Posts Tagged ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

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John Howell: The Life & Adventures of Alexander Selkirk

October 7, 2017

life_adventures_alexander_selkirk_1301Daniel Defoe‘s novel The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is generally acknowledged to have been the first novel in English. Published in 1719, it is based on and inspired by the sojourn of a Scots sailor and buccaneer, Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years voluntarily marooned on the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile.

Defoe was also a journalist, and certainly succeeded in making his fictions appear to be factual, as did many writers in those early days of the novel, when this new form was gradually being developed and its potential discovered. A Journal of the Plague Year reads convincingly as an account by someone who lived through the London events of 1665, yet Defoe had not even been born in that year. And Jonathan Swift went out of his way in 1726 to try and lend verisimilitude to the far more outlandish Gulliver’s Travels.

It’s clear that Defoe would have had access to accounts of Selkirk’s stay on the island, which is quite sketchy, but mentioned many of the things that Defoe was skilfully to develop and enhance: the need for shelter, how to feed and clothe himself, fear of strangers landing on the island and capturing him – though, of course, Defoe makes the strangers savages and cannibals rather than mere French or Spanish sailors – and the comfort brought to a solitary man by his faith in God. Defoe’s hero remains on the island for far longer, and is assisted by the shipwreck which provides him with all sorts of useful supplies and equipment that Selkirk never enjoyed; his stay on the island lasts over twenty years, and he eventually gains the companionship of the faithful Friday… you can see how a novelist puts his imagination to good use with his source material.

John Howell, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, thoroughly researched Defoe’s source material, tracing Selkirk’s life and interviewing surviving relatives, as well as mining archives of obscure magazines and other publications; in this relatively short account – an excellent Librivox production – he gives us all the material with a commentary. No aspect of Selkirk is left untouched, and we have clearly laid before us the bare bones from which Defoe worked to produce his masterpiece. If you’ve enjoyed Robinson Crusoe, you may enjoy this…

Daniel Defoe: Captain Singleton

April 18, 2016

51ZavNOKPtL._AC_US160_I’ve always had an interest in Defoe’s novels, mainly because in many ways he counts as the first English novelist, and it’s very interesting to see both how the novel began, and how much it has changed and developed since its earliest days.

Defoe is famous particularly for Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but his Journal of the Plague Year is also worth reading, and Captain Singleton (which I didn’t actually read, but listened to – unabridged – courtesy of the excellent Librivox website) is a good yarn, too. Early novelists were keen to persuade their readers that their novels were true, factual accounts of real people’s lives, that they – the authors themselves – were therefore journalists rather than fictionalists. A Journal of the Plague Year is particularly convincing in this respect, given that Defoe wasn’t even alive at the time of the 1665 outbreak.

Captain Singleton is a notorious pirate, writing his memoirs – a very modern-seeming enterprise. But that’s about all the book has in common with twenty-first century confessions. For starters, it’s very monotonous. By this I mean that the entire story is written in the same, even, calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice: there’s no variation to this, no tension, no suspense, no excitement. Here is someone learning to write the novel from scratch.

There’s no characterisation to speak of, either: the narrator emerges sketchily through his own first person narration, and the best-drawn character is ‘Friend William’, a Quaker surgeon who is ‘voluntarily’ captured on one of Singleton’s piratical exploits and becomes his true friend, confidante and advisor: Singleton eventually marries Friend William’s sister at the end of the novel. Just a tad far-fetched, I hear you say. Perhaps, but an interesting early attempt at characterisation, anyway.

There’s no real plot to speak of, either: it’s a linear narrative of Singleton’s life from his childhood escape to sea and abandonment on an island with other rebel crew members who eventually escape, undertake an epic trek across the entire African continent aided by tame natives, finding huge amounts of gold lying around on their way… back in England he fritters the money away in dissipation, and is embezzled, so sets off on a life of piracy. This all seems very mundane apart from one engagement at sea described in some detail, and a spectacular storm somewhere around Java, which awakens the idea of it’s being punishment for his sins, and we’re on the way to our conclusion. Money, of course, is the devil’s temptation: having titillated his readers with sinful exploits, in the same way that he did with the adventures of Moll Flanders, Defoe now has to redeem his hero in his readers’ eyes.

Repentance and reformation are supported by his Quaker friend; Singleton renounces piracy and crime, and the pair eventually make their way back to Europe with their ill-gotten gains, helping the poor on their way. And Singleton even leaves the way open for a sequel: now there’s a nice modern touch, too!

The novel clearly didn’t hatch fully-formed; it had to grow to maturity, if that’s where it has got to now. And it had plenty of adventures along the way. Writers quickly learned how to develop plot, add dialogue and conversation rather than report it, introduce variation in tone, suspense and excitement, real characters and much more. They learned how to experiment with time, to explore the inner life of a character, to see into the future. In less than three centuries the genre has come a long way: another interesting game is to speculate where it may go next…

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