Meta-novels

How about this for a plot of a 19th century novel?

A young man of independent means, not particularly handsome as such but extremely polished and self-confident, eminently eligible and unutterably vain, delights in winning the hearts of ladies. Not that he cares a whit for any of them: he is utterly cold-blooded and unfeeling. He does it because it flatters his vanity. His sister, beautiful and vivacious, is a confidante of his, advising and helping where she can. It is a thrilling power game. Once, out of boredom, he decides to have a go at a rather prim, quiet and softly-spoken young lady – a ward of a family, at that, and not likely to be endowed with a large dowry. It is a challenge for him – something a bit different to re-invigorate his jaded sense of pleasure. But far from being bowled over by such eminent attention, she keeps her distance. He is a bit puzzled at first: no-one had ever resisted him before. But he sees this as a challenge: he is determined to win her heart, as his vanity will not allow him to walk away unsatisfied on this score. But in the process, a strange thing happens: he really does find himself in love with her. It is something he had never felt before. He ends up proposing, but she, unaccountably, and to the great distress of her guardians, refuses. He keeps open his offer, sure that eventually he is bound to win her affections. He behaves, for the first time in his life and despite himself, with honour and with sensitivity.

But then, away from the young lady to whom he has proposed, he meets up with another lady whose heart he had won earlier. This second lady is married now, to a rich young booby whom she despises. Our hero, unused to letting anything stand in the way of instant gratification, begins an affair with her, and the affair is discovered. The future for the lady, whom her great booby of a husband soon divorces, is blighted; but as a man, he can escape without too great a stain on his character. However, his prospective marriage with the woman he had despite himself come to love, comes to nothing, and this once proud heart-breaker is left pondering on what might have been.

This is not my plot, of course. It is from Austen’s Mansfield Park, slightly embellished and with the centre of gravity moved from Fanny Price to Henry Crawford. But just that shift makes for what could be a very different but equally great novel. A meta-novel, if you like. Imagine what Henry James could have made of such a plot! Or, for that matter, Jane Austen herself!

I have already speculated on how Anna Karenina might have been had Tolstoy focussed on Dolly rather than on Anna. And I can’t help wondering what sort of novel Austen might have written had she focussed, say, on Charlotte Lucas rather than on Elizabeth Bennet: a young woman, handsome, intelligent, and sensitive, knowingly marries a man she knows to be a complete idiot for the sake of her future security. Could this have developed into one of the great 19th century novels of adultery, I wonder?

Or how about this for a plot:

A young lady of a passionate nature, orphaned and without means, is invited to become companion of a recently widowed distant cousin of hers. Having no other option, she accepts. This widow has a young teenage son, pampered and handsome. The young lady, intense and passionate, is violently attracted to him. The violence, if not necessarily the passion, is returned: in one incident, the pampered boy, in a fit of rage, throws a hammer at her. He is immediately horrified by what he has done, but the scar, both real and symbolic, remains upon her lip. Later, when the boy comes of age, they embark on an affair: the sex is intense and violent. She fantasises about displacing the boy’s mother as the Lady of the House, as surely as she has displaced her from the boy’s heart.

But the boy is not as attached to her as she likes to think. For all the passion and the excitement, he finds her exhausting. Despite being the spoilt son of a rich mother, he is actually quite a decent, easy-going chap at heart; and, given his good looks and his natural charm, he is popular with the ladies. He eventually leaves home, and is happy and relieved to get away from his mother’s companion. She, noticing this but refusing to accept, is eaten up with jealousy. A violent jealousy.

And then, the storm breaks. The young man has eloped – not with a society lady, but with a girl from the working classes. An orphan at that – a fisherman’s niece. He has genuine feelings for her, and she is dazzled the idea of becoming a lady, but society will not, of course, accept a union across such disparate social classes. He cannot even bring her home to his doting mother, who is now heartbroken. So he travels around Europe with her, pretending to be husband and wife; but even there, they cannot mix with English expatriates, as her social background is all too apparent. As for her, this life is not what she had expected: she is desperately lonely, and is torn with guilt and remorse. She spends all her time grieving, and becomes severely depressed. The young man eventually becomes fed up with her constant moaning, and deserts her. But his mother’s companion, who loves him still with a passion as violent as ever, is determined to seek out this presumptuous upstart, and punish her for having, as she thinks, destroyed her happiness.

Now, wouldn’t this have made a terrific novel? Instead, Dickens keeps Rosa Dartle, Steerforth and Little Em’ly in the background, while filling the foreground with the dull David Copperfield, the even duller Agnes Wickfield, and the unbearably tedious Dora Spenlow, who is a sort of Madeleine Bassett without the laughs.

Any other ideas for meta-novels?

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25 responses to this post.

  1. Yes, Moby Dick from the point of view of the whale, a fellow creature for whom I have always had some sympathy. Why are you considered the personification of evil when all you are doing is trying to defend yourself?

    Reply

  2. This is much like what I was planning to write about, maybe tomorrow. How convenient. But I have been thinking about Maria Crawford’s novel, not Henry’s.

    Austen of course has attracted tons of this stuff, more fan fiction, re-imaginings, and shifted perspectives than anyone this side of Tolkien or George Lucas.

    It is curious to imagine an Austen novel – a real one, written by Austen – with a male protagonist.

    Reply

    • Sorry – I didn’t mean to steal your thunder. I doubt whether I have, mind you!

      I take it you mean Maria Bertram, rather than Maria Crawford. Henry struck me as more interesting, as he seems to me to develop as a character. I couldn’t discern any development in Maria, but I could easily be wrong: I look forward to your thoughts on this.

      And you’re right, of course- there has been no end of fan fiction, re-imaginings, and shifted perspective retellings of Austen novels. I don’t know that the potential of such re-imaginings have ever been adequately met: i doubt it, as that would require a novelist of the stature of Austen herself.

      Reply

    • Oops, I meant Mary Crawford. The novel, up to a certain point, actually could be about Mary Crawford, just with the text as it is. That’s what I’m going to write. Except longer.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Brian Joseph on May 16, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    I thought that I was the only one who played this game.Different perspectives and alternate plots can be so much fun.

    My personal favorite is an Iliad where the Trojans win the war.

    Reply

    • Oh no! Trojans winning the war would be no fun at all! Agamemnon would not then return, and we wouldn’t have The Oresteia! What would we do for laughs then?

      I was thinking more along the lines of the same plot from a different perspective, but changing the plot does open up a whole lot of other possibilities…

      Reply

      • Posted by Brian Joseph on May 19, 2014 at 3:56 pm

        But imagine, after the war, a relatively free Paris and Helen going on an Odyssey like journey and creating all sorts of trouble in the world 🙂

  4. I’ve always thought 1984 from O’Brien’s perspective would be amazing! Down with the moralising freedom fighters and subversives! I want a dictatorship novel about an amoral official who delights in destroying people’s hopes with caged mice!

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  5. I must say that your meta-novel imaginings are quite a lot more interesting then the ones where everyone simply gets turned into zombies.

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    • I never really understood the appeal of those zombie adaptations of classic novels. i can imagine this might be a reasonably amusing idea for a comic sketch – like the famous Monty Python sketch of “Semaphore version of Wuthering Heights” – but surely a joke as slight as this would be played out over the course of an entire book. How on earth could they stretch it out to an entire series of books?

      Reply

  6. Posted by witwoud on May 18, 2014 at 8:54 am

    A young lady, beautiful and poetic, meets a mysterious stranger in the woods one day. He is a gentleman, a zoologist, a fellow-dreamer. She is captivated by him, and he by her. Together they wander through the pansy-speckled glades, talking about art and nature, and she knows she has met her soulmate. But although she is certain he feels the same, he seems reserved. He cannot express his true feelings. Some terrible secret from his past, no doubt, is holding him back. When they part, it is as mere friends.

    Months later they meet again at a country house party, but nothing has changed. He feels, but cannot speak. Meanwhile another of the house guests — an idle fop who fell in love with her in France — siezes the chance to propose to her, but she turns him down.

    Finally, her zoologist can contain his passion no longer. It comes bursting out of him like a volcano. He has loved her since the moment they met, but was too overwhelmed by her beauty and nobility to declare it. In an instant, they are engaged! That same afternoon, however, her love turns to ashes when he makes a drunken spectacle of himself, and she realises that the volcanic passion which had burst from his lips was just so much gin and orange. She terminates their engagement and, with a breaking heart, writes to her other admirer to say that, although she can never love him, she will marry him; sealing the letter with her tears.

    All seems lost. But will the laughing cherub find a way after all? Will they meet once again under the starry skies? And will she find the greatness of heart to forgive him? Find out in the romantic novel of the year: “It Happened in the Pansy Glades.”

    Reply

    • I’m afraid I don’t recognise that novel at all. I can’t even think of a novel that features a zoologist. Any clues?

      Reply

      • Posted by witwoud on May 19, 2014 at 5:09 pm

        I wasn’t being quite fair — he’s really an amateur herpetologist with a particular interest in newts, and a man who, in the opinion of his friends, is as confirmed a species-shunning hermit as ever put fresh water in the tank every second day and refused to see a soul. As for the poetic heroine, you touched upon her in your original post.

        Excellent blog, by the way!

      • Oh, of course! – How could I have mistaken it? Right Ho Jeeves it is. That prizegiving scene – makes me laugh out loud just thinking about it!

  7. I’ve thought before that a novel about Charlotte Lucas would be very interesting, much as I love P&P it does have that element that marrying for love coincides very fortunately with marrying for wealth – a serendipity Charlotte doesn’t benefit from being merely a supporting character.

    David Copperfield, my god but that’s a dreary novel, but then Dickens so often is dreary.

    Speaking of which a street urchin finds himself taken in by an elderly crook who cares for him and trains him, giving him the skills they need to survive in a world where every hand seems turned against them.

    One day the urchin, now grown cunning but not having forgotten the kindness once done him, finds a boy on the streets so innocent it’s obvious he can’t take care of himself. The urchin takes the innocent in, cares for him and keeps him safe.

    Eventually, through mischance, the innocent child is arrested but fortune intervenes again and he finds himself cared for in a good home. The urchin approaches him hoping for the help he once extended himself, but the innocent knows no gratitude and now established himself in middle class comfort has forgotten his old friends. In desperation they try to force the innocent to help them as they did him, but he turns on them.

    By the end the urchin is under arrest and due for transportation, his dreams and life shattered because of an act of kindness wasted on a child utterly unable to appreciate it.

    Reply

    • I think I have to disagree with you about Dickens: for all his faults, he is one of the writers at the very centre of my literary awareness, and I return to him frequently. The earlier section of David Copperfield, dealing with David’s childhood, does seem to me spectacularly good: thereafter, it is, I think, patchy. The story of Rosa, Emily and Steerforth is on the fringes of the novel, mainly, I think, because Dickens, writing in England in the mid 19th century, wouldn’t have been allowed the frankness on sexual matters needed to do this story justice. But for all that, the story is latent in the novel: one need only fill in a few gaps to be able to piece it together. And it seems to me a fascinating story.

      You change the Oliver Twist story a bit in your version, but your version is a good story all the same. And yes, by all means, make the Artful Dodger the principal character: who would not rather read about so charismatic a figure in preference to the insipid Oliver? But you have to keep in the scene describing the Dodger being sentenced in court: that scene is just superb!

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      • I am a lonely voice in my dislike of Dickens (other than bits of Hard Times, not including the bits where Stephen whinges on though I admit he has good reason to). To me he’s a middlebrow sentimentalist, but saying that I’m aware could expose me one day to a challenge with pistols at dawn from one of his many outraged fans.

        David Copperield shares with Great Expectations a good section dealing with childhood and a section dealing with adulthood that deflates slowly like a disappointed balloon.

        I have to admit I barely remember Oliver Twist. The classic musical film version has occluded the text for me. Since Oliver was particularly dislikable in the film and the Artful Dodger the only character in it with any measure of human kindness it’s possible it distorts my view.

      • Before staring this blog, I have for many years been contributing to various book boards around the net, and I can assure you that you are not a lone voice, either in your dislike of Dickens, or in the reasons for your dislike! 🙂

  8. Oh, Dickens isn’t as bad as Hemingway.

    But my short comment is a concern for your the use of the term meta-novel. According to well accepted terminology, a meta-novel would be a novel about novels (usually a novel about someone writing a novel) and this leads to the now somewhat clichéd concern for “what is reality?” and the many layers of complication that that implies.

    Alternate emphasis or viewpoints in a narrative does not a meta-novel make (an alt-novel?). I posted a piece on metafiction some time back which includes a nice list of the characteristics of metafiction (At WP : http://wp.me/p1mTHK-1z6 ).

    Reply

    • Oh, Dickens isn’t as bad as Hemingway.

      Rather reminds me of Tolstoy’s comment to Chekhov: “Your plays are worse than Shakespeare’s”

      Actually, some friends and I had a bit of a discussion on Facebook bout my use of the prefix “meta-” in this context, since, as you say, the prefix “meta-” is commonly used to refer to something that is self-referential and “meta-fiction” is usually means “fiction about fiction”. My response was that “meta-” literally means “beyond”, and that I am entitled to use it to refer to potential novels that are beyond existing novels, but which refer back to them. I was told that meaning of a word cannot necessarily refer back to the roots of the word, for if it did, we’d think of “tragedy” as a song about a goat. Against this onslaught, I tried to hold my position as best I could, unwilling as I was to admit that I had used the prefix “meta-” simply because I couldn’t think of any other suitable terminology.

      (We have some good discussions on Facebook, we do!)

      Anyway, if postmodernist theory has determined that “meta-” should have one specific meaning and no other, then I will certainly claim to be more postmodernist than than the postmodernists by claiming that “meta-” can legitimately mean whatever I damn well want it to mean, so there!

      Reply

      • Then there is the Venerable Bloom’s book of matches.

        “Meta” has a specific denotation without referring to literature. Having been involved with computers and computer languages since the 1960s, the term “meta” is well understood. A meta-language is a language in the set “language” but it contains other lesser members of the same set. It’s most direct application is as a language that is designed to generate other languages — it is “meta” — extending language, if you will, by creating or defining other languages.

        But you can accept “meta” to denote anything from a legal brief to nail soup and if it confuses or obfuscates the argument, so be it!

        Oh, I stopped to think about what terms I might use to mean what you meant even though you used a term that means something entirely different than what you meant, and I offer “spectronovel” as suggesting what you say when you’re discussing a non-existent novel as if it were real.

        Unless you are suggesting that every novel is actually only a variable real-world instance of some ur-novel casting shadows in the cave.

      • Fair enough: “spectronovel” it is!

        (You should have joined us on our Facebook debate on this! 🙂 )

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