Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

July 10, 2017
by jenniferpuryear

Your Favorite Literary Character: Is it Jane?

Photo by Maria Browning

Maria Browning walks in the woods, and you can tell; the stillness and depth of the forest breathe through her words. She’s a beautiful writer who teaches creative nonfiction classes at The Porch, Nashville’s Independent Center for Writing, and contributes regularly at Chapter 16, a website devoted to the literary culture of Tennessee. Today, she agreed to be the closer for Bacon’s Summer Series.  

Maria Browning

From Maria: When Jennifer asked me to write about my favorite literary character, Jane Eyre was the first name that came to mind. She was one of my earliest fictional friends. I loved her for being so smart and fierce, so bravely honest. But I’m pretty sure we all loved Jane, so I’m not going to write about her here. You don’t need me to tell you what you already know. (I will, though, urge you to check out Margot Livesey’s The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a wonderful modern-day retelling of Jane Eyre.)

The character I want to tell you about has none of Jane Eyre’s honesty or easy lovability, but he is smart and fierce in his way, and like Jane, he’s the product of a miserable childhood. Hilary Burde, the narrator/protagonist of Iris Murdoch’s A Word Child, is a low-level civil servant in 1970s London with a rigidly structured life. His workdays are devoted to shuffling paper and sniping at colleagues, and his evenings are taken up with a fixed schedule of visits to friends and his frumpy, unmarried sister, Crystal. Weekends are mostly devoted to seeking the escape of sleep. This dull existence is not one he freely chose; rather, it’s a refuge, albeit an imperfect one, from his troubled past.

Hilary tells us that he and his sister were orphaned young and taken in by a dour aunt who soon deposited him in an orphanage. She kept Crystal. Consequently, young Hilary grew up with “a sense of having been incurably maimed by injustice,” and he dedicated himself to deserving all the punishment and Dickensian cruelty that came his way. The one bright spot in his delinquent youth was the occasional opportunity to see his little sister. “I felt none of the jealousy the earlier child is supposed to experience,” he says. “I loved Crystal at once in a sort of prophetic way, as if I were God and already knew all about her. Or as if she were God.” A kind headmaster eventually discovered his gift for languages, and he wound up studying at Oxford, finally able to blossom into the “word child” he was meant to be. His bright future seemed guaranteed, and he expected to bring Crystal along with him in his good fortune.

It didn’t work out that way, not because he was unlucky or, like Jane, compelled by honesty and integrity to give up an easy road to happiness. No, Hilary’s downfall was entirely his own doing. Through sheer selfish recklessness, he did something unforgivable, and the bitter, foul-tempered Hilary we meet in middle age has essentially resigned from life rather than deal with the shame. He has no pleasure but his routines, his somewhat unsatisfactory friends, and a clingy girlfriend he enjoys jerking around. And he has his still-adored sister, whom he loves with a not-quite-incestuous passion. When the victim of his long-ago crime suddenly reappears, Hilary is first horrified, then thrilled by a chance at redemption, then…well, I won’t spoil the story. Let’s just say it gets very complicated.

Hilary is a confounding human being — shame-ridden yet reflexively arrogant, a control freak with little impulse control, a misanthrope who longs for human connection. Blessed (or cursed) with a keen intelligence, he’s fully aware that he’s a badly behaved mass of contradictions, but his awareness does nothing to improve him. He doesn’t particularly want to be improved. He does, though, want desperately to be loved. In short, he’s like a lot of brilliant, difficult people who seem perversely determined to ruin themselves and hurt others in the process.

So why is he one of my favorite characters? I think I’d have to delve pretty deeply into my own psyche to fully explain it, but the quick answer is that he fascinates me because he’s a thoroughly believable human mess. Even the best fiction sometimes falls into the trap of making characters too rational, too easy to analyze. On the other hand, attempts to capture the enigmatic nature of real people often fall flat, delivering characters that feel hollow, remote, or emotionally false. In creating Hilary, Murdoch somehow dodged both those traps and gave us a genuinely mysterious soul. He’s maddening, often vile, but it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for him. As a fictional friend, he’s more challenging than Jane and more satisfying, too.

London pigeon, photo by Maria Browning

*Postscript from Maria: I first read A Word Child sometime in the 1980s and last revisited it more than 20 years ago. I returned to it again to write this post, and I was struck by some of the ways it seems dated now. It was first published in 1975, and there’s a certain amount of casual sexism and racism from the characters that would not be rendered so lightly in a 21st-century novel. I don’t think the sexism and racism belong to Murdoch, but it’s still a little startling to be reminded of how much the parameters of acceptable discourse have changed in 40 years. The intricate, somewhat antic plot, so characteristic of Murdoch, also seems a little old-fashioned. But Hilary and his cohort are as real as ever, and still entirely fascinating.

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Maria Browning’s work has appeared in the Nashville Scene, Literary Hub, BMI MusicWorld, Still: The Journal, and Guernica, as well as Chapter 16. A fifth-generation Tennessean, she lives in White Bluff, Tennessee.

Photo by Maria Browning

Here’s what she’s teaching right now at The Porch (note that you can still sign up for this class, which begins tomorrow!):  

Foundations of Creative Nonfiction

The difference between a mildly interesting story and one that goes deep into a reader’s heart and mind is largely a matter of craft. Even the most compelling real-life material won’t grab an audience if it isn’t shaped and presented with skill. In this class, we’ll survey the major forms of creative nonfiction, including memoir, narrative reportage, and the essay, and we’ll take a close look at story structure and voice. The primary emphasis of the class, however, will be on helping you generate and refine your own work. Whether you are just beginning to explore your material or already have a book manuscript in progress, this course will provide you with guidance, encouragement, and detailed feedback. We’ll discuss the ethics of nonfiction writing and strategies for getting published, and every student will have an opportunity to workshop at least one piece with the entire class.

  • Instructor: Maria Browning
  • Length of workshop: 8 weeks
  • Date:  Tuesdays, July 11 – August 29
  • Time: 7 – 9 p.m.

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July 6, 2017
by jenniferpuryear

Who’s Your Favorite Literary Character? Still Anne (Summer Series, Part 2)

The new Netflix series Anne with an E brings to life a beloved series, Anne of Green Gables, and the director has taken risks. Today, Lyn Fairchild Hawks thinks about the ways those choices work – and don’t.

From Lyn: Do you heart Anne because she was part of your growing up? Do you love her because she represents a bygone, simpler time and your nostalgia for it? Are you a book-to-film purist? Then tread carefully with this new Anne, the Netflix series Anne with an E.

I’m all these things, and yet I truly enjoyed the first season. (There are five planned, and season 2 is filming now.) But not as much as I love the books. Growing up, I read the first three in the series each six or seven times. They’re my sacred spaces.

Writer and co-producer Moira Wally-Beckett, Emmy winner for writing the “Ozymandias” episode of Breaking Bad, and reportedly the kind of fan with lines memorized like me, brings some anti-heroine flavors that are shocking many. But in my mind, she hasn’t mauled this children’s classic with too much 21st century angst. What strikes me is that a writer with such nihilist credits (I love Breaking Bad, but I can’t rewatch it!) has found her happy place with her own version of beloved Anne. To me, this adaptation isn’t so much sacrilege as underscoring a truth: Anne today is just as nimble, dynamic, and magical as she was in 1908.

***Note: spoilers ahead***

So Very Anne as We Knew Her

The actors really get it right. Actress Amybeth McNulty rocks the iconic fiery red hair and brings the alert, bright gaze of our dear Anne. Overcome by the natural beauty she drinks in, and passionate in all her expressions, this young miss doesn’t miss the mark. You will want to hug her as hard as Anne of the books. It apparently took auditioning 1,889 girls to find her. I believe it!

Some may wish she had the “gray eyes” Montgomery gave her, or Hollywood teeth, or some other feminine, alluring attributes alluded to, since Anne hopes with all her might to one day be beautiful. I personally loved that this actress brings more of the awkward and gawky aspects of Anne’s physical presence, enhancing her outsider status, and letting us see a real kid on screen, not a styled and manicured version of childhood. Her mussed hair, her flying legs, her alternately shrill and mellifluous voice, all of these physical attributes and characterizations by McNulty coalesce for me into quintessential Anne. I trust, based on the beautiful filters and camerawork that call out the beauties of this child’s face, that Anne is getting “prettier” in traditional ways, per the book’s trajectory. And yet why must she? It begs the question of why I or Anne would be so vain. (Marilla would certainly disapprove of all of us, and the Kardashians would make her apoplectic.)

Actress Dalila Bela, who plays Anne’s “bosom friend” and “kindred spirit,” Diana Barry, is also a perfect pick. Her portrayal is loving, innocent, and honest, without a bit of artifice. She’s a wonderful foil to the McNulty rollercoaster of emotion.

Matthew and Marilla? Mrs. Rachel Lynde? Spot on. Perfection. Whether you agree with the script or storyline these actors have been given, I know these actors match the picture I had in my mind’s eye all along with reading.

Gilbert is played by a good actor with an expressive face, and though he doesn’t look anything like what I pictured, I find him endearing.

Fans will also love the straight borrow of Anne text for dialogue in scenes between Anne and Marilla. Whether it’s about the imagination, how to pray, or what to wear, you’ll get a “thrill,” same as Anne and her books gave you, when you hear those lines you know so well usher from these actors’ mouths.

Oh, and the landscape. The Canadian countryside is a lush character itself, the camera loves it almost as much as Anne, and let’s just say, it looks pretty much like my and Anne’s “highest ideal of earthly bliss.” If you know L.M. Montgomery’s text, she gives loving and constant paeans to the natural world, Anne’s loyal companion in her everyday wanderings.

Thoroughly Modern Anne

The adds Walley-Beckett makes to bring suspense to what is a primarily episodic story tells me she doesn’t trust today’s audience to live without cliffhangers, darkness, and PTSD. As someone who’s abandoned House of Cards for being too imitative of life right now, I’d rather have my original Anne, and don’t need any 2017 stylings. I believe I and our thoroughly modern girls can handle retro. Seeing a poor girl get really excited over puffed sleeves brings tears to my eyes. It strikes the chord in many girls who remember wanting to fit in, so badly, and be as fashionable as anyone else.

But I did like a few adds of Walley-Beckett’s, particularly Anne’s back story. Anne, orphaned close to her birth, has been handed off across too many families who use her as a maid and nanny before she comes to Marilla and Matthew at age 11. L.M. Montgomery alludes to these unhappy years but doesn’t dwell with more than an occasional paragraph, where Anne references these moments without a ton of self-pity. Walley-Beckett dives right into the past, however, and lets us see beatings, bullyings, and poverty. Anne is a survivor, and I have no trouble believing that the grimness added is probably much what it was like for an orphan girl in the late 1800s who’s farmed out to working families. She was probably beaten and run ragged with the childrearing. One of the women Anne served had three sets of twins; enough said. I bet L.M. Montgomery’s pithy paragraph spoke volumes to the audiences of her time, as causes such as women’s suffrage and birth control were gaining popularity.

The book was forged in a time of class struggle, misogyny, child labor, diseases without vaccines or cures, and back-breaking farm work for many. Some fans who treat Anne as escapist fiction only—and trust me, there’s good reason for that!—will be startled if not alarmed at these intrusions. I treat these adds as necessary reminders of the evil lurking close behind us all, and the fragility of human life. The hyperbolic bullying by some of the town kids isn’t particularly good writing, and it was irritating enough to me but maybe resonates with our kids who experience such things, words run amok, and relentless harassers whom too many allow to run riot over us in real time and virtual.

But Walley-Beckett had to add what I call silly things like a wild-goose chase of sending Anne back to the orphanage, then a rush to retrieve her, or overwrought, hyper-educational period bits about feminism—Marilla’s invited, then disinvited—from a feminist women’s book club. Anne saving Minnie May from death was powerful in the book and powerful here, so we don’t need Anne also being the only one in town who knows how to stop a fire from spreading (she saves Ruby Gillis’ burning home to close doors and windows). The season end on a stupid cliffhanger—nothing less than something wicked this way comes in the presence of two criminal strangers—is stupid, when you could have used the Anne-Gilbert romance or Anne’s saving of Minnie May as something more compelling. These kind of adds are making some fans quite angry.

While I understand why, I also imagine why Walley-Beckett made these adds. Working in the TV medium, each episode craves a neat little arc, so why not a chase or a fire to give us reason to stay the 45 minutes? Why not let Anne indulge in a few too many tantrums? She is highly anxious, quick to anger, and easily overwrought in the books, and if she’s a bit too much on screen, it may be simply because the visual assault of sound and image isn’t the same when reading. We can pace ourselves.

I wasn’t even upset by Matthew attempting suicide and interrupted by a former love interest who comes to see him. The actors again are so on point that these events to me seem like icing on an already-perfect pound cake. Some people love icing, I really do, I’m not so much offended as long as the adds reinforce the essential Anne-ness. But if this stuff makes you angry, then do bond with Joanna Robinson’s review, whose Vanity Fair takedown of Anne with an E is full of good old-fashioned high umbrage.

I’m a big fan of YA that “goes there” with bodily function (I do so in my own stories), like Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret. But I don’t need to see Anne getting her period. I do think the girls’ discussion about it is an interesting historical window for today’s girls, and maybe, it helps them appreciate how far we’ve come from it being a “woman’s curse,” and even appreciate such efforts as the ridiculous commercials that tell us very publicly to “have a happy period.”

Gilbert getting orphaned, and Anne failing at consoling him after his dad’s death? It’s actually fodder for a character arc, where Anne realizes her own narcissism, and offers a wholehearted, sincere apology, and they spell out T-R-U-C-E together. Nicely new, and nicely done. Ms. Josephine’s “best friend” being an implied lesbian partner? It’s handled deftly enough, and would be true enough for some “old maids” that I didn’t mind it one bit.

One last thought on fan anger, from the point of view of this author and literature teacher, who loves when art wallows in the gray: if people do go to Anne for escape and trust in the ultimate goodness of people and another time, then they’re not looking for the kind of gray I tend to like in many other books. One of my very favorite lines as a child was Anne’s final line in Anne of Green Gables:

God’s in His heaven—

All’s right with the world!

My childhood self, which was growing up in the safest of spaces, took that as face value. That’s how the world works, right? I had no idea, till I just looked it up, that it’s a potentially ironic end to Robert Browning’s verse drama, Pippa Passes, a story rife with regicide, infidelity, and cruelty. Was Montgomery invoking this irony, or was she creating a story safe space with Anne’s optimism? Her own upbringing was fraught with neglect, isolation, and severe depression. Some literary critics argue Anne is therapeutic for its right dose of her oversensitivities, anxiety, and depression. Writer Irene Gammel, author of Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic, argues that Montgomery built Anne as her own escapist fantasy as a counterbalance to a difficult life full of

“…diverse feelings that Maud had felt over the years: youth slipping away, friends leaving, and family threatened. It was these unsettling realities that prompted Maud to create what she called ‘castles in Spain,’ daydreams in which she had everything she was missing in real life. Nourished by her reading of romance, this dreamland of fiction would help Maud become an agent in transforming her own fate. She dreamed up Anne.”

L.M. Montgomery

Whatever you might call this remix Walley-Beckett hath wrought, I will salute its uniqueness, its gray as gray as Anne’s eyes, and its boldness. I say that as long as Anne’s compassion, lovability, imagination, and eccentricity don’t cease, I’m in for the long haul.

More Thoughts on Anne

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Lyn Fairchild Hawks writes YA contemporary fiction and short stories. She is represented by Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency. Lyn is the author of the novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought; co-author of the graphic novella, Minerda; and author of the short story collection, The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future. A lifelong educator, Lyn also designs differentiated lessons making Shakespeare accessible to students. Check out her most recent post at Bacon, “9 High Flavor YA Reads for Your Teen (and You).”

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Top image: from comingsoon.net

Image of L.M. Montgomery: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/11/30/i-tried-always-to-do-my-best/