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Jewish World Review
March 3, 2008
/ 26 Adar I 5768
Fiction as a crutch to get one through life
I gave up writing novels in my mid-twenties, when I was halfway through my third, convinced I had not enough talent for fiction. Sometimes I wish I had persisted. There is one particular reason. The point is made neatly by W. Somerset Maugham in Cakes and Ale:
These remarks need qualification. I'm not sure that the essay can be used for such a purpose. Hazlitt, a great essayist, wrote an extended essay short book length to exorcise the torturing spirit of his landlady's awful (but to him divine) daughter, Sarah, and it did not work: merely got him into fresh, public trouble. It is true that Lamb, an even better essayist, occasionally used the form to rid himself of shaming memories: for instance, not sufficiently appreciating the kindness of his humble aunt who brought him culinary titbits when he was a charity boy at the Charterhouse, and in that delicate essay 'Poor Relations'. But I have published, I calculate, about 800 essays without using one for exorcism. It works in poetry, especially to expunge the pangs of loss witness Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' and Shelley's 'Adonais', and most of 'A Shropshire Lad' indeed nearly all Housman's verse was exorcism. It can be made to work, I suppose, in non-fiction. I suspect there is exorcism in some of Ruskin's prose, and Carlyle's.
But fiction is the ideal medium for killing painful memories. The most excruciating emotional torture in Thackeray's life prolonged, too was his hopeless passion for Mrs Brookfield, ending in heartbreak, bitterness and bad temper on the part of her unpleasant husband. But he cured himself by putting it all into Henry Esmond. Gustave Flaubert wanted to forget about his ten-year on-off affair with Louise Collet. So he wrote Madame Bovary, which did the trick and also proved to be by far his best novel because, unlike Salambo and Bouvet et Pécuchet, he had lived it. I think Anthony Trollope tried to deal with his illicit and unspoken love for the American girl Kate, not once but several times she flickered in and out of at least three novels but the fact that he had to repeat the dose shows it didn't work, any more than did Aldous Huxley's attempt to expel Nancy Cunard from his memory in Antic Hay.
Dickens was the great exorciser of emotional ghosts. One reason why David Copperfield was his favourite book was that it was a vast exercise in slaughtering his most painful memories of childhood. By recreating his father as an unforgettable comic hero in the shape of Micawber, Dickens triumphantly blotted out of his consciousness the fact that John Dickens was a hopeless and embarrassing failure. He remained an expense to Dickens to his dying day but no longer caused pain by his idiocies: Micawber absorbed and transmuted them all into laughter. His mother was a more difficult proposition. Dickens was bitter about her because she had done nothing to stop him being condemned to the blacking factory, the worst experience of his life. But the fact that he had to have several shots at her, from Mrs Nickleby onwards, shows that the exorcism did not work.
The truth is, I think, that anaesthetising memories by employing them in fiction operates at two levels. For comparatively minor characters Dickens experienced no difficulties. All his irritation at Leigh Hunt's persistent mendicancy, in which was subsumed Dickens's weariness at the endless applications for 'loans' he received from the writing fraternity (he was exceptionally generous, and people presumed on it), were both completely banished from his mind by his brilliant creation of Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. But at the higher, more intense level where the deepest emotions are felt, Dickens was less successful. He could not expunge Maria Beadnell by fiction: she remained to torment him until he actually met and got to know her again, when her faded charms and capacity to bore were effective antidotes.
Nor could he use the chloroform of fiction to sort out the pain and shame of his brutal repudiation of his wife Catherine, who had borne him ten children, and his affair if it was an affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan. His anxiety to do it, and his repeated inability to carry through his intention, cast a faint shadow over his late novels. The extraordinary ingenuity he employed to keep secret his many meetings with Ellen reflected his inability to devise a fictional way of solving the problem. The secrecy means we still do not know the precise nature of their relationship, and the fact that Dickens could not fictionalise it suggests it was deeply unsatisfactory to him.
Transmuting bitter memories into stories can produce great work. Evelyn Waugh felt himself crucified by his betrayal by his first wife. But it produced what many regard as his masterpiece, A Handful of Dust, a powerful book I find almost too painful to re-read. An earlier humiliation by Cyril Connolly was gradually erased by General Connolly, the mercenary of Black Mischief, the Connolly slum-children of Put Out More Flags, and the odious Everard Spruce of Unconditional Surrender.
I suspect Jane Austen used fiction to exorcise moments of humiliation or shame. Emma's rudeness to Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic, perhaps the most painful experience in the entire oeuvre, must surely have recreated an actual incident which Jane bitterly regretted and was anxious to stamp out of her memory. There are comparable but less fraught episodes in her presentation of Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot, two heroines close to her own person. There is no question that Jane Austen was sufficiently in command of her inventive faculty to use her novels for all sorts of secret emotional purposes, and that as a result of writing them she was a much happier woman than she would have been otherwise. Fiction is a useful crutch to get one through life.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson