Friday 29 April 2016

Writing Drunkenness: A Master Class from William Makepeace Thackeray

Performing drunkenness is difficult. Ask most people to pretend to be intoxicated and they will stumble around, lurching far more dramatically than they ever have when actually drinking.

Writing drunkenness is similarly challenging. Readers must be aware that a character is inebriated, without the scene appearing unnecessarily exaggerated. If your POV character is drunk, you face even more problems. You can’t rely on wobbly camerawork as you might in a film but the narrative must still be filtered through a warped perspective.

In today’s blog post I’m going to examine three techniques Thackeray employs in Chapter VI of Vanity Fair (1847-8) to tell the story of Jos Sedley being a little the worse for wear at Vauxhall. Thackeray’s omniscient narration makes writing such a passage simpler than it might be to execute in a close third person, but writers in all POVs could employ these same techniques.

'Mr Joseph in a state of excitement'; illustration to Chapter VI of Vanity Fair

1. Name your Poison 

First up, remember that readers of novels are primed to read for ‘clues’ to future plot developments.

If heterosexual couples have sex, readers look for potential pregnancies. If a gun is mentioned, readers anticipate that it might go off. In the same way, any mention of alcohol will make readers more observant of any symptoms of intoxication.

That’s why Thackeray is specific about what Jos orders for the party at Vauxhall:

‘He made the salad; and uncorked the Champagne; and carved the chickens; and ate and drank the greater part of the refreshments on the tables. Finally, he insisted upon having a bowl of rack punch; everybody had rack punch at Vauxhall. "Waiter, rack punch."’

2. Concentrate on the Reactions of Others

Next, rather than describing the behaviour of the drunk person himself/herself, experiment with outlining the reactions of those surrounding him/her.

Drunk people are prone to creating something of a spectacle and often remain ignorant of how they are upsetting their companions. This is the sensation Jos causes at Vauxhall to the consternation of Osborne, Becky and Amelia:

‘[Jos] talked and laughed so loud as to bring scores of listeners round the box, much to the confusion of the innocent party within it…volunteering to sing a song (which he did in that maudlin high key peculiar to gentlemen in an inebriated state), he almost drew away the audience who were gathered round the musicians in the gilt scollop-shell, and received from his hearers a great deal of applause. "Brayvo, Fat un!" said one; "Angcore, Daniel Lambert!" said another; "What a figure for the tight-rope!" exclaimed another wag, to the inexpressible alarm of the ladies, and the great anger of Mr. Osborne.’

3. Show Progression

Finally, when you do come to describe the drunken character make sure there is some progression in his or her behaviour.

Drunk people are inconsistent. They can veer from exuberantly happy to miserable in a matter of moments. Make your character more volatile and emotionally susceptible than he/she would be usually.

Jos becomes a more aggressive lover when under the influence:

‘"Stop, my dearest diddle-diddle-darling," shouted Jos, now as bold as a lion, and clasping Miss Rebecca round the waist.’

His early exuberance is soon replaced by tears of sentimentality and regret:

‘Seizing Captain Dobbin's hand, and weeping in the most pitiful way, he confided to that gentleman the secret of his loves. He adored that girl who had just gone out; he had broken her heart, he knew he had, by his conduct; he would marry her next morning at St. George's, Hanover Square.'

And we learn the next day that at the end of the night he becomes violent, and finally helpless:

‘"He wanted to fight the 'ackney-coachman, sir. The Capting was obliged to bring him upstairs in his harms like a babby."’

Think about the stages of drunkenness, what they’ll reveal about your characters and how they might advance your plot.

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Sunday 17 April 2016

University Greek Plays, in America

A couple of weeks ago the Secret Victorianist attended a production of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, staged by the students of Barnard College here in New York City. It was my second ‘Greek Play’, as I was also at Oxford’s most recent Greek Play in 2014—a production of Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers. And, during my Masters, I had also spent time investigating the homosocial and publishing culture around the 1900 Cambridge Greek Play—Aeschylus’s Agamemnon—(a subject I’ve blogged about before).

The Harvard Greek Play in 1906
My night at Barnard however made me wonder about the history of the Greek Play in America. Were American universities slower to join in the nineteenth-century renaissance of performances in Ancient Greek than their British counterparts? The programme told me Barnard’s Greek Play was an annual event, but only one dating back to 1977. I wanted to do some more digging to find out.

What I found was a fascinating journal article from the Classical Journal, published October 1910. D.D. Hains’s ‘Greek Plays in America’ is a topline summary of American institutions’ performances of classical plays in ancient languages, and translation, and shows the speed with which these universities took to the tradition being established in Britain.

Oxford’s first Greek Play was an Agamemnon given in 1880, which was later repeated in Eton, Harrow and London. Cambridge’s inaugural Greek Play, Ajax, came two years later in 1882.

But Harvard University in fact nearly pipped Oxbridge to the post. A production of Antigone was originally planned to celebrate the opening of the Sanders’ Theatre in 1876, but was ultimately abandoned. And so Harvard’s first Greek play, Oedipus Tyrannus, was actually performed in May 1881. The venture was an immediate success. The five performances drew audiences totaling 6,000 and a professional company took the production, in translation, to New York and Boston for an additional two weeks.

The University of Toronto's Antigone (1882)
I was also surprised to find that the second university Greek Play on the American continent was Canadian. Toronto University staged Antigone in 1882 and, again, in 1894.

The University of Pennsylvania can lay claim to the first Greek comedy, the Acharnians, in 1886, while Smith College was the first with a female cast, producing Sophocles’ Electra in 1889.

Haines estimates 101 performances based on Ancient Greek drama at 47 American institutions between 1881 and 1910, with around half as many in Latin from a slightly reduced pool of universities. His conclusion that ‘the increasing number of such performances augurs happily for the future of the classics in our schools and colleges’ might have been slightly optimistic, but the tradition does live on at schools like Barnard, even as the popularity of a classical education has waned.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist blog about next? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 10 April 2016

Introducing your Main Character: A Master Class from William Makepeace Thackeray

The modern novel most often leaves you in little doubt as to who the protagonist is by plunging you into his or her perspective in the very first line and/or naming him/her in the opening sentence. The cry of agents and publishers everywhere is that the character, and the stakes for the character, must be firmly established in the opening paragraphs—that the story should start in the ‘right’ place.

But, whisper it, there is another way to provoke interest in your character—delay. This approach isn’t suited to close third narration but works well for an omniscient viewpoint and is exemplified in the opening pages of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-8).

Becky Sharp leaving Chiswick illustration
Thackeray’s panoramic masterpiece opens in Miss Pinkerton’s academy for young ladies:

While the present century was in its teens, and on one sunshiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour. A black servant, who reposed on the box beside the fat coachman, uncurled his bandy legs as soon as the equipage drew up opposite Miss Pinkerton's shining brass plate, and as he pulled the bell at least a score of young heads were seen peering out of the narrow windows of the stately old brick house. Nay, the acute observer might have recognized the little red nose of good-natured Miss Jemima Pinkerton herself, rising over some geranium pots in the window of that lady's own drawing-room. 

In these few lines we are introduced to an array of characters, giving us a good indication of the large cast to come. There’s a fat coachman, the black servant, a score of young ladies and two named characters, the Miss Pinkertons. But none of these people are our main characters. In fact, Thackeray tells us, a few paragraphs later:

Honest Jemima had all the bills, and the washing, and the mending, and the puddings, and the plate and crockery, and the servants to superintend. But why speak about her? It is probable that we shall not hear of her again from this moment to the end of time, and that when the great filigree iron gates are once closed on her, she and her awful sister will never issue therefrom into this little world of history.

William Makepeace Thackeray
A natural assumption might be that the soon-to-be-occupant of the large family coach will be our heroine, and, sure enough, she is soon introduced—Amelia Sedley. But again our expectations are confounded. After a letter detailing Miss Sedley’s numerous accomplishments (music, dancing, orthography, embroidery, needlework, religion, morality, deportment, although she is sadly deficient in geography), Miss Pinkerton adds a brusque postscript:

P.S.—Miss Sharp accompanies Miss Sedley. It is particularly requested that Miss Sharp's stay in Russell Square may not exceed ten days. The family of distinction with whom she is engaged, desire to avail themselves of her services as soon as possible.

The contrast between Miss Pinkerton’s glowing description of Miss Sedley and lack of detail about Miss Sharp interests the reader. We find ourselves wondering ‘what’s wrong with her?’, increasing the emotional stakes for us even without instant identification with the primary character.

This interest grows a few lines later, when we learn Miss Sharp’s full name and see Miss Pinkerton’s reluctance to give her a dictionary.

Being commanded by her elder sister to get "the Dictionary" from the cupboard, Miss Jemima had extracted two copies of the book from the receptacle in question. When Miss Pinkerton had finished the inscription in the first, Jemima, with rather a dubious and timid air, handed her the second.

"For whom is this, Miss Jemima?" said Miss Pinkerton, with awful coldness.

"For Becky Sharp," answered Jemima, trembling very much, and blushing over her withered face and neck, as she turned her back on her sister. "For Becky Sharp: she's going too."

"MISS JEMIMA!" exclaimed Miss Pinkerton, in the largest capitals. "Are you in your senses? Replace the Dixonary in the closet, and never venture to take such a liberty in future."

"Well, sister, it's only two-and-ninepence, and poor Becky will be miserable if she don't get one."

Becky Sharp then is a character who exacts strong responses from other characters, and one who other characters can misjudge. For Becky doesn’t care in the least if she receives a dictionary or not, as we learn when she hurls it out of the carriage window. A reader certainly doesn’t know her, or understand her motivations at this juncture, but is nevertheless invested in her and her story.

The next time you’re playing with an opening, or introducing an important character, consider: How can delay and enigma help me build a character? Can I avoid giving everything away instantly, while still remaining true to my narration? Instead of having them dive at once into the water, see if you can lead your readers out to sea.

What would you like to see the Secret Victorianist blog about next? Let me know, here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 3 April 2016

Quiz: Birthdays in Victorian Novels

The Secret Victorianist celebrated her birthday on Friday! And in honour of the occasion I created this tricky, birthday-related quiz...