Lucinda Elliot

A writer who wrote what she didn’t believe in- and created a genre

All ‘How To’ books on writing always say that you must write ‘What you believe in’ on the grounds that if you don’t believe in the worth of your writing, who will?

This seems to make sense; I need only think of the contrast between the early works by the (now obscure, but once famous) master of dark comedy Patrick Hamilton, to know how much this is true.

The works by the younger Hamilton – particularly those in the trilogy, ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’, though they have technical faults ironed out by the time of his classics ‘Hangover Square’ and ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ are full of exuberance, of sheer delight in the ridiculous.

His last works, ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’ and ‘Unknown Assailant’ have lost that joyful quality; his powers failing (though flashes of brilliance still remain) through his increasing despair and alcoholism, Hamilton’s writing has lost all it’s delight in the ridiculous. His characters have become, as his publisher gloomily commented, unsympathetic marionettes displaying contemptible qualities. In ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ we may have had the altogether contemptible Nazi sympathizers Mr Thwaites and Vicki Kugelmann, but they were offset by the invariably honourable, if grudge bearing, Miss Roach – and the basic decency of the totally unreliable American Lieutenant Pike. In Hangover Square, the tortured amnesic George Harvey Bone, though a double murderer by the end, never loses the reader’s sympathy.

Post Holocaust generations have grown up knowing just what dreadful things people can do. Accordingly, we’re unlikely to find reading about the mean-spirited fraud of Gorse, the anti-hero of Hamilton’s last trilogy, as shocking as his publishers and public seemingly did. Though we might also agree that there are a lack of sympathetic characters in these later stories, I think the main criticism would be the flat quality in the writing. Tragically, it seems likely that Hamilton never believed fully in himself as a man, though he did believe in himself as a writer; finally, he seized to be able to do that either.

Of course, one doesn’t need to have sympathetic characters to write a successful novel; there aren’t a lot in two novels I’ve mentioned several times in recent posts, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. But there has to be that quality of vigour. The writer has to draw the reader into her world, and keep her so engrossed she doesn’t want to leave it.

Thackeray, too, seems to have suffered a decline in powers in is later novels, though for different reasons. We don’t find the lively social criticism and humour again in his works after ‘Vanity Fair’. It’s as if he made his peace with the society that lionized him, and stopped pointing out its flaws.

Dickens isn’t a writer I have ever been able much to appreciate; I’ve only ever read five of his novels and a few of his short stories, and one of these was for an exam. Personally, I find the cardboard souls of his heroes and heroines too great a defect to be able to enjoy the other strengths of his writing, the lively delight in grotesques, the keen eye for social injustice. I gather it’s generally considered that his writing shows no sign of falling off in later years; and he certainly never lost his faith in it (he even extended his faith in his own powers to the point of wishing to continue to write espousing what might be termed ‘family values’ in his magazine ‘Household Words’ after he had outraged these by deserting his wife and mother of his twelve children for a much younger woman).

A writer who writes what she or he believes in and can transfer that enthusiasm to others can achieve wonderful success, change definitions of genre, and overthrow those dull ‘predicted market trends’.

Yet, there are writers who don’t write what they believe in, but who are an outstanding success anyway.

The most obvious example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve written before of how he never thought that they ‘brought out the best in him’ or had any literary merit; he preferred his historical stories, ‘Sir Nigel’ ‘The White Company’ and so on, which he considered far superior.

He churned out the Sherlock Holmes stories to make money. He is, so far as I know, the only writer who became so hostile to his character that he actually killed him off, and then was forced to bring him back through public demand. Hardly anyone reads those of his works he regarded of major literary importance today, while in an age of ebooks and technical innovation, Sherlock Holmes continues to hold his own.220px-Strand_paget

There’s another case of a writer succeeding against the ‘write what you believe in’ advice, and that’s one rarely thought of in this sort of context – Georgette Heyer, creator of a genre all of her own – the Regency Romance. Slipping into comparative obscurity in the decades following her death in 1974, her work has experienced a strong revival with the development of the web and ebooks. Threads can be found in any readers’ sites eagerly recommending the books and discussing the merits of this or that hero.

Readers of this blog will gather that I’m not exactly a great admirer of traditional historical romances, Heyer’s included. I admire the extent of Heyer’s historical knowledge and the light humour of the stories, but – let me just climb onto my soap box – I dislike the essentially consensus oriented depiction of late eighteenth century and  early nineteenth century society (a time actually of social upheaval, when the authorities went in terror of a revolution breaking out in the UK ) and the author’s unquestioning acceptance of rigid sex roles. In fact, I dislike two of her swaggering heroes – one a bully and one stupid – so much, that they feature respectively as first and last on my Most Annoying Heroes List.

It would dismay the avid fans of Heyer’s ‘Regency World’ to know that the author herself  despised her historical romances and, by all accounts, her readers (‘they always prefer my worst work’). She generally threw fan mail into the waste paper basket, and said of her novel ‘Friday’s Child’ (1943): ‘Judging from the letters I’ve received from obviously feeble-minded persons who do so wish I would write another These Old Shades, it ought to sell like hot cakes. I think myself I ought to be shot for writing such nonsense, but it’s questionably good escapist literature and I think I should rather like it if I were sitting in an air-raid shelter, or recovering from flu. Its period detail is good; my husband says it’s witty—and without going to these lengths, I will say that it is very good fun.”

She was an intelligent (if politically extremely right-wing) woman, and in outlook, wholly unromantic. It seems typical of her that her romances were composed at a desk in a study in a fug of tobacco smoke – she was an eighty-a-day woman. Her real aspiration was to write serious historical fiction, and on her death she was still composing her ‘magnum opus’ a series of novels on the fortunes of the House of Lancaster.

However,  circumstances led to her having to support first her younger brother and later, her whole family through her writing. She put her son through public school, and like Conan Doyle with the Sherlock Holmes short stories, felt that she had no choice but to go on with churning out one Regency Romance a year.

Heyer may have despised her readerships’ taste, and as one who takes a dim view of the ‘empowering’ aspects of romantic novels, I sometimes find it difficult not to sympathize; but here I think that I should practice a little humility, and think about Laura Sewell Mater’s wise words in her article on the ridiculous sentimental love stories of the Victorian best seller, Charles Garvice : –

‘What Moult and the other critics failed to acknowledge, but what Garvice knew and honoured, are the ways so many of us live in emotionally attenuated states, during times of peace as well as war. Stories like the ones Garvice wrote may be low art, or they may not be art at all. They may offer consolation and distraction rather than provocation and insight. But many people find provocation enough in real life, and they read for something else. One cannot have contempt for Garvice without having some level of contempt for common humanity – for those readers, not all of whom can be dismissed as simpletons, who may not consciously believe in what they are reading, but who read anyway because they know: a story can be a salve.’

2 Responses

  1. Very interesting post, Lucinda, and a new way of looking at things for me, since I’ve always been of the ‘Write what you believe in’ or ‘Write what you love’ school of thought. I’ve never been a great fan of Heyer, but I love all the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s very sad that, ultimately, the things these authors succeeded in were things they didn’t personally value very highly. However, they both unquestionably gave their readers what they wanted, which is no small achievement!

  2. Thanks Mari, and I’m a dedicated Sherlock Holmes geek – I’ve even used the comment ‘Sherlock Holmes never says “Elementary, my dear Watson”; he uses both terms, but never together’ as an excuse to read once more through the whole lot of stories (as I’m sure you know, it’s true; he doesn’t). I think there were elements in the stories that Doyle himself couldn’t see; but then I would say that…

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