There are more reasons than I like to think about for why I’d make a lousy novelist, but one of them would have to be that I’m such a wuss when it comes to offending the people in my life. As a journalist, of course, there are many people I offend when I write about them, but these are not people in my life – in the sense of being friends or relatives, or moving in the same social circles. A novelist tends to trawl closer to home.
I could never write a character like Mr Collins or Mrs Bennet for fear the model or models I’d borrowed from might recognise themselves and thus what I truly thought of them. There are other thoughts in my head that really ought to stay there, too.
The art I might admire in others is not something I’m prepared to replicate, or attempt to replicate, because for me art doesn’t trump life. And for that reason, if no other (but there are plenty of others), I’m not really novelist material.
Jane Austen, assuming Mr Collins and Mrs Bennet (and all the rest of them) weren’t just drawn entirely from the air, was a steelier soul.
So, too, is Hilary Mantel, whose lecture about Kate Middleton (although it’s not really about Kate Middleton at all, but merely features her) is causing such a brouhaha around the world.
Mantel is so steely she is prepared to talk about living, breathing real-life figures as she would about characters in one of her novels.
Steely, or maybe she just assumed she was talking to a closed circle. The perils are the same.
What Mantel says about Middleton, the Queen et al is not nearly so outrageous as Britain’s baying tabloid press would have you believe, but nor is she quite as innocent as her defenders claim (here and here, for instance).
This was not just a lecture about press depictions of the royal family, it was about the royal family itself.
What was Mantel’s misfortune is that these royal figures aren’t safely in the past like the Tudors of her Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies novels.
They’re here, today, more in her midst than she might have imagined, protected by the pack dogs of the Daily Mail. (If he were living in the 21st century, Thomas Cromwell would probably have been editor of the Daily Mail.)
Mantel might well have benefited from the convention of authorial anonymity under which Austen wrote as “A Lady” – a convention that possibly emboldened Austen’s own steeliness.
In his excellent Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature (Faber and Faber, 2007), John Mullan reproduces this from the memoir of Austen’s nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh:
She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the office, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.
Austen was a long way from the lecture hall. Although wouldn’t you love to know what she’d have made of Kate Middleton?
A couple of weeks ago, offering the lure of a $50 Booksellers New Zealand book token, we invited you to imagine what Austen might have made of you.
Acknowledging the sadism of the exercise on our part, and the masochism on yours, we revived the convention of anonymity.
Even so, we had only three takers.
Here they are, and they’re all jolly good.
A Lady #1
My dear friend is handsome enough, but the accumulation of years of trifling but constant over-indulgence, allied with her perseverance in fetching a carriage for even the most trivial of excursions, displays itself clearly enough in the proportions of her measure. As for manner, when contending those who champion their opinions heartily, she maintains an attitude of indifference, sometimes mistaken for dullishness, sharing her own considered sentiments with only her most intimate acquaintances.
A Lady #2
Kate lifted an eyebrow slightly as Mr Cholmondeley continued: “I have long had it in mind to take a wife. You must, nay, you should listen to my suit. Situated as you are; poor, friendless, forced to take up a position as governess in a home so devoid of persons such as are meet for your company. Surely you can see the sense of such an offer as mine, so freely given and so generous in spirit”.
“Sir”, she replied, “I cannot but refuse your offer. Far from being hopeless and friendless as you imagine me, I am happy in my lot, and indeed could not be in more comfortable circumstances. Yes, indeed, the characters of Mr and Mrs Robinson are not such as I could ever find congenial, but I find my happiness in my reading, and in informing those young minds that it is my duty to enlighten. Any circumstance that reduces my independence with so little recompense of affection must be, and shall always be, abhorrent to me. I am frankly astonished that you should have so little knowledge of my character as to make me an offer of marriage couched in such a cool and impersonal vein. Only a truly cold and unfeeling man could expect a woman to become his wife after such a half-hearted attempt.”
“Madam, you are unreasonable. You have given me every encouragement, I think, to suppose that you were willing, if not to accept, at least to consider my offer.”
“I am sorry if my behaviour has given such an impression”, Kate replied, “but as I have no reason to believe your feelings are engaged, or that such a match would be anything but a convenience to you, I feel no pain in my immediate and positive refusal.”
A Lady #3
It was fair to say that Miss Katherine had not been lavishly endowed with natural attributes. She was neither loquacious nor eloquent, nor indeed particularly handsome. Her voice was lacklustre, her bosom unremarkable, her needlework sorely lacking; and her social disposition of the meek and reticent variety.
She was, however, entirely aware of these deficiencies, and atoned for them with a fearsome personal discipline. She began each day with a rigorous constitutional; and was thereafter fiercely devoted to her studies. Her manners could not be faulted, and she was always impeccably groomed.
It was a difficult decision to make, but the book token goes to A Lady #1.
Assuming we ever find out who she is.
Meanwhile, another competition: imagine yourself the subject of a Hilary Mantel lecture.
Although if you’re game …