Contentment is probably the hardest thing to write about. It is what so many of our characters strive for and yet all we do is put them through torments. At the Renegades meeting last Wednesday there were some interesting discussions as always, and Tim had written a character who through spirituality had contentment. He apologised about there maybe being religion involved, which was interesting. I think most people find conflict and struggle of greater interest.
My great favourite Zola sets up his characters in a form of contentment then through their own actions, weakness, fate spirals them down to a hellish ending, there is no redemption and the instigator of all the pain often walks away unhurt by the plot, as in Germinal. In many ways Dickens worked the opposite rather like the traditional western film, where the bad guys were disposed of and the hero moves on into a boring serenity.
How do you write about contentment, I use that word rather than happiness because it allows for the unhappiness caused by the natural order of our lives – loss of family, pressures of work, solvable arguments and so forth. One of the hardest things to write about relationships is the private language that develops between couples, it can be a source of character development and history. It comes from a shared history, something that is totally meaningless to people outside the relationship, and can annoy others! Even though I have now been separated nearly 15 years I still say shopping for washing (clothes), it was handed down from my mother-in-law who once swapped the words by mistake. Sounds stupid, but is the sort of pointer to a developed relationship.
Relationships are central to writing.
One of the finest set of novels on a relationship is the Clayhanger trilogy by Arnold Bennett. He was from Burslem only two miles away and wrote about the people and communities he knew, the places he wrote about are still there, The Leopard pub (called The Tiger in his books) is where another writers group regularly meet. The house I am sure he described in the novels is one I knew and still standing, though the area greatly changed. The Clayhanger trilogy is interesting in its story development. Bennett wrote two books centred on each of the couple; Clayhanger about the relationship between Edwin Clayhanger and his stern father, is about modernisation, generational clashes, well all those things which make a good ‘family saga’. Hilda Lessways follows his ‘unsuitable’ love Hilda from her lower middle class beginnings through many difficulties to a point which conjoins with Clayhanger, and written in a very different style.
Bennett was a great story-teller because he was interested in the ordinary and made it come alive. Virginia Woolf and her well off friends scoffed at Bennett who was extremely popular, it was a class and educational snobbery on their part. Woolf could have been read by many more had she looked properly at the way Bennett set out the life and concerns of Hilda. Bennett’s books are well written and make their points in an accessible language without going for the easy ‘sell’. He was not from a rich family, to live he had to sell books, not live on endowed capital like the Bloomsbury Group writers were able. Please don’t get me wrong, I think the Bloomsbury’s have contributed some of the finest writing of the Twentieth Century, but they spoke from a rather rarefied stance, poverty to them was only having one cook!
The third novel These Twain brings Hilda and Edwin together. The book is about their relationship developing and the problems they face being with another person every day. Their status as middle class Victorian people stultifies their ambitions, limits them in their ability to truly open up. Their pasts haunt them in ways which manipulate what they can actually do. This is seen through seemingly minor incidents that added up create an ‘issue’. The whole series is a masterly insight into a relationship and even though over a century old has a power few other stories have had.
Today’s photograph is taken on a wet, grey cloudy day at around 12.30 in Tunstall.