Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Mrs Mountbatten Turns Over a New Leaf

A Writer’s Review of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.

“Goes to the very heart of what literature does.”

ALAN Bennett has made a career out of writing about ordinary people, in fact he seems embroiled in a competition with himself to ‘out-ordinary’ his cast of characters who fade into the wallpaper, noticing the dust and fingerprints on the skirting board as they disappear.

From his gripping Talking Heads series to the divine ordinariness of memoirs about his Yorkshire family in Untold Stories, this has been a fascinating journey into the humour and pathos of the seemingly mundane.

ROYAL MALADY Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren in The Madness of King George. (Photo: Keith Hamshere)
ROYAL MALADY Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren in The Madness of King George. (Photo: Keith Hamshere)

At the other end of his oeuvre sits Bennett’s ruminations on those most would class as ‘extra’-ordinary, most notably in Bennett’s stage- and screenplay The Madness of George III, famously altered to The Madness of King George at the cinema so as not to confuse US audiences about having missed I and II in the series, a ‘Bennettian’ twist if ever there was one.

Written a decade later, The Uncommon Reader is a beguiling companion piece to that previous study of royal character and frailty. Like King George, Queen Elizabeth II is quickly overtaken by something those around her consider madness after a fashion, when she exhibits a surprising appetite to read, and read voraciously.

As the novella’s protagonist, Elizabeth proves every bit as plucky, observant and youthful as a Jane Austen heroine. Reading affords her a sense of escapism and leads her to seek connections with those around her.

But a pervading sense of regret waits around every corner for Her Majesty. As literature becomes the great companion that Bennett observes is missing from this privileged life, it comes with a realisation of enormous opportunities missed.

41qiimkmhpl-_sx308_bo1204203200_In this regard, the Queen becomes less Lizzie Bennet and more like the central protagonist in one of Bennett’s monologues, which I’ll speculatively title Mrs Mountbatten Turns Over a New Leaf, in honour of how his characters always seem to find the key to reaching out.

Whether they manage to turn that key – and thereby escape their circumstances – is the rich seam of Bennett’s tragicomic style, and there are some stark differences between the journey of Queen Elizabeth and the classic Talking Heads mix of self-delusion of characters who tend to remain in their comfort zones.

The Uncommon Reader is a divine little diversion, but don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity.

This book goes to the very heart of what literature does, and how it has the potential to change the world through opening hearts and minds.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Madeleine’s heroines not so black and white

A Writer’s review of Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black.

“St John is reminding Australians to lighten up.”

“BUT she is a woman, although an Australian, so you know it is never after all only amusement on the part of a woman. The heart is always engaged, and so may be broken. And it will be my fault.”

So says the brilliantly observed Lithuanian anti-hero of this book, the divine Magda, marking out the emotional territory of Madeleine St John’s first novel.

9781921922299Just out of school and awaiting her final examination results, when suburban Lisa takes a summer job at the city’s best department store in the ladies’ fashion section she encounters an array of women, their lives united by donning the same black dress on the shop floor.

Despite the uniformity of the title, St John fashions remarkable characters. There’s Magda, a ‘continental’ in charge of haute couture who embraces not only her love of high fashion, but continually reminds everyone around her about their good fortune to be living in a place such as Sydney at a time such as 1960.

Her unbridled positivity is counterpointed with the lovelorn Fay, past marriageable age but still dreaming despite everyone’s fears for her; and Patty, married and childless, confused about how she got into both states.

It’s Christmas, it’s hot, and the scene is set for conflict.

Yet it seem to take an age to arrive. Akin to the work of Jane Austen, The Women in Black avoids a classic story arc, as many comedies of manners do, and attempts to frame human behaviour in other ways.

Austen managed to instill her novels with light-hearted digs at the class system, the marriage game and how close genteel women in reduced circumstances come to ‘falling’. But where Austen does let some of her characters take the leap, in The Women in Black St John keeps her cast of women away from the brink.

I was reminded of Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’s seminal wartime Australia novel Come In Spinner as I was reading. This is not a surprise – both books focus on the lives and loves of a cluster of colleagues in a well-populated place of business in Sydney.

HOME SPUN First edition cover (1951).

But I found myself yearning for Spinner’s stronger sense of drama. Exploring womens’ rights, abortion, prostitution and female identity, Cusack and James’s book courageously formed a much-needed stepping stone for the advancement of literature about women in this country. They were egged on by Miles Franklin, author of the much earlier My Brilliant Career, who the authors acknowledged as the ‘godmother’ of their collaboration.

Both novels include deft portraits of mid-century Australian marriages from a woman’s perspective. The sense of expectation and powerlessness, the giving and withholding of intimacy, the desire for equality that seems beyond reach, and the sense of being let down by and in competition with other wives and mothers in the pursuit of unattainable perfection.

“A political novel in the same way that a cartoon can be political.”

Yet I was met with a constant sense of Madeleine St John smiling at my reactions. Where I settled into another chapter anticipating Magda’s plan to capture a guileless Aussie gal into something sinister, like the white slave trade so often feared where immigrants were concerned in the 1950s, St John instead creates wonderful and humane character portraits of three-dimensional and extremely funny ‘reffos’, or, as we now call them, refugees.

St John was in her fifties when The Women in Black was completed, and it’s the book’s sense of maturity that makes it a worthwhile read.

It’s been accused of being anachronistic – a story about 1950’s sensibilities published in the 1990s – but St John had lived through enough of the twentieth century to blossom as a keen observer when the same rising conservatism reared its head ahead of the millennium’s turn.

With great gentility and pathos, she frames this emotional and literal austerity so it can be seen for what it is: overblown panic built on first world problems.

Like Magda, St John is reminding Australians to lighten up. The threats we perceive are not those that consume other parts of the world. We would do better to look at what’s actually in our lap, which is ultimately what all of the women wearing the uniform black – and their husbands and fathers – are brought to.

In that sense, I define The Women in Black as a political novel in the same way that a cartoon can be political, using a light touch when exploring serious issues. If the planned screenplay of the novel follows St John’s lead in this manner, and not simply her comedy, it will be worth watching.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Pitching practice for writers

SERVED UP Making a meal of your hard writing work.
SERVED UP Making a meal of your hard writing work.

WHEN I was a teenager with a head full of writing dreams and acres of my very own fantasy novels in my wake,  one of my favourite pastimes was designing the covers of my latest books, long before I’d even written a word.

Despite the fun of emulating the great cover designs of the day, this process was a handy short-term distraction from the long-term graft of capturing ideas and writing them into shape.

When I returned to fiction writing five years ago, I was determined to avoid this salacious trap and eschewed all musings on titles, covers, blurbs and similar ego-massaging pastimes.

I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Then I read, and read, and read.

When I eventually began making submissions to publishers, who asked me to describe, define and sell my work to them, I reached the point of forming what’s known as a pitch.

Time for a little dreaming, then. Here’s what I learned …

Titles always change

Manuscripts need to have a file name on your computer, so you (and anyone you submit them to) doesn’t lose them, but that’s all they need. Nailing that one great title for our work is a great way to inspire us to create a whole pitch-ready work, but don’t get precious about what it’s called if a publisher or agent has other ideas. Jane Austen’s working title for Pride and Prejudice was, simply, First.

Blurbs are best

The sales tool used by publishers on the back cover of printed books, traditionally known as a blurb, is the benchmark for pitching language. Strike a balance between the raw courage of “it’s Jurassic Park meets Star Wars” and the blandness of “this is the best novel written about dinosaurs in space”. Go back to the storytelling strategy of your plot and work that into your blurb, with all its tensions, turning points and battles.

Give away the ending

Publishers and agents know good storytelling, but don’t expect them to suspend their disbelief about yours. The main difference between your pitch and the eventual blurb of your work is that you must let the publisher/agent into its secret. This takes courage, because when we reveal our work’s one big secret, the thing we feel will make people love it, it feels like giving away all our power. Be brave and let it go, because your plot’s turning point may be the key to keeping your work out of the slush pile.

Keep images to yourself

One heartening and inspiring tool I make use of is imagery. I like to find one strong image which I imagine would work on a book cover. It evolves through the writing process, of course, but sometimes I find images so arresting they end up informing the story and characters. I never submit these images as part of my pitch, but I work with them,  keeping them in mind whenever I am asked what my story is about.

Have an answer ready

Family and friends love to know what we’ve been spending our writing time doing, and they’re  a great test audience for verbal pitches. Most writers squirm when asked about their work, but a little preparation and practice helps to have an answer ready when someone asks: “So, what’s your book about?” As with the blurb, go back to your plot. If you can’t answer this question to a friendly audience, you are probably not ready to pitch it to a publisher.

There are only seven great stories

The great Arthur Quiller-Couch was one of the first modern writers to maintain there are a limited number of story archetypes embedded in human existence. Other thinkers have fleshed-out his approach, but the basic premise has not altered. What you are writing will be found in one of those story brackets. It’s your job to stretch the medium into new territory. That’s possibly what being original means.

What’s it like?

Publishers and agents often ask for a few examples of existing titles our work is similar to. Don’t snap straight to “it’s entirely original”, have a look at the marketplace, both the new titles and the classics. There will be echoes of your work in there. Use them to define what you’re writing. See what major genres the publishing industry has divided the book trade into, and work out where you fit. If you don’t know, publishers probably won’t waste their time working it out for you.

Break the rules, a little

WRITE REGARDLESSCreating and sending multiple pitches can get very boring. Have some fun and break the rules a little. I recently sent a pitch to a publisher who said “no unsolicited material”, and they looked at it! Doing this each and every time is probably not a great way to get a book published, but now and again, mix it up. There is really nothing to lose when you think about the crazy odds of the publishing trade.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.