Thursday, August 20, 2009

Two by two

Clearly I packed for this trip in considerable haste - the reader who takes a very close look at this picture will see that I accidentally brought two different library copies of Hazleton Spencer's altogether delightful book Shakespeare Improved: The Restoration Versions in Quarto and On the Stage, one being the first edition of 1927 and the other a 1963 reissue!

All sorts of good things in this one, but I hit a long quotation from Steele's Tatler fairly early on that I thought worth quoting again here for the light it casts on an issue in which I've become increasingly interested.

It is not so much what critics tend to talk about, but teaching Restoration and eighteenth-century drama and fiction has left me increasingly convinced that the language developed collaboratively by writers of fictional narrative for notating the interactions of characters (their behavior, their body language, their presumptive inner lives) is drawn first and foremost from a set of conventions prompted much more specifically by the desire (among spectators of a critical bent) to talk about the behavior of actors in plays, with some blurring of bounds between actor and role.

Look at what Steele's doing - it is quoted extensively by Spencer, but I have taken the text from this edition (Tatler No. 167, 2 May 1710) - in this passage on the death of the great actor Betterton:
I have hardly a notion, that any performer of antiquity could surpass the action of Mr. Betterton in any of the occasions in which he has appeared on our stage. The wonderful agony which he appeared in, when he examined the circumstance of the handkerchief in Othello; the mixture of love that intruded upon his mind, upon the innocent answers Desdemona makes, betrayed in his gesture such a variety and vicissitude of passions, as would admonish a man to be afraid of his own heart; and perfectly convince him, that it is to stab it, to admit that worst of daggers, jealousy. Whoever reads in his closet this admirable scene, will find that he cannot, except he has as warm an imagination as Shakespeare himself, find any but dry, incoherent, and broken sentences: but a reader that has seen Betterton act it, observes, there could not be a word added; that longer speeches had been unnatural, nay, impossible, in Othello's circumstances. The charming passage in the same tragedy, where he tells the manner of winning the affection of his mistress, was urged with so moving and graceful an energy, that, while I walked in the cloisters, I thought of him with the same concern as if I waited for the remains of a person who had in real life done all that I had seen him represent.
The system of notation that Steele is helping to create here (and that Aphra Behn was also one to pioneer, as one of the most frequent crossers-over between stage drama and prose fiction) is then borrowed by writers of prose fiction who wish to test the limits of what can be done in a third-person voice by way of chronicling the actions and experiences of human beings.

I find myself in a place of familiar frustration at this point in the summer. I'm now really ready to get down to work writing - but it's about to be time to start teaching again!

I have a semester of sabbatical coming up in the spring, and I am planning on making good use of it.

I have a couple longstanding projects that still need finishing up in the immediate future: I am just now writing a piece on Shakespeare adaptation for a forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century that must be finished over the next couple weeks, and I will be working very hard in September on one more pass through the sequel to The Explosionist, now titled Invisible Things. (It will go to the copy-editor at the end of September, after which point my own intervention will be reduced to tinkering and obsessive checking/proof-reading, so this is my last chance to get stuff right.)

I have made commitments to contribute a couple article-length pieces to two books; one is the eighteenth-century volume of the Oxford History of the English novel (a chapter on Restoration drama's influence on eighteenth-century fiction, which is very closely related to these things I've been thinking about); the other, a Cambridge Companion to the Epistolary Novel (my essay on a topic as yet to be specified). These probably won't be due for another year or so.

In the meantime the dust has settled and I can now see my way clearly through to my next pair of book projects. I have regretfully shelved for now the hugely ambitious techniques-of-the-body book - I think it is a multi-year project that will take considerable further reading before I would be ready to start writing it.

But I have two easy books that are on my mind as what I'd most like to write next.

The first one, for which I have already (illicitly, last week, when I should have been working on Shakespeare!) laid down some words, is a memoir about my love affair with triathlon.

The second, which relates quite closely to things I've been teaching for many years and now rather have the urge to put into a little book, is going to be an modest volume called A Bread-and-Butter Theory of the Novel. Somewhere near the beginning will be a paragraph on usage, and this may not be the title the book ends up with - but I do like the contrast between the mouthwatering pragmatism of "bread and butter" (one of my favorite foods) and "theory of the novel"!

(A notional previous incarnation of this book was going to be called Austen for Beginners, but it is really an introduction to narratology and the eighteenth-century novel - it has expanded outwards...)

Both of these book projects have enough of an exploratory component to keep me interested and yet are in some sense also appealing as a way of recording and consolidating some of what I've been thinking and talking about in recent years - I am hoping it might be this time next year and I will have full drafts of both of them, but that may be overoptimistic. Books always take twice as long to write as you expect...

(Bonus link: Charlie Jane Anders on the five Shakespeare heroes that science fiction epics could learn from.)


  1. I haven't heard the name Hazleton Spencer since I last rode to the hounds with J.M.W. Tillyard!


    Please don't let anyone in publishing land take away that Bread and Butter title. It's the bread and butter!!!

  2. A close observer of the picture also notices the absence of a certain bound proof.

  3. I believe that Stuart Sherman's next endlessly awaited book may be germane to your novel/theater connection.