Friday, 15 June 2007

A Blog too Far?

Not for the faint-hearted anyway: being a 5000-word chapter from the original book.

I have decided to take a calculated risk, and post a complete chapter from the original novel. My aim is to give a more rounded picture of David Porteous - though I quite see that the only thing I might succeed in doing will be to exhaust and alienate those few faithful readers I already have! It's a risk I've decided to take however - if only that I might move on with greater confidence to the next phase in the Blog version of the story.

This chapter follows, in the original, immediately upon David Porteous's first visit to the cottage of Mrs Baines and Roland - and these are his recorded impressions...

"....David Porteous’s impressions of his visit to the cottage beside the pond were a good deal less favourable than Mrs Baines might have hoped. His heart had sunk sharply indeed, when the large lady in the curiously rustling dress had opened the front door to him. She was so very much the mixture as before, that was the trouble. She might easily have been high-nosed Miss Ursula Monckton-Leyes of the Ladies’ Needlework Guild; or tireless Mrs Elsworthy, whose organisational zeal in the matter of the Fete Committee and the Flower Rosta had sometimes made it necessary for him to hide in corners…. It had been difficult not to see in her some rather gruesome mix of the attributes of all his former female parishioners, thrown into the melting pot and re-constituted as one large, intimidating lady! David had experienced a moment of deep dismay therefore, even as he had urbanely smiled, and put out his hand for greeting.

And throughout all the rather tedious little ritual of tea and cakes, the conversational progressions which seemed to have been ordained beforehand, the bland assumptions and the entirely predictable views, his irritation had intensified. Was this the way it was going to be, then? Was he simply to have exchanged one set of blameless matrons for another? Had he gone through all the upheaval of retirement, all the pompous speech-making and protracted farewells - all the sudden panic, even, that he had experienced on closing the doors of his dear old church and charming rectory for the very last time - just so that he might come down here and find everything going along in much the same manner as before?

He admitted that he had hoped for something better. Or something, at least, a little different. He had hoped, when it really came down to it, to have found himself immersed more or less at once in circles which would include those of his very much more promising, and indeed his almost nearest neighbours, the Macauleys. He had even dared to hope that from these circles might emerge (all in the fullness of time of course) that lady who was suited to become the second Mrs Porteous. One who would exemplify in her character and her person all the feminine virtues which had been so notable by their absence in the first. He did not think it too much to ask. He believed he had been ill used indeed, by Laura; who had married him with what had looked like joy, and then gone on to let him down in every conceivable way. He didn’t know how else was he to judge her, when she had made it so clear from the start that she disliked every aspect of the role of clergyman’s wife, and had finally abandoned it altogether; leaving him, and wanting a divorce, after eighteen years of marriage.

He thought he had borne his misfortune with dignity; and that his own judgment of the situation had been a just one. He had looked hard enough, heaven knew, for any shortcomings of his own which might have contributed to what the courts had called the irretrievable breakdown of his marriage. He had searched his conduct and his soul over many a prayerful succession of days and nights, and found nothing in the way of sins or omissions which he thought could account for Laura’s defection. He had ended by exonerating himself from blame: he had married unwisely, that was all – Laura, Dean’s daughter though she was, having been unable, or unwilling, to adapt herself to the role that she had promised before the altar to fulfil. He had never been entirely sure that his daughters shared this view of the situation, however. Julia had been sixteen at the time, Anne fourteen; and they had taken it hard. He feared they had judged him at least in part to blame for the failure of the marriage; though neither had come right out and accused him of any offence, and both, when faced with the agony of a choice between one parent and the other, had elected to stay on in the rectory with their father.

His own, and his daughters’ unhappiness aside – and both had been prolonged, and intense - it had been a very awkward position for a priest of middle years and general high standing to find himself in. The Church of England had not looked kindly then upon the idea of divorce and re-marriage within its own ranks. Its position had been quite uncompromising - its more accommodating twists and turns of conscience were still to come. Marriage was indissoluable, that was its dictum: he might divorce, but could not think about re-marrying. He was going to have to embrace the ideal of abstinence – possibly for life.

‘The time-honoured priestly path’ he had called it, when speaking of it in the parish. Making it, when the moment seemed right, the subject of a little sermon, sad but brave, in which he had done his best to defuse and clarify the situation. He had told his parishioners that he thought he owed them at least that much. He had even managed to raise a little smile for it; ending, as he had done, with the observation that if they were to be saddled with a celibate priest, then they ought to know about it in advance, so that they might decide whether it was something they could live with, or not! They had thought they could live with it perfectly well, of course: they had only been a little vague as to the precise manner and extent to which a congregation ought to try to commiserate with its priest on the question of his celibacy! On the whole, they decided that the least said the better: a discreet little veil had been drawn around the subject, and it was quietly and universally assumed that Mr Porteous would bear his lonely burden, as he did everything else, with perfect priestliness.

One way and another, he thought he had. Twelve years had passed since then. The girls had left school and gone away to college: Anne to read English at Bristol, and Julia, always the more awkward of the two, to pursue a long and complicated course of degrees and diplomas at one of the London Art Schools. Left alone in the rectory for several years, David’s every practical requirement had somehow been met - and his celibacy more or less held out. He was to find that his unofficial vow of abstinence offered him very little protection, however. The time-honoured priestly path apparently allowed a certain latitude: one was almost expected to stray from it now and then – provided of course that any straying should take place outside the parish, and with decorum.

And even within the parish, his path had not been without temptations. A wifeless priest had no defence but his own rectitude, it seemed - and his had been put to a number of fairly stiff tests. He had been just a little shocked indeed, at the lengths to which some of his lady parishioners were prepared to go in the interests of obtaining his special favour - especially when their own circumstances had seemed to conduce to the possibility of their becoming the second Mrs Porteous! Somehow though, he had managed to parry all advances; and if he had gone adventuring, as he liked to put it – he being after all, no more than a man like any other - then he had taken care to do so discreetly, and well outside the eyes and ears, and sensiblilties, of the parish.

Laura had remarried meanwhile, and gone to live in Australia; from where, her new husband being a considerable land owner, with expendable income enough, it seemed, for almost anything, she had met all the girls’ college fees, and in addition dispatched each year at Christmas and in summer time, return tickets for them to go out and spend their long vacations with her. They had gone willingly – joyfully, it had seemed to him. Returning each time with a look of sunshine about them; with eyes that seemed somehow to have grown accustomed to looking out over wide expanses; with sunburnt complexions, and flagrantly augmented wardrobes - and with the merest hint, to his mind, of Antipodean vowels. But they had come back too, with a restlessness of spirit which had sometimes looked to him like grievance only partially suppressed. He had feared they had all the while been making judgements, comparisons, choices – and that it could perhaps be only a matter of time before they would begin to question the wisdom of having elected to stay on with him in England at all, when they might have enjoyed a life of glorious expenditure and endless sunshine, in Australia.

David had been sitting at his desk all the while, on this his third Monday morning, to make these rather discomfiting reflections. He called it his desk, the rather spindle-legged table he had set up for himself in the window recess of Aunt Floss’s ugly boxroom; but it was a miserable affair indeed, when compared with the capacious leather-topped one he had enjoyed in his study at the rectory. And the boxroom itself was more miserable still – quite the smallest and ugliest room in this inordinately ugly and neglected house. He had chosen it, not for its amenities or its size ( since it possessed neither - not even a useable bookshelf); but entirely for the view it commanded, over the roof of the one intervening house (which he understood was that of Mrs Mountjoy), and down into a substantial section of the Macauley gardens. He had sat down resolutely enough, an hour earlier; he had his papers stacked in an orderly pile beside him; his pencils were sharpened and his new laptop switched on, ready to go. He had meant to make a start at once upon the scholarly work which was to be the occupation and the sustenance of his future – he had even dreamt-up a rather arresting opening sentence.

But his thoughts would stray. So that if he was not worrying about the girls, or the repairs that were required to the house, he was steeling himself against the likelihood that Mrs Baines would break in on him at any moment with one of her little phone calls. She had fallen into the habit of calling him every other day on one pretext or another: generally that of the little party of welcome she was arranging for him, which was always just on the point of being fixed for a certain date, only to fall through again unexpectedly at the last minute, involving her (and him!) in another little flurry of apologetic explanatory calls. And when his mind was not straying in any of these directions, he found that his eyes wandered anyway, away from his papers and his laptop, and out of the window to gaze down into the walled expanse of what might once have been the Macauley kitchen garden.

He had been astonished at first to learn that the legendary Theodora still lived on in the big gaunt house at the end of the road. She must be almost a hundred by now, according to any reckoning of his. It was almost as remarkable as to have discovered that Wallis Simpson was still alive. Or Nell Gwynne, or Queen Victoria! David knew the history of Jack Macauley and his Theodora. His Aunt Floss had recounted it many times, with almost total recall, and a scarcely suppressed venom. She had considered it thoroughly disreputable, and had never consented to call Lady Macauley by any other name than Theodora; evidently believing that in speaking of her as the more sensational newspapers of the early days had done, she was reducing her to her proper place in society, and registering her own perfectly legitimate disdain. Her nephew had come to see that in her judgments of Theodora, his Aunt Floss had betrayed more than a little malice of the strictly female sort. Possessing no trace of beauty or charm herself (and, so far as he knew, no man had ever desired her, or sought her out in marriage), it was perhaps no more than natural - no more than human at any rate - that she should have looked for shortcomings in the conduct of those among her sisters who had been better blessed by nature than herself.

Still, Aunt Floss had been a rather dreadful old thing, whose opinions, especially now that she was very soundly dead, could largely be discounted. And there was no denying that the house she had left him was interestingly, nay, fascinatingly situated. He had been inordinately pleased from the start with his close proximity to the Macauley mansion. He thought it quite the best part of his aunt’s no doubt all unwitting gift to him, that she should have put him down almost cheek by jowl with Theodora, a lady who for all her scandalous history and her probably ninety years, still seemed to him to stand at the shining centre of the fascinating social circles which were likely to open up around him in the very near future. He almost felt he ought to offer up a prayer of intercession for his aunt’s immortal soul for that, if for few other benevolences of hers that he could bring to mind.

He had thought it likely he might bump into Theodora, or better still her daughter Isabella, at almost any moment; it had added a certain charmed expectancy to all the other emotions he was currently experiencing. But he had heard from Mrs Baines that the Macauley ladies were away at present, and unlikely to return for several weeks. It had been a sharp disappointment. It had seemed to put back his pleasant expectations by some incalculable period of weeks, or even months - for who knew where a pair of unencumbered wealthy women might have gone, and for how long, when they had taken it into their heads that they required a change of scene?

In the meantime, he was experiencing every kind of misgiving about his new situation. It was all very well to have upped sticks and retired, but one ought to have had a better idea of what it was one was retiring to. He had this house of course, and he was not so dishonest with himself as to fail to acknowledge that he had never expected to be put in possession of a freehold house, and that without it there would have never have any question of early retirement at all. But a house as a means of sustenance was a poor thing, when it came right down to it – one could live in, but could hardly live off it. It was like his Aunt Floss, he thought, to have left him a run-down Victorian villa, and then to have deprived him of the means of making it even decently habitable by leaving all her money to his daughters!

The sum bequeathed had seemed large at first. And indeed, at thirty thousand pounds apiece after tax it was large, at least when set against any sum which had dropped as if from heaven into the girls’ laps before. Julia and Anne had been astonished by it; had spent several happy weeks just glorying in the thought of it, the splendid things they might do with such sums, the wonders they must surely work. Their first generous impulses had been to ignore their great-aunt’s testamentary wishes by dividing her bequest into three unequal parts, and heaping the largest upon their father. He was to have had thirty thousand pounds; they would easily make-do with fifteen each. It had seemed an immense sum to them indeed; more than enough for anything which either of them might dream of doing with it. But in this their father had been adamant, and proud. The money was theirs, he said: their great aunt had wished them to have it, and he was in full concurrence with her. It must be the means by which, wisely spent, they would provide for their own futures - there being precious little, he added, that he was himself going to be able to do for them.

Their first acts upon receiving their bequests had not been encouraging to him; they having gone off almost at once to pay the most prolonged visit yet to their mother in Australia, leaving decisions about their careers hanging in what he thought a rather ill-advised abeyance. He had feared that this time, they must surely decide to stay there; so many months had they lingered, and so ecstatic had been their e-mailed accounts of life in beachside Sydney. But both had eventually drifted back, sun-tanned and cheerful; and were at present sharing a flat above a shop in Baker Street, with a view, they said, to taking a lease of the premises themselves, and opening a little design and handicrafts shop. This seemed to him a poor sort of return for all the money he (or, at any rate, their new step-father) had expended on their college educations, though he forbore from saying so directly. He only told them that he hoped the shop-keeping would be no more than a pleasant little interim occupation - until such time as they should find some better way of utilising the special skills they had acquired at college.

He had assumed that Anne would probably take a teaching post in some superior girls’ school – he still thought it would come to that at last, when once the shop venture had fallen through. And Julia – well, who knew which way Julia would jump? Julia was sharp, was combative and unpredictable: Julia could shrug, and flounce, and take exception (umbrage, he called it) where one least looked for it. All that one could be certain of with Julia was that she would jump, in one possibly undesirable direction or another! He only hoped it would not turn out to be entirely catastrophic.

He had never thought Art school a very good idea. Not when Julia might have taken up a place at his own old college in Cambridge to read Classics, instead. She had worked hard and taken a good degree, it was true: she was said to be genuinely talented. But he had never quite seen where it could all be said to be leading since, talented though she was, it seemed unlikely she would be able to earn any kind of living from her art. He had taken rather a dim view of her numerous qualifications; seeing them as a pretty-ish kind of extra embellishment, at best – though he thought it just possible that, with her expertise in the matter of textiles and old tapestries, she might eventually have found her way into all manner of interesting people’s houses….

Privately, he hoped that it would be the girls’ marriages, rather than anything else, which would intervene to put an end to foolish enterprises. He could not see how any good could come of girls’ being allowed to drift about like that with money in their pockets: there was something rather vulgar about it, to his mind - a want of feminine decorum, at any rate, which he intensely disliked. In this respect he almost found himself wishing that the Macauley daughter hadn’t after all been a son! Never mind that such a son would have been nearer fifty than forty (David had no real way of knowing Belle Macauley’s age, but he guessed he must be near to the mark with fifty): the age would have been of little consequence if everything else was right - and to have seen one of his girls married with all ceremony into that establishment would have been to see her pleasingly launched indeed!

All of which seemed to bring him back full circle to the point at which he had begun his reflections this morning – to this house, these papers, and his own perhaps precipitate plunge into early retirement and an uncertain future. There had been excellent reasons for it of course. Or so it had seemed at the time - though for the life of him he could bring remarkably few of them to mind now. If he were being frank with himself he might have said that he had simply grown tired of being a priest; that his convictions had lost much of the power they had once held over him, and that the sensation of a collar about his neck had begun to be constrictive.

He might have said too, that his aunt having left him a freehold house, there was unlikely ever to be a better reason or opportunity for breaking out. But David Porteous was not often frank with himself; or not at any rate quite so frank as that. It was the result of years of high-minded - oh, the very highest! - dissimulation from the pulpit. He found that he was almost ready to call it dissimulation. He didn’t know what else it was, that obligation one had so often felt to make sense of the paradoxical; to define the indefineable, and mount a spirited defence in favour of ideas which had increasingly come to seem indefensible.

His personal position had been the most difficult of all to define or defend. It would not have sufficed simply to have told the bishop that he wished to try something different; flex a muscle or two that was not inhibited by a surplice; exercise his mind again upon matters which lay outside the purely ecclesiatical. There were matters enough within the purely ecclesiatical, heaven knew, upon which he might have exercised his mind! He had found himself disposed of late to take issue with the Church over any number of points of doctrine, or direction. He privately believed that it had allowed its authority to become dangerously undermined - there had been moments when it must have looked almost hell-bent upon self-destruction, in the eyes of an increasingly sceptical world. It had become increasingly difficult to try to defend such a stance; and though he had briefly entertained the idea of taking the path, fashionable just then, which led from Canterbury to Rome, he had finally dismissed it as a step, and a complication too far. He had stomach just about enough for mild rebellion: for counter-revolution and the defiant grand gesture, he found he had none.

He had thought at one time of calling his change of heart a Damascene Moment. He had tripped and fallen, he might have said, upon his own personal road to Damascus; and on struggling to his feet again had seen the light of a new direction shining in front of him. It was the kind of arresting imagery of which the clergy, and his bishop in particular, were very fond: it might almost have served. But he had finally rejected as distasteful the idea that the Gospels themselves might be called in as witnesses in his defence. He might be experiencing devotional difficulties - might almost be said to have started down the road to scepticism himself. But he was not yet quite an iconoclast, or profane!

There were aspects of his calling, besides, which he still loved with all his heart. There was almost no place in the world he would rather be, for example, than in a quiet old church at start or end of day. It was simply that he had discovered lately that he loved it most of all when it was empty of fellow worshippers. Such a position as that would have been hard to defend with any kind of conviction. The bishop might well have suggested a holiday as a corrective, or a sabbatical; both or either of which, as time-tested formulae, and gestures kindly meant, would have been difficult to depreciate, and still more difficult to try to deflect. He had found in the end that he could summon no enthusiasm for disputes either personal or ecclesiastical: they would have required too much subtlety, subterfuge even - and might have kept him embattled besides, for more weeks, or months, than he had felt he had at his disposal.

Still less had he felt inclined to tell the bishop that he had grown weary of the celibate life he had felt it necessary to impose upon himself since his divorce. In those circumstances, though there would have been no question of his re-marriage of course, within the bishop’s, and indeed his own rather strict application of canon law, he didn’t doubt that the Church would somehow have found the way to be accommodating. There was room in her many mansions for almost anything these days - it was one of the points upon which David had felt most disposed to distance himself from her. There would have been no point in starting up a debate however, at what he had made up his mind was to be his eleventh hour; and so he had decided against candour, and had settled instead for the usual kind of comfortable, all-encompassing vagueness.

He wished to go out into the world to try to make a new life for himself as a thinker and a writer, he said; he had been thought promising in both those respects, in his post-graduate research days at Cambridge. It was a long time ago, he knew, but he hoped it would not prove too late to resurrect a career which he had forsaken, at the time, in favour of ordination. The bishop had professed himself interested, intrigued indeed – though he had wished to know of course just what it was that Mr Porteous proposed to think and write about, which could not have been accomplished from within the Church’s own ranks? It had been here, perhaps, that David had had his best inspiration. It was the troubled outer world itself, he said, with which he wished to try to grapple! And he wished to grapple independently, so to speak – he thought it would be taking too much the easy way, to speak out from behind the Church’s protective mantle. He had gone on then to talk a good deal, and with what he trusted was the ardour of a deeply-held conviction, about the new kind of terrorism which had begun to stalk the western world. If the concept of God was at the root of it (though he had doubts, himself,about the perfect validity of such a claim), then it was the concept of God itself which must be put under scrutiny.

He had added that he was not so vainglorious of course as to suppose that, of all the thinkers and writers in the world, he was going to be the one to shed light in dark places. He hoped that the bishop would take as read his almost overwhelming sense that he might, in the end, prove unequal to the task. But just the same, to feel unequal was not to concede defeat before one had even started. And, fate having all unaccountably put it into his hands to make the break at last (he had mentioned Aunt Floss’s bequest at that point – he had thought it best not to leave it to emerge by accident, and inconveniently, later); and his own thoughts having begun to move irresistibly in that direction anyway, he thought perhaps the moment had come when he ought to go out there and try. He didn’t for a moment expect to set the world alight - but he thought he might strike a spark or two.

He had ended on a note of smiling self-deprecation (the bishop, who liked to think of himself as a man of the world for all his purple shirt and gorgeous gowns, was fond of that sort of thing): he doubted, he said, that any poor efforts of his would go far towards pouring balm the upon the troubled waters of the warring faiths. But on the other hand, who less volatile than an unpretending former priest to put his grisled head above the parapet? He was mixing his metaphors quite shockingly, he knew (the bishop had a smile of infinite indulgence for it); but did not the bishop agree that nobody, not even the most turbulent of Imams or Ayatollahs, could be thought likely to take the kind of offence that would launch a fatwah or a war, over something which an old British ex-cleric might choose to say in all good faith and obscurity?

It had all gone down surprisingly well in the end. The bishop said he had dreamt of independent scholarship himself at one time - and certainly, there had seldom been a moment when the world’s faiths had stood in direr need of a wise and unbiased arbiter. It almost made one wish to throw one’s own hat into the ring! It was too late for the bishop himself of course – he was an old man, who dreamt now only of retiring into his garden. But he wished his old colleague all the good in the world. It was a brave endeavour, he said. And if there should ever be any little extra ray of light which he might himself assist in shedding in the future, then Mr Porteous had only to ask for it.

“Faith can take a man in unexpected directions” was the way in which, solemnly (grandiloquently, as he saw it now) David had announced his retirement, from the pulpit, to his astonished parishioners. There had been tears, but there had also been sympathy, and quite an outrush of passionate fellow feeling. People had stood up in their seats to say that, yes! they too had been troubled by the chasm of fear and uncertainty into which the world had lately been plunged. They too had felt the horror of their own helplessness in the face of an enemy who purported to act in the name of God, but for whom there seemed to be no precedent in either Testament, nor any possible response! It gave them courage, they said, and hope, just to think that one of their own was going to be bold enough to go out there and try to wrestle with it.

The bishop himself had mounted the pulpit to end proceedings on a note almost of jubilation: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” he had sonorously said, in his rich baritone. It had quite brought the house down. And nobody, as they had filed out in the solemn hush of a collective reverence, had thought to disagree with him; or to wonder at the origins of his splendid quotation, which they supposed to have been drawn from one of the Gospels.

These were the things that David was remembering now, as he rustled among his papers at last, and took up a folder containing some old written thoughts of his on the subject of the concept of God in the historical human consciousness. He read a page or two, without conviction. It all looked rather insubstantial now, he thought. Forlorn, fatuous even. A month ago, from the upholstered ease of his study in the old rectory, it had looked so very different. He had supposed himself then to be riding high, set fair for a braver, brighter future; the bishop had waved him on his way, and the people had cheered. It was only now, in the cold hard light of the actual, that as the mere germ of a brilliant idea, and still more as a means of future sustenance, the whole thing had begun to look almost as ephemeral as the girls’ Baker Street shop .......... If he had gone out to the triumphal organ, he thought, then he had come down to earth again with the dullest and least reverberating of thuds.

That thud was in his ears still. It was not a reassuring sound. It was the sound of his unwise precipitancy and his newly dispossessed state. It was the sound of this ugly house, with its ragged hedges and its broken gate; it was the sound of the house’s leaking gutters, and the slates which seemed likely at any moment to slide from its roof. And it was the sound too – or call it, almost, the smell - of the discouragement which seemed to seep from out of the house’s dark-brown-varnished skirtings, and the uniformly dun-coloured paper on all its indoor walls. His brave promises came back to taunt him now. How, in the world, with no occupation, and nothing more than a small pension and a handful of shares to his name, was he to find the means by which he might put the house to rights, and then go on to live in it with some degree of comfort and decency for the next twenty or twenty five years?

He nevertheless took up his pen and prepared to write. He had before him a loose page from an old, published treatise of his - “If man has made God in his own image” he read; “what does it tell us about the face of God?”. It had been thought bold, and even a little heretical in its day: he thought it still had a certain capacity to arrest the mind. He wondered if he might find the way to take it up again now; expand it, possibly, into a book entitled “Where is God when we need Him? A Study of the Condition of the Faiths Today”? Something of that general sort. He would emphasize of course the fact that it was the Faiths, plural. The days of the single great Faith, if they had ever existed, were over - or if they weren’t, then they ought to be. If man was to survive at all he must learn to take account of the position of his fellows: of that at least he had no doubt. There would be a significance, would there not - a special resonance - attached to the appearance of such a book, at a time when Islam was re-asserting itself as a perplexing and dangerous presence in the world?

If man has made God in his own image“ he therefore typed in his laborious fashion on to the empty page; “what does it tell us about the face of God?”. But it was no good: he no longer had the smallest idea of what the answer ought to be. He wasn’t even sure whose face it was, God’s or Man’s, that he ought to be considering! There was a failure somewhere in his logic, he thought. He wasn’t twenty five years old, and he didn’t believe any longer in supernatural resolutions to man-made problems. He believed, when it really came down to it, that man was probably godless, and therefore doomed. And besides, his mouse kept sticking - one couldn't easily deconstruct theology with a sluggish mouse!

He went downstairs to the kitchen to make himself a cup of coffee instead. A cup of instant coffee - only Julia could manage the ferocious expresso pot. He told himself that, instant or not, the caffeine would activate his mind, so that he might perhaps begin to see what it was he had been getting at all those years ago when he wrote about the Face of God.

The Novel as Blog

This is not Part Two

It is an explanatory non-fiction piece, which I shall eventually move to the other page - just as soon as I have got all this off my conscience (and my chest)!

I apologise for the italics in the final paragraphs. I didn't put them there. Somehow they just sprang up, and I have been unable to get rid of them.)

It was always to have been an experiment, this telling of my old half-written novel as a blog by instalments. I had reached the stage of discouragement in writing a long and complicated novel alone, and entirely for myself. I had begun to see I was going nowhere very much; I had been going nowhere very much for more years than I cared to count indeed, and had begun to think I ought to be looking for a more direct approach.

The blog seemed the thing. Others were doing it after all, and a look at Google suggested that it wasn’t such a very difficult matter to get started; so off I went. I began with a great deal of trepidation, it has to be said - I daresay every blogger starts that way. But in my case, since it was not so much my daily thoughts and activities as my heart and soul - my very life’s blood, if you like, in the shape of my attempt at a novel! - that I was going to be posting, then the risk seemed greater still. I wasn’t even sure I would have courage enough to post the first instalment! And when I had done so, there were several weeks in which it seemed as if I was destined to remain perpetually unread, and un-commented-upon, and should probably abandon the whole enterprise at once, before more harm was done.

But the blog world is wide, and generous of spirit, and it was not so very long before I began to collect a reader or two; and to find – greatly to my astonishment –that there was a sense in which the thing was to become not only read, but reader-driven. That was the first surprise – that people hitherto unknown to me would visit my pages, and begin to seem as if they were taking my fictional characters, if not yet quite to their hearts, then at least into their own hands to some extent.

This was a little disconcerting at first. There was a moment in which I found myself inclined to try to throw a protective mantle round my characters, just to keep their development firmly in my own hands. But then, suddenly, it began to seem like fun! Where were the limits to this, I began to ask myself? Or better still, what was the range of its possibilities - when readers were all at once showing themselves interested enough to want to take a hand in the onward progress of the story? This was the way forward for the novel perhaps? A twenty-first century version of the old practice of telling it by weekly magazine instalments? At all events, it seemed a useful experiment, and worthy of a try.

There were disadvantages and possible pitfalls too of course. The first, and most perilous of which was that I no longer seemed to be writing quite the story I had started out with! My original concept had been of a house, Macauley’s house; which was indeed to have been the title of the book. I was seduced perhaps by the excitement of unexpected reader response? I was at any rate buoyed-up and carried along by it enough, to wish to give readers what they seemed to want. So that what was to have been Theodora’s story - hers and that of her house - had suddenly changed to become the story of Frances Fanshawe and Mr Porteous instead!

This was the first shock. And the extent to which it was never really intended, can be best demonstrated by my quoting a short passage from the opening chapter of the original, third-person narrative. I had begun this chapter by describing the present derelict appearance, and more glorious past history of Macauley's house. I had introduced Jack Macauley and his Theodora, and given an account of their marriage, and early life together. After which I had summarily killed-off poor Jack, I fear (well, he was 85 by then!). And sent the widowed Theodora fleeing into long exile abroad, accompanied by her daughter Isabella, known as Belle.

Only in the final paragraph or two did I bring them back to the old Macauley house. And it seems worth quoting from that early version now, if only to show the extent to which I have departed, in the blog, from what was my original concept. I had called that opening chapter “Before it all Began“; it was fifteen pages long, and here is how it came to an end:

>“..... Thus came Theodora home again, to the house which Jack Macauley had bought for her at such high price more than sixty years before. There was no brass band this time; the old house scarcely blinked a light, or raised a blind, in welcome. And Theodora herself had not the least idea of any kind of a return to glory. She was old, and she was tired. She had lost both her Jacks, the second almost as irretrievably as the first. For Jack her son had been married young to the girl she called his ‘fine cold Alice’, a Scottish landowner’s daughter, who had carried him off the day after the wedding to some old castle her family had up near Aberdeen; from which fastness she had seldom permitted him to re-emerge.

Theodora would have liked to see Jack and his boy again, but she doubted that Alice would view her impending death as a sufficient emergency. She hadn’t the strength to take up the cudgels again with Alice, she said. She asked Belle for a cup of tea instead; and then she sank back upon the pillows of the big bed she had shared with Jack for forty years, and sighed, as if it were the end.

Just so might it all have ended. Not with a peal of bells and a wedding, as in the best fairy stories, but with the sad expansive sigh of a very old woman who had come home to die in her husband’s bed. The old house might have closed its walls around her and sighed its last, even as she did. Except that this is not quite a fairy story; and Theodora is not quite an ordinary woman, nor Macauley’s quite an ordinary house. There was life in both of them yet, whatever they may have supposed. So that what might seem to be the end is only in fact the beginning……”

And so it began, in the original version. The first, blog-induced change came with my idea of writing it from the first-person point of view. And from the point of view of Beatrice and her brother Bill, at that; both of whom had started out as fairly minor characters in the book. As indeed had Mrs Baines and Roland; and poor little Frances Fanshawe, with her tipsy housekeeper and her splendid Queen Anne house. These people had been intended to form a kind of supporting cast – a ‘chorus’ if you like, whose function it was to elaborate and comment upon events as they unfolded. (They do this in the blog too, of course, with their conversations. But that is only one of the devices to which a writer must resort, when employing a first-person narrator.)

David Porteous had been intended from the start for higher things, it’s true. But he was to have been largely Lady Macauley’s creature; she was to have taken him up first, and held on to him pretty fast. He was to have had several adventures, but had never for a moment been expected to run off like that with Frances Fanshawe! (Or had he? There's a sense in which it was always going to be on the cards that he would. But that is for tomorrow's blog-piece!)

Here is the manner in which Mr Porteous made his first appearance in the original story:

“.... The clergyman’s name was David Porteous. He was approaching his sixtieth year, but had lost few of the splendid physical attributes of his youth, being broad of shoulder, straight of back and candid, clear-gazing of eye. He had recently retired as rector of a pleasant parish in rural Gloucestershire, a position in which there had been little to trouble or perplex him, and much, always, to keep up his already highly developed sense of his own worth. He had come to take up residence in the rather run-down Victorian villa lately bequeathed to him by old Miss Florence Porteous, a lady who had been a kind of village gorgon while she lived, but who also happened to have been his aunt....”

The Macauleys were away in Florence at the time of his arrival, and so his meeting with them was delayed ; and the account continued, a little later, with this:

"..... This, then, was the man who all unbeknown to Lady Macauley at present, had lately arrived to invest the village with the manifold advantages of his presence. In the normal course of events it might have been Lady Macauley herself, or Mrs Mountjoy perhaps, in her capacity as the old lady’s unofficial representative, who would have been expected to extend the hand of welcome to the interesting new man. And even in their absence, it was not many days before his arrival had started little ripples of excitement in the village. In those parts of it, at least, in which dwelt ladies of sober habits and mature years, whose susceptibilities these days were mostly for fine manners and an air of distinction; who admired a military bearing in a man, and could be moved almost to little flutters of the kinds of emotions they had thought long dead, by the sight of a fine full head of elegantly silvering hair, and the hint of a clerical collar only recently shed.

A Mrs Pamela Baines was the first to take the field; a large and stately lady who lived in a pretty cottage overlooking the pond on the common....”

So there it was. The glorious freedom, as I see it now, of the expansive, third-person narrative approach. And it’s only in looking back over those early passages that I fully understand the limitations of writing it in the first-person, and within the length-constraints of a blog. In the early version, for example, I had been able to ‘get inside the heads’ of my characters as much as I would. Which must have made them more convincing – or at least more reader-friendly - versions of their present selves.

Where Mr Porteous in particular was concerned - well, I had been able, for a start, to account for the failure of his marriage, and his subsequent divorce. With all that they involved of his searching his soul for possible shortcomings of his own - and finding none! I had been able, too, to write about what Mr Porteous said to the Bishop to account for his early defection from the Church – and what the Bishop said to him in response. And so it was that he arrived in the village fairly well written-up and accounted-for from the start!

These were the luxuries of the third-person narrative approach, I see that very clearly now. And it’s a fact that the moment one shifts to the first-person method, one comes up against all the problems of how to show what characters are actually thinking; and the range of possibilities for both character development and narrative diversity shrink on the spot, in accordance with that.

I do wonder if this long exposition of my present difficulties is pure indulgence on my part, though? I daresay it is. I have opted to tell the story as a blog after all, and ought to be doing the best I can to succeed within the particular limitations I have imposed upon myself. But I can’t quite escape the suspicion that in making the transition from book to blog, I have somehow sold readers short too. And if, by giving an account of some of the things I’ve had to omit I can I can somehow manage to redress the balance, then it seems to me to be worth a try at least.

It’s entirely possible I shall find I’m writing all this purely for myself! But equally, since this is an experiment in the practice of writing a novel by instalments as a blog - and since there might be others out there who are making a similar attempt..... it did seem worth the effort of trying to identify some of the problems, at least. And it will, if nothing else, assist me in deciding how I can best and most effectively start out on Part Two.

There will be a little more in this vein tomorrow, for those whom it might interest or concern... There will be an account of how it was always more or less on the cards that Frances Fanshawe would 'take off' like that with David Porteous, for a start!

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Ill-matched by moonlight?

“You know of course that they have separate bedrooms, don’t you?” Rose Mountjoy suddenly announced yesterday; adding, that she referred of course to David Porteous and Frances, just as if she thought I mightn't have guessed. She was sitting on one of Grandmother Fanshawe’s Edwardian garden chairs beneath the roses in Mr Porteous's arbour; drinking the cup of coffee I had just made her, and giving the impression, as she always does, that she meant to stay for hours.

I call it Mr Porteous’s rose arbour because that seems to be its indelible character and its name. It is not in fact the one which was originally intended, and which caused Bill so much sharp annoyance the other day. That earlier trellis one has gone; was dismantled at Mr Porteous’s own instruction (he having come here in all state to inspect it); and another, altogether more ‘period-sensitive’, has been erected in its place.

The new one is very beautiful; even Bill has had to concede that. It came here ready-constructed yesterday, a poetic-looking rustic belvedere, cast in wrought iron. It’s an altogether more elegant structure than the trellis one was; and has been supplied with a fully developed white rose to clamber up its sides, and make a fragrant mantle for its roof. Inside, are a table and chairs sufficient for four persons, a pair of ornamental urns from which a riot of white and blue campanula tumbles; and a solar-powered lantern suspended from its dome.

Rose thinks it rather impressive too. Though she does just wonder to which particular period it ought to be thought sensitive - whether the one in which the gatehouse and the garden were themselves created, or some other got up to Mr Porteous’s own specifications? “He’s quite the impresario though, isn’t he?” she observed. “And can never have had quite such a pocketful of cash from which to draw, for realising his aesthetic intentions.”

After which, just as if this hadn’t been indiscreet, and spiteful enough on its own, she went on to make her rather startling announcement about the bedroom arrangements at the manor house. She gave me no pause for response, but went on at once to explain precisely how it was that Frances and Mr Porteous were conducting their rather irregular pre-conjugal relations.

"Oh no," she said; "Nothing so vulgar as a shared bedroom for them!Frances has her suite and he has his. Adjoining of course – or they will be, when Mr Porteous’s team of builders have arrived to carry out the necessary alterations. At present they are separated by a solid wall, and the apartment which Mr Porteous calls his dressing room - which is to become just that, and his private bathroom to boot, when the alterations are complete. He has suffered grievously in the interim, from encounters with the half-tipsy Mrs Meade in passages late at night - though all that has ended now of course, with the poor old thing having been summarily pensioned off."

"Frances thinks it all intensely romantic in the old-fashioned way, at any rate." Rose next informed me. "It’s just the sort of arrangement Mr and Mrs Churchill had, she tells me.... She read about the Churchill domestic arrangements in some biography or other – she gets all her romantic notions from books, as you know… Clementine Churchill too, it appears, had to wait for the tap upon the door to tell her when a bedtime assignation impended - and Frances doesn’t see how any situation could easily be less predictable, or more thrilling, than that!”

I have never been absolutely sure about Rose’s sources, when it comes to information of this sort. It’s hard to believe that anyone, even she, could be so cynical as to have invented it on the spot. Yet equally, it’s hard to credit that Frances would have confided in her to quite such an extent. It’s Bill’s theory that Rose doesn’t so much invent, as muscle her way into people's houses, then nose around, drawing her own conclusions as she goes. And I think he’s probably right; he usually is. But whatever the facts of the matter, Rose hadn’t finished with them yet; and went on to let me know just what she thought it was that Frances ‘saw’ in Mr Porteous.

“She believes he is a great man” is Rose's interpretation. “Or she believes at least that he is in process of becoming one, by creating a great book. It's to shake the earth with its wisdom you know - and probably deliver lasting peace to troubled nations, all at one fell swoop. Frances grew up as the amanuensis of that other great man, her father, you see – it was the only kind of occupation she was ever allowed to enjoy. And now she believes she is performing the same sacred duty for Mr Porteous - she hardly sees how there could be any higher, or more rewarding function for a woman than that.“

Rose is of the opinion that it’s as well Frances is satisfied to be Mr Porteous’s amanuensis however ("Or call it his adoring and entirely subservient hand-maiden!”). Since she doesn’t suppose for a moment that the taps on the bedroom door come more often than once a fortnight at most. “Oh, he’s doing the best he can in difficult circumstances” she observed. “But he’s a man with a considerable appetite in that respect it seems to me (I don't believe a word of all those stories about the years of priestly abstinence!). And I think it likely he's finding Frances rather uphill work.”

This seemed crude to me, even by Rose's standards. But it did ring discomfitingly true for all that; and I have to admit to having entertained similar suspicions myself. I found Rose’s words repeating themselves in my head to jarring effect later that evening though, when the dozen or so guests began arriving for my little impromptu party. It had changed to become an evening event, I forgot to mention that. Mr Porteous, standing in the garden to consider the proportions of the completed arbour - and somehow envisaging it with candles lit and starry skies above - had decided that an evening party would be altogether more fitting to the occasion. And a little flurry of apologetic phone calls on Frances’s part had alerted everyone to the altered time.

It turned out to have been the right decision. The party went beautifully – and I have to say that nobody, in the event, could have conducted himself more perfectly throughout the whole affair than Mr Porteous did. The man has style, as well as presence, I have to hand him that. He was courtly charm itself; as with a tremulously smiling Frances attached to his arm, he made his carefully considered progress round the garden, bestowing his smiles, and a short conversation, upon each small group in turn.

And Bill – did Bill too succumb to the Porteous effect? Well no, he did not. But then neither did he offend too blatantly by protest or omission. I was rather proud of him in fact; I thought he stood his own ground to rather impressive effect. He seemed to be amusing people too; his own great laugh boomed out often - which added a note of light-heartedness that might otherwise have been missing. I daresay I have a sister's prejudice in his favour - but it does seem to me that even in the perfectly-judged, quiet-eyed presence of Mr Porteous, Bill has his own way of creating little flutters in female bosoms. Pamela in particular seemed quite overcome by the emotion of it all, at one point.

The big surprise of the evening came at midnight. A clock in Bill’s side of the gatehouse had just finished striking the hour when Mr Porteous, having somehow managed to clear the arbour of all others, took Frances with him to a position of prominence beneath the lighted lantern, and announced, with all the splendid resonance of one accustomed to projecting his voice from pulpits, that they had been going to wait a while, Frances and he; but that after all this seemed to be the perfect hour ... in which to let all their good friends know that the sweet and gentle lady at his side had just done him the inexpressible honour of consenting to become his wife.

So there it was. The deed was accomplished; and I wish I could say that it was received with instant, unanimous joy. It was received with every attempt at the appearance of just that of course. People tried hard indeed to simulate it, they really did. There was a moment though, just one, when awkward silence broke out; and everyone seemed holding their breaths to know quite which way they ought to be trying to respond. Bill it was, I’m proud to say, who saved the situation: enveloping a trembling Frances in one of his great bear-hugs, and professing his loud, unqualified delight.

It broke the silence and dispelled the appearance of doubt. There were congratulations all round after that; and the evening ended, just as had been intended, on a note of something almost like high jubilation. Only Pamela stood back from it all a little stiffly - with Roland doing his best to mirror her misgivings from behind.

And Rose? Well, Rose couldn’t help herself of course; but must take me aside at the first opportunity, to observe that there'd be a tap on Frances's bedroom door that night, for certain!”

Footnote: This instalment marks the end of Part One. Beatrice and Bill are now going to be away for a few days; having been invited to visit the Macauleys at their place in Suffolk. They are to travel there in company with Mrs Mountjoy, which won’t make for the most comfortable of journeys. But all being well, they should have returned to begin Part Two, by the end of the week