In spite of studying English Literature at A level forty years ago, I have been a poor reader of “proper” books. I can’t help thinking that reading Middlemarch at 17 rather turned me off reading modern classics for fun – although Chaucer was a delight and DH Lawrence’s poems about “little islands out at sea” stayed with me for years*.
Or maybe it was eschewing university and starting nurse training that made the difference; three years of nursing texts and journals and night duty (and a heavy-duty boyfriend) left little time for anything but the historical romances of Anya Seton and Brenda Jagger (still two of my favourite authors); a guilt, residual love of Biggles and other tomboy action yarns (morphing smoothly over the decades into Jack Reacher); and a decided preference for film and tv adaptations rather than the original texts.
Whatever it was, I felt increasingly uneasy when, during my Writing Fiction course [10 weeks with University of Oxford Department for Continuing Education] our tutor’s frequent references to modern classics stirred in me no memories whilst my fellow students nodded sagely and contributed further smug literary anecdotes. Perhaps the turning point was when one elderly gentleman expressed horror at how little I read – and how feeble (even to my own ears) my protestations of professional duty reading and lack of time sounded.
And so I found myself in Blackwells, choosing from a table of three-for-two offers of modern classics. I knew the titles (after all, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Brideshead Revisited are films, aren’t they?) but had never actually read the books. Lacking other reference points, I made my choices based on cinematic merit – with the exception of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (but, as I write, I realise that even here I had a small screen reference, since the BBC was at that time promoting a new mini series concerning the goings-on of the Bloomsbury Set).
I read Mrs Dalloway in a couple of sittings (in spite of classical illiteracy, I read fast; the average Joanna Trollop not being designed to last much longer than a European flight plus hanging-around time) and, to my surprise, thoroughly enjoyed it (but, then, why wouldn’t I? Woolf and contemporaries were the best sellers of their day and even though the choice may have been more limited a century ago, people were still canny with their time and money).
Apart from being a lively story (although the central suicide is sobering when one knows that Woolf also took her own life) Mrs Dalloway gave me the first proof that writing classy fiction is not just a matter of telling a good story but of doing so elegantly (our tutor’s aspiration description of how we should be writing), skilfully – and with a sense of fun. (In this context, I now realise how intricately interesting is Lee Child’s experimentation with the first person viewpoint in a couple of the Jack Reacher yarns and the impact this innovation has on the reader and the freedoms and restrictions it brings to the author.)
To cut a short story even shorter, Mrs Dalloway is told in a stream-of-consciousness from the perspective of successive characters, the discipline being the manner in which the relay baton of the story is passed from character to character when they chance to pass in a crowded street or London park. For example (and without the book to hand to check details): Mrs Dalloway, out buying flowers early one morning and thinking about her coming dinner party, watches a mysterious car pass in the street – and then the spotlight moves (without interruption or explanation) to a fellow bystander who launches into his thoughts about said car and the coming day. And so on throughout the book until all the loose threads are pulled together that evening.
I’ve squirrelled this concept away for future reference. One day I will apply this trick to a fast-paced contemporary hospital story. How much fun would that be? (In the meantime, reading Woolf has increased my addiction to parenthesis. You just can’t beat a good pair of brackets.)
[*Little islands out at sea, on the horizon / keep suddenly showing a whiteness / a flash, and a furl, a hail / of something coming / ships asail from over the rim of the sea]