All the davenports we cannot see

Twenty years ago the tragic death of a baby in the USA by what was thought to be ‘shaken baby syndrome’ made headlines all over the world.  On trial for the little boy’s murder, the British nanny unwittingly sealed her fate by describing how she’d ‘popped the baby on the bed to change his nappy.’  What Louise Woodward didn’t realise was that an expression used in the UK to describe an action taken with lightness and dexterity doesn’t translate at all that way in the USA; there, ‘pop’ can only mean something explosive.  No amount of explanation could erase the image in the jury’s mind that she had hurled the 8 month-old on to the bed with all the force of a rocket launcher.

Oscar Wilde

*Quip by Oscar Wilde… probably

Misunderstandings between our ‘two nations divided by a common language’* aren’t usually so dangerous.  Nor should any English people loftily assume our words are the ‘original’ ones; in many cases it’s the other way round.  ‘Garbage’, ‘trash’ and ‘sidewalk’ date back at least to Elizabethan times, whereas ‘rubbish’ and ‘pavement’ are much more recent.  Usually even if the word is unfamiliar, the context reveals the meaning; though this assumption falls down hilariously when it comes to clothing, as any American who has sent their child to English boarding school can testify.  Presented with a uniform list, US mums are baffled by the requirement of 8 pairs of trousers (pants), 4 sleeveless padded jackets (vests) and no underwear whatsoever except for 2 pairs of toddler pull-up nappies (trainers).

School uniform Moyles Court

British school uniform

Coming from the UK side of the pond, I thought I could spot all Americanisms and easily work them out. Not so. Recently, reading the wonderful, Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I was brought up short by what looked like a genuine mistake. (If you haven’t read this beautifully written story of two young people – a blind French girl and a German boy – growing up on opposite sides of World War Two, then do.)  All the Light We Cannot SeeEntering her great-uncle’s room, Marie-Laure sits down on ‘the davenport’. Since a davenport is a very English piece of furniture, being a small, compact writing desk with shelves, designed by Captain Davenport in the 18th century, it seemed an odd thing to find in a house in St Malo, and even odder for Marie-Laure to sit on it. When, a few lines later, Great-uncle Etienne sits down beside her on the davenport, I realised some kind of sofa must be meant, and thought Doerr had got the wrong word.

Davenport desk

A Davenport (UK) : small writing desk with shelves or drawers

Not so. Davenport & Co turns out to be a company in Massachusetts that made a series of sofas in the late 19th century, whose popularity led to davenport becoming – in the USA – a genericised trademark, i.e. a word for sofas in general. So Doerr is right after all.

By Pearson Scott Foresman - Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation

A davenport (US): large sofa. No shelves or drawers.

But… is he?  To use a particular American company term for a piece of furniture found all over the world feels eccentric in a novel set in Europe in the 1940s. For readers outside the USA, it’s like calling all pianos Steinways, with children sent for Steinway lessons, and being put in for their Grade 1 Steinway exam.

More than eccentric: later on in the book, Sergeant Major Von Rumpel muses on the fifteenth century davenport he’s shipping from Paris to Germany. This presents the reader with the rather marvellous but wholly impossible image of a company making sofas in Massachusetts in the 1400s.

Curly Davenport sofa

Mediaeval davenport?

I know, I know, I’m making a Kilimanjaro out of a, er, molehill here. But from a writer whose power to evoke all kinds of environments and emotions –  from the dreary, choking coke factories of 1930s Germany to the brutal elite school for Nazi youth, to the dry, dusty Museum of Natural History in Paris with its collections of delicate molluscs and insects to the briny, wind-scoured towers of Saint-Malo – is nothing short of astonishing, this one false, historically tone-deaf note – jars.

(Article first printed on Author’s Electric Blogspot.)

 

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Recusant, ostler, wetnurse, bard… How to untangle William Shakespeare.

Mansfield Park 2Some years ago, a friend defended a film version of Mansfield Park that portrayed sexual abuse within Fanny Price’s birth family by saying, ‘Oh come on, don’t think that kind of thing didn’t go on in the nineteenth century just as much as today.’ It didn’t matter that the film showed something that never appeared in the book; according to her, if Jane Austen could have written it in, she would have done, and that was good enough for my friend.

 

While this made no sense at all to me, what I found shocking was that my friend was by profession a historian; someone who deals in fact, not fiction. Yet here she was, happy to discard the integrity of a classic novel because it didn’t fit her historical view. Perhaps that was her point: Mansfield Park is fiction, not history, so it really doesn’t matter what you do with it. For her, ‘would have,’ in Jane Austen’s case, glided easily into ‘did’.

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Jane Austen – gagged by her time

It is difficult for historians. Novelists can make up anything they like, but where evidence is missing, historians have to piece together what clues they have to build a credible picture. For no one is this truer than William Shakespeare, whose life I’m researching at the moment for a book idea (what else?). Between his birth in 1564 and his growing fame as a playwright and poet in 1590s London, only a few certain dates stand out, among which are his marriage, in 1582, to Anne Hathaway, and the baptism of his children in 1583 and 1585. It’s only fair that biographers should follow any lead that might account for his ‘lost’ years, including one that has him employed as schoolmaster in a leading Catholic recusant family in Lancashire; or the legend that a spot of deer-poaching caused him to fly Stratford to escape the wrath of landowner Sir Thomas Lucy.

William-Shakespeare

No oil painting. William Shakespeare

But reading Anthony Holden’s biography William Shakespeare (1999) has brought the Mansfield Park conversation straight back to me. Not because of any suggestion of abusive family relationships here (phew), but because of Holden’s attitude towards his material. While he builds a good case for the 15 year-old Shakespeare’s being employed as tutor in the Hoghton family, he can’t prove it; yet after a few pages, ‘would have’ and ‘highly likely’ melt imperceptibly into ‘Shakespeare had clearly impressed his first employer.’ Guesses that begin ‘probably’ are asserted as facts a few pages later, while legends such as the deer-poaching one are discounted in one place and upheld in another. Lacking other evidence, Holden falls into the trap of taking clues from the works: Shakespeare shows knowledge of horses, so he must have earned his keep as an ostler; he writes tellingly about ‘the green-eyed monster’, therefore he, like Othello, must have suffered terrible jealousy. All of which shows a blithe misunderstanding of how the creative mind works. By this token, Lady Macbeth’s

                           I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me

arises from direct personal experience.  Er….

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Horse and Ostler (Morland)

Worst of all – and Holden isn’t alone here – comes the treatment of poor Anne Hathaway. We know nothing about her looks or her character, but the simple fact that she’d reached the advanced old age of 26 when 18 year-old Shakespeare impregnated her has branded her ‘on the shelf’, a desperate, ‘homely’ woman who may have set out deliberately to trap a young man into marriage.

Homely. Ye gods. Why is a 26 year-old woman automatically homely, while an 18 year-old boy isn’t spotty, sweaty and frankly, not much of an oil painting himself? Shakespeare can’t have loved Anne, runs the general opinion among biographers, or he’d have stayed in Stratford and never lived all those years in London. Yet there must have been attraction, at least to begin with, and the arrival of two more children some years later doesn’t speak of total aversion to this much, much older woman. And where else could an ambitious young actor and playwright earn a living if not in London? For all we know, he may have hot-footed it home to Stratford whenever time and funds permitted.

Anne Hathaway

Hardly homely Hathaway

Untangling fact from fiction in this biography, trying to work out what is certain and what conjecture in Holden’s impressively rounded portrait of his subject, while dealing with the somewhat dated attitude to women displayed above, I have to keep reminding myself that I am a historical fiction writer reading the work of a historian.
Not the other way round.
Funny, that. Maybe the two disciplines are not so far apart after all.

(From an article first published on Authors Electric BlogSpot)

When is a Young Adult not a Young Adult?

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Newnham College, Cambridge, library

Weeks later, I’m still chewing over something that came up in the Writing for Children Event I spoke at in Cambridge recently. A quotation was put to me and fellow panellists Mary Hoffman and Sue Limb, from an article written by children’s literature critics, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig:

‘The sense of moral obligations, which governs all writing for children, has acquired a new bias. It used to entail keeping your stories as anodyne as possible; now if anything, the opposite holds true. Painful topics have become virtually de rigeur.’

Tracy BeakerI tackled the moral obligation assumption bit already, plus the truly weird idea that anyone would strive to create anodyne stories for any audience, let alone children.  As for the last part of the quotation, given that these critics were writing about trends since the 1970s, I wondered what had upset them.  The answer? Writers such as Jacqueline Wilson, it turns out, with her realistic portrayal of children from broken homes like The Suitcase Kid and Tracy Beaker.

From a social history point of view, this is fascinating. You could argue that Wilson is actually following her Victorian predecessors in depicting children in difficult, lonely situations; all that has changed is that’s she’s updated the reason for their plight from parental death (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Kim), to the present day realism of divorce and single parenthood.  KimHer heroes may go through painful predicaments but they learn to deal with and surmount them, just as the unloved and neglected orphans of the century before. Tracy’s acute sense of abandonment leads her to behave badly; but then so does Sarah Lennox in The Secret Garden, until she finds friends who actually care about her. Rather than children being disturbed by such realism, fiction can do a valuable job of making those struggling in similar situations feel less alone.Houghton_AC85_B9345_911s_-_Secret_Garden,_1911_-_cover

I’d have had more sympathy with Cadogan and Craig if their quotation referred to the more recent genre of Young Adult fiction. While not strictly intended for children, YA books are allowed to compete against children’s books in literary prizes, with the result that in the last 7 years, 5 of the winners of both Carnegie and Costa Children’s awards have been books whose plots involve dystopia, war, violence, rape, death, torture, incarceration, terminal illness, suicide and other equally cheerful themes. maze-runner-trailer-2-11Topics not so much painful as positively agonising. Of eight books on this year’s shortlist, all bar one – Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth – are classed as YA.

Our author panel at the Newnham Literary Archive Event mused on possible reasons behind this flowering of such depressing literature, much of it wonderfully written by some of the best authors around today.  My theory is that the genre has grown out of computer games, with their linear narratives involving fantasy kingdoms, fast action and blood all over the screen. But I was much taken by an audience suggestion that its roots may lie in the overwhelming bureaucratisation of the education system, allowing teenagers to escape to a simpler world where you can just fight your way out of the endless pressure of SATS tests and GCSEs.

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Fighting their way out of SATS tests

Whatever the reason, it is unfair that YA is allowed to dominate the children’s book awards, simply because there is no separate category for this genre. And I wonder if publishers realise that their biggest readership – far from being teenagers – is young people in their 20s and 30s. Go to any YA event at a literary festival and you’ll see what I mean. If Patrick Ness is appearing, you’ll probably find my sons there (26 and 29). YA fiction being read by young adults, then.

Or as we used to call them, adults.

How to write for children: be anodyne. Apparently.

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Mary Hoffman, Anne Rooney, me, Sue Limb

Last Saturday I was invited back to my university college to take part in a fascinating Literary Archive Day discussing children’s literature, inspired by the Rogers Collection, a wonderful treasure trove of children’s books donated to Newnham College in the late nineteenth century. No other college library in Cambridge – or Oxford, I believe, though someone will probably put me right – has anything to match this. What better reason to gather together a bunch of Newnhamite children’s authors?

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The Rogers Collection

Christina Hardyment and Caroline Lawrence gave superb talks on Arthur Ransome and Mythic Tropes in Children’s Fiction respectively, while I made up a panel with Mary Hoffman and Sue Limb to discuss how children’s writing has changed over the last few decades. An excellent opening speech from Dr Gill Sutherland (‘A child who does not feel wonder is merely an inlet for apple pie’) gave us plenty to, um, chew over, but one phrase in particular bothered me so much I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Dr Sutherland quoted those authorities on children’s literature, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig, who talk about ‘the sense of moral obligation, which governs all writing for children’.

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Apple pie awaiting an inlet.

Now, I have no problem with children’s books having a moral framework, indeed it’s quite hard to write one without. The main characters should feel like real people with strengths and weaknesses; for the story to be satisfying, they need to develop, to be affected by the things that happen to them, just as they would be in real life. They learn from their mistakes, they come through trials and are stronger for it. This works for much adult fiction too. But – a sense of moral obligation governing all writing for children?

No. The moment the message is put above everything else – plot, character, structure, credibility – any hope of a decent story is lost. Preaching about current moral issues – discrimination, inclusiveness, immigration – is no more appealing to present day children than such ‘improving’ books as Eric, or Little by Little, can have been to Victorian ones (though perhaps brought up with less choice and more rules, Victorian children endured such works with greater stoicism).  If you want to extend your readers’ understanding and sympathy, bind themes you care about tightly into your story. But the story must come first.

Nor was that all. Cadogan and Craig went on to lament that this sense of moral obligation ‘has acquired a new bias. It used to entail keeping your stories as anodyne as possible; now, if anything, the opposite holds true. Painful topics have become virtually de rigeur.’

This statement opens up so many issues I scarcely know where to begin. First, did writers really seek to keep their stories anodyne, eschewing all painful topics? Not E Nesbit, who has one of the Wouldbegoods become dangerously ill when his siblings make him catch cold so they can try out their homemade medicine on him.
Not F Hodgson Burnett, whose Little Princess suffers cruelty and deprivation at the hands of the mercenary adults entrusted with her care. Not C S Lewis, portraying the sick mother in The Magician’s Nephew, or the heroes of The Last Battle being overwhelmed by tyranny and treachery.

In fact, something much more interesting has happened. Themes that were judged acceptable in the works of earlier children’s writers would cause outrage now. What exactly is ‘anodyne’ about Jo March’s pet bird being allowed to starve to death – with her mother’s knowledge – in order for all the Little Women to learn a lesson about responsibility?
Or take one of my all time favourite children’s books, The Log of the Ark by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey: a delightfully warm, hilarious account of the Great Flood in which, unbeknownst to Noah, an evil animal slinks on board, corrupting the gentleness of the other beasts and ensuring the weaker ones go to the wall. I can’t see this great classic being reprinted in today’s climate – or ever. Much too painful for 9 year-olds to read.

In other words, good writing for children has never been anodyne. The books that have endured and become classics didn’t shirk difficult topics, indeed only by presenting moral conflict realistically at the heart of a gripping story can authors engage the reader, allowing him or her to absorb any ‘lessons’ without realising it. No adult wants to read an anodyne novel; why on earth should a child?

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The library of Newnham College, Cambridge

Of course there was no time to say all this on Saturday. Instead, Sue, Mary, our skilful chairman, Anne Rooney and I thunderously agreed to disagree with Cadogan and Craig, using their views as a jumping off point for much fascinating discussion of subject matter, structures of myth and traditional tales, the rise of Young Adult books and who reads them – all of which will have to wait for another post.

And speaking of YA, did you, like me, assume that the offending statement came in the last year or so, in the wake of so many children’s book awards given to stories whose themes number war, dystopia, terminal illness, cruelty, incarceration, torture and violence, all graphically described?

Nope. They were talking about the 1970s.

Sigh.

Will the Real Winnie-the-Pooh please Put Up His Paw?

Right, people, a quiz question to get those sluggish winter brains going: which of these quotations is the odd one out?

  1. “Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?”
  2. … and this is what he wrote:    HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY.
  3. “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”
  4. …when you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.

wedged-in-great-tightnessYes, I’m talking Winnie-the-Pooh here. The most wonderful books for children ever written, not just because of their cute cuddly characters but because of their glorious, inimitable, uniquely subtle literary style. Analyse an A A Milne sentence and you’ll find a rhythmic build up of words that manages to convey meaning, warmth, character, emotion and a delightfully absurd humour that deflates pomposity in language in the kindest way.

My generation seems to have been the last for whom these rhythms and phrases are part of our DNA. ‘Astute and Helpful Bear,’ I might call my husband. ‘GON OUT BACKSON BISY BACKSON’ he might leave as a message for me. And no greeting in a card can ever compete with Owl’s way of writing Happy Birthday.original_owl

It’s because we know these books so well – and their enchanting Ernest Sheppard illustrations – that when something isn’t right in Winnie-the-Pooh world, it jars. As one of the quotations above does. Yup. It grieves me to say that the most often quoted lines from A A Milne, the ones you will find plastered all over the internet, that clearly warm the hearts of millions of Winnie-the-Pooh fans out there – these lines are not by A A Milne at all. If you haven’t spotted the imposter yet, I’ll give you a clue: no English writer in the 1920s would have used the word ‘smart’ to mean anything but ‘well-dressed’. Whoever – and I’m guessing it was someone at Disney – wrote ‘smarter than you think’ (No 3) was clearly not referring to the bear’s red jacket or his owner’s short-sleeved shirt and shorts. (Another clue – who is supposed to be speaking this drivel, Pooh or Christopher Robin? A A Milne’s dialogue is so well crafted you know at once which character is talking.)

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A A Milne – not a writer of drivel

Nor is this the only fake A A Milne quotation out there. The internet is awash with them. Winnie-the-Pooh has appeared in many different forms – films, television cartoons, hundreds of spin-off philosophy and instruction books – and of course all of these will depict him in their own way, coining new aphorisms and images. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as all the origins are made clear.

The problem arises when these nuggets of sickly wisdom are blithely attributed to A A Milne, who’d have plunged his head into Eeyore’s Useful Pot to Put Things in before writing lines like ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart’, or ‘Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.’ head-in-hunny-potBut Google either of those quotations and you’ll find them attributed to him over and over again because the vast majority of people don’t know his books and don’t bother to check. And when a highly respected organisation like English Heritage (who should know something about, er, English heritage) celebrates Winnie-the-Pooh day by tweeting Quotation No 3, attributing it to A A Milne, the battle feels well and truly lost.

So we can now add #MockMilne to #FakeNews and #AlternativeFacts.  What next – #ShamShakespeare perhaps? How about:

‘This living or dying thing, I just can’t get my head around it.’

‘Romeo, Romeo, who the hell called you Romeo?’ It’ll catch on.

 

How Grimms’ Fairy Tales can lead to even grimmer fairy tales

It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when someone slips you a few searching questions.  I loved doing this interview with fellow (if a little, ahem, younger) university graduate and writer Amna Boheim http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/.  Who knew that early exposure to toadstools, matryoshka-red-fly-agaric-mushroom-mushrooms-forestgingerbread houses and angry kings could set you on the path to Hell and pacts with demons?  I mean, they could have led to botany, cookery and, oh, I don’t know, the Wars of the Roses.

But in my case they didn’t.

 

 

pexels-photo-185360Discover more about the tangled roots of Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst on Amna’s blog:

http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/ 

Shall I compare thee to a Sonnets Day?

img_2917In these uncertain times, it’s good to be able to report that the Shakespearian sonnet is alive and well.  This was my conclusion after a delightful Sonnets Day at the Weston Library (the airy, austerely beautiful new wing of Oxford University’s Bodleian library) a couple of weeks ago.

By way of celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Bodleian decided to create a special edition of the bard’s 154 sonnets, inviting letterpress printers from around the world to print a sonnet each in any style or language they chose. Sheets of widely differing sizes, colours, design, fonts and languages flooded in and are being collated at the library, and to mark the conclusion of this Sonnets 2016 Project, the Bodleian held a brief exhibition of some of these wonderful hand-printed offerings, many on handmade paper.img_2919

Earlier in the year, half a dozen Oxford primary schools took part in a Sonnets Alive! Project, run by writer in residence Kate Clanchy.  Pupils wrote their own sonnets, a selection of which were gathered in a charming letterpress booklet, magically titled I Feel That the Heart of June is in Me (the title of a poem written by Windale School pupils), hand printed by children from Pegasus School. Some of these contributions were read out by their authors and the quality was astonishingly high, showing an acute understanding of metre and some breathtakingly beautiful images.img_2925 Even Oxford Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage’s warning in his welcoming speech that he planned to steal a few of these lines (and for praise you can go no higher than that) didn’t prepare me for gems such as

‘….I am the dawn when children

wake and see the pale sunrise piercing the shorn

shadows. I am the flame which yet burns on.’

(Flame by Jemima Webster & Khanh Pham).

After the readings it was time to look at the exhibition, which included an enchanting Sonnet Tree: a structure hung with couplets, quatrains and full-length poems, all written by schoolchildren during the Sonnet’s Alive! workshops.  Here again, richness of poetic imagery, instinctive understanding of rhythm and metre, together with a positive revelling in Elizabethan vocabulary showed just how much these young people had immersed themselves in Shakespearean sonnetry. As Simon Armitage wittily implied, with budding poets like these hammering at the door timg_2915he current generation of poets had better watch their backs.

As for Shakespeare’s own place in the canon… I defy anyone to put this more succinctly than 5 year-old Inigo: