I had some random conversations with my children today.
- On getting home, my daughter greeted me with, “Look at this English Language assignment on the Suffragettes. Do you think Draco Malfoy is a good character? And did you know that China got rid of their one child policy last week?”
- I asked my other daughter, “What did you do at college today?” “I went to book club.” “Don’t you have to have read a book to do that?” “No, you just go and talk about what you are reading, and then they have a raffle and give you a free book.” “What book did you get?” “The Communist Manifesto.” “What’s that about?” “It’s the thing that Karl Marx wrote.” “Oh! you mean the actual Communist Manifesto.”(I’d assumed that there was some novel out there with a clever reference in its title.)
- To my daughter (not the mathematical one, the other one): “How did you do that?? I thought I was the only person in the world who’d memorised their Home Hub code!” “It’s because I had to type it in so often. I can’t remember our phone number, though.”
They’re both back at college/school today after half term. I worked all week, as I was too busy to think about taking leave, but I did have the office all to myself. I am not sure if I have mentioned that after a “trigger” incident in the office I tend not to have speech radio on any more and stick to 6Music. Being by myself gives me a chance to catch up on Radio 4 readings and dramas. I especially enjoy the ones that are too hammy and embarrassing to have on while anyone else is there, such as the Marple and Poirot adaptations that are on iPlayer at the moment. The acting is just soooo terrible!
My favourite play has been Hattie Naylor’s J’Accuse, a dramatisation of the trial(s) and imprisonment of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer convicted of treason, and the way it divided France into those who saw the case as an appalling miscarriage of justice and those who saw the conviction as vital in upholding the rule of law and society as it stood. Hattie Naylor also dramatised Samuel Pepys’s diaries for radio; she has this skill of making the events unfold clearly enough for total non-historians like me, without being clunky in the exposition, and has this amazing sensitivity for portraying characters without turning them into stereotypes. I learned so much about French society at the end of the nineteenth century from this very enjoyable play.
I was also surprised to enjoy a reading of Virginia Woolf’s Flush, which is Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s world from the point of view of her pet dog.
It wasn’t so much the bizarre premise that had previously put me off Flush, but the problems I usually have with historical fiction. I have started reading too many books/seen too many films that go along the lines of “Einstein went fishing, walked round for a bit then went home and had a furious row with the President of Israel.” ie veering from the so-mundane-why-include? to the that-can’t-possibly-have-happened-why-include?
The one thing that I do really like in historical/biographical fiction is where a genuine attempt is made to understand and create sympathy for the likely motives of the characters. Naylor heart rendingly captures the anguish of the wrongly imprisoned Dreyfus, and even if her Pepys and his wife didn’t really share the same understanding that they do in her Diary dramatisations, their sympathies towards each other highlight their very human reactions to the events around, making the history more relateable for the audience.
The last and best recent example of this biographical sympathy is Colm Tóibín’s The Master, a novel about the Henry James’s later years.
It took me three goes to get past the slow start, which has Henry James wandering randomly about pondering as he waits for the premier of his first play, Guy Domville, to finish. But the chapter picks up quite dramatically, and you really feel for and understand what James is going through as he worries about how his play will be received, as Tóibín takes us through his thought processes so logically and thoroughly.
The book moves on to look back on different aspects of James’s personal life, and the influences each of these had on his works. There is James’s dead sister Alice; his dead cousin Minny; a phantom illness that James had as a young man, encouraged by his mother; the effect of the American Civil War on the young James; the fact of his having escaped fighting in it, and the class implications of American society. This latter point Tóibín, an Irish writer, expands into an astonishingly understanding exposition of the effect New England society in the late 19th century had on its writers.
I was still moved early on to think – I wonder…? This time however, I wasn’t wanting to go and check out a fact because it seemed preposterously unlikely, but rather because I was so impressed with the way something had been described that I wanted to know more.
I’m now reading A Brief History of Seven Killings, the Booker Prize winning novel, which also takes historical events as its basis. Although Marlon James has quite a different approach!