The Art of Writing No. 36
When Little Nell died she caused a national outpouring of grief in Victorian industrial Britain. Readers of the chapter by chapter novel The Old Curiosity Shopimplored Dickens to find a way out, a resurrection of the character. In its time it was the epitome of fine writing about a deeply difficult subject. But, not so long after, in the literary scheme of things, Oscar Wilde said,
“One must have a heart f stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
Writing about death, to be effective and keep the reader’s attention and empathy, is a matter of hermeneutics. Everything about it must ring true to both the context of the story and the time when a person reads it. Of course we can read about the demise of Nell today, and enjoy it even while we regard it as mawkish and sentimental. We make allowances for the period and transport ourselves back to what it must have been like to have a Victorian sensibility. Most of us will write about death or the dead at some point. In The Strange Attractor I described an illicit visit to the morgue to watch a post mortem. That was easy in the sense that the bodies were dead and the act of dying lay outside the narrative. Also the attitude of the observer, Edward Silver, a private detective, was cool and detached. But in Azimuth, a major character is killed. I tried to write about grief and death within the context of the book, sentimentality not being a dominant trait among my characters.
They seated her body, her head bowed, on her roan, holding her there from either side and walked slowly to the nearest high ground, a small, exposed cliff of brittle red stone. They laid her along its base and the Warrior took powders from saddle bags and mixed them before working them into a crack in the vertical face just above her prone form.
Whatever she had been before her death was no longer evident no matter how much he reached his mind out to her, –May your spirit go where you have always wished it, he said in a soft, caressing tone, -And may further life spring from your decay.
-Goodbye my Grandmother, whispered his daughter in a breaking voice, bending to straighten the dead woman’s hair, so that her tears fell upon the lined face. She and her father looked down upon what seemed too tiny a form for so powerful a woman, dressed as always in a warrior’s garb, knife in her belt and sword in her hand.
Looking at it now I remember going over and over the lines which included:
-Goodbye my Grandmother, whispered his daughter in a breaking voice, bending to straighten the dead woman’s hair, so that her tears fell upon the lined face.
Was I being mawkish? I think I certainly was in my initial descriptions of the burial. I said far too much about the granddaughter’s emotions. In the end I opted for these short lines of a sorrow that breaks through her disciplined and wise nature. You must decide.
When writing something like Azimuth (perhaps within the canon of moral sagas like Lord of the Rings, Beowulf or His Dark Materials) I was always aware that I had to integrate a modern day audience’s rejection of cloying emotion with the harsher times of my characters. It is part of the macro business of persuading readers that this vast, cyclical drama, though it is ostensibly about the changes in a man who begins as a warrior and ends as a sage, is relevant to people’s lives today and the period is immaterial when it comes to being human.
Books by Jack Sanger (aka Eric le Sange)
Azimuth, the ebook, by Jack Sanger in separate volumes Amazon Kindle
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange Amazon Kindle
Through a Mirror Clear: a Gothic Love Story by Eric le Sange , Amazon Kindle