More Exercises

Last night I attended the local writers’ group, which you may remember from previous meetings.  It was entertaining as ever and I will tell you all about it, but not tonight. I’ve also been reading some good books that I will review, but not tonight.  It’s turning into another busy week, so in the absence of coherent thought, I wondered whether you might be interested in hearing about last week’s writing course exercise? I’m longing for someone else to do one of these, you know.

Anyway, the prompt was simple and therefore a bit daunting.  My instructions were to:  ‘invent a scene on a commuter train. It’s 9am and a man and a woman enter a carriage from different ends and grab the last two facing seats. Each is conscious of the other’s presence. There is no instruction beyond this.’  I had 500 words to tell the story of the journey from each perspective and my first thought was, yikes. As you may know, I am a hopeless plotter. However, when I thought about it, and remembered that this was supposed to be an exercise in character, I felt a bit more in my comfort zone. My tutor suggested I draw on life for my people, and so I decided to make the them a mother and an academic, given that those the types I know most about. The result was as follows, and I post it here because my tutor was quite pleased with it, which means it can’t be too awful. Afterwards I’ll briefly mention the feedback she gave me.

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Unaccustomed to her heeled shoes, she snagged one on the plastic runner and nearly pitched onto the lap of the elderly gentleman. His hand, surprisingly strong, held hers until she was seated, but she withdrew her own quickly then. Something about his dry parchmenty skin was repulsive after all those months of holding sweet new flesh in her arms. The commute was horribly familiar and yet, after six months away, she was completely changed to it. Without her baby she felt starkly, nakedly alone. And so exquisitely exhausted, vulnerable and skinless, as if she had been flayed of her natural defences. As the train’s brakes juddered beneath the carriage and they moved off in that swaying, snakey, syncopated movement, she knew that the motion was pressing itself onto her soul and that every time she closed her eyes today, she would feel it again; would feel, too, the clasp of the old man’s dried up fingers, and see his image imprinted on her retina, his unashamedly curious gaze.

Nursing in the middle of the night she had longed to be here, free from the relentless demands, alone and undivided, not sucked clean of any purpose of her own. She had imagined liberation, the solidity of her self returned. Instead all she could feel were the physical sensations of hunger and thirst (she was always feeling hungry and thirsty), the ache of a pulled muscle. She felt hollowed out inside, and scraps of disjointed emotions rattled around, magnified by the space. It was peaceful in its way, to feel this disconnected from what used to be her real life. It seemed she had pushed her vital core out into the world and without it she was just a husk, just a shell. She seemed oddly irrelevant in this train, an invisible woman, no longer at home in herself.

But now the image of her baby without her dealt a series of glancing blows. The precious part of her was left behind, growing, laughing, learning to speak and walk without her, maybe learning how to do without her altogether. She could see it all in her mind, the process monstrously accelerated, as he grew into a small boy, kicking a football, shoveling fish fingers and ketchup into his mouth, tearing off on a wobbly bike, learning to kick that ball through the neighbours’ windows, turning sullen and moody (oh no, no, not so fast as that), bringing girlfriends home, getting drunk with unsuitable mates, leaving home, going to work, maybe commuting like herself until (and her gaze was drawn irresistibly to the specimen in front of her) one day his gorgeous peachy skin would be shriveled and calloused, his blue eyes sunken and weak. It was intolerable. She wanted him to stay the way he was forever, and felt with mad certainty that to miss a moment might somehow deprive her of his entire lifetime.

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It was extraordinary how much she reminded him of Botticelli’s Abundance. It was that long, distended belly, of course, a point of ugliness, almost, in the original if he hadn’t drawn it to be so enticing. When she sat down opposite he felt quite frustrated, and briefly entertained the notion of asking her to stand up again. But of course he could never have explained himself. He could not have told her, some uneducated and probably uninterested young girl, what a compliment it was, to remind him of Botticelli’s loveliest, most delicate portrait. Not, in any case, when the comparison hinged on an over-long abdomen. Although there was something about her face, too, in the way it had the same curious flatness, the same wide-spaced eyes, vacant in expression, looking inward towards some cosseted flame of feminine mystique. In reality the woman before him was probably thinking of nothing, or some trivial domestic incident. Botticelli’s greatness lay, amongst many other qualities, in the charm with which he infused his beauties, their maidenly fragility cleverly aligned with a powerful, almost mythical, strength. Their faces dreamt gentle dreams, while their bodies gave strong, supple birth. Abundance, he could recall quite clearly, had hold of a pudgy infant in one hand, and there was another child, too, he was fairly sure. The drawing was bold and clear of the woman, but he seemed to recall that its edges faded away, as so many Renaissance sketches did. He was troubled, deeply irritated for a moment, by his uncertainty over those uncertain margins of the drawing, and wondered whether there would be time after his lecture to call in at the British museum and look at the image again.

Before he could properly weigh up his timetable, he found himself drifting back to the heat of a distant Italian summer. Thinking of Abundance carried his memories seamlessly to that first glimpse he’d ever had of a Botticelli, his magnificent Primavera in the Uffizi in Florence. The same woman, of course, had modeled for both figures, that glorious pear-shaped belly less nakedly obvious in the painting, but unmistakably outlined by the flowing folds of her dress. He had been coming down with a fever at the time although he didn’t know it. He simply thought it was the fault of the painting that he continued to burn inside, despite the clammy chill of the museum. He had been full of passions then, abrupt and devastating ones that propelled him through heatwaves up hillsides in search of dazzling tryptiches in dark churches, that saw him almost kneeling in supplication before heart-stopping beauty. When his eyes drew back from the past, he unconsciously clicked his tongue in exasperation. The woman’s hair, he noted now, was stringy, her dress was soiled with some sort of food deposit. When she bent over her capacious hold-all and rummaged around in it, he glimpsed some kind of hideous milking contraption, a plastic bottle attached to a suction cap, that made him turn aside in faint disgust. Fervently, he felt an almost physical pain to see that drawing of Abundance once more. He was sure he could make the time for it, so long as that silly fool Carstairs didn’t keep him talking. He had been refuting Carstairs’ feeble arguments for some thirty years now but amazingly he kept at it. One might think he would eventually take the hint.

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I still feel tremendously self-conscious writing fiction – where are my lovely facts I can hide behind? Anyhow, my tutor’s main comment was that I might have marked more difference between the two voices, and in particular, might have made the mother’s more congruent with her personality and her emotional temperature. So a bit less smooth and polished, then, a bit more harried and chaotic. I thought that once again, this was spot-on in terms of critique. Next week, is dialogue week, in which I must fictionalise a conversation with my husband. Now that I am looking forward to!

ps. having a nightmare here trying to get some formatting on this post, grrrrr. Silly wordpress. Apologies if I can’t manage to make some distinctions!

Meet The Publishers

I do hope you are not all bored of the endless accounts of events I have attended. It’s extraordinary for me to attend anything, so this sudden rash of activity is quite unprecedented. But I really can’t resist telling you about the other meeting I attended at the book festival this weekend, which has produced so many intriguing questions in my mind. It was called ‘Publishing by Inclination’ and sported three editors from mainstream publishing houses, supposedly discussing how they still spent their days coaxing literary works of great artistic merit onto the marketplace rather, I suppose, than the endless celebrity guff we all fear they are exclusively interested in producing. Well, it was one of those sessions from which I emerged thinking thoughts along the lines of: there was something distinctly rotten in the state of Denmark, but I couldn’t absolutely put my finger on what. Let me tell you what I saw and heard and we’ll see what you think.

Dramatis personae first. Names escape me as usual (probably just as well) but first in line was a gentleman from Serpent’s Tail, who reeked of old school publishing. His face was ravaged and haunted although his muffin top waistline spoke of many a good author lunch. He addressed the audience without ever making eye contact, in fact he spent much time rubbing the flat of his hand over his face and his balding head in a gesture of abject hopelessness or perhaps exquisite boredom. I was just waiting for the moment when it all became too much for him and he simply put his head in his hands and left it there. Fortunately we reached the end of the session before he reached the point of despair. It was a truly extraordinary kind of stage presence to adopt, which could only indicate that over the years he had grown so accustomed to being important, but had coupled his sense of worth onto a star of such tragic destiny, that he had long ceased to care what his exterior expressed to other people. A King Lear in need of Prozac rather than a straitjacket. At the far end of the platform was a woman from Picador, who said she had been a primary school teacher before going into publishing and that sort of showed. She was wearing a collection of shapeless garments mostly in black and had gorgeously eloquent hand gestures and a nicely modulated voice that frequently sank below the hearing range of most human beings, as if she were used to being shouted down in meetings on a regular basis. I felt she had come straight out of the pages of an Anita Brookner novel. If the Serpent’s Tail man embodied despair, she was the figure of weary resilience, clinging to her principles on the edges of a terrible battlefield. In the middle sat another woman editor, this time from Jonathan Cape. She looked like I hope Precious Ramotswe might look – glasses, braids, sensible dress, killer shoes. She mixed some genuine love of books in with a bit of fun, whilst all the time emanating the notion that you really wouldn’t want to mess with her. By the time it was all over, she was undoubtedly the only one of the three I would have wanted to work with, but alas, she is busy building up an African list and I would be waaaaaay too white for her. But still, her sheer presence gave me some hope. Oh and I must add that the session was chaired by a literary agent who came straight from Central Casting. She stood the whole time, a tall, angular woman, with her hand on her hip, her oblong-framed glasses perched on the end of her nose, perfect hint of dominatrix but nothing vulgar, and she spoke in a deep, thrilling voice into her microphone. Bravo!

Now, I go to such lengths to give you pictures of these people, not just, you understand, because it’s fun, but because in this instance personality matters. Publishing is a deeply subjective business and these are the people holding the hopes of all amateur scribblers, not to mention committed readers. One of the very first things the despairing man said to us, when asked to describe what he did, was that Serpent’s Tail had a particular interest in publishing books in translation, and that the UK had the lowest percentage of foreign books (3%) of any book market in the world, something of which to be proud – or maybe not, was how he put it. You note he did not say, as any other businessman might: ‘What a fantastic opportunity for us! We can introduce a product that’s done well in other countries into the domestic market, where it is still unheard of’. When they were all asked about the current economic climate, he said that publishing houses were in uproar, people falling on their swords left, right and center, but in fact sales were only down about 1%. And again, the optimism of the situation was a non-starter; whatever sales were actually doing, the consequences were clearly going to revolve around the perceived crisis.

This was less surprising in many ways, when it became apparent that the problem in sales seems to have been ongoing for many years. When asked about the kind of authors that sold, the outlook was grim. One editor said it was easier to sell a new author than one who had published three or four not-so-successful books. The situation was worse than that, said another, because the booksellers simply looked up the sales figures for first novel and, if they had not been good, refused to take another book from that author unless there were ‘compelling reasons’. And when they thought about it, it was nigh impossible to sell a first time novelist, either. Even in-house, this selling problem persisted. When asked what editors did for authors, the response was heartily that they championed their work. ‘That’s why I have to really love a book to take it on,’ Anita Brookner’s protagonist said. ‘I can only publish a few books a year and so anything I say yes to takes up a slot I might want to use for another book.’ ‘Well, you can’t be enthusiastic about absolutely every book,’ Precious Ramotswe added. ‘Otherwise the people in marketing cease to believe you.’ So, let’s think about that. On the one hand, editors have almost impossible standards for books because there is always that perfect fantasy manuscript out there somewhere. But even the books they do agree to, and do champion, might fall foul of political practices, the love for some suppressed in order to curry favour for others. Surely you would hope that editors, with their much reduced lists, could champion every single book they bought, and petition for more, without damaging their credibility.

Nor were this group interested in new technology. Asked about e-books they were straightforwardly dismissive. The despairing man said that he thought they were only an invention for editors, so that they could avoid carrying 20 kilos of manuscript home on the bus. Sales were at less than one percent, and he didn’t foresee them rising. Anita Brookner’s protagonist said she’d actually given up with her Sony reader now and was back to the manuscripts. And that was that. To be honest, I didn’t really expect anything different, but I suppose I always nurse a little kernel of hope. That one day, publishing will sort out its elements of business and artistry so that each helps the other, rather than undermines the other. That publishers will find ways to work the demand that does exist for books, rather than lament the promised land of demand that doesn’t. That there will come an understanding of book production that minimizes production costs, broadens choice for readers, and actually implements the power of marketing over a wider spectrum of books with wisdom and creativity. Anything, oh anything, rather than this policy of endless retrenchment. In my mind this is fundamentally an attitude issue; publishers are volatile rather than responsive, coldly hysterical rather than warmly enthusiastic. There is a pervasive depression cast over the industry, which feels marginalized amongst the media. And professional book critics don’t help; they are hardly the useful cheerleaders they might be. ‘Remember that the object of the critic is to revenge himself on the creator’, Cyril Connolly remarked perkily, back in the 1920s, and not much has changed since.

My husband’s theory is that publishing is a crisis of middle management. He came to this conclusion after listening to the accounts of the editors’ average day. The despairing man said that, usually, his day was eaten up with a skirmish of some kind, for instance over cover choice. The bookseller would ring, saying they didn’t like the cover on a potential new release, which would trigger a series of unpleasant and time-consuming meetings with the art department, with the sales and marketing department and with the author (‘who always has his own ideas’ he declared, darkly). ‘What a terrible waste of valuable resources,’ my husband said afterwards. ‘All those people’s salaries going to waste on something so tangential.’ There are an awful lot of people crowding around the middle ground of the book market – booksellers, wholesalers and agents alike take a significant cut of the money to be had, let alone the various departments of a large publishing house. I do think that if small independents get their act together, the book world might just be their oyster. What do you need, after all, to publish? A team of editors with vision, some good authors to supply the words, and ideally, someone with reliable skills of diplomacy and arbitration to make each side comprehensible to the other.  Distribution is the real difficulty with books; if you could produce some sort of cooperative network, maybe that would be the way forward?

But I also think that big publishing houses are looking at huge missed potential in the current climate. After the session we wandered back through town and stopped off at a bookstore en route. There I browsed the shelves, thinking how many wonderful books are out there that I haven’t read (and I’ve been putting my back into it, I assure you). Books continue to get published despite the book industry, rather in the same way that people continue to move house, despite mortgage lenders and conveyancing lawyers. I bought two (full price, no special deal) paperbacks for less than the cost of our tickets to the session we’d just attended, for less than if we’d spent the afternoon at the cinema or the theatre. In entertainment terms, books provide the cheapest pleasure-per-hour than just about any other form of media, except maybe broadband, and books are better for you than that. Where are the publishers recognizing what a great selling point this is? There’s something for everyone’s tastes out there, good reading spawns ever more reading, and the more desperate the cultural situation, the more a populace longs for entertainment. But I wonder whether the morale of the publishing world is too low to see itself clearly. We need some magnificent role models, some publishers like the Penguin mogul, Allan Lane, whose motivation was notably described as ‘both missionary and mercenary’. Someone to inject a bit of grit and verve into the flagging spirit of the industry. The editors were asked to produce encouraging stories for us, and Precious Ramotswe described how one author had effectively stalked her, ‘but in such a charming way’, that she had eventually read his manuscript and called him in to talk for an hour about how terrible it was. He came back to her with another book and this time she took him on. ‘But I wouldn’t really suggest stalking as the way to publication,’ she told us with a wry chuckle. It was a great story if simply to encapsulate the paradox of publishing at the moment – the answers publishers have are never really the answers any of us want.

Writers in Conversation

We have a literary festival on here at the moment and I got quite excited about it and booked up for a couple of events. The one I most wanted to go to took place this afternoon and was supposed to feature Salley Vickers and Rebecca Abrams, two contemporary novelists in conversation. So, my husband and I went along to Newnham College where the event was being held and left plenty of time for the journey. All my department meetings used to take place in Newnham and I tell you, that building is ninety percent corridor. There seem to be no large reception rooms at the front of Newnham, instead you inevitably find yourself trailing through a Kafka-esque box of corridor that snakes ahead to infinity, regularly punctuated by swing doors, until you feel you must surely have entered a time warp. Photocopied notices with optimistic arrows on them say ‘This Way To The Meeting!’ until they lose all credibility. Today was no exception, as we joined a long line of women, almost marching in rhythm, like one of those old caravans of migrants crossing the plains. I was beginning to think I should have brought a thermos flask and some Kendal mint cake for my husband when finally we crossed the threshold into the fourth dimension and found ourselves in the reception area of a conference hall. ‘Am I going to be the only man here?’ my husband grumbled, and indeed it was a markedly feminine gathering. Only one important woman was missing: Newnham’s relentless supply of photocopied notices now informed us that Salley Vickers was sadly unable to make the event due to ill health. A very over-excited publicist was reciting on a sort of internally recorded loop how she had come down with an eye infection. She (the PR person) was wearing a distinctly arty sort of trouser suit and scarlet-framed spectacles and absolutely screamed officialdom from every pore. I would be almost comforted to think these people got their energy from drugs, but no, they may just be born that way.

I will admit that it took me half the meeting to get over the disappointment as I’d really been looking forward to hearing Salley Vickers speak. Perhaps it was just my bad mood but initially the meeting did not seem promising. I don’t go to many of these kinds of gathering because I find it immensely hard to take things in aurally. If I’m supposed to sit and just listen, everything distracts me. The people sitting directly behind me were having a delightfully bitchy conversation about a recent appointment in a history faculty somewhere (they had chosen the wrong person, naturally, and one of the couple was able to make a comprehensive list of said chosen candidates faults), and then there were the latecomers, including the publicity woman, who sat right at the back and instantly struck up the kind of whispering chat that is all sibilant hiss. But I may also have been put off by the reading from Rebecca Abram’s novel, based on the life of the 18th century doctor who found the cure for post-childbirth infections, which I just knew would be gory. Why do authors always pick the most gruesome bits to read aloud? I was taken back in time to the conference I had attended just outside Los Angeles. Over lunch we were read to from a story about postcolonial war atrocities, and over dinner we were treated to a Canadian author describing a prisoner being toasted in the electric chair. Now who thought that would be a good idea? Thankfully, both were in French, which enabled me to tune out with greater ease, although you don’t have to be a great linguist to know what you’re getting when you hear the word ‘crispé’. So, by the time the readings this afternoon were finished, I had counted a total of seven men in the audience, picked at a fascinating stain on my husband’s trousers (toothpaste) and pondered at some length the fact that not enough women check the back of their heads before leaving the house.

But eventually I did wake up to the event at hand when it gradually dawned on me that a wonderful battle of contrasts was being fought most genteelly by two successful, confident and determined women on the stage. I never caught the name of Salley Vicker’s replacement but she was the polar opposite to Rebecca Abrams. The latter was an attractive woman in her late 30s, wearing a wraparound jersey dress and knee-high boots. The new recruit sported shaggy grey hair and was wearing, well, I’m not sure what the technical term would be, but it seemed to be part lock-knit, part sackcloth. She had a mishmash of projects to her name, some poetry, some plays for radio, a rash of creative writing books and I do believe someone mentioned madrigals, but maybe I dreamt that. Abrams was in the distinctly enviable position of having a nicely-jacketed hardback novel to her name. When it came to questions, the rift grew ever wider. Had they found it a difficult transposition to write in male voices? Abrams said she’d found it oddly liberating, the stand-in said she hadn’t noticed it much. How did they know when a book was finished? The stand-in said when it was finished, she just knew it was finished. Abrams said she drove her publishers mad with rewrites. How did they find the process of working with an editor? Abrams said the whole question of finding a first reader was a very interesting one, because you needed someone who was able to understand what it was you were trying to do rather than impose their own interests. But on the whole she had had good editorial interventions and found them helpful. The stand–in told a story about a radio 3 play she’d written that had received two pages of criticism from some impertinent person that she had completely ignored; she never let anyone read her work until it was finished. The publicist woman leapt to her feet and foghorned a question about characters doing things that surprised their author; was that really possible? Stand-in said no, it had never happened to her and you shouldn’t believe anyone who said it had happened to them. Abrams managed to suggest with tremendous diplomacy that she had been quite possessed by the spirit of her 18th century doctor who had occasionally prodded her on a sluggish week to ask when she was ever going to get on with his story; he had, after all, been waiting two hundred years for someone to tell it.

Finally both were asked, given that they had much experience as creative writing teachers, whether creative writing was something that could be taught. Rebecca Abrams said that yes, creative writing could be taught – although whether it could be learned was a different question. She favoured the approach of teaching it as a craft, isolating specific technical devices. But she said she wasn’t sure that you could learn the mindset needed to be a writer – the endlessness of it, the long hours, the loneliness, the resilience required; that might have to be innate. The stand-in said yes it could be taught – as a subject. But she was completely against the workshop principle, thinking it brought nothing of use to the fledgling author to have their writing critiqued by other learners. I thought this was a bit tactless, given that Rebecca Abrams was due to give a workshop the following morning on fictionalizing historical characters, but this is England and all remained tremendously pleasant. Abrams couldn’t resist saying that most candidates on writing courses were women, who needed the camaraderie to find the courage to write, not to mention the time, and that anything that gave women confidence was a good thing in her book. And with that the meeting drew to a close and the audience gave a very hearty round of applause.

As we left, my husband spotted an emergency exit door, and, even better, the button hidden in the wall that you needed to press to make it release. This is why I like to take him places. We found ourselves outside in the fresh air with unexpected alacrity, abandoning the other attendees to their long, long hike back to base.

‘They were chalk and cheese, weren’t they?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ said my husband. ‘And I know who I warmed to.’

‘It was the boots and the dress that did it, I’ll bet,’ I said, and my husband gave a happy sigh. So it turned out interesting in the end, and we both had thoughts to reflect upon as we drove home, although I still wish I could have seen Salley Vickers.

The Book Club

So yesterday I attended my first ever session at a book group. I almost didn’t make it. Not that anything prevented me from leaving the house, or driving through an immaculate spring evening to my son’s school. When I arrived it had that centuries-abandoned look that silent buildings acquire when they are usually swarming with life. The empty games pitch swept away to one side, like a small green ocean, birds tweeted cheerfully in trees and nothing could have been more idyllic or more quintessentially English. I walked up the broad concrete steps before the double glass doors and – nothing happened. Usually they part welcomingly as you approach them, but not on this occasion. So I briefly checked out the rest of the doors I could see on the front façade, somewhat gingerly as I anticipated tripping the security system and setting off klaxons blaring and sirens wailing. But no, only the birds kept tweeting in a landscape of complete human desolation. I stepped up to the double glass doors again, and hopped up and down in front of them, but still nothing. I reviewed my options. Had I over the course of the day accidentally sold my soul to the devil and was therefore now incapable of triggering the release mechanism, which refused to acknowledge me as human? Didn’t think so. Had I maybe got my dates mixed up, and was standing outside the book club venue on the day I was supposed to be at the writing group? Such eventualities are not unknown to me, but again, no, not this time. I decided the book group had a trapdoor, known only to initiates with a secret password, and that clearly all I needed to do was wait until a member came along and shadow them. I listened to some more birdsong and in about five minutes a car drove up, whereupon I exchanged suspicious glances with the woman inside it. When she got out, I called ‘Is it tonight for the book group?’ and she replied enthusiastically, ‘Oh yes!’ Encouraged, I said ‘Only I can’t get in the building.’ ‘That’s odd,’ she said. ‘Usually the glass door on the left is open.’ And of course, even as I registered the words, I could now see that the furthermost glass panel was not smooth as I had thought, but displayed a perfectly visible, if discrete, black handle. Well, duh! ‘It’s okay!’ I called back. ‘It’s just me being stupid!’  And at least in this way the ice was broken.

The meeting took place in the psychology room, that’s to say your average classroom but with a poster of Sigmund Freud on the wall. When I finally got there, a small clutch of ladies were engaged in wheeling a drinks trolley in that seemed laden with bottles and little wicker baskets of snacks. The group leader gazed at me with hungry eyes – a new recruit! – and introduced me to the three others standing around her whose names, in the stress of the situation, I instantly forgot. ‘How did you hear about us?’ the leader inquired. When I said from the school newsletter, there was a moment of pure celebration (‘It IS worth putting our report in there!’). ‘We always tell people we are very friendly and welcoming,’ she said. And indeed that was true. A few more members trickled in and we ended up an all-female contingent of seven with more drinks and snacks than we knew what to do with.

The reason I wanted to attend a book club meeting was to see for myself the kind of discussions that go on there. I was really curious to find out to what extent the book would hold people’s attention, and to witness the conversations it might provoke. I’ve mentioned already on this blog that I was a bit amazed that the books set for the evening had amounted to over a thousand pages, but I’d dutifully read both and turned out to be the only person (apart from the woman who’d chosen them) to do so. I’d only had twenty-five pages of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to go, and had wondered whether I might skip them. But earlier that evening, when I’d been preparing my dinner in the kitchen, I’d been idly tap-dancing in my clicky-heeled boots and my son, sighing at the kind of nonsense he has to put up with, had instructed me to sit down and finish the book. Just as well, really, as there was a twist right at the end that it would have been a shame to miss. The Kate Summerscale was up for discussion first as it was the one most people had read. One member introduced the book and the liveliest moment was, without doubt, the first opportunity we all had to give our impressions. The women around the table were all keen and well-read; they were ready to talk about any aspect of their reading, but were extremely cautious of being critical, and I would be surprised if any of them had ever studied literature. They were altogether enthusiastic, well-intentioned book lovers. And I can recall almost nothing that was said about the book; the memorable parts of the conversation were indeed to be found almost exclusively elsewhere.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a non-fiction book that presents a detailed, scholarly but extremely readable account of an infamous 19th century murder case. It concerns a middle-class family – a father, Samuel Kent, an inspector of factories, with older children from his first marriage (mother now deceased), a second wife, and a new set of young infants. It turns out that his second wife was originally the governess in the family, and her displacement of the first wife (who was claimed to have been mad) had occasioned a displacement of those older children in the parental affections. The victim was one of the younger children, a three-year-old boy named Saville, who had been rather gruesomely murdered and thrown down the outside privy.  I won’t say much more than that as the question of who did it is repeatedly solved, only in order to be repeatedly put in doubt. The author does come up with a solution that she presents as final (it’s almost the last paragraphs of the book), and which seemed convincing to me.

In the one memorable part of the book discussion, one of our members disagreed with this and put forward her own solution which was delivered with absolute certainty but on extremely slender grounds. I goggled at this, my academic sensibilities offended. Reading against the grain is all well and good, but you don’t do it without some pretty compelling evidence. What really made me laugh was that the same member then went on to say that she couldn’t bear it if books weren’t accurate, particularly in medical details (she is a doctor). I tell you, my heart sort of bled at that point for all the misunderstood authors of the world, who are held up for ridicule by the reading public for having their characters drive the wrong way down a one-way street, but whose fundamental arguments have been willfully tossed aside. Inevitably I wanted to argue against this reading, but I was conscious that to do so presented quite a diplomatic challenge. I didn’t want to look unfriendly or superior at my first meeting. So I suggested that it was interesting to consider the characters we thought of as suspicious, because it must surely bring into question what we each, individually, considered to be criminal behaviour. And I said that detective stories were curious in the way that they encouraged us to attribute reason and logic to emotions that are in fact hugely capricious – the book talks at one point about how surprised people were, when these murder stories started hitting the headlines, by how little motive lurked at the basis of violent crime. I tried to be careful, and not too pretentious, and yet I will confess that in my heart I felt a bit of a know-it-all and an intellectual bully – why shouldn’t this woman think whatever she likes about the book, if it gives her pleasure? But these were all intelligent women, and I was equally uncomfortable with the thought of not pushing the discussion as far as it would go.

But inevitably, it was the tangential that held the day. What really got the discussion going was mention of the mysterious ‘breast flannel’ that plays an important part in the murder investigation. None of us had a clue what it was – it could have been anything from a truss to a teddy – and there was much talk of googling the term, or looking for one on ebay. This led to a discussion of liberty bodices and then vests, as the undergarments of childhood obligation. The very friendly woman sitting beside me told a funny story about coming across old bridesmaid pictures in which the pretty scooped neckline of her dress revealed the inglorious outline of her thermals. ‘I knew I should have rebelled against wearing it,’ she said. I never heard her say a single word about either book, not even whether she liked them. She talked readily about the Madeleine McCann case, and joined in the other lively debate about cherished family relations turning out to be wicked abusers (I had inadvertently started off this one by relentlessly plugging the intellectual, this time the split between public and private). And I have to say I enjoyed the stories and the anecdotes. It’s just a part of me felt sort of sorry for the lovely books, so replete with mystery and meaning. I had to wonder whether my professional interest in reading simply distances me from the general reader’s approach to books, in the same way that ex-train drivers don’t spend their weekend with railway enthusiasts, and retired doctors don’t nip down the road of an evening to visit hypochondriacs anonymous. We want different things from the objects of our devotion. But I liked the group and I’ll go to the next meeting in May. I can’t help but feel, in my meddling way, that must be a way to encourage readers to go deeper into a book, it’s just I haven’t identified it yet, haven’t found the words for it yet. Although part of me can’t help but feel my fellow readers went to their homes saying ‘my goodness me, didn’t we talk a lot about the book tonight – who was that tiresome woman?’ :)

P. S. For Wilkie Collins enthusiasts, there was very little discussion of this book, as we were running out of time and steam after the Summerscale. But all who’d read it loved it and warmly recommended it. One very interesting thing I was told – apparently Collins fell gravely ill near the end of the writing and worried he wouldn’t finish it. ‘Never mind,’ his mate, Dickens said. ‘Pass your notes over to me and I’ll do it for you.’ It seems that he probably didn’t, but some blame the ‘unsatisfactory’ ending on Collins’ enfeebled state. This was a blow – I thought the ending was remarkably unusual and enlightened, and it turns out to have been a product of brain fever. Well, duh, again!