John Harding: ‘[Florence and Giles] was inspired by Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw”. The book was made into an opera by the 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten and on my way home from watching the opera I began to think it would be interesting to tell a similar story, only this time not from the point of view of the governess as it is in the Henry James book, but from the viewpoint of one of the children. I’ve always loved stories like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and I loved writing in the genre. So much so that when the book was a huge bestseller and people in the UK and Italy and Brazil kept asking for another book in the same genre I decided “Why not” (Perchè no?)’
As a working-class girl from Cardiff, she knew more about that world than many of her contemporaries. She was brought up in a rented Victorian house, an only child living with grandparents as well as parents. Her mother and father were both shop assistants for local grocers. ‘My dad used to bone sides of bacon,’ she recalls. ‘He died when I was 11, giving me the opportunity to feel sorry for myself as a semi-orphan. Around that time, I first read David Copperfield and immediately identified with the lone child hero.’
It was the most autobiographical of Dickens’s novels, and Girl in a Blue Dress is another fictional take on an aspect of his life, albeit under the name of Alfred Gibson and set in the period immediately after his funeral. The central figure is his wife, Dorothea Gibson—alias Catherine Dickens—who is neither invited to the funeral nor favoured in the will. By the time of Dickens’s death, aged 58, they had been separated (though not divorced) for 12 years. She had been given a home and an income, while the famous writer kept their 10 children and had more time to spend with his much younger mistress.
It’s a brave writer who will take on Henry James, but John Harding’s publishers trumpet his debt to The Turn of the Screw. So Flora and Miles become Florence and Giles, and Bly House becomes Blithe House, a mansion set in New England in the 1890s. Fortunately, however, Harding rings enough ingenious changes on James’s study of perversity to produce his own full-blown Gothic horror tale.
Arnold laces her tale with a lively infusion of all things Lewis Carroll. Familiar images—a looking-glass; nursemaids and piglet-babies; puddles made of tears; cupboards and keyholes; Cheshire cats, walruses, dormice, oysters and caterpillars—pop up with a knowing wink and a nod. Merging 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with a distinctly measured approach, Arnold also draws on her experience as a contemporary childcare social worker, weaving a tapestry rich with imagination, madness and sadness. (At a particularly painful point in Daisy’s story, it comes with relief when a stalwart character, gentle with kindness, attempts to take charge: ‘Tell me again … but calmly this time, Daisy. So I can understand.’)
A report by Catherine Han on the third BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 11 Feb 2016: a discussion of Julian Barnes’s Booker prize-winning The Sense of an Ending (2011).
Our second event for 2016 extends our innovative approach to the BookTalk formula once again, providing BookTalkers an opportunity to meet the authors of two recent best-selling novels set in the Victorian period: Gaynor Arnold and John Harding. There will also be the opportunity to hear about the continuing public appetite for the 19th century from Professor Ann Heilmann, an internationally recognized expert on Victorian and Neo-Victorian literature based within Cardiff University.
I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However … who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamed about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.
But time … how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time … give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.—Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape, 2011), p. 93
Like so many of Barnes’s narrators, Tony Webster is resigned to his ordinariness; even satisfied with it, in a bloody-minded way. In one light, his life has been a success: a career followed by comfortable retirement, an amiable marriage followed by amicable divorce, a child seen safely into her own domestic security. On harsher inspection, ‘I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and succeeded—and how pitiful that was.’ Barnes is brutally incisive on the diminishments of age: now that the sense of his own ending is coming into focus, Tony apprehends that ‘the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss’, that he has already experienced the first death: that of the possibility of change … Barnes excels at colouring everyday reality with his narrator’s unique subjectivity, without sacrificing any of its vivid precision: only he could invest a discussion about hand-cut chips in a gastropub with so much wry poignancy.
When we’re young, everyone over the age of thirty looks middle-aged, everyone over fifty antique. And time, as it goes by, confirms that we weren’t so wrong. Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young, erode. We end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young. I’ve never much minded this myself.
But there are exceptions to the rule. For some people, the time differentials established in youth never really disappear: the elder remains the elder, even when both are dribbling greybeards. For some people, a gap of, say, five months means that one will perversely always think of himself—herself—as wiser and more knowledgeable than the other, whatever the evidence to the contrary. Or perhaps I should say because of the evidence to the contrary. Because it is perfectly clear to any objective observer that the balance has shifted to the marginally younger person, the other one maintains the assumptions of superiority all the more rigorously. All the more neurotically.—Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011), ch. 00
The way in which we construct our histories, our fictions, is the subject of the novel, which shares its title with Frank Kermode’s critical study of 1967. Poised between a straightforward story and a novel of ideas, Barnes has it both ways, just as he often contrives to be so English and so French at once. He succeeds in this partly because he is too clever to let his cleverness get in the way: the ideas are filtered through a mind less agile than his own, so that theory is always bound by character.—2011 review in the Times Literary Supplement