Tag Archives: dorothy l sayers

5 of the best: favourite fictional writers

John Mullan’s article on ten of the best fictional poets made me smile. I’ve often speculated on why so many writers write about writers. Sometimes, it’s part of a wishful (or wistful) self-insertion into the text. The first example I ever noticed was Darrell Rivers in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series. Darrell is pretty obviously both Our Heroine and Our Author, enjoying an intermittently tumultuous but ultimately charmed school life, replete with tousled black curls and star sporting ability. After authoring the Fifth Year panto, Darrell Rivers, along with Slightly Boring Sally (sidekick, steadfast, appendicitis) headed off to university, and an ultimate career in writing.

At the opposite extreme, Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert describes himself as “a novelist manque'” in Lolita, and memorably tries to persuade Charlotte Haze that his paedophile’s diary are “fragments of a novel”. Boy Dougdale’s biographies of dispossessed princesses set the tone for Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate as a novel of delicious, delightful, high-society snobs.

I could have made a list of favourite fictional diarists extremely easily, with top prize for Honoria, Dowager Duchess of Denver, who chronicles her son’s wedding and the viciousness of her cat at the start of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon. Were I to try and list my favourite fictional journalists, Sayers’s Solcombe Hardy would be amongst them.

A list of playwrights would have had to include Clare Quilty, for me the most terrifying figure in Lolita. In isolation, my knowledge of fictional poets would not fill a blog post (not that blog posts arrive in prescribed sizes, like envelopes), but I have a soft spot for the terrible Mr. Mybug (Meyerbug) of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. Here he is in deplorable action:

It can not be said that Flora really enjoyed taking walks with Mr. Mybug.  To begin with he was not really interested in anything but sex.  This was understandable, if deplorable.  After all, many of our best minds have had the same weakness.  The trouble about Mr Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which were not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr Mybug, and he pointed them out, and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all,  Flora found it difficult to reply because she was not interested.  She was therefore obliged  merely to be polite, and Mr Mybug mistook her lack of enthusiasm and though it was due to inhibitions.  He remarked how curious it was that most Englishwomen (most young Englishwomen, that was, Englishwomen of about nineteen to twenty-four) were inhibited.  Cold, that was what young Englishwomen from nineteen to twenty-four were.

I am pleased still to find that Mr. Mybug would consider me young.

Here, thanks to John Mullan, are my five of the best: fictional writers.

5. Juliet Ashton, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Juliet is just delightful. This charming book is made up of many letters, in many voices, and although all the inhabitants of post-war Guernsey have been lovingly created after meticulous research, none touches your heart like Juliet. She’s an author in search of her next bestseller (and, somewhat boringly, love), and she’s amazing. If you fell for Helene in 84 Charing Cross Road (which is another way of saying: if you have a soul, but might sell it for books some day), you’ll adore Juliet. She’s sharp, scatty and disgraceful. I wish I could be her.

4. Adrian Mole, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4

I said I wouldn’t do a list of favourite diarists, but it’s as a poet I most wish to commemorate A. Mole, Esq. “Oh Pandora!/I adore ya/I implore ye/Don’t ignore me.” Yes.

3. Jo March, Little Women.

Whenever I lack self-discipline and productivity, I think of Jo March and feel guilty. [radio 4 announcer: That was Episode 46 of “How Nineteenth-Century Literature Created Sophie’s Psyche and gave her Unrealistic Expectations about the Worlds of Work and Love”. Next week: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff.”] She named her apple tree via an injoke about Charles Kean’s wife, wrote happy potboilers until Professor Daddy Issues made her stop it, and then became a bestselling novelist and playwright while raising 4,000 orphans and pretending she didn’t want her brother in law. GOOD.

2. Harriet Vane, the Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries.

Take the mewling fervour of a Twilight fan and the mad-eyed self-righteousness of an Oxonian booknut. This is the love I feel for Harriet, my favourite literary heroine of all time. Harriet writes brilliant detective novels and her amazing boyfriend shows his love by obsessively collecting her press cuttings. In secret. In the dark. She not only writes crime, but solves crime, in Oxford and at the seaside, and she knows what to do when she finds a dead body. Her moral zero is not saying someone’s beastly book is good when it isn’t, and she dances with Lord Peter in a wine-coloured frock. I would halloo her name to the something hills, and not even on the condition she were real. Start with Strong Poison and take things from there. You will love or be dead inside.

ETA: while googling “Harriet Vane” on impulse, I have discovered that some Sayers fans (see the comments) don’t like her … how can this be? My poor heart. Although this vituperative comment may amuse Sayers fans who recognise the username.

1. William Shakespeare, No Bed for Bacon.

This excellent book deserves a much greater following than its overblown film adaptation, Shakespeare In Love. The plot is essentially the same, despite the fact that screenplay writer Tom Stoppard didn’t acknowledge reading Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon’s comedy until Private Eye pointed out the similarities.

This Shakespeare is opportunistic, obsessive, fierce and endearing, furiously scribbling at his plays despite interruptions from (among others) Francis Bacon, Richard Burbage, Salathiel Pavey (“Master Will,” he said. “I wish to drown myself. But first, I wish to go mad. And sing mad songs”), Cecil, Henslowe, bears, Born Leaders, Elizabeth of England, Raleigh, Essex, and our heroine Viola Compton. Imagine Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance without Gwyneth Paltrow. Isn’t that better?

Brahms and Simon wrote in a wonderful staccato style, rich in detail and all the more rewarding for a re-read. The historical underpinning is amazing, but the best bit is Shakespeare himself, endlessly rewriting Love’s Labours Wonne and dodging letters from Anne Hathaway. And kissing pretty girls. And possibly the Earl of Southampton.

REVIEW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh | Women & The Campus Novel

51d4obbekqlI have just finished Michael Chabon‘s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), the unforgettable but certainly not unmissable story of the rather tears-prone Art Bechstein, college student and gangster’s son, and how he spends a summer. I say ‘not unmissable’ because you’ve probably read it already. The trio of neurotic and rather boring narrator, attractive/irritating/enigmatic girl and enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual male friend is also to be found in The Talented Mr. Ripley (aren’t the current Radio 4 versions dreadful?), The Secret History and Brideshead Revisited ; all of which function to a greater or lesser degree as examples of the genre. The remainder of Pittsburgh, Highsmith- Tartt- and Waugh-free, owes a great deal to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and a bad case of genre confusion, but already I know I’ll reread it. As a whole, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh doesn’t live up to its opening, which has a brilliance of style and a kind of enormous narrative swoop that promises golden prose and enjoyable heartbreak. Read it for the opening. If you’re reading this and know me, I’ll lend you my copy. If you like books about crime, America, colleges, homosexuality, doomed youth and doomed love, you’ll like this and quite frankly I do and that’s why. I’ll definitely be reading other Chabon soon. Oh, and the bastard wrote the book for his MFA thesis. Life’s not fair.

BUT. There is a but. There’s a big but, and one which brings us right back to Brideshead. Apparently, they’ve (by which I mean director  made a film of Pittsburgh. A film, which, on its ‘Story‘ and ‘Meet the Cast‘ pages, makes no mention of anybody playing the novel’s second main character – Art’s namesake, corruptor and sometime lover, the (as I mentioned) enticing/enigmatic/somewhat homosexual Arthur Lecomte. With Art’s mostly unseen father (the gangster – no, really, it’s brilliant, the Mafia’s in it lots), Lecomte is the most interesting part of the story. I fear that the film of Pittsburgh, in sidelining Arthur/Art for the heterosexual romance between Art and Phlox, makes the same mistake as the airless, degayed and de-Catholicked Brideshead (re)-adaptation last year. Phlox is played by Mena Suvari, and if Phlox is the film’s heroine, it’s going to be a film with a vacuum at its centre.

Phlox is at the kind of girl who only exists in the campus novel. Like Jane, she’s unreal; less real even than Julia Marchmain, or Howard’s various sad-eyed victims in The History Man (1975). I wondered if this was an I-Blame-The-Patriarchy moment with something to be imputed to male authorship, but no. In Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), the most successful campus novel of recent years and (to my mind) the most beautiful (and heavily indebted to Chabon), Camilla is completely unreal, only a grey-eyed little image (albeit a beautiful one) about whom we know things, rather than knowing her. The other women, central to the story are Papen’s California friend Judy (to be unfavourably contrasted with Camilla – loud, brash, freckled, promiscuous) and Bunny’s girlfriend Marion (a ‘little thing’ who’s ‘not afraid to wear a dress – [Bunny] likes that’).

Perhaps, depressingly, it’s impossible for the female to be anything other than the Other in a novel about education. Alan Bennet makes the point admirably in The History Boys, through the lips of Mrs Lintott – but isn’t it telling that, first off, the female character added to the film was Fiona (visible sex bomb vs. referenced sex bomb of the stage script), and that second, although we’ve had the Man and now the Boys, we’ve yet to meet The History Women?

I should say that I love – absolutely adore –  all the texts I’ve just mentioned. I wouldn’t change them. But I would, if I could, give them sisters; female narratives of education to rank alongside, either talking about both sexes without casting one as Other, or focussing on women as earlier texts did on men. My favourite novel of all, Dorothy L. Sayers‘s Gaudy Night (1936, and rather madly annotated here) does this, getting to the heart of the problems of learning, sex and academia, and arguing them as honestly as possible. But I don’t know anything that’s done so, in the same dirty-handed, articulate, beautiful way, since Sayers.

That children’s fiction used to do this for girls in secondary education – Blyton, the endearing Oxenham, Bruce, Angela Brazil etc – is simultaneously recognised and derided. A quick guide – if you read the above authors now, Blyton will seem the most familiar, Oxenham the gayest, Bruce the most formulaic and Brazil weepingly funny. There are earlier, more radical texts, like the BLISSFUL er, v complex and interesting Alice Stronach’s A Newnham Friendship (1901), which is unusual in that a) it’s set at Cambridge, b) it actually gets involved with the heroines’ academic lives (Homer! Translations!) as opposed to merely their sporting/pranking exploits or noble and really quite racist capturing of unfortunate German spies, and that c) it’s really, really good.

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