emma

WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD BY BARBARA COMYNS

‘She wasn’t going to tell you,’ her mother had begun. And then she – her mother – told me. I, for my part, remarked that I hadn’t noticed anything. ‘It only shows when I’m nervous,’ Megan replied, looking at the floor, or something beyond it. ‘She makes all kinds of noises,’ her mother took up, before imitating her daughter’s Tourette’s. ‘If you ever do get nervous,’ I said, ‘don’t worry about it. Everyone gets nervous sometimes.’ I’m not sure now what exactly I was trying to say. I guess I wanted to let her know that her condition wasn’t a big deal for me, although I knew it would be a big deal for her. ‘See, Megan,’ her mother said, smilingly, ‘even normal people get nervous.’ And then there was silence, long enough for me to wonder whether her mother was conscious of her unkindness. Was there some malice in it? Or was it sheer thoughtlessness? And did it even matter? The effect was the same.

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Last year I read Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter. I was impressed by the prose style, but thought it a failure as a novel in almost every other respect. Especially irksome was the characterisation, which was so lacking in subtlety, so predictable, as to be soap opera-ish. Alice’s father, for example, is just plain bad, and his every appearance results in him doing something brutish. His mistress, on the other hand, is the archetypal common tart. Everyone in the novel conforms to a cliche, and, in my opinion, calling it a ‘fairytale’ doesn’t excuse these faults. Consequently, the small number of pages – one hundred and thirty in my edition – felt like a slog; and, bearing in mind that The Vet’s Daughter is often described as Comyns’ most accomplished work, I was reticent to try another. I’m glad, however, that I overcame my reticence as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, her third novel, might be the best thing I have read this year.

The term ‘gothic’ is consistently applied to Comyns’ books, and the title of this one certainly suggests dark and creepy. Indeed, there are a number of gothic motifs, such as a thunderstorm and a monstrously ugly man with a scarred face; and references are made to ‘tormented screams’ and the ‘stench of evilness.’ Moreover, the novel begins with a flood, with, therefore, disaster; but more tellingly it begins with death. A pig is said to float by, ‘its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding’; then ‘a tabby cat with a distended belly passed, its little paws showing above the water, its small head hanging low.’ As the narrative progresses, the corpses increase in number, and are not at all limited to the animal kingdom. However, unlike with The Vet’s Daughter, I felt as though the violence and bleakness of some of the content serves a purpose, which is to tell us something significant about the characters, and, by extension, people-in-general.

In terms of death, therefore, what is important is not the event itself but people’s reactions to it. When the flood hits one of the first questions asked is: has anyone drowned? And more than one character is eager to see a dead body. Likewise, the turn-out for funerals is high. This sort of gruesome voyeurism is not news, or certainly not to me. There is a reason why there is a spike in newspaper sales, online hits, tv viewing figures, whenever a tragedy strikes; and there is a reason why the death toll is so relentlessly reported. We enjoy this stuff. The higher the count, the grislier the details, the better. The book focuses on the Willoweed family, and it is interesting to note how the two eldest members deal wth death. First, Ebin seeks to make money out of it, to further his career, by writing articles about the quickly expiring locals and selling them to The Daily Courier. The grandmother, on the other hand, gleefully wishes it upon others, bantering with Ives about who will croak first. Finally, both mother and son feel sorry for themselves when one of the family passes away.

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As I criticised the characterisation in The Vet’s Daughter I should point out that I had similar misgivings about Grandmother Willoweed, the ‘bad fairy’ or ‘dreadful old black bird’ of the story. The family matriarch is a violent bully, who hits out at her maids with a carpet-beater and calls them names, such as ‘sluts.’ The rest of the Willoweeds, and many of the other villagers, except perhaps old Ives, are fearful of her, and one gets the impression  – as with all sadists – that she enjoys it, or at least mistakes it for respect. Yet what makes her slightly more interesting than Alice’s father, what gives her a smidgen of depth, is her age, and therefore her vulnerability. During the course of the novel she has her seventieth birthday. To be that grand age is, I would imagine, to feel powerless, and so one might understand her desire to dominate in terms of that, i.e. as a way of avoiding feeling pathetic. Moreover, one wonders how much of her behaviour might be due to dementia; certainly, she appears to have gone mad towards the end.

As already suggested, Ebin Willoweed is another notable character, and he, thankfully, is not painted in quite such broad strokes. He is initially described as a ‘slothful’ and ‘ineffectual’ man, who is something of a failure, even a fool. His favourite daughter, for example, is clearly not his – Hattie is mixed race – and he is only living with his mother due to having been dismissed from his job because of ‘carelessness.’ However, although he might be a fool, he is evidently not harmless. Emma, the heroine of the novel, states at one point that her father has made her hate men, and for such a compassionate child this strikes one as a telling claim. Yet it is his son, Dennis, who receives the harshest treatment, and who reminded me of my friend Megan. Dennis is a nervous and insular boy, whom Ebin refers to as a ‘cissy.’ When the father takes his son swimming, and Dennis struggles and clings onto the boat, Ebin hits his hands with the oar. It’s the kind of insensitive, small-scale sadism that I wrote about in my introduction, and which is often justified as ‘tough love.’ In this way, and many others, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead struck me, not so much as concerning itself with life’s big questions or issues, but with its little, yet still painful, tragedies.

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EMMA BY JANE AUSTEN

I don’t feel the need to justify my appreciation of Jane Austen to others, but I do sometimes feel the need to justify it to myself. One of the chief complaints about her work is that each novel is essentially just a bunch of hoity toity Tories making bon mots and arranging marriages. Of course, that is not all her work is, but it is hard to completely dispute that claim and, bearing in mind that that description sounds like the worst kind of story in the world to me, that I enjoy Austen appears baffling. Furthermore, her works are undeniably romantic comedies, a genre that I have generally found, despite being a sentimental soul, pretty unbearable. So, what gives? I have heard Austen referred to as a writer’s writer, but that is simply absurd; her books are so hugely popular that she cannot be a writer’s writer; she’s a lot of people’s writer, many of whom have no interest at all in the writing process.

If I had to make a comparison I would say that she is like classic Disney; by which I mean that her books are undeniably crowd-pleasing, even obvious, or predictable, and yet she was so impeccable at her craft that it is impossible not to be impressed by it. For me, Austen lacked imagination, but was, in other ways, incredibly talented. Her genius is in her sentences, her execution, and pacing, not in her plots or people. This is not to say that her characters and plots are entirely artless; Elizabeth Bennet, for example, is a fine creation, but she isn’t burned into my consciousness like, say, Pierre Bezukhov or Harold Skimpole or Bjartur of Summerhouses. Austen’s characters are, to use Nabokov’s term, blonde; I feel neither one way nor the other about them; I don’t hate them or love them. Yet her books are so much fun to read; indeed, they make me happy in the same way that listening to an accomplished public speaker, someone who is able to effortlessly and elegantly express themselves, does.

So there you have it, my cards are on the table. I very much expected, as the above will attest, to have a lovely time reading Emma, without it ever making my pulse race. What is interesting about my experience of the book is that I did not particularly enjoy it, at least partly because Austen moved away from the formula she was so adept at. Emma herself, for example, is not blonde; I mean, I don’t think she is complex, that is a different thing altogether, but she certainly does provoke a reaction. She is spoiled, arrogant, pettish; she is also kind and charming. She has some depth, in a way that none of Austen’s other characters do [who are all easy to pinpoint, or judge]. She is, in fact, a lot like a genuine teenager [although she is 21 in the book], by which i mean that she isn’t bad, she merely thinks that all her ideas and opinions are completely worthwhile. Austen gives over a significant proportion of the text to her thoughts, preceding Modernism’s obsession with internal dialogue and introspection by about a century.

However, all that is well and good, but the secondary characters, which are never rounded creations anyway, suffer so much in her presence. Mr Knightly, for example, is an absolute void; I mean, can any of you describe him in detail? I challenge you to write an entire paragraph about him. His function in the novel, it seems to me, is to contradict Emma, is to provide cautionary advice. He’s like the good Angel on her shoulder; literally that is how I imagined him: perched on her shoulder in white garb; he is so lacking in substance that I often missed him entering a room. I’d be reading, fairly contentedly, and then Bam! There’s Knightly…saying the same kind of shit, in the same kind of tone every single time. What about Emma’s father? He’s a walking catchphrase. No one apart from Emma does anything in the book. The spotlight is entirely on her; she may as well have been alone on an island. Honestly, I have never come across a supporting cast with less meat on their bones. This is particularly a problem with Knightly, as he is meant to be the romantic hero. Darcy might be predictable but at least he’s there in the text, at least he has moods.

In terms of Austen’s craft, her prose, well, it is fine, but it feels flatter than usual. The jokes aren’t as sharp, the sentences not quite as elegant as I expected. Perhaps that is simply a consequence of trying to make Emma a character study, a more imposing artistic achievement; her energies, it seems, were elsewhere. That wouldn’t be a problem if she had pulled it off, if Emma was a serious, believable character study. It isn’t though. While she is, at stated, more rounded, more interesting than Austen’s usual fare, her journey is kinda ludicrous. One would imagine that if you present this flawed heroine, this silly but essentially kind young girl, that you would want to show her flowering, her march towards maturity. Yet the conclusion of the book is Emma marrying the guy who was telling her throughout the book that she is a brat. What kind of journey of self-discovery is that?! I preferred her when she vowed never to marry, at least that was original thinking. But, no, she falls into the arms of the guy who thinks she is often an arse, thereby indicating that, y’know, he’ll sort her out. The pacing of the book, I should also add, is poor; Emma is too long, with too little action, or too much repetitive action. None of this is meant to give the impression that I think the novel is rubbish; it isn’t at all. It is just well below the standard I have come to expect from her work. Indeed, I did not think it possible I would ever put one of her books down without finishing it – so easily, so effortlessly, I glided through the others – but I nearly gave up on this one. That’s a bad, bad sign, yo.