Leading your characters into temptation

On the subject of food (can you tell it’s a favourite with me?), there’s another role it can play in books, very different from the nurturing, life-enhancing way I looked at last month. Just the opposite, in fact. And while this works as a literary and moral device, it can be pretty cruel to your characters.

Serpent-goddess-eve

And so it begins…

To begin at the beginning… How does the serpent corrupt Eve in the Garden of Eden? With a crisp, juicy apple, thus setting in motion 2,000 years of imagery in which the poor apple takes the brunt of all the evil in the world. Interestingly the idea of fruit being a catalyst for trouble isn’t just a Judeo-Christian one: think of the six pomegranate seeds swallowed by Persephone when kidnapped by Hades, which bind her to the Underworld for half the year. Or the golden apple thrown by Eris, Greek goddess of discord, into the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, which reappears at the judgement of Paris, only for him to assign it to the wrong goddess and kickstart the Trojan War.

golden-apple-300x2861

Golden Apple of Discord

With such powerful religious and classical antecedents, no wonder the idea of Forbidden Fruit took such hold on the western imagination, a vein of wicked temptation running from the Garden of Earthly Delights of mediaeval literature to the yearning for apricots that betrays the Duchess of Malfi to the clandestine plum pudding Edmund Gosse nibbles, in Father and Son.

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

This last example is especially poignant, since it comes from a memoir, not fiction. A member of the puritan Plymouth Brethren, Gosse’s father believed the pleasures associated with celebrating Christmas – singing, dancing, fine clothes and feasting – to be the work of the devil. Aghast that his little son should be so deprived, the maids feed him a slice of the plum pudding they’ve secretly made for themselves; his father, discovering the crime, ‘flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the [dust heap], and then raked it deep down into the mass.’

plum pudding

Idolatrous Confectionary

I find this scene heartbreaking to read. As Gosse himself writes, ‘The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing will ever efface’ – all arising from a fear that what is enjoyable to the senses must by definition be sinful. Here is the exact opposite of the ‘speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy,’ that cheers the table of the hard-up Cratchit family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Oliver TwistIndeed, while Dickens makes brilliant metaphorical use of natural phenomena (the fog in Bleak House, for instance, confusing and entrapping as the legal system; or the predatory Carker’s white teeth in Dombey and Son) he is the last writer to endow an apple, a pudding, or anything else with evil characteristics. There’s nothing like a poverty-stricken childhood to teach you the true value of food. It is hunger, not greed, that prompts Oliver to ask for more (Oliver Twist). Pip quakes in terror that his theft of a pie will be discovered; yet he stole not for himself, but to feed a starving runaway convict (Great Expectations).

Great Expectations

Once food is seen for what it is – nourishing, tasty, a source of pleasure and celebration with friends – treating any part of it as somehow inherently wicked becomes both impossible and heartless.

The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeNot for some of the great children’s writers though. It’s hard on Edmund, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, that while his sister Lucy can safely be treated to tea and toast by a faun, he unwittingly seals his pact with the White Witch by accepting the treats she offers. (‘He had the look of one who had been with the Witch and eaten her food,’ says Mr Beaver.) The drink – ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ – is enchanted, of course, so no ordinary food; yet there’s a sense in which Edmund is being punished for enjoying it so much.

The Magician's nephew

And in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis actually recreates the Garden of Eden, with poor Digory being tempted by the Witch to eat the apple from the Tree of Life (‘A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit’) rather than bring it, as instructed, to Aslan.

Do modern children’s books put their heroes through this kind of Food As Temptation ordeal? My impression is no, and a good thing too. Far better for the smells and tastes of delicious things to be celebrated, so encouraging a healthy relationship with eating, rather than treated as a test for your characters to fail, as some of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do, or the ever-hungry Dick in The Faraway Tree. Surely in our more secular age we can dispense with this biblical sense of guilt surrounding food. 

Not as simple as that. The popular culture young readers are growing into lays a heavy burden of blame on delectable goodies, from Salman Rushdie’s famous Naughty But Nice advertising slogan for cream cakes to Slimming World’s use of the term ‘syns’ for treats (short for ‘synergy’, I know, but that fools nobody).

Naughty but Nice

Naughty… but nice

We may no longer believe literally in the idea of Forbidden Fruit; but we are a long way from being free of its power. Cake, anyone?

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

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How books can save your life. Literally.

The Reading CureThere’s something about people all around me forgoing delicious things – like chocolate and wine – that has me thinking of food like never before. (I gave up giving anything up for New Year/Lent a long time ago. Life in winter is miserable enough.) How apt then, that Laura Freeman’s publishers, W & N, should have chosen mid-February to launch her memoir, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, in which she describes how the mouth-watering descriptions of food in the great classics saved her from the worst ravages of anorexia.  Siegfried Sassoon fortifying himself with boiled eggs and cocoa before a dawn hunt (Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man);

siegfried_sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

Mrs Cratchit’s plum pudding – ‘a speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy’ (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) – these glorious images tempted her back to the warmth, nourishment and companionship of good things. For most of us, books are food for the soul; for Freeman, they turned out to be food for the body, too.

presenting-the-plum-pudding

Plum Pudding in A Christmas Carol

Reading her article in the Sunday Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/books-saved-me-from-starving-myself-to-death-ls2cd8c75, I wanted to punch the air. Anorexia is a terrible, relentless illness. Freeman describes the mental state it induces in terms of a library full of smashed book cases, in which the calm and order the sufferer longs for are reduced to splinters of glass and wood and rain spattered paper. The fact that books saved her, gave her ‘reasons to eat, share, live, to want to be well,’ shows how much the senses are involved in the pleasure of reading, not just the mind.

For proof, I challenge you to read this list of provisions from St Agnes’s Eve by John Keats and not a) drool, or b) feel sick (depending on your sweetness of tooth).

‘…a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd

With jellies, soother than the creamy curd…’

Trifle

Not exactly Keats.

No prizes for guessing my reaction to these glorious lines. But then I always did like fruit jellies and cream, and my enjoyment of this poem harks back to some very early reading indeed. Aged 5, my favourite of the My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards was the one where she and Bad Harry sneak into the larder and demolish a splendid trifle planned for his birthday party, beginning with the silver balls and jelly sweets on the top before diving into whipped cream, custard and sponge below. Ok, so it’s not exactly Keats… but it’s a fine example of the importance of food in children’s books.

Wind in the Willows picnicLaura Freeman cites glorious picnics in The Wind in the Willows, a theme also popular with Enid Blyton, whose Famous Five, Adventurous Four, Secret Seven – whatever – are sustained by freshly baked bread, new-laid eggs, delicious ham and – unforgettably – lashings of ginger beer.Famous Five

Delightful as these interludes are, their role in the plot shouldn’t be underrated, especially in adventure stories. If you’re going to thrust your characters into hair-raising situations, making them perform superhuman tasks, you’d better make sure you feed them. You’re already asking your readers to suspend a lot of disbelief; rendering your heroes immune to normal human needs is pushing it.

Ante Passchendaele jacketSending Ante with her companions, Gil and Florence, on a journey through Hell in Ante’s Inferno, I knew I had to allow them to stock up on energy and supplies to keep them going through all that heat and darkness. A break in Elysium, where Hector and Aeneas invite them to join in their cricket tea (er, you have to read the book) and Odysseus gives them water skins, did the trick:

‘Taking a strawberry, Ante allowed it to burst in her mouth, rolling its warmth and            sweetness on her tongue.’

My inspiration for calling up the sensuous pleasure of food was the scene in The Last Battle, where C S Lewis allows his characters a rest from all the fighting:

wild-strawberry‘Not far away from them rose a grove of trees, thickly leaved, but under every leaf there peeped out the gold or faint yellow or purple or glowing red of fruits such as no one has seen in our world… All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grape-fruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour.’

 

Just reading that again after all these years makes my mouth water.

How wonderful, then, that Laura Freeman’s delight in words has altered the balance of power between herself and her anorexia. It’s not a magic cure – she acknowledges the anorexia may never go away altogether – but it’s books that have brought her back to the idea of food and feasting with friends being something to enjoy, not dread.  Books can literally save your life.

But we knew that.

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

 

 

 

 

5 best reads of 2015

Interesting to see what’s happened to my reading tastes this year.  I read far more children’s books – all highly regarded – than any other genre but only one stood out for me. Of my other 4 top reads, 3 are memoirs of lives, extraordinary, all of them, for very different reasons. Perhaps sometimes truth isn’t just stranger than fiction but a good deal more exciting.

Stet by Diana Athill

Stet

If I were to make one New Year’s resolution (which I don’t, being far too weak-willed), it would be to read more Diana Athill. Having read a number of her short stories, I knew I’d be in for a treat with this memoir of her long, distinguished career in publishing. She writes beautifully and sparingly, looking back with a clear, unflinching eye. Her description of what it was like working for the brilliant but volatile Andre Deutsch is hilarious, while several other colleagues and authors do not escape her sharp pen. Frustratingly, when she describes the second worst career mistake she ever made (something to do with V S Naipaul), she leaves dangling the teasing question of what the worst one could have been… did she tell J K Rowling not to quit the day job?

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

So much praise has been heaped on this book I feared it would prove to be a disappointment – especially when the premise seemed so weird. A mystery centering on the art of making tiny pieces of furniture for doll’s houses? I dreaded another My Name is Red,  which I found unreadable (fans of Orhan Pamuk, feel free to pelt me with illuminated manuscripts now).

To my joy, The Miniaturist proved very readable indeed. Inspired by a magnificent 16th century doll’s house in the Rijksmuseum, Jessie Burton has concocted a dark, gripping tale of young Petronella Oortmann leaving a poor but sun-filled childhood in the Dutch countryside for incarceration in the gloomy house of a prosperous merchant in Amsterdam. To give her something to do, her new husband tasks her with furnishing a doll’s house, as if control over an imitation of real life could compensate for none in reality. Yet even that small power is gradually eroded by the unknown miniaturist, whose exquisite creations reveal an uncanny, almost supernatural knowledge of details of the family and household and the threat hanging over them all… Brrrr.

Forever X by Geraldine McCaughrean

Forever X

Not a new book – published in 1999, in fact, and possibly out of print.  I hope not. Geraldine  McCaughrean is a terrific children’s author who writes in a wide range of genres – historical, contemporary, fantasy, myth, literary classics – excelling in all of them.  This delightful, slightly bonkers tale of a car breakdown which lands Joy and her family in a hotel that celebrates Christmas all the year round moves from surreal beginnings to a warm, funny, very human story about overcoming family difficulties.

 

I Will Try by Legson Kayira

I Will Try

Researching Malawian history, I stumbled on this extraordinary book and had to download it to my kindle. In 1958 a 16 year-old boy, inspired both by the motto of the Livingstonia Secondary School in Karonga and his own thirst to learn, decided he was going to study in America. Not having any money or other means to get there, he walked through Nyasaland (Malawi), Tanzania, Uganda and Sudan, where in the library in Khartoum, he found a directory of American universities and chose the first one to meet his eye: Skagit Valley College in Washington State. Astonished US consular officials helped him take up the scholarship that Skagit Valley, who must have been astounded by such motivation, promptly offered him, and he started his degree course a mere 2 years after setting out on his journey.

Kayira’s clear, detailed account of every step of the way is very readable, and his difficulties in adapting to American culture amusingly and touchingly drawn. A memoir added in 2012 by his widow, Julie Kayira, sketches out his subsequent life as a gifted writer and successful civil servant. An extraordinary achievement, by any measure; yet I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for the family left behind in the village in Malawi.

Lifting the Latch

Lifting the Latch

You know how, when a friend presses a book on you ‘because you’ll love it’, you almost don’t want to read it; you already have a stack of unread volumes teetering by your bedside and weren’t looking to borrow another one just now. So you put it aside and, coming across it 3 months later, open it guiltily, intending to skim it before returning it to the poor friend who by now wants it back… and then are absolutely hooked. So hooked that the last thing you want to do is read it quickly; you want to take time to absorb every tiny detail, every ring of Montgomery Abbott’s voice that Sheila Stewart has captured so beautifully.

Born in Oxford in 1902, Old Mont recounts his life growing up in a tiny cottage in Enstone before spending a long, hardworking life bound to the land, as a farm labourer and later on, shepherd. I expected a prosaic read with some interesting historical detail: what I got was a vivid, lovingly-observed memoir from a man whose greatness of soul left me with no words to describe it. Old Mont’s voice bursts from the page with such warmth, freshness and a vision frequently poetic, that I can’t tell where his account ends and Sheila Stewart’s masterful shaping of it begins. Mont’s good humour, kindness, appetite for hard manual labour (and I mean, hard) and sheer stoicism in the face of some really awful bad luck (minor setbacks and heartbreaking tragedy are met equally with his cheerful ‘Us’ll get over it’) had me often in tears. Of all the books read in 2015, this is the one that has stayed with me most and I can’t stop telling everyone about it.

Which just shows that my friend was spot on.