Tuesday 24 December 2019

Abridging A Christmas Carol

It’s been quite a year for the Secret Victorianist, and 2020 is set to be even more exciting, with the publication of my forthcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress. Happy Christmas and, whether you’re new here or have been following along since 2013, thank you for reading!

In keeping with the festive season, in this post I recount a conversation with Jesse Kornbluth, a writer who recently took on abridging a seasonal classic—Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843).

Jesse is the writer behind Head Butler, a website that aims to be your cultural concierge, covering books, movies, music and more. His abridged version of A Christmas Carol, created with children and those listening to the story aloud in mind, is now available on Amazon.

Me: Jesse, what made you want to take on the (formidable!) job of abridging one of the English language’s best-loved novelists?

J: I remember Arthur Bliss Perry, the aged and legendary headmaster of Milton Academy, reading A Christmas Carol to us in a dimly lit library before we left school in December. He didn’t read the entire story. Fifty years later, when I tried to read it to my daughter, she couldn’t bear it after five minutes. So I decided to do what Mr Perry did (and what Dickens himself did when he performed his stories): I abridged it.

Me: What was your overall approach?

J: I kept all the dialogue, but streamlined the description. Thanks to movies, readers already have a picture of what Victorian London looked like. Dickens would have been a terrific screenwriter. He moved the story forward with no digressions.

Me: Speaking of films, do you have a favourite adaptation of A Christmas Carol?

J: Hmm, it has to be one of the black-and-white films—probably the 1951 version, with Alastair Sim. [Note: This was released as Scrooge in the UK.]

Me: And any favourite Dickens quotes?

J: Yes, but from Bleak House, not A Christmas Carol: “Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.”

Me: What is it do you think about Dickens, and A Christmas Carol in particular, that continues to resonate with readers, listeners and viewers today?

J: I think we all want to believe that there’s no evil in the world—only damaged people who can be healed. And if there is evil, we want to believe in a magical cure. That’s what A Christmas Carol offers.

Me: Thank you, Jesse, and merry Christmas!

If you’re interested in learning more about Jesse’s project, then check out his website. And if you have any ideas/requests/suggestions for content from the Secret Victorianist in 2020, let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

I’ll be updating you on my publication journey here on my blog, but check out my author website to read early praise for Bronte’s Mistress and, if you want to receive news straight to your inbox, sign up for my email newsletter below.

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Sunday 15 December 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: The Clergyman’s Wife, Molly Greeley (2019)

I’ve already reviewed ten novels this year as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series, dedicated to books written in the twenty-first century but set in the nineteenth. And the final and eleventh was a book I was particularly excited about—The Clergyman’s Wife, Molly Greeley’s 2019 debut.

The Clergyman's Wife (2019), Molly Greeley
I’ve previously written about a few other novels inspired by Jane Austen’s perennially popular 1813 Pride and Prejudice (e.g. Longbourn, which tells the story from the perspective of the Bennet family’s servants, and Mary B, which takes up the perspective of Lizzy’s least beautiful sister). The Clergyman’s Wife revisits the novel from yet another viewpoint—that of Charlotte Lucas, Lizzy’s friend who chooses to wed the risible Mr Collins since she has few other prospects.

Jane Austen fans love to imagine which Bennet sister they are most similar to, with the majority of us hoping that we’re “a Lizzy”. But I’ve always felt that Charlotte Lucas’s pragmatic attitude is one that most of us would adopt if we lived in a society that forced women to marry or become a burden.

Greeley dives into this topic a little deeper. Her story begins a few years after Pride and Prejudice ends. Charlotte is older, a mother and a wife. Mr Collins is his usual loquacious self. And the couple lives near Rosings under the gaze of Lady Catherine, who is as commandeering as ever. The novel asks us to imagine “what if”. What if we were in a marriage of convenience? Would affection grow between husband and wife? What if true love came knocking years after you’d concluded it was an unattainable dream?

Molly Greeley
Charlotte confronts these questions and more when local gardener Mr Travis plants roses near the parsonage under Lady Catherine’s orders. Their relationship is believable and nuanced, with Greeley doing a great job balancing period etiquette with a modern desire for action and drama. One strength in her writing that helps with this is that her characters all feel entirely human, despite the more stilted manners of the Regency period. No one, not even Lady Catherine or Mr Collins, feels like a caricature. And descriptions of movement and physicality, especially related to Charlotte’s baby daughter Louisa, are recognisable and charming.

Just as the roses instigate Charlotte and Mr Travis’s first meeting, so botany is a thematic thread throughout the novel, with beautiful descriptions of the Kent landscape. There’s just enough of this to add colour, texture and interest without alienating readers who (like me) might know little of gardening.

Austen purists will be delighted by how Greeley is true to the spirit of Pride and Prejudice while adding her own commentary. Lizzy and Darcy make a cameo and don’t worry—their marriage is going well! There’s a scene at the Bennets’ dinner table, another at a ball. This isn’t a radical revision of one of literature’s best loved books but a delicate, understated story that asks us to look closer at the people not born to be protagonists who are often left on the peripheries, the choices they make and the happiness they can find.

I’d love to hear your recommendations for books I should review in my Neo-Victorian Voices series in 2020! Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

I am also delighted to share that Molly Greeley was kind enough to read my own forthcoming novel, Brontë's Mistress, and offered an endorsement.

She writes: Brontë's Mistress gives voice to a woman who, until now, has been voiceless; and, indeed, to thousands of women whose lives, like Lydia's, were so terribly suffocating.”

If you’re interested in receiving updates about Brontë's Mistress, sign up to my email newsletter below!

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Wednesday 4 December 2019

Writers’ Questions: How do I write a query letter?

In August 2020, my debut novel, Bronte’s Mistress, about the older woman who had an affair with Branwell Bronte, will be published by Atria Books. It’s been a long road to getting traditionally published and I’ve had to learn a LOT along the way. So, in this Writers’ Questions series, I’m sharing some advice about the process to help fellow writers. 

Signing with a literary agent is the most common first step if you want a contract from a major publisher. In a previous blog post, I wrote how to find literary agents that might be a good fit for you and your novel. But once you have your dream list, what next? I hate to break it to you, but it’s time to write the dreaded query letter.

Query letters are almost always query emails in today’s digital-first era of communication. Think of them as similar to the cover letters you might write when applying for jobs. The role of a cover letter is to get you an interview. The role of a query letter is to get an agent to read your manuscript.

Different agents may have different requirements for the queries they receive so it’s ALWAYS important to check out their agency website to understand their specific asks, but there is formula that will work pretty universally.

It goes like this:


I am querying you because PERSONALISATION [This is where you can mention how you found them. In Acknowledgments of a book you loved? On Twitter? Via #MSWL? Don’t know what these things mean? Read my earlier post.]

DESCRIPTION OF YOUR NOVEL [This should be similar in length to what you might find on the back of a published book. It begins with the main character vs. a long description of the setting and/or backstory. Who are they and what is their predicament? Don’t give away your ending. This is a spoiler-free zone.]

TITLE, LENGTH, GENRE & COMP TITLES [Unless you mentioned any of these in your personalisation section above.]

DESCRIPTION OF YOU [Don’t overthink this. Your bio should be one to two sentences mentioning anything relevant. For example if your novel is for children and you have children, mention it! If your main character is a cardiologist and so are you, wonderful! If you’ve had stories published in the New Yorker, shout it from the rooftops. Otherwise, simply saying “I live in PLACE and work in THIS DAY JOB” is fine.]

Thank you for your consideration, [Or other appropriate sign off.]

Some common mistakes to watch out for include trying to be quirky (e.g. writing the letter from your main character—don’t do this!), getting the agent’s name wrong (I addressed my letters by first name since I didn’t want to assume whether agents were Ms/Miss/Mrs/Dr etc.), spending too long on your biography (the query letter should be about your novel more than about you), and not leading with character in your novel description.

It should also go without saying that you shouldn’t be rude to or threaten the agent (you wouldn’t threaten a recruiter in a cover letter!), yet agent horror stories pop up about this all the time.

Below, I’m inserting my query letter, which led me to signing with an agent. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it did the job:

Dear Danielle,

I am querying you as we have similar reading taste (I also love Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and anything by Jane Austen) and I thought my historical novel, BRONTË’S MISTRESS, might be of interest to you.

Yorkshire, 1843. Lydia Robinson is mistress of Thorp Green Hall—or at least she should be. But her daughters are rebelling, her mother-in-law is scrutinising her every move and her marriage is hanging by a thread following the death of her beloved younger daughter a year earlier. 

That’s when Branwell Brontë arrives to act as her son’s tutor. Branwell is imaginative, passionate and uninhibited by the social conventions that Lydia has followed without question since her girlhood. He’s also twenty-five to Lydia’s forty-three and oh so very easy to manipulate. 

A love of literature, music and theatre soon bring mistress and tutor together but Lydia is being watched—and not just by her husband. Her servants and the governess (Branwell’s judgmental sister Anne) are starting to ask questions. Her daughters are embarking on romantic entanglements of their own. 

With her husband’s health failing, Branwell’s behaviour growing more erratic and exposure threatened from several quarters, it’s up to Lydia to create a chance for her own happiness. Can she find meaning in her life without losing her children along the way?

BRONTË’S MISTRESS, complete at 80,000 words, is the true and previously untold story of the woman Mrs Gaskell called "that bad woman who corrupted Branwell Brontë". The novel is the result of my meticulous research into the time Anne and Branwell Brontë spent at Thorp Green Hall. I have two degrees from the University of Oxford, including a Master’s (with Distinction) in nineteenth-century literature. By day, I work in advertising. By night, I write fiction and run a successful blog on nineteenth-century literature and culture—the Secret Victorianist.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

You might have noticed that I used a rhetorical question, which some writers say is a no-go in query writing, but I think one can work (though definitely not more than one!).

I also didn’t include comp (comparative) titles as I couldn’t come up with recent novels I thought were a perfect fit. Once we “went on submission” with the manuscript to publishers, we did include comp titles, thanks to my agent’s knowledge and guidance. These were Longbourn (2013) by Jo Baker and Z (2013) by Therese Anne Fowler.

Writing a query letter can be tough but it’s a wonderful exercise in discovering the heart of your novel and how best to sell it to others. It’ll help you answer that dreaded question “what’s your book about?” from now until forever, hopefully without boring those around you. Even if you’re not quite ready to query, starting to draft the letter can be really useful.

Do you have any other questions about finding, querying or working with a literary agent? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

And if you want to learn more about Bronte’s Mistress, including pre-order and order links, launch events and more, sign up for my email newsletter below:

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