Tom Jones, Sophia Western, and a dog called Cromwell: time-travelling in Upton.

Two weeks ago, when the hot weather was just getting established here in the south-west, I found myself with a couple of hours to kill, in Upton-upon-Severn.  That’s only a little way over the county-border, but somehow we generally pass-through, rather than visit.

It’s a two street town.  A woman in a hurry could walk along both and be out on the other side in about five minutes, but I drifted, peering through windows in a dream of book-titles, turning over pages.

As well as charity stores there were plenty of other shops. I could have bought a horse-drawn funeral or a Chinese massage; pots of herbs, a bicycle, a flower arrangement, a fishing rod, an ice-cream or kitted out a kitchen.

I drifted along the narrow pavement. There was just room for two people to pass, and the town was busy with cars and lorries going west.  Squinting into the sun I saw that I’d reached the church spire.  Beyond it were the trees and fields of the flood-plain.  I swopped to the shops on the other side of the road.

Half an hour later I was back at my starting point, facing The White Lion Hotel. Maybe I was two-hundred and seventy-two years (plus a few months) too late to bump into Tom Jones, Sophia Western and Benjamin Partridge, but I thought I ought, really should, go for a cooling beverage in ‘that Inn which in their eyes presented the fairest appearance in the street’.

the white lion upton 2From the outside, it looked pretty much like an illustration I remembered seeing.  ‘Yes,’ the receptionist confirmed, ‘this is the Tom Jones Hotel.’ Then she flitted through a door to become the barmaid.  Was I expecting to step back through time?  That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

After I’d settled in the lounge a man came in.  ‘Beer, please, Anna,’ he said.  ‘  You’re looking a bit harassed, what’s up?’

‘We’re out of laminating pockets,’ she said, ‘and I need to finish these menus.  You don’t have any at your place, do you?’

IMG_20180621_153326He hadn’t.  As poor Anna began phoning round, I sat back, looking through my new books.  Portraits of Tom, Sophia, Henry Fielding and Prince Rupert looked down on me.  I wondered what they would have made of the leather arm chairs and wall-to-wall carpet.  There were plenty of doors for a confusion of entrances and exits, but I couldn’t imagine any of my hoped-for companions using them.

CromwellBack in the street I spotted ‘Cromwell’ and couldn’t resist a closer look.  The six-foot high grass-dog was sitting at the base of ‘The Pepperpot’ – an ancient tower that houses the tourist centre.  I kid you not, and to prove I was not hallucinating, here’s a photo.

I think he might be a labradoodle, in need of grooming.   I patted his rough hide, and felt recompensed for the absences of Henry and his cast of characters.  Funny how I never find what I’m looking for on a second-hand book hunt, but always find something worth thinking about.

 

 

Fielding demonstrates how journeys can make a plot.

On Friday afternoon the reading group said goodbye to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  The narrator has been a remarkably good host: fun, informative and welcoming. I’m feeling a little lost, a little disorientated, now that I’ve got both feet firmly planted in the present.

But I’ve learned a lot.  Putting aside the insights this novel has given about English History and life in the Eighteenth Century, Fielding’s management of cast and content was, to use a cliché, masterly.

For a reading group, there’s masses to think and talk about.  Writer’s might like to look at some of the techniques he employs.  I want to draw your attention to the way Tom’s journey provides structure.

brown_last_of_england- Ford Madox BrownRoad-stories are a tradition that can be traced back through literary history.  Think, The Odyssey, jump forward to  Don Quixote, and then further forward, Three men in a Boat, The Remains of the Day, or even more recently, The Hundred-Year-Old Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared.  And then there are the fantasy novels, just think about how many of those are based on journeys…

When characters have to move from one geographical location to another some of those important five Ws are instantly set in place:

  • Where from and to?
  • Why?
  • How?

Once you’ve set your character a reason for travelling, and a definite goal, you’ll need to figure out two more of those Ws: when & what will happen along the way?  The possibilities are endless.

And the great thing about journeys is that long or short fiction can put them to effective use.

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*Painting, The Last of England, by Ford Madox Brown

 

 

 

What is a writer?

This week, for a change in tone, I’m back to reading Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, his collection of autobiographical essays that I was given at Christmas.  It was published in 1980.

In it, Greene begins by looking back to 1926, when he started to write the first of his novels that would get published.  If you’re wondering about the relevance of such a gap to our digital age, take a look at this extract from the first chapter.

What a long road it has been.  Half a century has passed since I wrote The Man Within, my first novel to find a publisher…Why has the opening line of that story stuck in my head when I have forgotten all the others I have written since?

Perhaps the reason I remember the scene so clearly is that for me it was the last throw of the dice in a game I had practically lost.  Two novels had been refused by every publisher I tried.  If this book failed too I was determined to abandon the stupid ambition of becoming a writer.  I would settle down to the safe and regular life of a sub-editor in Room 2 of The Times…It was a career as settled as the Civil Service…in the end there would be a pension and I would receive a clock with a plaque carrying my name.

Third time lucky then, or was it?  Persistence was required. This speaks of a strong drive to create.

Greene says that the very first novel he wrote, ‘…seemed to me at the time a piece of rich evocative writing…’  the second, I called…rather drably The Episode and that was all it proved to be.

He talks of his influences, of reading the great novelists and of studying the theory.  In Greene’s early years, Percy Lubbock’s 1921 literary criticism, The Craft of Fiction provided him with guidance.  This was the period before literary criticism took much interest in novels, so Lubbock’s investigation into ‘How [novels] are made’ was a key text for understanding writing techniques.

This has chimed with what I’ve been reading in the eighteenth century classic, Tom Jones, where Fielding explores ideas about what a novel is or should be.

I wish…that Homer could have known the rule prescribed by Horace, to introduce supernatural agents as seldom as possible.

This not only tells us about Fielding’s approach to writing, it reminds us that the idea of reflecting on writing goes back to ancient Greece.   Like artists in all of the other media, writers study not only their contemporaries, but also the works and thoughts of those who came before them.

I don’t know of a novel, story, play or poem that has no ancestors.  In my experience, the best reading is a result of the writer’s previous best readings.

There haven’t been many novelists who’ve discussed this so directly with the reader as Fielding does in the course of his fiction.  Generally the approach is similar to Greene’s, a separate collection of thoughts or essays about their writing.  The beauty of that is that it allows me to dip into a few paragraphs of non-fiction at a place of my choosing.  That may be while I’m midway through a chapter of a novel, or at the end of the whole.   You might say, that it allows me to make a buffet metaphor out of them…to fill my plate with a selection of ideas and apply different combinations of approach to my reading and my writing. IMG_0180

Well you have to allow a woman to make a small poetic flourish occasionally, haven’t you?

 

A fine sense of place: Henry Fielding.

With all this reading of classic novels and short stories I’ve been doing lately, I can’t help but be reminded how important literature is as source of social history.  I’m not just talking distant history, either.  It’s one thing to set out to write about the past, and consciously recreate a historical period, but I’ve been thinking about how sense of place works when we’re reading it in the future.

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Illustration by Jan Punt 1750

For instance, Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones, with the intention of making his contemporaries think…really think, about how their world worked, and how novels could be written.  How do I know this?  Each of the eighteen books begins with a chapter where Fielding sets us up for the coming events.

 

You could see these as being the equivalent of tv adverts: those fragments of scandal and adventure that tease us into tuning in for the next episode, or the new drama.  There is something of that happening in most of them.  However, their real purpose is to educate, to teach readers not to be passive consumers, but to think about the characters and their actions, to be judicious readers who will exercise judgement, for ,

…I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein.

Here is a novel that broke established rules.  It skips over time, it reminds us continually that it is a work of fiction.  So many things we take for granted were fresh with this novel.

You can skip those first chapters.  Our narrator gives his permission at the end of his book-five essay.  He has, of course, first gone to a great deal of trouble to explain how drama and comedy need to be contrasted with their opposites, in order to gain their full comic or exciting aspect.  In fact if you’ve read to that point of the chapter, it’s to be hoped that you would disagree that these are ‘laboriously dull’, and ask yourself what Fielding is really suggesting when he says;

 ‘…I would have the reader to consider these initial essays.  And after this warning, if he shall be of opinion that he can find enough of serious in other parts of this history, he may pass over these…and begin the following books at the second chapter.’

Some do take his words at face value.  I have a rather attractive paperback on my shelf that came out with the 1963 Tony Richardson directed film starring Albert Finney and Susannah York in the lead roles, that has none of the essays, despite Fielding’s warning.

As someone who aspires to the good esteem of the narrator, I opt for the essays.  Besides, for a true sense of place and time, I want the whole time-travel experience.   The language used, the rhythms and shapes of the speeches are as valuable to me as the insights into the way the characters interact, and the lives they are living.   To get that I need all of the voices, and our narrator is the best guide I could ask for, tricky, wise, wry and observant, he keeps me up on all the latest ideas.  I’m not just learning about the past, I’m thinking that some of the political preoccupations speak to the twenty-first century too.