About 15 years ago, before leaving London to live in Sydney for 18 months, I asked my boss to write me a general letter of reference to show potential employers. “Why not write one yourself and just give it to me to sign?” he suggested. At the time, I thought, “Hurrah”, and gaily proceeded the draw out what I thought were my best professional and personal qualities – the ones most likely to secure me a job. It wasn’t long after my boss signed the letter, with a barely perceptible but perceptible enough raising of an eyebrow, that a thought occurred that has stayed with me to this day: that he was, in fact, playing a cruel joke on me - one that led me to lay before him my worst vanities. When I returned to the same job 18 months later, I was never again quite able to look him in the eye beneath that raised brow.
In subsequent years, I have been inclined towards another exercise – one no less cruel, but of which I have at least been the instigator myself.
The exercise takes as its starting point the following lines from TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous -
Almost, at times, the Fool.
There comes a time in all our lives when we have to accept, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet” – and that we possibly flatter ourselves thinking we’re even the Fool.
Once you’ve accepted this, there can be a perverse pleasure imagining exactly who you might be in a work of literature or how the writer you are reading might have written you as a character.
The exercise can be extended, too. I have often found myself walking across a lonely field and wondering, “What if I’m not the star of my own film, but just the schmuck disposed of in some hideous way in the opening scene before the film proper gets started?”
I am sure you can guess where I’m heading with all this (and not just because you’ve already read this).
There is no more merciless and penetrating purveyor of character in literature than Jane Austen: how might you or I fare beneath her steely gaze?
This is what she writes in Pride and Prejudice about Elizabeth Bennet’s sister Mary:
… Mary, who having, in consequence of being the plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments, was always impatient for display. Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.
How’s that for a thorough going over?
Now imagine yourself in a room with Austen: what – given the same number of words – might she have written about you?
No! You are not Elizabeth Bennet or Mr Darcy. But are you almost, at times, Miss Bingley or Mr Collins?
It’s a great test of character – in more than one way – to brace yourself and undergo this act of self-analysis.
It’s even more of a test to be prepared to divulge the results to anyone other than yourself.
But for those willing to do so in the comments thread below, riches await the description we like best – not quite Mr Darcy’s 10,000 pounds a year, but a $50 Booksellers New Zealand book token.
I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t do so even for the 10,000 pounds a year.
But then I am under no self-illusions – I’d be lucky to get off as lightly as Mr Collins.