Friday, July 22, 2016

Get your kicks on Cycle Route 5

Remember when I lived in Beeston and National Cycle Route 6 went right past my front door? Well, now I'm in Redditch it's a whole different ball game. Now I work in an office that's on Route 5, so while the weather's nice, I'm going to have to spend some time exploring its twists and turns! I've already been down to Alcester, and up to Birmingham (via the short-cut route 55 that avoids going via Bromsgrove), I think tomorrow I'll go to Stratford-upon-Avon, and see if Shakespeare's still there.

The route goes all the way to Reading, where I'm actually planning to go next month, but I probably won't cycle the whole 90 miles or so. In the other direction it ends up in Holyhead (and has to stop there because otherwise you'd end up in the sea), which might be a fun place for a holiday. I should really get my brakes fixed before I do too much more biking, but on the other hand it does get me where I'm going all the quicker...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Killed by a bad review

You see a lot of negative criticism on the internet nowadays. I think people need to learn the lesson taught us by Mrs Henry Wood in her 1869 novel "Roland Yorke" - bad reviews can be very harmful to the health of sensitive creators.

Hamish Channing writes a wonderful book (the narrator explicitly assures us that it is objectively very good, and that Hamish has a rare genius for writing), while Gerald Yorke writes a very bad one (again, there's no question of personal preference coming into it here; it's a terrible book) but takes advantage of his career as a literary reviewer to fill the newspapers with good reviews of his own work and scathing criticism of Hamish's. The shock of this ruins Hamish's health, and he dies a long, lingering death as a direct result of the bad reviews.

Mrs Wood (generally known nowadays as Ellen Wood, which seems a little unfair of modern literary types - she herself firmly believed that a married woman writer should be credited under her husband's name) might just possibly have been speaking from experience when she wrote this particular subplot; she was one of those writers who peaked too soon, never again reaching the heights of her first and best novel, "East Lynne". Popular though she was throughout the 1860s, her follow-up novels always had 'by the author of East Lynne' as their major selling point. Let's look at the two novels in particular that probably led to the tragedy of Hamish Channing, "The Channings" and "Mrs Halliburton's Troubles".

After the huge success of East Lynne (much deserved, too, it's a really great book) in 1861, readers didn't have to wait long for more Mrs Henry Wood novels; early the next year, they got The Channings. Set in Helstonleigh (thinly-disguised Worcester, Mrs Wood's home town), it chronicles the lives of the virtuous and hard-working Channing family, who suffer hardship and unjust accusations of stealing a twenty pound note but eventually end happily, and the Yorke family, wealthy but proud, lazy and unvirtuous, who eventually come to no good. It's not up to East Lynne's standards, but it's a good read, largely thanks to the breakout character Roland Yorke, who's much more likeable than he was probably originally intended to be. A scant few months after that, out came Mrs Halliburton's Troubles, also set in Helstonleigh, also involving one virtuous and one unvirtuous family, but without the charm and subtlety of The Channings. While the Channings are rounded and human (the reader is invited to suspect Hamish of stealing a twenty pound note, although of course he's innocent), the Halliburtons are nauseatingly perfect (when in a very similar subplot a cheque goes missing and William Halliburton is the only one who could have taken it, nobody considers for a second that he might be guilty). The Yorkes aren't entirely a bad lot, especially Roland, while the Dares are uniformly repellent and evil-spirited.

Not that Mrs Halliburton's Troubles is an especially bad book, but it's such an obvious hasty re-write of The Channings, there's a real sense of deja vu in reading it. Readers must have started compiling a list of Mrs Henry Wood idiosyncrasies - not just her strange fondness for surnames starting with Halli, but the repeated plot points that will go on to feature in all her later novels too. There'll be a woman who suffers terrible shame or hardship and has to bear (italicized and intransitive) and trust in God to sort things out in the end, which He always does. There'll be at least one character who has a protracted illness (usually consumption) and eventual death, which they meet with pious patience (in adults) or beautiful simplicity (in children) and an unwavering belief in the blissful afterlife to come. Issues of rank and status will certainly come into play, as will a lack of money and the need to work hard at demeaning jobs below one's station in life.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I would imagine that the reviews of Mrs Halliburton's Troubles were the first that Mrs Wood found hurtful. There's a lot in the book that she clearly cared about - the Halliburton family are shining moral examples in every possible respect; the book lays out a detailed proposition for how to prevent the working classes from falling into evil ways; there's a huge amount of fascinating detail about the glove manufacturing industry (Mrs Wood's father's trade), and so on. She might well have thought it a masterpiece, and been surprised that not too many readers agreed with her. I would expect that there were more than a few people in 1862 who came to the book hoping for the scandal and sensation of East Lynne, only to get a hefty helping of moral improvement and gloves, and went away disappointed.

That's the background to the writing of "Roland Yorke", a direct sequel to "The Channings", chronicling the further adventures of Roland, last seen giving up his office job and setting sail for Port Natal with two dozen frying pans (having vaguely heard that it's possible to make a fortune selling them out there), despatching a letter along the way confessing that he was the one who stole that twenty pound note all along (after having spent the entire second half of the book passionately defending his good friend Arthur Channing, who is accused of the crime and suffers extensive shame and hardship as a result). Roland is a truly wonderful character, so unlike most Mrs Wood heroes - he's not even religious, barring a last-page resolution to live his life in a more Christian way from now on, and he cares nothing for his station in life, gladly taking a job as a clerk for twenty shillings a week (with selling pies on a street corner being his backup plan) and dreaming of earning three hundred pounds a year (if his prospective wife doesn't mind working as a governess or whatever to bring in a hundred or so). Roland's idea of work is to get to the office, put his feet up on the desk and chat with his colleagues all day, occasionally stopping to complain about how hard the bosses make him work. He's a real joy to read, the best of the many examples of Mrs Wood's wonderful gift for character and personality.

As a subplot to the book, we have Roland's younger brother Gerald (who has grown and developed from the smarmy, annoying, unpleasant schoolboy of the first book into a smarmy, annoying, unpleasant adult) and Hamish Channing, and their book-writing careers. At the end of "The Channings", Hamish revealed that he had made a little extra money as a writer, but he has spent most of the intervening time between the books as the manager of a bank, which had recently failed. As the narrator is at pains to explain, this is not in the slightest way Hamish's fault: "Had a quorum of the wisest business-men in the world been at its head, they could neither have foreseen its downfall nor have averted it." He has moved to London (like a surprisingly large number of Helstonleigh residents) and started to write his wonderful book. The contents of the book are never described in any detail, we're just told, over and over again, that it is wonderful. "Hamish possessed in a great degree that rarest of God's gifts, true genius." His wife Ellen (a strange thing about "The Channings" is that the minor characters include a sister and brother called Ellen and Henry) worries that he's working too hard, but loves and encourages him faithfully. Gerald, meanwhile, has a talent for writing book reviews, but none at all for writing novels; the one he's working on is terrible in every way, although once again we're not given any details. Believing it to be a work of genius, he gives it to Hamish and asks for an honest opinion - when Hamish tells him the truth, Gerald secretly vows a horrible revenge.

Hamish, model of goodness that he is, has secretly been helping out Gerald's wife with money to pay off Gerald's enormous debts, and otherwise depriving himself of all but the barest essentials, so his health is already not the best, but it's Gerald's reviews of his book that finish him off. He's forgiving - when on his deathbed he finds out that Gerald was to blame, he's only anxious to make sure Gerald knows he forgives him. He's sorry to be leaving his wife and daughter, but knows he'll see them again in Paradise, and so on. But let's look at what we know about the two books, and see if the narrator is right to so rigidly tell us that one is genius and the other is awful...

Gerald's book is "full of mistakes and faults," which is a little vague. The most concrete accusation against it is that there isn't enough content to fill a three-volume novel (when published, it uses very large print). The massive, lengthy, Victorian three-decker has long since gone out of fashion - the length of Gerald's novel is probably much more to modern tastes than Hamish's (which, we're solemnly informed, is lengthy even by three-volume standards). Maybe in 1869 it was "utterly worthless and terribly fast," "offending against morality and good taste," but perhaps it was just ahead of its time! Hamish's book, meanwhile, is "rare, excellent, of unusual interest; essentially the work of a good man, a scholar and a gentleman." It sounds suspiciously heavy on the Victorian morality - "While enchaining man's deepest interest, it yet insensibly led his thoughts heavenwards." It is "one that a man is all the better for reading," it has "not a line that, for purity, might not be placed in the hands of a child." It's very like Mrs Halliburton's Troubles, I suspect.

The writers get their just deserts at the end of the book - Hamish, we assume, gets his eternal reward in Paradise; Gerald, we're more concretely informed, ends up in debtor's prison - but I have a sneaking suspicion that when the BBC are next looking for a book to make into their latest costume drama, they would go for Gerald's worthless book and leave Hamish's languishing in obscurity. So don't give anything a bad review, whether the thing you're reviewing is good or bad! And go and read the works of Mrs Henry Wood, even Mrs Halliburton's Troubles! You won't regret it!