For the first time in ages, I have actually read the starting book in the Six Degrees of Separation meme. To see more about this meme, check out Kate’s Books Are My Favourite and Best but, in summary, she thinks of the starting book and then you think of six other titles related in some way- no matter how tangential- to the starting book.
The starting book this month is Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. Actually, I think that the version I read was under its alternative title What Was She Thinking, but I’ll go with Notes on a Scandal because that was the name for the film based on the book. Besides, ‘scandal’ takes you to more places…
First stop is Kirsten McKenzie’s A Swindler’s Progress. This book looks at the putative Viscount Lascelles – in reality, the implausibly but actually named John Dow- a convict who served out his time in Van Diemen’s land after being transported for swindling using yet another false identity. On the expiry of his sentence, he traversed the NSW interior, claiming that he had been commissioned by the Secretary of State to inquire into the proper treatment of assigned convicts. He claimed that he was the eldest son of the second Earl of Harewood- a claim haughtily denied by the Earl back in England whose eldest son, in fact had been disinherited after making a series of disastrous liaisons. The book emphasizes the ease by which people could slip into new identities by travelling to various parts of the empire. She is a master storyteller who uses the human to enliven the theoretical, and the insights of the scholar enrich her narrative of lives lived with contingency, imperfection and incomplete endings. (see my review here)
In their anxiety about ‘respectability’, colonies could be even more stifling than Mother England. A Life of Propriety by Katherine M.J. McKenna is an academic history of Anna Murray Powell, one of the matriarchs of Upper Canada society in the late 18th century. I very much doubt that you’ll be able to find this book anywhere. She was the wife of Chief Justice William Dummer Powell, of the Kings Bench Upper Canada. It has stuck in my memory because her daughter became very publicly infatuated with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, much to the mortification of her family. It showed that parent/child (and particularly mother/daughter) relationships could be just as fraught two hundred years ago. Although the expectations and language of her parents in their treatment of their daughter might not sit well with us today, the experience of parenting, loving, and losing transcends these differences. (My review here)
Another real-life story that reads like fiction is Wendy Moore’s Wedlock. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Barry Lyndon’ or read the book, you will have come across this story which Thackeray based on the real life kidnapping of Mary Eleanor Bowes-Lyon, the wealthiest heiress in England. If that name sounds familiar, there is a family link with the Queen Mother. This is rattling good narrative history, all the better for being a true story. (My review here)
The heiress kidnapping has become a bit of a narrative trope, but I don’t think that anyone could trump Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. It’s very long but absolutely gripping. It is a type of epistolary novel, with various characters handing the narrative on to the next character- a very modern technique for a book written in 1859-60. It has been described as a melodrama, but I prefer to think of it as a thriller, with mounting suspense and a sense of dread, ratcheted-up as the story proceeds. There’s nothing hard-boiled about it at all: instead, it is intricate, verbose, lush, formal – and a damned good read. Even at over 600 pages. (See my review here)
Wilkie Collins was a good friend of Charles Dickens, who had scandals of his own. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Tiernan and Charles Dickens is written by one of my favourite literary biographers, Claire Tomalin. Operating with rather sparse sources, she divides her book into three sections: first, Nelly Tiernan’s childhood and upbringing as part of a theatrical family; second, her hidden affair with Charles Dickens; and finally, her re-creation and rehabilitation of herself as a respectable school-teacher’s wife. Tomalin has written this biography with the bones showing – as she does with all her biographies- but in this case, the paucity of sources makes it hard to breathe life into this shadowy figure.
Writers seem to have made rather a habit of treating their wives badly, and biographers often struggle to bring their subjects out from the notoriety of their husbands. With Franny Moyle’s Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, she deals with the most notorious of husbands- Oscar Wilde- and his relationship with his wife Constance. When she married Oscar, they formed what we would now call a celebrity couple, noted for their radical aesthetic tastes and pre-Raphaelite sensibilities. Constance was a striking beauty. She too wrote stories, and she was well-known for her adherence to the principles of the bohemian Rational Dress Society. Moyle’s sympathies are very much with Constance, who despite changing her own and her children’s surname to “Holland” continued to love Oscar after his conviction, visited him in jail, and was equivocal about divorcing him although she gained a judicial separation from him eventually. (My review here)
So, here we are at the end. Even though Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is set in the present day, I see to have been wading around in the 18th and 19th centuries (my favourite stamping ground, I must confess). And I’m always attracted to a scandal….