Writers in Movies: The Invisible Woman

Another in an occasional series.

Like Young CassidyThe Invisible Woman is a biopic about a famous writer. Unlike Young Cassidy, it is really really good.

It’s the story of Charles Dickens and his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan. Ralph Fiennes directed the movie and plays Dickens; Felicity Jones plays Ternan.  I like the way the film captures the complexities of the relationship: this wasn’t a love story.  Ternan admired Dickens, but above all she needed money and security; Dickens was fond of Ternan, but above all he needed a young, pretty woman to admire him.

Beyond that, I like that they got Dickens right. Dickens was a creep in his personal life: he was awful to his wife, dismissive of his children . . . but he was also haunted by a dreadful childhood that goes a long way toward explaining the mess he made of things.  And there was his art and his public, both of which were more important to him than his wife and children.  The film captures that: he is constantly writing, and when he isn’t writing, he is performing.

Finally, the emotional climax of the movie is Ternan’s explication of the alternative endings of Great Expectations.  How cool is that?

The movie seems to have been kind of a flop, which is too bad.  There are plenty of reasons why, I suppose.  It’s not especially romantic; there’s no musical soundtrack (which worked for me); Dickens is probably considered old-fashioned and sentimental.  But I found it more satisfying than almost every other movie I’ve seen lately.

(By the way, someday I might start an occasional series of Shakespeare on film.  The previous movie that Fiennes directed was a modern-day version of Corialanus, with Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Chastain.  That, too, was pretty good.  And also kind of a flop.  Maybe Fiennes needs to sign on to direct Iron Man 4.)

The Hemingway app judges Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and me

Here’s a web site called Hemingway that judges prose according to these standards:

  • Short sentences
  • No passive voice
  • No adverbs (it tells you to aim for “0 or fewer”, which suggests that it wants you to be better than perfect–damn computers!)
  • Short words (for example, use “use” instead of “utilize”)

Paste in your prose, and it highlights your mistakes and gives you a grade level for readability.

Fair enough.  So what does it think of, say, the ending of The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It likes this excerpt.  Fitzgerald gets a Grade 8 for readability, which Hemingway deems Good, and the only thing it complains about is the adverb ceaselessly.  I’m troubled, though, that it didn’t flag the word orgastic.  What kind of weird word is that?  (Borne also looks to me like it’s passive, but that’s probably a tough one to notice.)

How about Faulkner, from The Sound and the Fury:

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o’ clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

This gets a Grade 11 in readability, which Hemingway thinks is just OK.  One adverb (excruciatingly), no passive voice, but Hemingway marks those two interior sentences for shortening.

So with some trepidation I handed Hemingway the first paragraph of the novel I’ve been working on:

I got off my bike and stared at the guy in the brown robe.  The guy in the brown robe stared back at me.  He was sitting at the front of a cart piled high with apples, pumpkins, squash, and other fall produce; half a dozen dead turkeys hung  from hooks at the back of the cart.  I figured he was about seven feet tall, although that was probably an exaggeration.  But definitely big, and definitely scary, with small black eyes, long stringy hair, and a scraggly beard that was interrupted by a deep scar on his left cheek.

Hemingway gives this a Grade 9 in readability, which merits a Good.  Yay! However, it considers two of my sentences to be too long.  Plus, it flags two adverbs–probably and scraggly.  But hey, scraggly is an adjective–I demand a recount!  (Although maybe I shouldn’t–a recount might notice the two uses of definitely, which are definitely adverbs.) Finally, I get dinged for the passive voice in the phrase “was interrupted by”.

Will I change anything in that paragraph, in response to Hemingway’s criticisms?  Nah.  And if I were Fitzgerald or Faulkner, I wouldn’t change anything either.  Except maybe orgastic  and reducto absurdum.  They can do better than that.

Should authors feel bad when they kill off a character?

Here I talk about the problem that pops up when you kill off a character in a series, only to realize later you’d like to have him around.  A more interesting issue is your emotional relationship with characters you create.  Should it bother you when you kill them off?  I was talking to a reader about Pontiff, where (not much of a spoiler alert) a sympathetic character dies at the climax.  She wasn’t especially bothered by this, because it was a bit of a twist on what she was expecting, but it made perfect sense in the context of the plot.  Which was the effect I had hoped to achieve.

But I had grown to like that character.  I wished her nothing but the best!  I was sorry she had to die!  This didn’t stop me from killing her, all the same.  It wasn’t a question of morality; it was a question of aesthetics.  Your readers aren’t going to care about your characters if you don’t care about them yourself.  But you’re the boss — not the characters.

This brings me to the case of the angelic character Little Nell in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop  The novel was serialized, as all of his novels were, so readers could follow the decline of the little girl’s health week by week. Wikipedia says:

The hype surrounding the conclusion of the series was unprecedented; Dickens fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who might have already read the last installment in the United Kingdom), “Is Little Nell alive?” In 2007, many newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume of The Old Curiosity Shop was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Dickens lived life and wrote fiction in a higher key than anyone else. so it’s not surprising that he was as upset by her death as his readers were.

Dickens was traumatized by the death of Little Nell.  As he was writing it he felt as though he were experiencing the death of one of his children.  It also brought back painful memories of the death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth.

But a novelist has gotta do what a novelist has gottta do.

Here, if you can bear to read it, is Dickens’ description of Little Nell in death:

She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death. Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favor. “When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.” Those were her words.

She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird, a poor, slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed, was stirring nimbly in its cage, and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless forever! Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead, indeed, in her; but peace and perfect happiness were born, imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.

This is great stuff, although you may be inclined to agree with Oscar Wilde: “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.”

The New Yorker tells us why novels have bad endings (plus, the best ending ever!)

The last time we checked in on The New Yorker, someone was pontificating on why genre fiction by definition can’t be high art. Now someone else tells us why novels tend to have bad endings.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way and state that this basic premise is idiotic.  Some novels have great endings; some novels have lousy endings.  There is nothing inherent in the art form that makes it hard for Mark Twain, for example, to come up with a good ending for Huckleberry Finn (one of the article’s prime examples). Her basic explanation for this purported phenomenon has something to do with entropy and makes absolutely no sense to me.  But instead of analyzing it, let me offer my own theory of why some endings are better than others.

Writers don’t start with entire plots; they start with ideas or images from which the plot emerges (usually with a lot of hard work).  Sometimes the image has to do with the ending; sometimes it doesn’t.  And the image tends to be what’s most vital, most deeply imagined, about the novel.  I don’t know anything about the genesis of Huckleberry Finn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it started with Twain imagining a white boy and a black man floating down the Mississippi on a raft.  This is worth a novel!  But then you have to get them onto the raft, and you have to explain what happens to them afterwards, and none of that other stuff is quite as interesting.  The image is the art; everything else is craft.

OK, enough of that.  Thinking about endings made me want to re-read the best ending ever, which is the final few paragraphs of James Joyce’s The Dead.  I can imagine Joyce constructing a story just to lead up to this moment, with Gabriel staring out the window at the snow, thinking of his wife’s lost lover.  It’s an ending that makes your soul swoon softly, as it should in the presence of great art.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Great Expectations and sad endings

Here we saw how Hemingway struggled with the ending to A Farewell to Arms. You need to get the ending right.

For some novels, the most important decision will be whether the ending is sad or happy.  You’d think this decision would flow inevitably from the story you’re telling.  In some cases, that’s true.  In a genre private eye novel, the private eye will crack the case.  In a genre romance, girl will get boy.  In mainstream Hollywood movies nowadays, you’re pretty much guaranteed a happy ending; otherwise the movie wouldn’t have gotten made.  But for lots of novels, the ending balances on a knife edge between life and death, marriage and loneliness, joy and despair.  That, in fact, is what keeps the reader reading.  The author gets to make the call.

The ending to Pontiff caused me the most problems in this regard.  Should girl get boy, when boy is a priest?  If so, does that qualify as a happy ending?  In any case, did the ending work–was it true to the story?  Lemme know! (There is another sad aspect of the story that involves the death of a character at the climax, and I really didn’t want to do it.  But my plot gave me no choice.)

King Lear‘s ending is so damn sad that even critics like Samuel Johnson thought it was unbearable. For 300 years, from the Restoration to the mid-nineteenth century, the only version performed was a revision by Nahum Tate in which Cordelia survived and married Edgar. We have seen evidence that Shakespeare revised the play, but the revisions, if anything, made the play’s ending sadder.

The most celebrated case of revising an ending to make it happier was Great Expectations.

Dickens’ original ending was bleak. The narrator, Pip, who has been in love with the unattainable Estella since he first laid eyes on her, meets her on the street many years later:

It was four years more, before I saw herself. I had heard of her as leading a most unhappy life, and as being separated from her husband who had used her with great cruelty, and who had become quite renowned as a compound of pride, brutality, and meanness.

I had heard of the death of her husband (from an accident consequent on ill-treating a horse), and of her being married again to a Shropshire doctor, who, against his interest, had once very manfully interposed, on an occasion when he was in professional attendance on Mr. Drummle, and had witnessed some outrageous treatment of her. I had heard that the Shropshire doctor was not rich, and that they lived on her own personal fortune.

I was in England again — in London, and walking along Piccadilly with little Pip — when a servant came running after me to ask would I step back to a lady in a carriage who wished to speak to me. It was a little pony carriage, which the lady was driving; and the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another.

“I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella, too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!” (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.

Too sad! One of his friends–maybe Wilkie Collins–complained.  So Dickens tried again.  He has Pip and Estella meet on the grounds of Miss Havisham’s ruined house, where they had first met many years ago:

“We are friends,” said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench. “And will continue friends apart”. I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

Too happy!  That’s what lots of critics have complained.  Shaw said: The novel “is too serious a book to be a trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.”

Well, I dunno.  A novel can be unhappy throughout, yet achieve its happiness at the end.  Characters grow; characters change.  And there’s no question that the revised ending is better written than the original, which is awfully flat.  Most modern editions include both endings, I think, like a DVD where you can choose the author’s cut.

Dickens himself seemed happy with the revision.  He said: “I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.”

You be the judge.  Also, see the David Lean movie, with John Mills as Pip and Jean Simmons as the ethereally beautiful young Estella.

The greatest writer of English prose?

Shakespeare?  I dunno, the prose sections of his plays aren’t as good as his poetry.  Dickens?  Pretty darn good in spots, but he also perpetrated lots of mawkish drek.  Joyce?  Hemingway?  Yeah, OK, sure.

I think a case could be made for P. G. Wodehouse.  Andrew Sullivan points us to a site that generates random Wodehouse quotes. What a wonderful idea!  Here is the first one that came up when I went there:

Rodney Spelvin was in for another attack of poetry. He had once been a poet, and a very virulent one too; the sort of man who would produce a slim volume of verse bound in squashy mauve leather at the drop of a hat, mostly on the subject of sunsets and pixies.

I really don’t see how you can write anything better than that.

Here is a sampling of his dialog:

“Have you ever seen Spode eat asparagus?”
“Revolting. It alters one’s whole conception of Man as Nature’s last word.”

Here he is in person:

The World’s Oldest Dickens Movie?

This is supposedly the death of Jo the crossing-sweep from Bleak House, filmed in 1901:

Love the understated acting and the smooth camera movement.  But something is lost in the translation from book to cinema.  Here is what Dickens actually wrote (thanks, Project Gutenberg!) As always, the sentimentality is almost too much for the modern sensibility.  But it works.  And note the way he pulls the camera back in the final short paragraph — just far enough to indict an entire society.  Tell me that it doesn’t give you goosebumps.

"Well, Jo! What is the matter? Don't be frightened."

“I thought,” says Jo, who has started and is looking round, “I thought I was in Tom-all-Alone’s agin. Ain’t there nobody here but you, Mr. Woodcot?”


“And I ain’t took back to Tom-all-Alone’s. Am I, sir?”

“No.” Jo closes his eyes, muttering, “I’m wery thankful.”

After watching him closely a little while, Allan puts his mouth very near his ear and says to him in a low, distinct voice, “Jo! Did you ever know a prayer?”

“Never knowd nothink, sir.”

“Not so much as one short prayer?”

“No, sir. Nothink at all. Mr. Chadbands he wos a-prayin wunst at Mr. Sangsby’s and I heerd him, but he sounded as if he wos a-speakin to hisself, and not to me. He prayed a lot, but I couldn’t make out
nothink on it. Different times there was other genlmen come down Tom-all-Alone’s a-prayin, but they all mostly sed as the t’other ‘wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded to be a-talking to
theirselves, or a-passing blame on the t’others, and not a-talkin to us. WE never knowd nothink. I never knowd what it wos all about.”

It takes him a long time to say this, and few but an experienced and attentive listener could hear, or, hearing, understand him. After a short relapse into sleep or stupor, he makes, of a sudden, a strong
effort to get out of bed.

“Stay, Jo! What now?”

“It’s time for me to go to that there berryin ground, sir,” he returns with a wild look.

“Lie down, and tell me. What burying ground, Jo?”

“Where they laid him as wos wery good to me, wery good to me indeed, he wos. It’s time fur me to go down to that there berryin ground, sir, and ask to be put along with him. I wants to go there and be
berried. He used fur to say to me, ‘I am as poor as you to-day, Jo,’ he ses. I wants to tell him that I am as poor as him now and have come there to be laid along with him.”

“By and by, Jo. By and by.”

“Ah! P’raps they wouldn’t do it if I wos to go myself. But will you promise to have me took there, sir, and laid along with him?”

“I will, indeed.”

“Thankee, sir. Thankee, sir. They’ll have to get the key of the gate afore they can take me in, for it’s allus locked. And there’s a step there, as I used for to clean with my broom. It’s turned wery dark, sir. Is there any light a-comin?”

“It is coming fast, Jo.”

Fast. The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end.

“Jo, my poor fellow!”

“I hear you, sir, in the dark, but I’m a-gropin–a-gropin–let me catch hold of your hand.”

“Jo, can you say what I say?”

“I’ll say anythink as you say, sir, for I knows it’s good.”

“Our Father.”

“Our Father! Yes, that’s wery good, sir.”

“Which art in heaven.”

“Art in heaven–is the light a-comin, sir?”

“It is close at hand. Hallowed be thy name!”

“Hallowed be–thy–”

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.