This is, I guess, an appropriate post for the run-up to Hallowe’en! Warning: gory/disturbing stuff beneath the cut (my first attempt at using one on WordPress, hope it works!)
A couple of days ago, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. For the uninitiated, this is a worldwide online project where participants each write a novel – 50,000 words – in the 30 days of November. Since signups, I’ve been fretting about the possibilities of libel, slander and nobody speaking to me ever again. I hope this is merely a clever displacement activity to avoid the most likely reason for failure – simply not producing those 50,000 words.
The prospect of winning NaNo (trans: successfully meeting the word limit) fills me with huge relief: in 30 days, it’d be done. I’d have written a novel, and – no matter how bad, boggy and unpublishable – I would know it could be done. And then I could do it again, rather better – it’d never be so difficult again, not until the tricky third-novel-slump where I have to go and stay in a friends’ house in the Fens and drink tea and stare out and possibly have a passionate/doomed love affair with the man who brings the post/dark-eyed waif from the village. And then produce something a bit Woolf and a bit Dylan Thomas.
God, can you imagine how that child would have looked.
I am also, my brothers, joining A Book Club. I have never been sure about Book Clubs. They always screamed Richard & Judy and those 3 for 2 stickers (no that’s not just snobbery, those stickers induce HORRIBLE ANXIETY, I can NEVER find 3 books I want on the table and then the girl asks and god), also the prospect of sitting round discussing Clarissa Dalloway’s Motivation does tend to make you scream when it’s what you do for – well, not a living. For the three years that push you dramatically into debt, teach you to eat plovers’ eggs and are so golden-and-aquatint that the rest of the world seems cold and dark, woe, woe, et cetera. But Simon is in lots, so they must be okay, and now Book Clubs appeal to me in the same way as NaNoWriMo. I am jobless. I am dolescum. I finally have the time.
Plus, my sole close schoolfriend currently in Really Gainful Employment (Recruitment Consultant, hoyes) hates it so much he suggested a Book Club in his first recorded moment of speech without irony. Sincerity, from him, indicates a man on the edge of a quarter-life crisis/a Birmingham-based Columbine, so we’re all going to sit in a pub and mock our own literary endeavours, before choosing books to read for next time.
Of the two readers whose tastes I know well, I predict – respectively – Nabakov and Orwell as opening gambits. I’m veering towards Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (haven’t read it yet – any thoughts?) for several reasons: 1) love my boys though I do, I’d be surprised if they chose many women writers – they’re Salinger & Orwell kind of guys, and 2) the fact it’s dystopian means they might actually like it. I’m not a big reader of dystopia, but I adored Oryx & Crake. Here’s another reason I’m nervous of the Book Club – when I talk about books outside an academic context, I sound sort of stupid. I don’t know whether to play nice and seem witless, or leap into a tutorial-style discussion and attempt to shed their hearts’ blood.
In terms of what I’m actually reading, I’m on a massive P. D. James kick, and waiting (probably forever) for Gary Taylor’s Inventing Shakespeare to arrive from Amazon. I heard P. D. James preach in chapel once, but until now Dalgliesh has been a big omission from my personal detective-canon. Having read Cover Her Face, Shroud For A Nightingale, The Black Tower, A Mind to Murder and now Death of an Expert Witness, I watched an ITV3 profile of her earlier in the week. Gyles Brandreth being an amiable idiot, Ruth Rendell being surprisingly closed-lipped on a woman she obviously loves, Mark Lawson being an unforgivable cretin (apparently Dorothy L Sayers “was all right on character but couldn’t really write a sentence”, berk berk “>berk berk) and Val McDermid rather ostentatiously calling her “Phyllis” (I wanted to link directly to McDermid’s website, but the typewriter sound effects are too annoying).
Several of PD James’s novels owe a positive debt to Dorothy L. Sayers. Shroud for a Nightingale has the same closed female community, sexual spectres and last-minute-assault-on-the-sleuth as Gaudy Night and, not coincidentally, is my favourite thus far. Set in a nurses’ training school in the 1970s, its opening pages contain one of the most horrific murders in detective fiction, the death of Nurse Pearce in the nurses’ demonstration room.
Talking of horrific murders, it cannot be every family that stores an almost-forgotten cache of crime scene photos in the same blanket box as old letters and birth certificates. I guess I’m just lucky. Our blanket box is a last-chance saloon for paperwork, never opened except for those mysterious periods in my childhood when my father would get out 400 pieces of paper and balance our finances (or at least acquaint himself with the imbalance).
Beneath the layers of respectable bills and invoices lies stuff from a film my dad worked on in 1990,about an unsolved murder in 1930s Liverpool. Do you remember the Prudential insurance ads? The Man From The Pru was the story of William Herbert Wallace, whose wife Julia was bludgeoned to death on the hearth in their shabby, cramped front room. Wallace claimed he’d been out at the time of the murder, searching for a non-existent in a street that was never built. The client was R. M. Qualtrough and the street was Menlove Gardens East, and I am enough of a terrifying crime nerd that I’m telling you all this from memory. Wallace was tried, convicted and then sensationally acquitted. He didn’t hang, but died a broken man. The film starred Jonathan Pryce, Anna Massey and it dates horribly and as a child I was strictly, strictly forbidden to read the contents of the THE MAN FROM THE PRU file that was exacavated during my father’s financial archaeological digs.
My parents rarely censored what I read. Occasionally my mother has guilt that I got hold of trashfests like Yes, Mama (illegitimate orphan cruelly treated father disinherits mother senile child abuse prostitution suicide marries one-armed Boer veteran) and A Lady in Berkshire (“Kitty Winters could never have been called handsome but at that moment she looked almost beautiful” — trufax, and I found that at primary school) at nine, but since I also read all her Shakespeare, Dickens, Blyton, Christie & EJ Howard, it didn’t hurt. I think censoring children’s reading is pointless and stultifying, unless your precious lamb is somehow veering towards Firearms Monthly and Mein Kampf. I was only ever banned from The Jewels of Tessa Kent, which I read surreptitiously and guiltily in five-minute intervals (at thirteen, two years after Emily Organ passed round the sex bits in The Horse Whisperer to an awestruck Form 7X), The Betsy (mother decides Harold Robbins automobile expose will destroy child’s innocence) and, unforgettably, The Contents Of This Folder. My father said sternly that it was Not Very Nice (I must have been about five or six the last time the folder was unearthed in pursuit of papers – not long after the film was made, in fact), but otherwise I think he’d forgotten the thing existed.
I must have been a compliant kid. I didn’t read the folder until yesterday. And yes – apart from the respectable and fascinating original newspapers, it was horrible, horrible stuff…
A piece of history, but horrible. Especially since the post-mortem photographer who attended Julia Wallace chose to stretch her along her own stove before taking his shots.
At the same time, though, these black-and-white grainy images, weird and artificial, dimly lit, showing wounds but not a face and seeming horribly unreal. I was sickened by what I knew the shapes and stains represented, but the image itself seemed fake, even though I knew I was looking at a real woman, not the actress who, fifty years later, was made up to represent her. The real photograph was less disturbing than the fictional description P. D. James gives of the murder of a non-existent nurse. Her prose, inviting the worst horrors of our imagination, is more vividly disturbing than the real image of Julia Wallace. Against P. D. James’s description of Nurse Pearce, bleach forced down her nose via a tube that leads straight to her stomach, insides instantly burning away, Julia Wallace’s image is ugly, appalling but also somehow banal.
I don’t know why. I don’t know what it says about me that a story can affect me more than a police photo of a battered woman. One, of course, was presented for my entertainment – P. D. James adamantly opposes the explicit literary depiction of rape or heavy torture, but the choking, struggling nurse is one of the most horrific images in detective literature. I don’t think it’d be true to cite this as an example of the violence in popular culture (in this case, a popular piece of genre fiction) deadening sensibilities when faced with real violence (Julia Wallace’s death). It’d also be sort of ironic – in this instance, the Wallace photos were retained to inform the creation of another fiction – the film The Man From The Pru.
Perhaps it’s in the nature of language vs. image – a photograph taken exclusively to record a body tries to give us ‘the full story’. With prose, we interpret the writer’s creation to make a (re)creation in the mind’s eye. We help to image the horror, and because the writer has signalled to us the fright and revulsion of the onlookers, the pain of the victim, we imagine elements that would be most horrific and agonising to us. It’s like what Oscar Wilde said to counter the critics of Dorian Gray, those who, with W. E. Henley, interpreted Dorian’s ‘sins’ as evidence that the book was written for ‘outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph-boys’. Wilde replied that ‘What Dorian Gray’s sins are nobody knows. He who finds them has brought them’.
This is, incidentally, rubbish – Dorian’s ‘sins’ explicitly include murder and blackmail – but in psychological terms, Wilde has a point. Freud called it projection: Wilde’s readers seeing in Dorian’s ‘sins’ their own anxieties (and, perhaps, desires). When we read a description of a murder (a description which, in good prose, must own suggest – a police photographer must catalogue) we project onto the description the aspects of the scene which we most fear.
But perhaps, also, there’s a simpler explanation for my blankness when faced with the crime scene photograph of poor Julia Wallace. In ‘real life’ (weasel words here, because of course for Julia that photo was real life, except you know not, and agh), shock (up to and including acute stress reaction, not circulatory shock) kicks in to remove us, even protect us, from truly appalling situations, depersonalising and disassociating us from the unthinkable that’s somehow occurred. It’s why the bereaved feel numb. Perhaps the photo is a grim reality at which the mind shuts down, a reality you can’t confront because in normal life you should never have to.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.