Friday, August 20, 2010

Shirley, a Victorian novel to avoid

I grew up about a mile from the 'Fieldhead House' of this novel and a mile in another direction from 'Briarmains'. The local council, in a fit of local pride, had called the local council estate 'Shirley', a fact that never struck me as odd until this moment. Equally odd is the truth that Shirley never was a girl's name until this novel.

You can strain out some nourishment. As a social history it reminds us that the past was just like the present, only more extreme (the unwashed Methodists,  holding prayer meetings; the mill owner shooting a rioter dead and then getting the ringleaders sent to Australia, magistrates taking a robust view of law-breaking among the lower classes in those days; the genteel women stitching for the Missionary Basket, designed to raise funds for overseas missions). Proto-feminism stirs: the book includes a discussion over a garden fence between two neighbours about the First Letter of Timothy, Chapter 2, for example.

There ought to be rules, however, that even Victorian novels should follow. Finely chisel your characters as you must, and you must. But don't show off your French. Don't write a chapter when a page will do. Don't have the plotting of a melodrama or a farce. (Gosh, my best friend's companion turns out to be my estranged mother! The male protagonist has a dishy brother! He's staying in the same house as the estranged mother! Now both girls can get married!) And don't, whatever you do, create a heroine whose main problem is that she sits around bored all day. It can give Victorian novels, not to mention housing estates, a bad name.

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