness, Miss Summerson, I say I don't care - but if he was to come to our house, with his great shining lumpy forehead, night after night, till he was as old as Methuselah, I wouldn't have anything to say to him. Such Asses as he and Ma make of themselves!'

It is worth noting from this passage that Dickens - one of our greatest novelists - apparently endorses the use of the dash (Linda) and of adverbs (Rob).

Rob drew our attention to an announcement in the Parish magazine by another writers' group in Bewdley eager to recruit new members. Charlotte volunteered to go undercover and infiltrate their organisation as a mole and report back to HQ, but Rob suggested that if we treated them as friends rather than rivals we might be able to collaborate (at festivals, for example) and that he'd send them an introductory email.

We calmed down.


  1. I note also that Dickens attributes dialogue using verbs such as 'asked' and 'replied' in the short extract above. England's greatest novelist also uses the term 'said I'. All I can say is that the current crop of twenty-something Oxbridge graduates, who, as agents and publishers' editors, control what is published these days, would reject Dickens in favour of more marketable 'talent' such as Katie Price.

  2. When I set out to become a writer I was naive enough to assume that if I wrote a good book it would be published. After the long and painful road to publication (visit 'For Aspiring Authors' on I have come to realise that publishers are in business to sell books, not to nuture and promote literary talent. They will publish whatever they believe is guaranteed to sell, which means books by well-established authors or ghost-written tomes with the name of a celebrity on the spine. Some of these books are extremely poor, but are apparently a better bet than a punt on a talented unknown. Occasionally I wonder if publishers provide the trash that the public wants to read or if the public is obliged to read whatever trash the publishers publish.
    Chicken or egg?

  3. How do I post a comment? If you can read this then there is no need to tell me.

  4. I can post a comment! The problem with that is having to think of something to say.

  5. Welcome, Annie. We are waiting with breath well and truly baited ...

  6. Thank you for your offer of friendship, it is much preferable to being infiltrated by moles!

    Bewdley Writers Guild.