Lynn Shepherd on the Knotty Problem of Literary Reinvention.
Quite a few authors have written either follow-on novels or used characters from well known classics, but with varying degrees of success. Not only must the author juggle with the tone of the original novel and remain true to the characters, but also retain the authentic period atmosphere. This becomes particularly difficult when they are obliged, at some point, to step out of the previously established literary locations, or provide close ups of scenes the originals did not. To do this, thorough research must be coupled with intelligent use of the material the author has unearthed. Lynn Shepherd has taken on this herculean task not once, but twice; the first a foray into the territory of ‘Mansfield Park’, the second into ‘Bleak House’.
The result is a blend of an authentic nod in the direction of Dickens, while providing the style of writing where details do not get in the way of plot and pace. This throws the reader into the full sensory experience of Victorian London and the melodrama of a sinister mystery.
What is the difference between a mystery novel and a crime novel?
You know, I’ve never been asked that before – good question though! My take on what defines ‘crime’ would be that the commission, detection, and resolution of the felony (usually a murder) are the central axis of the mainstream crime book. In a ‘mystery’ it may or may not be a crime that drives the plot along – it could be a secret of another kind, or some other inexplicable event. When murder is the triggering event, the consequences and causes of that crime assume more importance in the mystery genre. And there may be elements of other genres in a mystery too – for example, I would call my books mysteries rather than conventional crime novels because the literary angle is so important, and so integral to the stories. In Tom-All-Alone’s (Solitary House, US title), for instance, readers who know Bleak House will (I hope) get a great deal of their pleasure from discerning the relationship my own story has to Dickens’.
There is an omniscient narrator (the ‘I am a camera’, ‘Under Milk Wood’ approach) whose references gradually lead the reader to realise that they are viewing the story from a much later time than the story is written. The narrative used has an old fashioned flavour. Why did you do this and how did you prevent this approach from distancing the reader from the story, as many crime/mystery books aim to give the reader a more intimate experience?
There were several reasons why I chose to tell my story this way. Firstly, it was a deliberate echo of Dickens’ own approach to storytelling (which of course many other Victorian novelists also shared), so the omniscient narrator was integral to my attempt to recreate the feel of a nineteenth century novel. It was also a conscious nod to one of my favourite novels, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was probably the first ‘neo-Victorian’ novel, and one where Fowles famously adopts a twentieth century perspective on nineteenth century society, which is exactly the same viewpoint I take in Tom-All-Alone’s. And finally, having a twenty-first century narrator means I get round that besetting difficulty faced by all historical novelists, which is how to communicate vital background information to the reader without resorting to those toe-curling, info-dump exchanges that your characters would never have had in real life.
I don’t think this technique alienates the reader – for the vast majority of Tom-All-Alone’s the narrator allows the story to unfold without comment, and I know many of my readers have felt a strong emotional affinity to characters like Charles Maddox and his ailing great-uncle. In fact, the very fact that my narrator and my readers both know what disease old Maddox is really suffering from makes the situation even more poignant in some ways: we know that the problem is Alzheimer’s, but young Charles cannot possibly know that because Alzheimer’s had not been discovered at the time, which makes the situation that much more frightening for him and affecting for us.
The novel is filled with very detailed descriptions of Victorian street life. How did you research this?
One of my best sources was Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Originally a series of newspaper articles, it’s a huge, rich, sprawling account of how real people lived in the middle of the nineteenth century. It’s almost like a Victorian ‘vox pop’, with Mayhew noting down conversations with the street-sellers almost verbatim. I also found the www.victorianlondon.org website to be a wonderfully helpful resource, especially when I was researching the different districts of London, from the slums of Seven Dials to the leather trade in Bermondsey.
How do you decide how much detail to leave in, because too much detail slows the reading?
My golden rule is that the story should lead the research, not the other way round. I always hate it when I read a historical novel and come across a great slab of half-digested research that the novelist has clearly spent ages tracking down, and can’t bear to leave out as a consequence. When I write, I do the minimum of research upfront, and then I go back once the first draft is done to find out the little details that come up as the story unfolds. Like the price of specific things or the time it would have taken to travel between certain places by carriage.
You break the cardinal rule of show not tell. This is a very novel approach to modern storytelling. What made you think it would work?
I like to think I do quite a lot of showing as well! But as I said before, if there is a degree of ‘telling’ in Tom-All-Alone’s, that was a deliberate strategy to replicate the feel of a Victorian novel, so I don’t feel any qualms about having done it!
The prologue is written in a rapid flow of impressions. How did you go about choreographing this?
The prologue begins with a deliberate echo of that marvellous opening to Bleak House – ‘London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather…’
After that I very quickly make a reference to Flanders Fields, so the reader knows straightaway that the storyteller is not part of the Victorian setting – in other words, that the narrative perspective of the book is from 2012, not 1850. Another key role of the prologue is to establish a very specific and direct relationship between the narrator and the reader. I do this by addressing the reader directly, and ‘walking by their side’ through the dirty, dangerous streets – ‘Muffle your face, if you can, against the stink of human and animal filth, and try not to look too closely at what it is that’s caking your boots, and sucking at your tread….’
So it’s a very perceptive point you make – the prologue is absolutely vital to the mise-en scène of the book, and has to work very hard. Though funnily enough it was one of the easiest parts to write – it seemed to just flow straight out, and I hardly made any changes or edits to it thereafter. When you look at the manuscript of Bleak House it’s clear that exactly the same thing happened with the opening there too, so I like to think it was a good omen!
Do you actually see the scenes as you’re writing them or do you concentrate on typing the words?
Many readers have told me that I have a cinematic imagination – they say the scenes unfold like those in a film. I take that as the most enormous compliment, because I do indeed ‘see’ my stories as I write them. But – and this is really important – I also ‘hear’ them too. The rhythm of language is incredibly important to me, and a sentence has to have the right cadence, as well as the right meaning. Even down to the fact that I will reject certain words if they have the wrong number of syllables.
There are certain things like the fever cart that aren’t explained. How confident were you that readers could catch on to the meaning and not break off from the reading to Google the reference?
The fever cart, in particular, is one of my echoes to Bleak House, so those who know that novel well will probably pick up that reference. And I would hope that even those who don’t know Dickens’ book will deduce the meaning reasonably easily from the context, which is the filthy slum of Tom-All-Alone’s where dozens of people are succumbing to disease. I take your wider point, though, and there’s always a balance to be struck between giving evocative bits of detail that will enrich the reader’s enjoyment (even if they need to Google them), and putting in so much of it that the prose becomes paralysed. I can only hope I get the balance right most of the time!
What was the position of a private detective at that time?
This is pre-Sherlock Holmes, of course, but post-1829, so London does have a fully functioning police force, which was certainly not the case in 1811, when my first book Murder at Mansfield Park was set. In the early years of the century there were numerous men who functioned as private investigators (‘thief takers’ in the terminology of the day), who were paid to retrieve stolen property or solve crime. My guess is that there would still have been a market for such services even after 1829, especially in relation to what we would now call ‘cold cases’, or on behalf of the rich and powerful who wished to keep their affairs private. And it is two cases exactly like that which young Charles Maddox takes on in the opening pages of Tom-All-Alone’s…
You’re taking characters and whole environments of well known novels which is not for the faint-hearted. How could you be sure you were going to succeed in extrapolating previous cultural icons?
I have a doctorate in English, and right from the start I approached the novels I engaged with not just in a spirit of love and homage, but also with what you could call an academic discipline. When I first had the idea for Murder at Mansfield Park, back in 2008, the first thing my agent said was ‘Fantastic idea, but can you write like Jane Austen?’ And when I set about trying to do that I discovered – or so people tell me – that I do have a talent for pastiche, and that I can replicate another person’s style reasonably well. I think a lot of that goes back to what I said before – about having an ear for the rhythm of the way other people write, as well as a very rigorous approach to getting the language right and not falling prey to linguistic anachronisms. And in Tom-All-Alone’s I never tried to write like Dickens – partly because I wanted to develop my own voice, and partly because my aim was rather to evoke his world, than mimic his style.
What is your next project?
In the next book I don’t engage with a famous literary work, but with some famous literary lives – the Young Romantics, most particularly the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein, but also Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont, who was Mary’s stepsister and mother of Byron’s child. They’re an endlessly fascinating and intriguing group, and there are many aspects of their lives that we still don’t understand – like a seemingly unprovoked assassination attempt on Shelley in Wales in 1813, and the fact that the Shelleys appear to have destroyed their own journals and papers on several occasions, for no apparent reason. What secrets might those pages have revealed, and why were they so desperate to destroy them? A Treacherous Likeness is an attempt to weave a story to fill those silences, and answer those questions…
Tom-All-Alone’s is available in paperback from Corsair and is published in the US by Random House under the title The Solitary House. Murder at Mansfield Park is available as an e-book from Corsair. A Treacherous Likeness will be published in February in the UK, and will be issued under the title A Fatal Likeness in the US later in 2013. You can also watch Lynn’s video about A Treacherous Likeness.
Lynn’s website is www.lynn-shepherd.com, and her Twitter ID is @Lynn_Shepherd.