Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Queen Victoria Series!

Our books today are the four breathless, fervent volumes that comprise the Queen Victoria Series written in the mid-'70s by Jean Plaidy.

And right away that name calls for a veritable blizzard of defending and explaining, doesn't it? Because Jean Plaidy is of course a pseudonym used by Eleanor Burford (you can see why), who was born in 1906, died in 1993, and in between wrote several thousand novels. Jean Plaidy wasn't the only pen-name she used, far from it: most famously she was also Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, but if memory serves, there were many, many others. For decades, her novels (a great heaping mass of them historical novels) fell from her creative teats and hit the floor like baby rats - fully-formed, stripped bare for function, and avid for survival. During her publishing heyday - otherwise known as the 20th century - her books were most often looked upon by the literary establishment as the worst kind of tripe. She was certainly on John Mortimer's mind when he created his great lampoon of the type, that "bottler of historical bilge-water" Miss Amelia Nettleship - in a scene that had to be ever so satisfying to write, Mortimer has his feisty Old Bailey hack Horace Rumpole eviscerate her methods and her prose style in open court, prompting a great deal of embarrassment about the actual literary merits of her "rattling good yarns."

Amelia Nettleship is ultimately serene about Rumpole's outraged verdict on her art, and doubtless Jean Plaidy never bothered to mourn the fact that she was never taken seriously by the TLS. In fact, considering the fact that her sheer output almost certainly means she was gravely mentally ill, I doubt she bothered to take much of anything seriously. In order to write the number of books she did in the number of years she had, she must have been quite literally writing (or dictating) during every single waking moment, whether she was on a cruise, on the phone, or on the crapper.

A friend of mine recently had to make deadline for a short story that simply wasn't exciting his creative juices, and he wondered aloud how he might do that (he wasn't hinting at anything, mind you - although the overwhelming majority of people who wonder such things aloud in my vicinity are not-so-secretly hoping I'll offer to take the whole chore off their hands, this friend rather stubbornly remains in the minority). I told him the one and only way: you have to locate the internal filter, the internal editor that all writers have, and you've got to consciously shut it off (note to all you misguided fans of Joyce and Kerouac: this cannot be done by using drugs - that actually makes the internal editor more of a butt-insky, not less). Once it's turned off, put your fingers on your keyboard and don't stop typing until your task is done, or mostly done. When we parted ways, he seemed doubtful to say the least.

When next we met, his eyes went slightly wider as he told me, "It worked! I just didn't stop - no word-choices, no agonizing, no pausing at all, and suddenly I had 25 pages! 25 pages!" But you should have heard his tone - it wasn't admiration or joy, far from it: he sounded like the horny kid in town who doesn't believe his buddies when they tell him one of the whores in the local whorehouse is 60 years old and he patronizes her just to, um, verify it. In other words, he sounded vaguely disgusted - both that he'd managed to profane his art that way, but also that I knew the way in the first place. You could practically hear him thinking, "That explains a lot."

There's a weird kind of algebra that attends a writer's amount of production. If you write 100 books, 300, or a thousand like Jean Plaidy, Louis L'Amour or the author of the 'Toff' series, you're immediately considered a hack of the first water, somebody who never paused, never reflected, never agonized over word-choices, and certainly never revised (the ill-informed often characterize Danielle Steel as a modern-day example of this, but she's absolutely blown out of the water by the likes of Nora Roberts, or even dear old Betty Neals). And likewise if you only write the one book, you're immediately considered something of a hothouse flower, not a person who had all that much to say, somehow precious or even worse, lucky. I think it was Anthony Burgess who once carped that E.M. Forster made really prolific authors look bad, because was the first one to make a nice small number of books - eight, say - look civilized. Turning off that inner editor opens wide the door to a level of productivity those who don't do it often look upon as virtually supernatural, and productivity like that puts most quality-inclined readers in mind of those vacant-eyed fish who spew forth thousands of guppies and then swim away, nurturing none of them.

I hope it's needless to say I consider this algebra (and indeed, all algebra) complete hooey. When it comes to writing, there's no legitimate connection whatsoever between fecundity and profundity - Quantity is absolutely no bar to quality. It's true, revision is often a profound boon to prose ... but as an old friend of mine used to say, you can't polish a turd. Look at a writer like David Guterson - he must be doing something in the lulls between his gawd-awful books ... ten to one it's revising that's taking up his time, and look at the results! A stadium piled high with money, but a literary output that stinks to high heaven. No, I'm convinced that the key here isn't how fast you write, it's how firm a grasp you have of writing's basics before you even start. If those basics are in place and you turn that inner editor off, you may write a lot, but it won't necessarily stink (note that my friend in the above anecdote didn't say those 25 pages were markedly worse than the 25 pages he'd have written in two months if he'd done it his original way). Anybody who claims a sparse output is a required sign of reading quality has yet to make the acquaintance of Anthony Trollope, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Elmore Leonard, or William Vollmann.

Or Jean Plaidy. Say what you want about Amelia Nettleship, work the algebra any way you like, but the plain fact remains: her books are consistently well-researched (though some that research is then bent double in the cause of heaving emotions), expertly paced, and mighty damn enjoyable. You almost can't pick one that has no entertainment value at all, and several - especially whenever she's writing about British royal history - are, well, rattling good yarns.

Like the Queen Victoria series, to get back to our nominal subject! Plaidy takes up Victoria's story when she was still an unknown little lump of a girl, daughter of the vile Duchess of Kent, sequestered in the countryside and hardly ever brought to court - despite the fact that an odd series of circumstances had made her next in the line of succession. Naturally, the emotional highlight of this dreary back-story are Victoria's two meetings with her future adored husband Albert (after the first meeting, she was unimpressed - in non-Victorian parlance, she disliked the stick he had shoved up his ass; after the second meeting, she concentrated more on the ass itself and liked what she saw), and he's hovering in the wings of the second volume, The Queen and Lord M., although as you can tell from the title, the lachrymose Lord Melbourne - Victoria's beloved Whig Prime Minister at the outset of her reign - gets the lion's share of the spotlight. Virtually the whole book consists of him advising her on one thing or another while she achieves various mixtures of outrage and incomprehension, as when trouble with those filthy, contentious Irish threaten to remove Lord M. from power:


"It's true. If the vote went against us and we were defeated we should fall and Sir Robert Peel, the Leader of the Opposition, would come along and ask Your Majesty's permission to form a new Government."

"I should never give my permission."

"But that is something you would be obliged to do."

"I .... the Queen!" Her eyes were brilliant, her cheeks flushed. "I never would."

"Your Majesty's temper is a little choleric," he said with a tender smile.

"Do you expect me to agree to this when I know what it would mean? You would cease to be my Prime Minister."

He nodded, making one of his grimaces which usually amused her but did not do so on this occasion.

"That," she said firmly, "is something I should never allow."

Lord Melbourne's eyes filled with tears and at the sight of them she wanted to repeat her determination even more emphatically.

"Alas that you cannot enforce your sweet will," he said, so poetically, she thought, that she could have burst into tears. "Ours is a Constitutional Monarchy and that means that we all - even our Sovereign - must obey the rules of the Constitution. The Government is elected by the people and since our Reform Bill all sorts and conditions have been allowed to vote. Therefore Your Majesty's Government cannot always be of your choosing."

"But to change Governments. How foolish! Why?"

"Because ours is not a strong Government. Our majority is small and popular feeling is against us. Sir Robert Peel is waiting to jump into my shoes."

"I will never allow that!"

He shook his head at her.

"Your Majesty will have no choice. If I go out, he will come in."

"And all because of this silly Irish question!"

"Many consider it of importance."

"I would rather lose Ireland than let you go."

(To which final sentiment several dozen Donoghues, Powers, Tenneys, and Ogdens then living in Donegal might have responded, "Well jayzus, then, fookin' let us go!")

Now, I'm not blind. I can see as well as you can all that's wrong with that passage. There's almost no characterization, and what there is doesn't go below the surface - and there are only two points to the exchange, and one of them is repeated twice, and the other is repeated three times. There's all kinds of stuff that ordinary, everyday revision would have caught and fixed, and of course if you're writing 200 novels a year, you simply can't indulge in ordinary, everyday revision. But there's a good deal right with that passage as well, no matter how predisposed you are to say otherwise. First, the history embedded in it is completely accurate, and that's true for almost every scene in almost every one of Plaidy's historical novels - at virtually every point when she's writing about Queen Margaret or Charles II or Eleanor of Acquintaine, you can rest assured she's having them think things they actually thought and say things they actually said. That's nothing to sneeze at, when it comes to historical fiction. More of it doesn't have that than does - a lot more. And second, the rhythm of the dialogue here is flawless - the alterations between unadorned talk and little sprigs of exposition are so smoothly done you don't ever think of how badly they could have gone wrong. And third, and connected, there's a clarity to Plaidy's prose that's very appealing in long stretches - and that derives in part from the fact that she simply didn't have the time to muddy things up.

The story goes on to The Queen's Husband, which backtracks and expands on the Victoria-Albert romance. Albert was pretty to look at and well-educated, and when he got to England as the Queen's betrothed, he was more than a little frustrated by the largely impotent, ceremonial nature of his position, and that's the central point of this volume. But Plaidy manages to get in some fairly pointed dialogue between young Albert and his brother Ernest before the match, when they're still in the European hinterlands being groomed by their imperious uncle Leopold, who intends to impose a strict modern education upon the two boys:

"Will our father agree to that?" Ernest wondered when the boys were alone together.

"Agree," cried Albert, "of course he'll agree. Uncle Leopold is the most important man in Europe."

"He has bewitched you," said Ernest.

"Bewitched! Who's bewitched? Now you're thinking of the grandmothers' fairy stories."

"You seem to think he is the most brilliant, magnificent, clever ..."

"Oh, shut up," said Albert. And then: "But he is."

"There, I told you so. No wonder Unlce Leopold loves you. You flatter him so innocently."

"How could one flatter innocently? Flattery in itself suggests something false."

"There you go, Herr Florschultz's model pupil. No wonder Uncle Leopold decided you should have the prize."

"What prize?"

"The Queen of England, idiot."

Believe me, there's a lot going on in that passage too, and all of it is being handled with the dexterity of a seasoned fry-cook. The final volume in the series, The Widow of Windsor, of course features John Brown and the usual assortment of exotic functionaries, all of it heavily draped in the somber colors of lost true love - it's a fairly low-key way to end the series, but if I remember correctly, Plaidy wrote a single stand-alone Queen Victoria novel about ten years after she finished this series (I want to say it was called Victoria Victorious, but I'm probably getting it confused a little with the sublime and hilarious Julie Andrews movie of very nearly the same name), a novel that turned outward, as it were, and focused more on the politics and spectacle of Victoria's whole enormous reign. I'll make a mental note to hunt it down at the library one of these days.

And so should you, though that pre-conditioning is probably pretty strong. In addition to your inner editor, if you turned your inner snickerer off, you'd get a lot more reading done, but that's a harangue for another day.


F-Stop said...

Steve, please correct your little brain fart/typo so that I can respect you again. While writing about your friend who was having trouble finishing his story, you wrote "until you're task is done."

Now I return to reading another brilliant column (over at of course.)

F-Stop said...

I used to LOVE Jean Plaidy/Victoria Holt novels...when I was a teenaged girl. But I'm not judging you.

F-Stop said...

AND where's In the Penny Press this week? It's Sunday already. There's a new Esquire. Don't be such a self obssessed jerk.

steve said...

Ah, F-Stop, I've been saying it about you since the late Middle Ages: you're insatiable!

Anonymous said...

I have a letter that was hand written by Victoria Holt, does anyone know if it has any value?

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I read the book, some speciallist said that the book have some true parts which are very related with the real story, but still is a mystery.

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He sounded vaguely disgusted - both that he'd managed to profane his art that way, but also that I knew the way in the first place.